Category Archives: Year-End Wrap-Up

The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

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Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle

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A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight

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Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell

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A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry

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Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

The Best of 2016: #10-1

Yeah, you should know the rules by now. If what’s on my Top 10 isn’t on yours, write your Top 10. These are the films that meant the most to me this year, that made me sing their praises at the top of my lungs, that made me laugh and cry and feel so deeply. I hope you love them as much as I did.

If you’re so inclined, feel free to click here and participate in a little contest.

10) Hail, Caesar! 

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Hail, Caesar! is the rare ode to Hollywood that actually understands the significance that the institution can hold. The Coens immerses themselves in the styles, the gossips, and the concerns of old Hollywood. They’re mocking religious epics, westerns, manners dramas, and musicals while absolutely feeling free to indulge in the fun of getting to make those. It delves deep to find the power of Hollywood, which Hail, Caesar! views as something akin to religion, with the film as its sacrament and the producer as a God. Indeed, the faith of Brolin’s Mannix becomes an avenue to explore faith and the meaning of the all-powerful and unknowable, a film as Catholic as the A Serious Man is Jewish. The fact that all that couched in a movie that’s a barrel of explosive comedic fun with great performances from Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Josh Brolin is just icing. The fact that Alden Ehrenreich still manages to steal the movie out from under them is even more amazing. Hail, Caesar! is about as enjoyable as it gets to confront the unknowable and powerful God.

Best Scene: “No Dames”

9) Silence

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Scorsese’s great passion project, in development for 26 years, adapted from one of the greatest novels of faith ever written. Silence is an epic of doubt that manages to live up to all that weight and more, boldly forging a film art that’s sweeping and ambiguous and difficult and from a voice of faith that we’re never going to appreciate. Of a kind with the work of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, Silence is a technical masterwork, impossibly confident with shot after shot that makes you gasp. But it uses that masterworking to think through the toughest questions of God. What does it mean when we can’t hear God, what does it mean when our prayers and our suffering seem to go unanswered? What does faith mean when I’m in so much pain? Silence‘s most amazing quality is how it pokes and prods and tries, but it knows that as long as we live, we may never find the answers.

Best Scene: Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) makes one final decision over whether or not he will apostatize.

8) Manchester by the Sea

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The secret of Manchester by the Sea is that for all of its crushing and bleak portrayals of the depths of grief, it’s possibly one of the funniest films of the year. Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea portrays the process of loss and it really can be, blending the quiet humor and real humiliations of family and moving on with its more outright breakdown moments. What awes about Manchester by the Sea is its specificity, the way it feels so couched in a specific time and place with people plucked from the world it’s showing. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is one of the best performances of this year, using Casey’s natural reticence and mumbling to his advantage, letting the silent gaps of grief speak the loudest. Manchester by the Sea is a healing film, one that shows in loss, you’re not alone.

Best Scene: One last conversation between Lee Chandler and Randi (Michelle Williams)

7) Pete’s Dragon

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This is about as good as family filmmaking gets, full of wonder and awe at the world and curious about the limitless possibilities that childhood holds. David Lowery found a way to tell this story as a deeply human fantasy, a story of a boy and his dog that will keep you in tears from the sheer beauty and awe that it inspires. It’s a story that knows we all deserve a chance and we all deserve to see something better in our futures. Disney’s still got it.

Best Scene: Elliot’s New Family

6) The Witch

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There are few debut features as confident as The Witch, a psychological horror film that figures it might as well let you know its title is literal in the first 20 minutes. From there, The Witch becomes a swirling horror of the first sins of America, of the fear and the hate that laid under the surface of our early days. Shot like a Hudson River School painting of Hell, it’s a film that feels all the more horrific for its authenticity, from its dialogue ripped from journals of the day to its immaculately recreated sets, like you’re looking into a Pilgrim nightmare. It all leads up to one of the most bone-chilling finales in years. The Witch is a nightmare of the fears of religion and the dark underbelly of the myth of pure Americana.

