Thursday, January 30, 2020

Movies of the Decade: 2010 - 2019

Last weekend's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a countdown of twenty-five movies that defined the past decade from 2010 - 2019. The titles were selected and assembled as a sort of cultural collage based on how they reflect the trends in cinema over the past ten years and how their stories and subjects capture the culture in which we live.

Go here to read the full list and rationales for each title. Here are some highlights:

First Reformed (2018)
The 2000s concluded with a series of shocks to American life including the failed and unending wars in the Middle East and the collapse of the economy in the Great Recession as well as the ongoing threat of climate change. For the first few years of the 2010s there was a sense of hope but by the middle of the decade American life had turned sullen. Driven by angry opinion-makers, an apparently feckless government, divisive social movements, and an economy that served only its top one-percent, as well as the creeping realization that a seemingly unstoppable ecological catastrophe was imminent, the American public grew agitated and hopeless. No film of the 2010s captured that quite like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. The movie cuts to the core of the disillusionment that characterized so much of American life in the 2010s, specifically the failure of traditional moral authorities who were compromised and even allied with those corrupting our politics and poisoning our environment. This film reflected the sense of helplessness to do anything about that and the rage and despair resulting from it. As the pastor puts it at one point in the movie, the conflict between hope and despair is at the essence of existence and that spiritual struggle was a defining aspect of life in the 2010s. And just like the film’s troubled pastor, Americans are not okay. Our screen-filled existence has put all the world’s problems on display and no one is coming to save us. First Reformed reflects those anxieties back at us with brutal honesty.

The Avengers  (2012) 
Superheroes dominated cinema and the culture throughout the 2010s and it was 2012’s The Avengers that solidified the place of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the franchise of the decade. It wasn’t just a superhero spectacle. By bringing all of these characters together so successfully, the first Avengers team up movie reconfigured what Hollywood franchises could be. At the time, The Avengers was regarded as a work of unprecedented ambition in the way it interpolated characters of different storylines into a single film. Looking at the 2012 movie now, post-Endgame, the Avengers’ first team-up movie is almost quaint. But the success of The Avengers is all the more remarkable in light how many other attempts to launch a similar cinematic universe failed. The Avengers is also representative of the decade’s obsession with apocalypse. Spectacle movies of this decade repeatedly threatened Earth’s existence, be it by natural disaster or alien invasion, and both Fahrenheit 11/9 and 2016: Obama’s America predicted the end of the republic if the wrong candidate got elected. These films visualized our anxieties about social and environmental collapse while also reassuring us that someone—a superhero—would show up at the last minute and restore order and save us. That implicit message, that an elite savior was on the way, is at the heart of the superhero genre. That idea is also reflected in the hopes that were invested in figures like Barack Obama and Donald Trump and the passions that drove their supporters.   

God's Not Dead (2014)
In the early years of the decade, theaters transitioned from showing movies on physical celluloid to digital projection. This change was made on behalf of the major Hollywood studios in part because they believed 3-D was the future of movie going. Things didn’t quite work out that way but digital exhibition cut distribution costs and theatrical showings were suddenly affordable to independent filmmakers. Concurrent to digital distribution was the rise of “demand” services in which moviegoers could petition their local theater to show particular movies. Faith-based production houses seized the opportunity afforded by these disruptions to the theatrical industry and religious pictures poured into theaters throughout the decade. Among the most successful of these films was 2014’s God’s Not Dead. Unfortunately, God’s Not Dead was also indicative of a lot of the faith based genre as it engaged in anti-intellectualism, religious tribalism, and straw man arguments. Nevertheless, these movies were very successful and Hollywood studios eventually produced their own religious films with Sony even opening its own faith-based label.

Sharknado (2013)
One of the unexpected cinematic phenomena of the 2010s was the Sharknado series. Originally shown on the SyFy Channel, Sharknado quickly accrued an enthusiastic fan following and each subsequent installment became an event with celebrities trying to get themselves cast in the sequels, among them Donald Trump who vied for the role of President of the United States in Sharknado 3 (the role went to Mark Cuban instead). Sharknado also rejuvenated the sharksploitation genre. Throughout the decade an entire library of absurd low budget shark movies flooded home video and late night cable and after Sharknado sharks made their way back to movie theaters with films like The Shallows and The Meg. 

