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.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Movies of 1989

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at the movies of 1989 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a recap of some of the titles discussed on the show.

The biggest box office hit of 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was the film that began the contemporary comic book film. With the exception of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, most comic book pictures made to this point were campy, low budget affairs that appealed to a niche audience. Batman is also distinct in the way it is at once an 80s film and yet feels timeless in part because of the 1940s-esqe production design.

Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams was the second title in Kevin Costner’s triptych of baseball movies (the other two being Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game). Of those three, Field of Dreams has had the most enduring impact. The actual field continues to draw tourists and the phrase “If you build it, they will come” continues to be a pop culture reference. But Field of Dreams isn’t so much about baseball as it is about healing the generational divisions between Baby Boomers and their parents.

Major League
Another baseball movie of 1989, Major League is a crass comedy starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, and Wesley Snipes. The movie is especially memorable to Milwaukee Brewers fans of the 1980s because portions of the film were shot at the now demolished County Stadium.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
Horror of the 1980s was dominated by slasher movies and the biggest of these were A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. Although they have kept going in other forms, these franchises hit the end of the line in 1989. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Halloween 5, and Friday the 13th: Part VIII all failed at the box office. The Dream Child is easily the best of these three. It’s an uneven film that inserts too many silly moments but it has unique production design, an interesting premise, and a strong cast.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The third Indy movie is generally considered the best sequel in the series (although Andy and Ben made a strong case for Temple of Doom which is admittedly a better action picture). The strongest element of Last Crusade is its characters led by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his father. Alison Doody is also notably in the role of villainous archeologist Elsa Schneider, the most complex love interest in the series. The good humor and nuanced characterizations give Last Crusade the most emotional gravitas of the series.

Weird Al Yankovic made a movie in 1989 about an aimless dreamer who turns around a failing independent television station with a variety of wacky programs. The movie was a box office disappointment in 1989 but it has accrued a dedicated cult audience. Despite the fact that the movie is nestled in the pop culture of 1989 (the meaning of the title is probably lost on viewers born after 1995) UHF still plays because of its zany and good hearted sense of humor.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the most financially successful entry in the series’ original run of films. It was followed by 1989’s The Final Frontier, a project that began with an ambitious premise but was handicapped by budget woes and script re-writes. It is (arguably) not the worst Star Trek film but The Final Frontier has dramatic highs and lows and a whiplash of different tones.

The Abyss
James Cameron’s first aquatic adventure (if we ignore Piranha II: The Spawning) has its fans and the movie has some groundbreaking special effects but the story is a mess. The Abyss suffers from an excess of plot. It begins with a submarine crashing in the deep sea and then the rescue team becomes stranded themselves. And then the narrative forks off into a bunch of tangents with nuclear weapons, nervous breakdowns, and aliens; Thomas Pope named The Abyss one of the worst scripts in film history in his book Good Scripts, Bad Scripts. There are a couple of versions of The Abyss. The 145 minute theatrical cut is faster paced but it doesn’t make any sense. The 171 minute director’s cut makes sense but it meanders.

Back to the Future Part II
One of the bolder sequels in the sci-fi genre, Back the Future Part II travels into the future and then back into the events of the first movie. The film is impressive in the way it layers the new film on top of the original and it makes bold choices.

Dead Poet’s Society
Robin Williams’ acting career can be bifurcated between his comic and dramatic performances although he is best known for comedy, Williams’ dramatic outings were much more consistent and he gives one of his best performances in Dead Poets Society. A favorite of high school English teachers everywhere, Dead Poets Society is interesting to look at thirty years later as humanities departments find themselves undergoing some of the same pressures dramatized in this film.

Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989. The movie concerns an elderly Jewish woman who befriends her African American chauffer. This film is especially interesting to consider in 2019 since the year’s Best Picture winner was a Green Book, film whose scenario plays as a race flipped retread of Driving Miss Daisy. What’s more, Driving Miss Daisy was favored by the Academy over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and in 2019 Green Book competed alongside movies like Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give. The implicit lesson is that Hollywood, or at least the Academy, hasn’t moved forward in regard to racial representation in the last thirty years.