Best Scene: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

5) Arrival

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I will state that part of my impression of this film was formed by two outside sources. First, my previous knowledge of Villeneuve certainly didn’t make me think he would be capable of something so emotionally open and immersive, so being taken off guard there should certainly be taken in account. The second I won’t spell out here, but perhaps a quick Google of the release date should tell you all you need to know.

In that, understand my viewing of Arrival as a beautiful clarion call to find unity in the darkest hour and to understand the brief time we have on this planet. Arrival resonates as a film that shows the understanding we must attain of how fragile we are and how all we’ve done and the possibilities of what we will do inform who we are. Arrival is fundamentally hopeful for the future, showing the objects and the people who carve it in glowing and heavenly light, making decisions that strike deep into our own fears of what we may be asked to do.

Best Scene: Louise learns the cost of understanding the Heptapod language.

4) Paterson

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Cinema is important not just for the grandiose visions it shows us of other times, places, and worlds, but for the empathy it generates for the ordinary and everyday. Paterson is a film that elevates the ordinary to extraordinary by showing us just how beautiful the everyday is. Seeing the world through Driver’s extraordinary performance as the titular character driving a bus through the titular character transforms everything.

The city, the people and their conversation, the natural world all becomes a poem, a place full of art and meaning and juxtapositions that are extraordinary and beautiful. Through him, we experience his wonderful wife (Golshifeth Farahani) and her caring ambition, the artist trying to share what she has with the world. Through him, we see the value of art and those who try everyday to reach for it and find meaning through it. The fact that all of this story is told with wonderful heart and humor is simply more indicative of how much Jarmusch deeply cares for these people and for the world around them.

Best Scene: We find out why Paterson’s mailbox tips over everyday.

3) Swiss Army Man

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No, really, this movie happened. Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter, played a farting corpse that helped a guy played by Paul Dano come to grips with humanity AND adventure around an abandoned island. We’re all the luckier for it.

Swiss Army Man is one of the most human films of the year, a film that uses its vulgarity and audacity to break deep into the human fears of raising children, of explaining the meanings of life and trying to figure out why we do what we do. It’s a film that tries to understand the outcast and the downtrodden, but is fully aware of why they’re in that position. It’s a bold, daring work that actually feels like it’s putting everything it has out there. Directors The Daniels, most famous before now for the “Turn Down For What” video, feel like they’ve tapped into another world, two people who know the rules and know how to bend them for their own twisted and wonderful ends. Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, cry, and cry laughing. And maybe you’ll come out having learned a little something at the end.

Best Scene: Just pick a montage. Any montage.

2) Moonlight

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Moonlight is a minor miracle of filmmaking, one I’m still not sure we deserve, but that is vital to understand. Barry Jenkins has tapped into a world that feels like a dream but is all the more remarkable for the reality it portrays. This is a film of specific experiences, of the black experience, of the queer experience, that finds such deep empathy to map onto every single viewer. Heartbreaking and affirming in equal measures, Moonlight is a work of cinematic power in that it trusts its filmmaking to do all the talking, to capture the amazing work that the actors do, and always trust its audience to understand.

Its secret is how sweet of a film it is too, Jenkins has affection for the characters he creates. No matter what he puts them through, he wants them to be happy, and he makes sure that we see them in the smallest moments. An attempt to act tough, a quick bit of grooming before meeting someone you haven’t seen in a while. And no one short of Wong Kar-Wai has ever made romance this stylish and gorgeous and arresting.

Moonlight is an important work. It’s important as a beacon for the future of cinema, it’s important as a guide to the stories that cinema can tell and the empathy it can generate.

Best Scene: Everything in the diner between Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland), but specifically the moment where Kevin puts “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox.

AND THE TOP OF THE TOP IS…

1) La La Land

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Shocker, right?

If La La Land was simply the technical masterpiece that it is, it would have a firm and high place on this list. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s dizzying Technicolor whirlwind is perhaps one of the most beautiful reminders of why we go to the theater to see movies. The gorgeous primary colours, the lavish and dazzling musical numbers, the costumes, the score, the mood lights. It’s a nonstop feast for the senses, not even getting into the sublime pleasures of watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling be as charming as they’ve ever been in their most intimate romance yet.