11/8/16 (2017)
One of the defining moments of the decade was the 2016 presidential election. The contest pitted Hillary Clinton, a centrist who was a symbol of the political and economic institution, against Donald Trump, an insurgent candidate whose upset victory was a shock to many (including his supporters). The documentary filmmakers of 11/8/16 followed a range of citizens of different regions, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political allegiances as they cast their ballots and reacted to the returns. Some of the film’s subjects comment directly to the camera but for the most part 11/8/16 maintains an observational style. This film is an extraordinary document not only of that day but also of America at a moment when political and cultural divides and long simmering tensions that had been dismissed and ignored finally boiled over into something tangible and undeniable.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) 
Much of the early 2010s was spent recovering from the Great Recession that had decimated the economy at the end of the last decade. Filmmakers eventually got around to telling tales about America’s economic woes and throughout the 2010s a whole field of movies that might be called “recession cinema” addressed what happened. For the most part, Hollywood kept its focus on the top of the economic food chain; the recession’s impact on Main Street was of little interest to Hollywood who instead saw the economy from the point of view of Wall Street. One of the clearest examples of this was Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Although this wasn’t about the 2008 crash it was nevertheless a part of the recession cinema genre. Jordan Belfort, played gleefully by Leonardo DiCaprio, was a horrible person but the filmmakers couldn’t help but glamourize his excessive lifestyle. That tension between revulsion at this man’s crimes and the attraction to his wealth gets to the core of American identity and why we’ve struggled to identify and deal with what caused the recession in the first place.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Movies of the Decade on January 26th

The Sounds of Cinema episode airing January 26, 2020 will look back at the movies of 2010 through 2019. Rather than count down the best films of the decade, this show will enumerate twenty-five movies that were the decade. The films have been assembled based on how they reflect the trends in cinema over the past ten years and how the films capture the culture in which we live.

Sounds of Cinema featured a similar episode ten years ago looking at movies of 2000 - 2009. That list included such diverse titles as The Dark Knight, Fahrenheit 9/11, Gladiator, and Paris Hilton's sex tape. Expect similar eclecticism from the new list.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM. Tune in over the air, online at each station's website, or through your mobile device.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Best and Worst Films of 2019

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema revealed my picks of the ten best and worst films of 2019. You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions and trends of 2019, here.

Best Films of 2019 

1. Midsommar 

2. Little Women

3. Ad Astra 

4. Waves

5. The Farewell 

6. Parasite

7. Hotel Mumbai 

8. Uncut Jems

9. Avengers Endgame

10. The Irishman 

Worst Films of 2019 
  1. The Goldfinch
  2. Rambo: Last Blood
  3. The Haunting of Sharon Tate
  4. 6 Underground
  5. The Dirt 
  6. Dark Phoenix
  7. Serenity 
  8. Replicas
  9. The Dead Don't Die
  10. What Men Want 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sounds of Cinema 2019 Wrap Up Coming January 19th

The Sounds of Cinema episode airing Sunday, January 19, 2020 will review the films of the past year and pronounce my picks of the ten best and worst titles of 2019. The program will also feature a look at honorable mentions and great performances.

Until then, you can read the Sounds of Cinema year-end wrap-ups from previous years and check out the best and worst films of 2019 lists from other critics:

The AV Club: The 25 Best Films of 2019 

The AV Club: The 20 Worst Films of 2019

Esquire: 50 Best Movies of 2019

The Hollywood Reporter: The Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the 10 Best Films of 2019

The Hollywood Reporter: The Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the 10 Worst Films of 2019

The Guardian: Mark Kermode's Best Films of 2019

NPR: NPR's Favorite Movies of 2019

Rolling Stone: 10 Best Movies of 2019

Rolling Stone: 10 Worst Movies of 2019

Rotten Tomatoes: The Best Movies of 2019

Slate: The Best Movies of 2019

Time: The 10 Best Movies of 2019

Variety: Best Films of 2019 

Variety: Worst Films of 2019

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Sounds of Cinema's Best Movies of 2010 - 2019

Each January, Sounds of Cinema features a recap of the previous year, including countdowns of the best and worst films released in the past twelve months. 2019 concludes this decade so here is a look back at the films selected as the best movie of each year this decade.