Ghostbusters II
Ghostbusters II is an unfairly maligned sequel. The 1989 follow up is not as tight as its predecessor and it has some hokey moments. Between the release of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, the franchise was adapted into a cartoon, pivoting the audience toward children complete with tie-in merchandise. For the second film, the edge of the first film was removed so that it would appeal to the family audience. Nevertheless, Ghostbusters II plays as an entertaining film in its own right.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The third and probably the most popular title of the Vacation series, Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes and it captured what Hughes did best – satirizing the absurdity of suburban life. Christmas Vacation is endlessly quotable. Everyone is at their best here, namely Chevy Chase as the patriarch of the Griswold family and Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, but unlike the other Vacation films the rest of the cast are also given things to do.

One of the early directorial efforts by Ron Howard, Parenthood is not neatly pegged into a single genre. The movie mixes comedy and drama in a story of suburban life. The movie has a terrific cast including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Martha Plimpton, and Rick Moranis as well as very young Keanu Reeves, and Joaquin Phoenix (credited here as Leaf Phoenix). Parenthood was adapted into a television series in 1990 and again in 2010.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Movies of 1989 on Sounds of Cinema

The Sounds of Cinema episode airing December 1, 2019 will feature special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski and they'll talk movies of 1989 with Nathan including Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Field of Dreams, and UHF.

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

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Family-Friendly Frights

Watching scary movies is a central part of many people’s Halloween festivities but it can be hard for families or those who wouldn’t ordinarily watch scary movies to find something appropriate so today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked at family friendly frights.

Monster House (2006)
Dir. Gil Kenan

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Monster House is a haunted house story presented through motion capture animation. Three teenagers discover that the decrepit home in their neighborhood contains a supernatural secret. Monster House was consistent with movies like The Monster Squad and The Goonies but it was also surprisingly smart and emotionally affecting.

Corpse Bride (2005)
Dir. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson

Tim Burton has been involved with several animated features that make for good Halloween viewing. The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick with Burton producing and writing the story. Burton also adapted his short film “Frankenweenie” into a feature length movie and co-directed Corpse Bride with Mike Johnson. Corpse Bride was a comedy of errors about a living groom who gets involved with an undead bride and it had a fun soundtrack by regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Dir. Kenny Ortega

Hocus Pocus was a family friendly Halloween adventure about three seventeenth century witches who are transported to contemporary Salem, Massachusetts where they pursue a group of children. The original story by Mick Garris and David Kirschner was quite dark but the material was lightened when it was acquired by Disney. When the movie was released in 1993, Hocus Pocus was a box office disappointment but the film has since become a very popular title especially among viewers who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Harry Potter Series (2001 - 2011)

The Harry Potter series is a story of a boy coming of age in a fantastical world of witches and magic. J.K. Rowling’s stories caught the imagination of readers the world over and were adapted into a very successful film series that mostly preserved the book’s sense of wonder. While not horror stories, the Harry Potter films are appropriately frightening with supernatural creatures and magical villains. But what really endures about Harry Potter is the way the character and his friends recognize that there is evil in the world and choose to confront it.

Return to Oz (1985)
Dir. Walter Murch

The idea of making a sequel to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz seems quite natural now with the success of Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful but in 1985 that wasn’t the case and Walter Murch’s Return to Oz had an uphill battle to find an audience. Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s stories, Return to Oz was much darker than the 1939 film. Its story was bleaker, its production design less cheery, and some of the puppet characters were creepy. Return to Oz failed in its initial release but it has gathered a cult audience since then.

The Universal Monsters

Holidays are a good time to introduce young people to classic movies and Halloween is a good opportunity to revisit the classic Universal Monster films. These pictures were thought to be terrifying at the time of their initial release but now they are quite accessible, often about as scary as Disney films, and with their short running times they fit within the attention spans of young viewers. Of the Universal Monsters, the Frankenstein pictures are generally regarded as superior and children seem to find the Monster, as played by Boris Karloff in the first three movies, very empathetic.

Poltergeist (1982)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

Poltergeist is officially rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America and the film is indeed within the boundaries of that rating. It doesn’t contain any bloody violence nor does it include sexuality or course language beyond what would be expected in a PG film. But Poltergeist’s rating belies the film’s intensity. Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist is quite frightening with some fantastic set pieces and a nightmarish climax. As a PG rated film made before the advent of PG-13, Poltergeist is an interesting artifact of what was considered family-oriented material a few decades ago.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
The Sixth Sense was the breakout film for M. Night Shyamalan. The movie is well within the framework of its PG-13 rating but what is surprising about this film is the way it deals with the supernatural. A lot of stories about ghosts assume that the spirits are malevolent, reflecting our own fears of death. The Sixth Sense plays on our expectations and actually ends on an optimistic note, making it spooky but also hopeful. (1:30)

The Addams Family (1991 and 2019)
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld / Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon

The Addams Family has been around since 1938 when the characters first appeared in Charles Addams’ cartoons. Since then the Addams Family has starred in television sitcoms and feature films. The 1991 live action movie has terrific energy and a great cast. A sequel, Addams Family Values, followed in 1993. The family returned to the screen in a 2019 animated film. Both big screen versions of The Addams Family have their own virtues and they are witty and intelligent and ought to appeal to both children and their parents.