Why it places up top is that it understands in the most purely cinematic way how a break from the real world makes the difficult parts of human love and ambition feel all the more real. It’s bringing us up to crash us back down. La La Land is a film that knows the personally dark parts of ambition, of the compromises that we must make, the fears that we feel. The call that it’s not working out just yet, the dream slipping away because we can’t afford it, doing what you have to so you can cling to the hope of what you can. And the fact that you will have to say goodbye to the ones you love, that you’ll have to leave others behind for ambition.

There’s a lot people seize onto about jazz and Hollywood and all that. But for me, that’s all cursory to La La Land. La La Land is a movie about the dreams we make and the hearts that ache to achieve them. It’s a clear reminder of the power of cinema to show what lies inside, to reminds us of the aching pains and glories that being human comes with. It does it in a beautiful world that you want to reenter as soon as you leave.

La La Land is an escape that helps you to confront yourself and your pain, a film that’s been there and it understands. Empathy in a musical number.

Best scene: The reunion in the jazz club, a scene that has managed to make me cry 4 times.

The First Annual “Should Be The Oscars”: My Picks For The Best Individuals of Film in 2016

Welcome one, welcome all. As we continue our journey through 2016, it’s time to highlight some of the individual moving parts that made 2016 so wonderful (for film). The artists, the musicians, the craftspeople, and the thinkers that put these movies together and deserve to be recognized.

More than anywhere else, a note needs to be made that this is all subjective. Even more than overall films, what works and what doesn’t varies from person to person, so this is what particularly struck me. It’s also good to note that individual elements don’t always determine the cohesive whole, which can strike differently depending on mood and thematic coherence and a mess of other elements.

Best Original Score:

Michael Giacchino, Doctor Strange

Nicholas Britell, Moonlight

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival

Mica Levi, Jackie

Winner:

Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

This really shouldn’t surprise, but let’s not let its inevitability take away from what an accomplishment this score really is. Hurwitz blends the jaunty, sprightly jazz that keeps the movie upbeat with the sweeping classical strings that slowly worm their way into your heart until the beautiful and wrenching ending. La La Land‘s score is deeply important for the movie because it doesn’t just underline the beats, it is the beats. It’s through Hurwitz’s score, blended with the images, that La La Land really finds its power.

Best Original Song:

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, written by Opetaia Foa’i, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Mark Mancina, performed by Auli’i Carvalho

“Montage” from Swiss Army Man, written by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, performed by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe

“Equal Rights” from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, written by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Raphael Judrin, Pierre-Antoine Melki & Yoan Chirescu, produced by soFly & Nius, performed by Andy Samberg and Alecia Moore

“Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street, written by John Carney and Gary Clark, performed by Sing Street

Winner: 

“Another Day of Sun” from La La Land, written by Justin Hurtwitz and Pasek and Paul, performed by The Cast of La La Land

To be honest, this was one of the hardest categories of the year, and any song on this list deserves to be up at the winner’s slot. It was even harder to pick one track from La La Land, a soundtrack that I really do love piece by piece. I choose Another Day of Sun not only because of how impressive the sequence that it accompanies is, but how emblematic it is of the movie on the whole. It’s a beautiful and charmingly fun number with a sad little core. It’s about the dreams artists share and the compromises the singers had to make to try to achieve them. It’s a thematic statement that prepares you for what you’re about to experience, and one that you’ll be whistling for a week.

Best Cinematography:

Silence, shot by Rodrigo Prieto

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The Witch, shot by Jarin Blaschke

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Lion, shot by Grieg Fraser

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La La Land, shot by Linus Sandgren

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Winner: 

Moonlight, shot by James Laxton

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Cinematography at its core is about the way we shape what the eye of the camera is looking at. The colors of the world we capture, the framing and the motion that tells us what these people are thinking and feeling. With that, no movie had cinematography more key to its aims and no movie succeeded more in what it tried to accomplish than Moonlight. Laxton’s eye shows us the beauty of this world, the blue shadows and the contours of the light. It shows us the way that people hold back and the pain and joy they feel. It’s Laxton’s cinematography that makes a scene between two men at a diner so pregnant with meaning, the shadows hiding the tiniest movements of their face and then revealing what they’re trying to hide. This is a gorgeous film that uses its camera at every step to tell the story.