2010: Black Swan
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Premise: A dancer (Natalie Portman) descends into paranoia and madness as she buries herself in the lead role of the ballet Swan Lake.

Why It Made the List: Many of the films this year dealt with the plastic nature of reality, whether it took the form of an imaginary dream state, revelations regarding our biological or sexual identity, or experiencing social relationships on a digital platform. Black Swan represents the pinnacle of this theme in 2010’s crop of films. This is a story working in many dimensions at once, with each of these dimensions intertwined with each other. Firstly, Black Swan is an exploration of the relationship between art and the artist, as the storyline of Swan Lake becomes the storyline of the dancers and their director. While this parallel is fairly obvious, the filmmakers use it to realize a sometimes problematic relationship between our life and the art we create or consume. In Black Swan the distinction between art and life erodes away and from that a new reality emerges. Secondly, Black Swan is a study of ambition and the pursuit of perfection. This is where Natalie Portman’s performance impresses the most, as she embodies a person who has forgone all other needs in the pursuit of perfection. The story of Black Swan puts Portman’s character through an emotional and physical gauntlet; watching the emaciated Portman literally rehearse her body to death and observing how the deterioration of her body occurs in tandem with the collapse of her mind is a frightening and tragic display. Lastly, Black Swan is a tale of lust, jealousy and sexual awakening. The commitment that Portman’s character makes to her art is all consuming, restricting her own emotional development, which has the ironic effect of limiting her ability as an artist because she is unfamiliar with her own feelings and desires. As Portman’s ballerina immerses herself in the role, she is transformed by her art physically but also emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually and by the time the curtain falls on her final performance, Black Swan takes her and the audience to places of great beauty and great horror.

2011: Margin Call
Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Premise: Set at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, risk analysts and executives at a major investment bank realize that the firm is headed for a collapse and try to find a solution.

Why It Made the List: One of the recent trends in movies over the past few years has been the subgenre of recession cinema. Some of these pictures deal with the experiences of those losing jobs or homes, such as Up in the Air, while others dramatize the actions of major players in the political and financial world. Margin Call fits into the latter category and even though it is entirely fictionalized, this picture succeeds in ways that similar films like Too Big To Fail or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps fell short. Although Margin Call is not as in depth as those films in terms of the financial details, Margin Call does its job as a dramatization far more effectively. (The kinds of economic and political details that some critics may wrongfully demand from a film like this are much better addressed in the documentary form, and have been in Inside Job and Client 9.) A dramatization of something as academic and mathematical as the 2008 financial collapse must be about the human issues and Margin Call does exactly that. The film presents a group of characters at various levels of the bank’s hierarchy, from risk analysts up to the bank president, and within the twenty-four hours in which the story takes place these people are confronted with serious ethical challenges in which issues like greed, ambition, integrity, and loyalty come into play. This comes out especially well through the characters played by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. Spacey's character realizes the ethical implications of all this while Irons' CEO, in what is an extraordinary performance, embodies corporate survivalism and will sink his customers and even the whole economy in order to save the firm. Margin Call is ultimately about the relationship between individuals and financial institutions, and the arbitrary way those individuals might be rewarded or destroyed based on little more than circumstance. The film's layered and sophisticated portrait of corporate culture and its intelligent and complex ethical subtext makes Margin Call one of the most impressive films about capitalism in the post-TARP era and the best film of 2011.

2012: Samsara
Directed by: Ron Fricke

Premise: A non-narrative documentary that cross-cuts people and locations across the globe, drawing broad parallels and suggesting that human civilization is trapped in a vicious cycle.