The Monster Squad (1987)
Dir. Fred Dekker

The Monster Squad is an unusual piece of 1980s fantasy entertainment. Dracula leads a werewolf, a mummy, a fish-man, and Frankenstein’s monster into a suburban town in pursuit of a magical amulet and it’s up to a group of monster movie obsessed kids to stop them.This film that was almost certainly an inspiration Stranger Things but the retro appeal of the movie is somewhat ironic given that The Monster Squad was itself nostalgic for the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

KMSU Fall Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its fall pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or simply believe in independent media, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the station's website.

This pledge drive has a $25,000 fundraising goal. The money primarily goes to KMSU's overhead expenses. Most of the local programs, including Sounds of Cinema, are produced by volunteers. Your pledges go directly to keeping the station on the air so that all of us can keep sharing our passions with you.

KMSU offers a variety of extraordinary and unique programming that is valuable to the community. The station allows local businesses, artists, and community organizations exposure they would not get otherwise. It is a truly independent voice in this community. Our playlists are not dictated from corporate offices nor are our views and opinions restrained by marketing departments and partisan talking points. Whatever goes over the air is the result of the dedication, effort, and passions of the station’s staff and volunteers. That feature is increasingly unique in broadcasting and KMSU represents something that the community ought to be proud of.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. The reality is that radio—like everything else—costs money. Every piece of media that you hear, watch, or read costs somebody something to make into a tangible and accessible reality. Don’t kid yourself; music and movies and radio programs do not magically appear out of nowhere. They are the result of time and effort and investment. That’s where you come in. As consumers and citizens, we express what we want by the way we spend our hard-earned dollars. Every day we vote with our wallets whether it is at the market, at the local movie theater, or through a public radio pledge drive. And just like the goods of your favorite store, your support will determine whether or not KMSU’s product continues to exist.

It's also important to remember that pledge drives are about more than money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. Your pledge to KMSU demonstrates that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify the station's continued existence.

Also, keep in mind that KMSU is a part of the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations. This is a separate organization from Minnesota Public Radio and MPR's fundraising dollars  do not go to KMSU.

On Sunday, October 27th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

'Alien' and Manson Family Retrospective on Sounds of Cinema

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a special retrospective show. The first half of the show took a look back at the original Alien and discussed the themes and legacy of the movie. The second half examined films about the Manson Family and the way their crimes have been represented in documentaries and dramatizations.

The commentary from today's show is now available on the Sounds of Cinema website, including content that did not make it into the show.

Find the Alien commentary here and the Manson Family commentary here

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dark Comic Book Movies

The comic book genre has become a major success for Hollywood, especially Marvel, but some of these comics have inspired dark tales of madness and violence and supernatural evil. Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued this month's Halloween theme with a look at movies adapted from dark comic books.

Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Crypt was a comic book series published by EC Comics between 1950 and 1955. The comic was very popular and featured lurid stories of murder and supernatural terror presented by a ghoulish host known as the Crypt-Keeper. Despite its popularity, Tales from the Crypt was canceled following public outcry over concerns about juvenile delinquency which culminated in a US Senate subcommittee hearing in 1954 in which EC Comics publisher William Gaines was grilled by lawmakers for allegedly corrupting children. But Tales from the Crypt made an impression on some of its young readers, namely Stephen King and George A. Romero who paid tribute to the comics in their 1982 collaboration Creepshow. Tales from the Crypt was adapted into a 1972 feature film and later into an HBO television series that ran for seven seasons. The show inspired a pair of feature films: Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood.

Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider refers to several Marvel comic book characters who become fire breathing skull headed motorcyclists and who use their infernal powers to fight the forces of evil. A pair of Ghost Rider films were released by Columbia Pictures and starred Nicolas Cage. The film rights to Ghost Rider have since lapsed and reverted back to Marvel. More recently the character appeared in the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Sin City
Sin City was a series of neo-noir comics created by Frank Miller and published by Dark Horse Comics. Miller was one of several comic storytellers pushing the format into darker and more violent places in the late 1980s and early 90s. Sin City was an urban crime story full of seedy characters and the tone of the comic recalled the gangster movies of the 1940s. The comic was adapted into two motion pictures directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez which used the drawings as a guide and employed a formalistic style that simulated the qualities of the comic book page. 

John Constanine was a character featured in several DC comic series, namely Hellblazer. The character is a warlock and occult detective who is cynical and yet tries to do the right thing. He proved to be a popular character and Hellblazer was the most successful title in DC’s Vertigo imprint. Constantine was played by Keanu Reeves in a 2005 film. It was a modest success at the time but Constantine has grown in popularity since then with fans responding to the movie’s humor. Director Francis Lawrence and star Keanu Reeves have discussed the possibility of a sequel over the years although nothing has ever materialized. The character has recently appeared on television first as the star of a short lived NBC series and later as a supporting character in CW’s Arrowverse shows where Constantine is played by Matt Ryan.

Joker is an origin story of Batman's nemesis. Although the story took place in Gotham and the Wayne family figures into the story, Joker mostly eschewed anything related to comic books. Instead, this film flipped the script on the Batman franchise. Where most Batman films takes place at the top (Wayne Manor, city hall) looking down, Joker takes place in the gutter looking up. The movie reinvisioned The Joker as a troubled performance artist whose mental breakdown is hastened by society's indiference and a consequence of austerity.

The Crow
Originally created by James O’Barr, The Crow doesn’t actually refer to a character but a concept. O’Barr envisioned stories of the murdered dead returning from the grave to seek revenge while under the guidance of a bird. The comics included multiple characters settling scores. The Crow was first adapted into a feature film in 1994 and it remains one of the best comic book films. Sadly, the production of that film was marked by a series of disasters, culminating with actor Brandon Lee killed in an on-set accident. But The Crow was a success and was very popular in the goth and alternative scene of the time. The movie was followed by four sequels—each with a different protagonist—as well as a television series.

Hellboy is a superhero created by Mike Mignola in the 1990s. The character is a demon raised from infancy by human beings and enlisted to defend humanity from the forces of darkness. Hellboy was adapted to cinema twice. The character first appeared on screen in a 2004 movie and its sequel directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Pearlman. Hellboy was adapted again in a film released earlier this year and directed by Neil Marshall and starring David Harbor.

Blade was a Marvel character originally appearing in The Tomb of Dracula comic in 1973. The character was a half-vampire-half-human who had the powers of the undead but without their vulnerability to sunlight and Blade hunts vampires with a variety of edged weapons. Wesley Snipes starred in a trilogy of Blade films released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first two were quite well received and Blade II is one of the better comic book sequels. The character later went to television and it was recently announced that Blade will be played by Mahershala Ali in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Punisher
The Punisher is a Marvel character who first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974. The Punisher is a prototypical vigilante and a much darker character than is usually found in Marvel comics. The Punisher first appeared on film in a 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren that was also the first R-rated comic book movie. The character was rebooted in a 2004 picture starring Thomas Jane and again in 2008 with Ray Stevenson taking over the role. More recently, the rights to The Punisher reverted back to Marvel and the character appeared in Netflix’s Daredevil series before starring in his own show played by Jon Bernthal.

Spawn began as a comic book created by Todd McFarlane in the 1990s. McFarlane had a background working on Marvel’s Spider-Man comics but with Spawn McFarlane deliberately created a character and a story that was intended for a mature audience. Throughout the 1990s Spawn became one of the hottest titles in the comic book industry and McFarlane shrewdly managed the property, authorizing spinoffs and collectibles. Between 1997 and 1999 McFarlane produced an animated television series for HBO as well as a live action feature film released in 1997. The live action movie wasn't so well recieved and it hasn't aged especially well but the HBO show remains an impressive piece of work.

30 Days of Night
30 Days of Night was a comic book miniseries written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. Set in Alaska, 30 Days of Night was a horror story about vampires besieging a rural town located so far north that the sun disappears for a whole month during the winter. The comic was a success and inspired several sequels. A film adaptation directed David Slade and starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, and Danny Huston was released in 2007. A direct-to-video sequel followed and two prequel series were produced for the short-lived streaming service FEARnet.