Why It Made the List: Of the cinema of 2012, one of the predominant trends was the epic. Blockbusters like The Hobbit, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Breaking Dawn Part 2 had grand scope and large casts but they often fell short of their ambitions because the movies were trying to tell narrow stories on a broad palate. That is the conundrum of epic filmmaking; the bigger the scope, the duller the details. This highlights the achievement of Samsara. It is a film that is truly epic in its breadth and ambition but it works because the filmmakers untether themselves from the constraints of mainstream narrative moviemaking. The title of Samsara refers to a term in Buddhism meaning “circle” or “wheel” in which people are stuck in an endless cycle of ignorance. The filmmakers of Samsara have set about trying to illustrate that on a worldwide scale and in large measure they succeed. Filmed all over the globe and juxtaposing imagery of geography, architecture and industry to a slow, meditative score, Samsara has a panoramic view of space and time. The collage of images draws broad and provocative connections between places and peoples and the juxtapositions of the images and what they suggest—both individually and collectively—make this a challenging picture. But the challenging qualities of Samsara are precisely what distinguish it. Contemporary audiences have been conditioned to expect cinema to conform to a narrow narrative style with hyperkinetic camera movement and rapid edits. The filmmakers of Samsara challenge their audience by holding shots for lengthy periods of screen time, forcing viewers to study the images and consider their meaning. This picture demands attention in a way that mainstream cinema does not and what Samsara suggests about humanity is as challenging and engaging as its non-narrative form. Samsara is the kind of film that warrants multiple viewings but that ultimately speaks to why this film is so powerful. A truly epic piece of cinema ought to be so broad that it requires multiple passes by the viewer. In a culture that traffics in fragments and sound bites of artificial outrage and commoditized desire and in which so much of what is created is rapidly consumed and discarded, the patience and pensiveness of Samsara is a radical act. This film may not be suited for mediocre mainstream interests but it is a stunning piece of work whose ambition, intelligence, and skill are unparalleled in any other film of 2012.

2013: 12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen

Premise: Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Set before the Civil War, a free African American is abducted in New York and sold into slavery.

Why It Made the List: Despite the central place that slavery has in American history and in the history of Western civilization itself, the topic has not been dealt with very frequently in mainstream or independent films. 12 Years a Slave portrays that history on screen and does it in a way that acknowledges its horror and inhumanity while also capturing the human element of the people involved on both sides of the lash. When dealing with topics like slavery there is a tendency to oversimplify or ignore the interplay of institutional and personal responsibility but 12 Years a Slave deals with the subject in a sophisticated way. This isn’t just a movie about a bygone era; it is about how participating in a system of exploitation corrupts everyone and everything attached to it and that comes through in the central performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup and Ejiofor does not give himself over to the kind of theatrics usually found in a historical picture. Instead, the filmmakers allow the conflict of hope and despair to play quietly across Ejiofor's face. In a supporting role, but making nearly as strong of an impression, is actress Lupita Nyong'o as female slave Patsey. Nyong'o plays a character who is pushed to the very limit and her struggle to maintain her humanity makes Nyong'o's scenes some of the most heartbreaking of the picture. 12 Years a Slave also features Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as a married couple who run a plantation. As malevolent as the characters can be, their evil is palatable; the couple has a human frailty that is distinctly different from most movie villains. This complex portrayal of human suffering perpetuated by individuals and sustained by social and economic systems is a challenge to the way we think about our past but illuminates how we think about the inhumanities of the present. The best pieces of historical filmmaking bring viewers closer to history and 12 Years a Slave allows that connection while finding human dignity in a very dark place.

2014: Boyhood
Directed by: Richard Linklater

Premise: The story of a boy (Ellar Coltrane), following his life from age five to eighteen.

Why It Made the List: A lot has been written about Boyhood since it opened in the summer of 2014 and much of that has focused on the way in which the movie was made. In short, the cast and crew convened about once a year for eleven years and segments of the movie were filmed a piece at a time. While that is a creative way of going about a film production, this unusual schedule is not what makes Boyhood a notable film. Motion pictures have to be judged by what is on the screen, not the behind the scenes wrangling, and it’s the content of the movie that really makes Boyhood extraordinary. Filmmaker Richard Linklater has managed to distill the formative years of a young man’s life into 165 minutes and constructed a fascinating portrait of adolescence and family life. While Boyhood has a story, the narrative is presented as a loosely associated collection of scenes. Normally that would be a detriment to the picture but because of its cinema verite style, the filmmakers are able to get away from the trappings of plot and in the process reveal something subversive about storytelling. Most narratives, whether on the screen or on the page, are tidy and unified and everything has a purpose and all events lead toward a conclusion. That cohesion is both aesthetically and psychologically satisfying but it isn’t true. Life is much more haphazard than that and Boyhood visualizes that chaotic quality of life. This is most apparent in the final scene in which the boy has become a man and he looks out into a future that is full of both uncertainty and possibility. This is why Boyhood is an extraordinary film. It captures something ephemeral but essential about life and the picture has a mysterious profundity about it. It’s that covertly stated truth that makes Boyhood the best film of 2014.

2015: Room
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Premise: A woman and her son have been held captive for years in a backyard shed. When the boy turns five they plot an escape.

Why It Made the List: Really great movies have the ability to shift our perspective of ourselves and the world. Room is a satisfying story of imprisonment and escape and even if that’s all it was, the movie would give viewers their money’s worth. But Room goes well beyond that and it reaches the audience on both conscious and subconscious levels. This story taps into the primal territory of parent-child relationships. There is no understating the impact of the performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as mother and son. These actors have a natural rapport and despite the strangeness of their situation there is something instantly and profoundly recognizable about them. That’s especially true of the noble lies that the mother tells her son to cope with their predicament. When the truth is finally revealed, the hurt of the mother and the shock in the boy is palatable. That’s the other remarkable aspect of Room: the way it shakes up our sense of reality. We, like the boy of this movie, go through life accepting what we experience as the truth of reality. This boy’s discovery of a bigger world is so profound because it acts out the process of disillusionment that we all go through as a matter of life. But Room complicates this further still with the mother’s struggle with freedom in the film’s second half. Without making any overtures to pretention, Room mixes an immediate drama of survival with philosophical complexity and it is one of those rare movies that we come out of seeing the world differently. That makes Room the best movie of 2015.

2016: Eye in the Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood

Premise: British and American military forces and political officials coordinate a drone strike in Kenya. When a little girl occupies the kill zone, the soldiers and politicians debate whether or not to go through with the mission.

Why It Made the List: Despite Hollywood’s reputation as a den of liberalism, motion pictures and militarism have frequently gone hand-in-hand. From Objective, Burma! to Top Gun to Black Hawk Down, Hollywood has been the greatest champion of American military might. Eye in the Sky is quite different. For one thing, this movie presents warfare as an act of cooperation and negotiation as American service people in Nevada remote pilot a drone in Kenya while taking orders from British military officers in the UK. This is a different kind of warfare and it requires different rules of engagement. In so many films, violence is a foregone conclusion but Eye in the Sky weighs the legal consequences and the moral and strategic implications of the drone strike. And that leads to another unusual aspect of this film. Whereas many Hollywood war pictures regard civilian input and bureaucracy as an obstruction, Eye in the Sky gives the opinions of politicians and civilian officials equal consideration with those wearing a uniform. The film is a web of contrary opinions and Eye in the Sky raises difficult questions that do not have simplistic answers. But Eye in the Sky doesn’t hide behind the complexity either. Choices must be made and responsibility must be assumed. The filmmakers of Eye in the Sky embrace the complexity of the situation and find the drama in the moral stakes of both action and inaction. Eye in the Sky is a riveting motion picture that redefines the war film and it is an essential entry in the genre of post-9/11 cinema.

2017: The Florida Project
Directed by: Sean Baker

Premise: A single mother and her six year old daughter live in a pay-by-the-week motel located in Orlando, Florida. The daughter spends her days roaming the local grounds and getting into mischief while her mother attempts to make ends meet.

Why It Made the List: Hollywood is a dream factory. The stories told on the screen allow us to experience fantasies of heroism, heartache, and virtue. Even the independent scene generally adheres to that principle. There’s certainly a place for escapist entertainment but a lot of American cinema is propaganda for the good life and reinforces the myths of prosperity and American exceptionalism. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project takes place on the cusp between fantasy and reality. The movie follows the impoverished residents of a cheap Florida motel where Walt Disney World—the icon of American fantasy—looms in the background. The tourist mecca of Orlando becomes the ironic backdrop for The Florida Project’s unsparing portrait of life on the margins. The residents of the motel tread just above homelessness and struggle to survive. But what could be a slog through economic deprivation takes on a light and even whimsical tone because it unfolds from the point of view of its child characters. They are mostly oblivious to their circumstances and that creates a fascinating tension between the audience’s horror at what they are seeing and what is normal in these people’s lives. The Florida Project has some extraordinary performances, in particular Brooklynn Prince as six year-old Moonee and Bria Vinaite as her mother Halley. Just as Hollywood movies spin fantasies of glamour and heroism they are also populated with characters who are upstanding and well groomed. The residents of The Florida Project are candidates for daytime tabloid talk shows, people who are usually ignored or discounted as trash, and yet the filmmakers find the humanity in these people even while they make bad choices. And while doing all of this, the filmmakers are neither pretentious nor self-congratulatory. The images—many of them capturing ugliness in a beautiful way—speak for themselves. The Florida Project is quietly profound, honest, and subversive. It’s a movie that tells the truth about American life that so much of our mainstream media diet obfuscates. That, and the excellence with which it is made, qualifies The Florida Project as the best film of 2017.