From Hell
From Hell was a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that speculated on the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper. The story elaborates upon a conspiracy theory that the murders were intended to conceal the existence of an illegitimate royal baby. A film adaptation directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham was released in 2001. The film version of From Hell was a success but Alan Moore expressed his dissatisfaction with it as he has with other adaptions of his work such as Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Horror Movies of the 2010s

Today’s show kicks off a month-long Halloween theme on Sounds of Cinema. 2019 concludes this decade and one of the extraordinary phenomena in movies these past ten years has been an exceptional crop of horror titles. Horror is presently enjoying a moment in quality and quantity that the genre hasn’t seen since the 1970s and 80s. This program will highlight some of the trends in the genre and some of the outstanding titles of the 2010s. 

The End of Body Horror and Found Footage
The horror films of the early 2010s continued and resolved the themes that had dominated the genre in the previous decade. Horror works in cycles and starting in the mid-2000s the genre had been devoted to extreme body horror and torture movies following the success of Saw and Hostel. This came to an end in 2010 but filmmakers seemingly saved the strangest and most excessive titles for last, chief among them A Serbian Film, which easily ranks among the most disturbing movies ever made. Also released that year were Saw 3-D, The Human Centipede and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave. These films, but especially A Serbian Film, took the torture subgenre to its ultimate conclusion.

The other horror trend that traced back to the previous decade and concluded in the 2010s was found footage. Like body horror, the found footage format is still with us but there was a glut of these films following the blockbuster success of Paranormal Activity. A lot of these movies were awful but a few stood out and used the found footage gimmick effectively such as Paranormal Activity 3, The Sacrament, Creep, The Bay, and Unfriended.

Remakes and New Horror Franchises
Remakes are a staple of Hollywood’s release slate. For better or worse, the horror genre led the way and in the 2000s virtually every major property of the 1970s and 80s was remade. This continued into the 2010s but the remakes of this decade were exceptional or at least innovative. The remakes of Maniac, Child’s Play, Evil Dead, Fright Night, and Suspiria paid homage to the original films while offering new visions and fresh takes.

While some of the old standbys were remade, horror filmmakers of the 2010s also created new franchises. The biggest of these was The Conjuring. Two titular installments have been released so far but The Conjuring created its own cinematic universe through spinoff films like The Curse of La Llorona and the Annabelle series. While the spinoffs weren’t very good they did make money and pointed a new way forward for sequelization. The Conjuring was overseen by James Wan who also supervised the Insidious films, another popular supernatural franchise of the 2010s which featured some of the same actors as The Conjuring. The Purge was also successfully franchised. Starting from a modest debut film, The Purge had success with progressively better sequels and a keen feel for the political zeitgeist. The Purge has now moved to television.

The Influence of John Carpenter
One of the major influences on horror filmmakers of the 2010s was the work of John Carpenter. The filmmaker had been prolific throughout the 1970s and 80s with such varied titles as The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, and Starman. Carpenter’s last directorial feature was 2010’s The Ward after which he turned to music and released a few albums. However, Carpenter’s filmography influenced many filmmakers of the 2010s. The Purge series echoed Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13, The Hateful Eight and It Chapter Two contained obvious homages to The Thing, and It Follows channeled the original Halloween. Carpenter served as a producer on the 2018 Halloween sequel and he co-wrote the music with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.

Fan Documentaries
One of the curious outgrowths adjacent to the horror genre throughout the 2010s has been the advent of independent, fan driven documentaries about popular film franchises. These were distinctly different from the studio-produced featurettes usually found on DVDs. The documentaries were feature length examinations that catalogued the behind-the-scenes stories and the legacies of these films. Because they were made outside the studio and usually long after the productions had wrapped, these filmmakers were free to be honest and address the flaws or disappointments of these moves as well as dig into the details that fans obsess over. The two best examples of these documentaries were Never Sleep Again and Crystal Lake Memories which recorded the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, respectively. These documentaries were extraordinary not only in their depth but also in their production values, humor, and creative visuals. Also notable were 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene and the Return of the Living Dead documentary More Brains as well as Room 237 about the various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the Jaws documentary The Shark is Still Working.