2018: If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Premise: Based on the novel by James Baldwin. Set in 1970s Harlem, a young African American woman (KiKi Layne) becomes pregnant and the father of her child (Stephan James) is imprisoned. She tries to prove his innocence.

Why It Made the List: There were a lot of activist films released in 2018. Pictures such as The Hate U Give and Blindspotting and The First Purge channeled the culture’s anxieties and visualized them on the silver screen. If Beale Street Could Talk was less confrontational than those films but it was no less political and in fact it was far more effective than any of its contemporaries. This film put its story and filmmaking craft first and If Beale Street Could Talk uses the strengths of cinema to make its point. As Roger Ebert was fond of saying, cinema has the capacity to inspire empathy. It places the audience in another person’s point of view in a way that is immediate and immersive. If Beale Street Could Talk does exactly that. It makes the viewer a witness to the lives of Tish and Fonny, a young African American couple played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, and it affirms their humanity through their love story and the struggles they must overcome to remain together. This film is about a couple hanging onto each other when the world seems bent upon tearing them apart and that’s where the politics of this film are found. If Beale Street Could Talk is about the African American experience and specifically the presumption of guilt that mainstream white culture casts on young black men. The political impact of If Beale Street Could Talk is in the contrast between that expectation and the humanity of the characters. Everything in this film is concentrated around the idea of empathy. The cinematography is natural and yet stylized, using shadows and colors to give scenes a specific emotional temperature and the people and places possess a visual texture that invites us to truly feel the images. The music score by Nicholas Britell works in concert with those images, underscoring the subtext but without beating us over the head with it. The narrative also works this way, taking us backward and forward on the timeline and juxtaposing better and worse times in the couple’s lives, colliding the expectations and hopes of their past with the realities and compromises of their future. All those elements cohere in a movie that is quietly subversive, deeply impactful, and stubbornly humane. It’s a delicate balance of skillful storytelling, political insight, and cinematic craftsmanship that makes If Beale Street Could Talk the best film of 2018.

2019: To Be Determined 
There have been many great movies released in 2019 such as Ad Astra, The Farewell, Midsommer, and Waves among others. This Sounds of Cinema picks for the best and worst titles of 2019 will be announced on the episode scheduled for January 19, 2020.

Worst Films
Here are the worst films from each year this decade:
  • 2010: The Last Airbender
  • 2011: Jack and Jill 
  • 2012: Project X
  • 2013: A Good Day to Die Hard 
  • 2014: America: Imagine the World Without Her
  • 2015: Aloha 
  • 2016: Bad Santa 2
  • 2017: A Cure for Wellness 
  • 2018: Acrimony 
  • 2019: To Be Determined
You can find full end of the year summaries including lists and rationales for the best and worst movies of each year here

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Look at Christmas Horror Films

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at Christmas horror films. The season is usually associated with sugary feel-good pictures but there are quite a few films about holiday terror. Here are the films discussed on the show as well as a few other titles.

Krampus (2015)
For whatever reason, there has been a resurgence of interest in the mythological creature known as Krampus. Popular in the folklore of Eastern Europe, Krampus is the shadow of St. Nicholas and according to the legend he is a demon who punishes naughty children. The 2015 feature Krampus was mix of horror and comedy and one of the best Christmas horror titles in a long time. A lot of direct to DVD imitators followed.

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
Anna and the Apocalypse was a Christmas-themed zombie film released in 2018. The picture is a musical in which the undead besiege a high school winter talent show. It’s not particularly successful either as a horror film or as a song and dance show but the song “It’s That Time of Year,” performed by Marli Siu, is great.

Gremlins (1984)
Before Chris Columbus directed Home Alone, he broke out in Hollywood as the author of the screenplay to 1984’s Gremlins. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, Gremlins is an excellent mix of scares and laughs set against the Christmas holiday. The movie was officially rated PG but the intensity and violence of Gremlins led the MPAA to develop the PG-13 rating.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now one of Disney’s major selling titles, especially around the holidays, and it has been more successfully merchandised than almost any other animated film from the studio. The irony is that The Nightmare Before Christmas was not originally released as a Disney film. Instead, the Tim Burton produced picture was released through Touchstone Pictures because it was deemed too scary to be associated with the Disney brand. It was only after The Nightmare Before Christmas became such a success that it was rebranded as a Disney title.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984 – 1991)
1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night is the most infamous Christmas slasher movie. The marketing campaign made it look as though Santa himself was on an ax murdering rampage and this led parental groups to picket theaters. Distributor Tri-Star cancelled the film’s entire run in west coast theaters. The controversy ensured the legacy of a movie that is not very good and would probably have been forgotten. A series of sequels followed although the latter movies had nothing to do with the psycho Santa premise of the original. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 has become as popular as its predecessor because of the “garbage day” meme.

Tales from the Crypt: “All Through the House” (1972/1989)
The EC horror comic Tales from the Crypt was the basis for a 1972 anthology movie as well as an HBO television series. Both the feature film and the television show featured versions of the story “All Through the House” about a murderer in a Santa Claus outfit. The Tales from the Crypt television series was hosted by a ghoulish figure known as the Crypt Keeper and the show and the character became so popular that a Tales from the Crypt Christmas album was released with the Crypt Keeper performing macabre covers of Christmas standards.

Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)
One of the seedier entries in the Christmas horror genre as well as one of the most unusual, Don’t Open Till Christmas is about a killer who murdering people dressed as Santa Claus. It’s a grim and nasty serial killer story set on the streets of London and the movie puts a different spin on the killer Santa formula.

Black Christmas (1974/2006/2019)
Directed by Bob Clark (who would later helm A Christmas Story), the original Black Christmas is one of the early entries in the slasher genre and it is skillfully made and possesses a creepy atmosphere. A gory remake was released in 2006. The remake wasn’t very good but it was bonkers and highly stylized. A third version of Black Christmas was released in 2019 and it wasn’t as scary as either of its predecessors but it did reinvent the material for the Me Too era.

Rare Exports (2010)
In a rural village in Finland, the locals are spooked by an excavation in nearby mountain range. On Christmas Eve a boy and his father investigate the disappearance of local children and in the process discover the truth about Santa Claus. Rare Exports is a strange Christmas horror film with above average performances and a sense of humor.

Better Watch Out (2016)
Better Watch Out begins as a typical stalker scenario in which a babysitter fends off a home invasion during the Christmas season. But the film has a terrific twist that sends the story in different directions. Better Watch Out has interesting characters and nuanced performances especially by Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller.

A Christmas Carol (2009)
There have been a lot of versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring actors as diverse as Albert Finney and Mickey Mouse and Bill Murray. The 2009 version starred Jim Carrey and was directed by Robert Zemeckis during his motion capture phase. The gothic style and the uncanny valley effect of the animation turn this Christmas Carol into a horror show that is more frightening than some of the films on this list.

Christmas Evil [a.k.a. You Better Watch Out] (1980)
The best of the killer Claus movies is 1980’s Christmas Evil. This film is distinguished from similar pictures in its intelligence and characterization as well as the way the movie weaves together tragedy and black humor. The protagonist of Christmas Evil is a middle aged man who is consumed by nostalgia. His obsession with Christmas is rooted in an ideal of American life and a preoccupation with innocence that eventually turns violent. Christmas Evil isn’t really a slasher film; it has more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Silent Night, Deadly Night. This is an excellent picture, one that has been restored in recent years and is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

In Defense of "Worst of the Year" Lists

As the end of the year approaches, film critics publish their yearly reflections on the motion pictures released in the past twelve months. This most frequently takes the form of lists enumerating each critic’s picks of the best and worst films of the year. These lists are inevitably provocative but when Variety critics Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman released their lists of the worst films of 2019 the authors were raked over the coals on social media. But the backlash against the Variety critics’ worst of 2019 list didn’t just take exception to their choices. A number of respondents questioned the purpose of worst-of lists at all.