The Quantity and the Quality of 2010s Horror
The horror of the 2010s really took off in about 2013. That year gave us Byzantium, Escape from Tomorrow, The Purge, Stoker, The Last Exorcism, and the remake of The Evil Dead. Throughout the rest of the decade came an incredible run of horror movies including Annihilation, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Babadook, Cam, Don’t Breathe, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Green Inferno, Hereditary, It, It Follows, Krampus, Life After Beth, Midsommar, Mother!, The Neon Demon, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Quiet Place, Raw, The Sacrament, Under the Shadow, Us, and The Witch among many others. These movies were varied with some reworking classic horror tropes like vampires and slashers but many others presenting original concepts. And it is in that way that the horror boom of the 2010s was distinct from the horror periods of the 1930s and 40s or the 1970s and 80s. The movies of the 1930s and 40s repurposed folklore and Victorian literature like Frankenstein and Dracula while the movies of the 1970s and 80s like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween centered upon slasher villains. The horror films of the 2010s were primarily about ambitious ideas presented in original scenarios.

This decade’s horror films were also characterized by cleverness and irreverence and a willingness to reinvent or lampoon horror tropes. Consider the zombie films The Girl with All the Gifts and Cooties or the psycho killer tales Creep and The Voices. There were also outright silly movies like What We Do in the Shadows and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and politically loaded fare like Get Out and The Purge. We also got a lot of anthology films like The ABCs of Death and V/H/S and XX which allowed for experimentation and the horror of the 2010s was an especially fertile genre in which filmmakers were able to be both narratively and technically innovative.  The sum has been an extraordinarily rich period in horror filmmaking the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

The New Masters of Horror
Previous high points in the horror genre were driven by filmmakers who the press (and publicists) dubbed “masters of horror” such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, and George A. Romero. These names have been the standard bearers for the genre for about two generations of horror audiences. In the 2010s many of these filmmakers died or faded away and new horror filmmakers made their mark to become the new “masters of horror.” Among the most successful of these new horror masters was also one of the most unexpected: Jordan Peele. He was best known for comedy but with Get Out and Us Peele refashioned himself into one of the horror genre’s most interesting voices. Peele’s rise was assisted by Blumhouse, a production studio specializing in horror films, and its CEO Jason Blum has become one of the most important figures not only in horror but in American cinema at the moment. James Wan had established himself in the 2000s with Saw but his career really took off in the 2010s as he oversaw both the Conjuring and Insidious franchises. Elijah Wood is best known to audiences as an actor but Wood turned to producing through his production company SpectreVision whose credits included Mandy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Open Windows. Other filmmakers to emerge throughout this decade include Ti West, director of The House of the Devil and The Sacrament, John Krasinski of A Quiet Place, the Soska Sisters who co-directed American Mary, and Ari Aster had one of the most impressive directorial debuts of recent years with Hereditary which he followed with Midsommar. Whether these filmmakers are here to stay is yet to be seen but together they have reinvigorated the horror film and made the 2010s one of the most exciting periods in the history of the genre.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2019

It’s October and that means it is time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 6: Horror of the 2010s
2019 concludes this decade and one of the extraordinary phenomena in movies these past ten years has been an exceptional crop of horror titles. Horror is presently enjoying a moment in quality and quantity that the genre hasn’t seen since the 1970s. This program will highlight some of the horror films of the 2010s.

October 13: Dark Comic Book Films
With the release of Joker, now is a good time to revisit some of the darker comic book-to-movie adaptations including The Crow and Hellboy and Tales from the Crypt.

October 20: Alien and Manson Family Retrospective
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien and the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson Family murders. Half of this episode will look back at the sci-fi horror classic and the other half will examine the way the Manson Family and their crimes were reflected in cinema.

October 27: Family Friendly Frights
Movie-going is an integral part of the Halloween season but for parents it can be difficult finding pictures that they can watch with their children. This episode will include a look at some family-friendly titles for Halloween. Note: 89.7 KMSU FM will air the pledge drive episode on October 27th.

October 31: Halloween Special
The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music. The show will air the evening of Thursday, October 31 at 11pm.

Sounds of Cinema’s regular broadcast can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:

  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at kqal.org
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at kmsu.org

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Movies of 1979

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the films of 1979 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a look at some of the films discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles.

Steven Spielberg's attempt to make a John Landis-style comedy was famously a disaster but 1941 was a turning point in Spielberg's career. For one, it connected Spielberg with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would later write and direct the Spielberg produced Back to the Future. For another, 1941 was the third Spielberg film (following Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to suffer major cost overruns. After the failure of this film, Spielberg became much more disciplined and followed 1941 with Raiders of the Lost Ark which was completed on time and on budget.

A classic and highly influential movie, Alien was a haunted house movie in space. The film combines the classic monster tropes of sci-fi films like It! The Terror from Beyond Space with the intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film's influence is perhaps best observed in the xenomorph. The alien, from the artwork of H.R. Giger, inspired countless imitations.

Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War picture was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and tells the story of a soldier sent to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the southeast Asian jungle. This was one of the first major Hollywood films about Vietnam and it remains one of the best. Three versions of the movie exist: the 1979 theatrical cut, the 2001 Redux version, and the 2019 Final Cut.

Being There
Peter Sellers gave one of his greatest performances in what would be his penultimate movie. Being There is about a simple minded gardener who inadvertently becomes an Washington DC insider and the movie has a wry, off center sense of humor.

The Concord . . . Airport '79
The last in the Airport thrillers that would later be parodied in 1980's Airplane!, The Concord is a goofy piece of spectacle that's worth viewing when you're in the mood for something campy.

The Jerk 
A classic Steve Martin comedy and one of several collaborations between Martin and filmmaker Carl Reiner. The movie is extremely quotable and consistently hilarious with Martin throwing himself into the role.

Kramer vs. Kramer 
Kramer vs. Kramer is a divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Not only did it win the Academy Award for Best Picture but Kramer vs. Kramer was also the highest grossing picture of 1979. That's impossible to imagine happening today.

Monty Python's Life of Brian
The second feature film from British comedy troupe Monty Python was set in ancient Judea during the time of Christ. A common Jewish citizen is mistaken for the messiah. Life of Brian is the best Monty Python film and it has something to say about religion and faith while having a laugh. Although it received some push back at the time, Life of Brian has been embraced by religious and non-religious viewers alike which is a testament to the film's intelligence, humor, and goodheartedness.

James Bond in space. This film has become something of a punchline in 007 canon but it is a fun 70s action adventure.

The Muppet Movie
The first Muppet feature film assembles the original talents including Jim Henson and Frank Oz and it has a wacky and chaotic sense of humor that distinguished the 1970s Muppets from the contemporary films.

Norma Rae 
Sally Field starred in this true story of a textile worker who faced considerable odds in the effort to unionize her workplace. Field won an Academy Award for her performance.

Werner Herzog's remake of the classic silent film was a fascinatingly cerebral take on the vampire story. It's an existential vampire film that is unique in the genre.

Rocky II
One of the prime examples of the-same-but-different approach to Hollywood sequel making, Rocky II repeats a lot of the original movie. The plotting is somewhat strained and a few of the call backs to the first movie are forced but Rocky II benefits from a larger budget and the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is terrific boxing action.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The first installment of the Star Trek film series earns its subtitle. As Andy commented on the show, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the scope and grandeur that none of the other Star Trek films ever quite captured. The movie also has one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores. There are two versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the original theatrical cut and the "Director's Edition." Unfortunately, only the theatrical cut is currently available in high definition. 

The Warriors
The Warriors started as a serious and straightforward novel by Sol Yurick and it was turned into a fun, goofy, and high energy urban action movie by filmmaker Walter Hill. The director gave The Warriors a makeover in 2005, adding comic book touches like those in Sin City, and this is now the only version available.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Movies of 1979 on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, September 22, 2019, regular host Nathan Wardinski will be joined by his brothers, Andy and Ben, in a discussion of movies from 1979. This special retrospective episode will take a look at movies like Alien, Rocky II, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and more.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. The show can be heard over the air, online at each station's website, and on your mobile device using the TuneIn app.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Summer 2019 in Review

Labor Day concludes the summer season so before we transition into fall and winter, here’s a look back at the movies released from May through August. The summer is traditionally the time of year for populist entertainment and while Hollywood provided that it was an unusual season in a number of ways.