The pushback against Variety’s worst films of 2019 list was somewhat predicable. These sorts of compilations, whether celebrating the best or condemning the worst, are intended to provoke a reaction. And when revenue is fueled by clicks which in turn are driven by outrage, authors are incentivized to make outrageous or contrarian statements. But the Variety backlash also happens at a time when democratic values are misapplied and used to marginalize expertise. We are in a cultural moment when meaningless slogans like “live your truth” and “let people enjoy things” have become epitaphs and legitimate criticism is dismissed as the work of “haters” and “elitists.”

Worst of the year lists are a legitimate critical activity and I’ll explain why shortly. But I have to start by acknowledging that best and worst lists are subjective and at least somewhat self-serving on the author’s part. This is inherent to all criticism. But subjectivity does not render an opinion invalid. The value of an opinion rests in the integrity, independence, and expertise of the person making it as well as in the substance of the argument. Not all opinions are good or equally valuable and a film critic who knows the mechanics and history of cinema has a better opinion than someone who doesn’t.

But that does not mean we should blindly accept the decrees of critics whether they are made by individuals or by consensus. To do so misses the point. Criticism, whether it is of movies or music or food or fashion, is never about giving the final word. It’s about starting a conversation or participating in one that is in progress. A review or a year-end list incites that conversation. Ideally, the critic makes the viewer think about a film in a new way and viewers then carry that epiphany into their encounters with other movies.

Year-end lists provide a summary of the past twelve months and in that respect they also provide a sense of closure. Human beings are disposed to understand the world narratively; we create meaning through stories. Like the New Year holiday, best and worst lists allow critics and audiences a chance to reflect on what they saw and experienced over the past twelve months and draw conclusions about what it all meant. That necessarily means accounting for the best and the worst the year had to offer. And since art—and in this case cinema—is so intertwined with the times, analyzing the best and worst films can reveal the better and worse parts of ourselves and our culture.

For my part, I’ve long felt that worst-of lists are reserved for films that are toxic or insultingly stupid. That is, movies that weren’t just mediocre or uninteresting. A worst of the year list ought to point out the movies that were sloppy or pretentious or dishonest or were sexist, racist, and homophobic or reveal contempt for the audience.

That’s what is so strange about Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman’s lists. Their picks and rationales for the worst films of 2019 rarely fit that criteria while so many other films do. Debruge named Disney’s remake of Dumbo as the worst release of the year when he could have picked The Lion King which did everything Debruge criticized Dumbo for and did it more egregiously. Gleiberman named Men in Black: International the worst film of a year that offered sequels like Dark Phoenix and Rambo: Last Blood. Gleiberman also added “the last thirty minutes of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” to his worst-of list for “rewriting the history of Charles Manson’s crimes” while ignoring films like The Manson Family Massacre and The Haunting of Sharon Tate. And neither of these critics mentioned The Goldfinch, The Dirt, or What Men Want. Debruge and Gleiberman’s worst of 2019 picks reveal that they either didn’t watch many movies this year or they have questionable judgement. 

And this is one of the important and underappreciated functions of year-end lists. Filmgoers don’t just consume movies. They are also consumers of reviews and all the discourse around cinema. And, just as we do with news outlets, consumers have to judge whether or not an opinion is credible. Finding a film critic who we always agree with is impossible and even if it could be done what would be the point? The goal for consumers must be to find critics whose commentary they find invigorating and insightful whether they agree with it or not.

Year-end lists are valuable short-cuts for consumers to judge critics. These compilations say something about the movies but, like a music playlist, they also reveal a lot about the person who put them together. These lists reveal what the critic thought was most worthy of praise and most deserving of scorn and that speaks to the critic’s integrity, knowledge, and judgement. Best and worst of the year lists are the fastest way for consumers to assess this.

Debruge and Gleiberman’s worst-of-2019 list got them into trouble because it showed bad judgement and limited knowledge—at least of movies released this year. That’s not cause to throw out these kinds of articles. The backlash against Variety’s worst-of-2019 list shows that the article functioned exactly as it was supposed to.