Disney’s Dominance
Disney’s tentpole releases dominated the summer box office to the exclusion of almost anything else. The top five grossing movies of the summer were all Disney-owned releases: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home, and Aladdin. The studio has done well for itself, setting a new box office record with over $7.6 billion earned so far this year and with more to come with the anticipated releases of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But these films were plagued with a feeling déjà vu and most of Disney’s summer blockbusters were just average in their quality. The Spider-Man sequel was good but nothing we haven’t seen before while The Lion King and Aladdin were exactly what we’d seen before. Even Toy Story 4, which was quite good, had trouble justifying its existence. As David Erhlich said of The Lion King, Disney’s output in summer 2019 was “a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”

The Shrinking Theatrical Market
Disney’s success appeared to come at the expense of nearly everyone else. The entertainment press regularly turned out pearl clutching analysis pieces that juxtaposed Disney’s market share largess against the failure of other studio franchise releases like Dark Phoenix, MiB: International, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s worth noting that most of these movies just weren’t very good. The dominance of a single studio can and should worry anyone who cares about cinema and the long term health of the industry. But we also have to acknowledge that Disney’s success was at least assisted by the fact that their competition was pathetic.

More concerning was the box office underperformance of smaller movies. Many good midlevel budgeted movies ($40 - $70 million production budgets) just didn’t attract an audience. Booksmart suffered from a bad marketing scheme and a lousy release date. Long Shot was a good and smart movie with a bland title and its political themes might have been of little interest to an audience that is inundated with politics in every other medium. The remake of Child’s Play was released around the same time as Annabelle Comes Home and it might have been one killer doll too many. We can speculate why Late Night and Dora and the Lost City of Gold and Midsommar and The Angry Birds Movie 2 failed but whatever the cause, this trend points to an audience that is only interested in attending the theater for the biggest releases of familiar titles and brands. The theatrical marketplace cannot survive on tentpoles alone.

Musical Films
2019 has seen the release of a lot of musical movies and several titles debuted this summer. A few of these were documentaries including the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. Also released this summer were Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, about the relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s documentary about the legendary opera singer. Summer 2019 also featured several musical dramas. Rocketman was an impressive biopic of Elton John. Yesterday was high concept piece that paid tribute to the music of The Beatles while Born to Run dramatized the true story of a Pakistani immigrant living in the UK who was inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

An Impressive August
In a typical summer, Hollywood studios release their flagship titles in May through July, with the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays being the peak periods. August has traditionally been designated as a dumping ground for low quality titles that studios don’t have faith in and the Labor Day holiday is typically a low turnout weekend. Summer 2019 played out a little differently. Several high profile May through July releases were underwhelming while August saw the release of Good Boys, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Blinded by the Light, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Ready or Not and even Angel Has Fallen was better than expected. Not all of these films drew crowds but this was a better quality August crop than we usually get at the end of the summer.

Highlights of the Summer
Here are a few of the better movies released this summer:

The Art of Self Defense: An offbeat and terrifically crafted black comedy that both tapped into this particular moment but also transcended it with a story that is worthy of comparison to Fight Club and American Psycho.

Blinded By the Light: A surprisingly layered and complex jukebox musical that was a lot of fun. Blinded By the Light was a tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen with a genuine appreciation for what The Boss had to say but it transcended mere fandom.

Booksmart: Every generation gets at least one last-crazy-night-in-high-school movie and Booksmart reimagined that story for the 2019 audience and populated it with likable and interesting characters.

Child’s Play: The remake of the 1980s slasher classic was much better than expected. It revisited the material and provided a fresh take while remaining germane to the original idea.

Crawl: This killer alligator movie was one of 2019’s most satisfying popcorn entertainments and one of Alexandre Aja’s most accessible films.

The Farewell: A nearly perfect movie. The filmmaking, the performances, and the storytelling coalesce in an extraordinarily satisfying story.

Good Boys: One of the best comedies of recent years and certainly the best comedy of summer 2019.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: The John Wick series keeps topping itself and the third installment was an extraordinary action picture.

Long Shot: This movie got missed in its theatrical release but Long Shot was rare bird: a politically adept romantic comedy.

Midsommar: Continuing the present wave of impressive horror pictures, Midsommar might be too cerebral for the Conjuring crowd but it was a smart and expertly made film. A director’s cut was given a limited release at the end of the summer.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie was his most self-indulgent (and that is really saying something) but it was a fun nostalgia trip to a bygone era.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: The feel-good movie of the summer, The Peanut Butter Falcon was a really likable film with notable performances by Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf.

Ready or Not: A shrewd mix of horror and comedy, Ready or Not was smart and well produced and had a wicked sense of humor.

Rocketman: This dramatization of the life and music of Elton John had extraordinary set pieces and a terrific cast including Taron Egerton in the lead role.