The Best Films of 2016: #20-11

Let us make one thing clear. 2016 was a shitty year in a lot of ways, I think I and countless others have said that enough. But the one place it thrived and soared was in film. While the blockbusters this year were by and large disappointing, ranging from the grimly grandiose to the inanely incoherent (and that’s just Warner Brothers), those willing to dig under the surface found a wealth of treasures.

2016 was full of film that, in the smallest ways and in the largest ways, reminded us of the vitality of film art and made it clear why we’ve gone to the movies for a century now. They made us laugh and cry and drop our jaws often all in the same sequence. In a year of films that I absolutely loved, here are the 20 that stood (for me) above the rest.

20) Don’t Think Twice

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Personal, bittersweet, and surprising, Don’t Think Twice is perhaps the surest sign that Mike Birbiglia has become one of our most potent storytellers in the world of comedy. Broaching just a little bit outside of himself, Birbiglia weaves a compelling ensemble with stories that are deeply touching for anyone who’s ever been creative and forcing themselves to make compromises. Perhaps the biggest pleasure here is his cast, featuring a host of comedians who are doing some of their best work, including Keegan Michael-Key and Gillian Jacobs in two of this year’s most overlooked performances. In a year of films that struck deep, almost nothing forced you to confront yourself quite like Don’t Think Twice. 

Best Scene: The Commune’s Last Show

19) The Nice Guys

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No film this angry has ever been this much fun. Shane Black’s darkly humorous tale of two amateur gumshoes in 1970s LA is a barrel of laughs and violence that’s seeking to figure exactly why the powerful have screwed the country up. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s told to you by one of the best duos of the year. Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe weren’t (before this year) two guys known for their comedy chops, but the two are an almost effortless comedy team, finding almost endless comedy just in the way that they conduct their investigation. It helps that they’re assisted by Angourie Rice whose role as the precocious daughter of Gosling’s detective is the secret foundation of this movie. The Nice Guys is just the kind of adventure only Shane Black can bring, and we’re never going to be appreciative enough that we have him.

Best Scene: Party at the Porn Producer’s House

18) Sing Street

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Sing Street is the kind of film bred to be a cult classic, a deeply beloved darling among a few. Director John Carney fixes every mistake from previous Begin Again (most notably by writing songs that you want to listen to outside of the movie) and retains the huge beating heart and earnestness that make everything he’s made at least worth a watch so far. A great cast of kids anchors Sing Street, most notable because they feel like actual teenagers, not simply the construct of someone trying to remember that era. Their hopes, their fears, their sorrows, the way they process love hits so close to home, and the joys of watching them discover themselves can’t be missed.

Best Scene: “Drive It Like You Stole It.”

17) Green Room

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Green Room certainly wasn’t a film that we hoped or expected would be in the zeitgeist, but Saulnier’s story of Punks v. Nazis holds up to its surprising pressure admirably. An unrelenting blast of raw cinematic violence, I’m sure this one was responsible for more than a few claw marks dug into seats. It’s loud, it’s intense, it’s fast, it’s political and brutal. In other words, it’s punk. In a year of great films about music, no film let the ethos of its genre seep quite so deep into the bone as Green Room. 

Best Scene: “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”

16) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Taika Waititi has quietly become one of our cinematic treasures, a director who can put together a pitch-perfect story and cast and make it seem like he didn’t put an ounce of effort into pulling it off, that it’s just as natural for him as breathing. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rousing adventure flick, a young boy (the wonderful Julian Dennison) and his reluctant father (Sam Neill) against the wilderness and the world. It’s a film of deep charm that finds you in love with its characters from minute 1, the kind of film that makes your day just a little better.

Best Scene: Ricky and Hec meet three hunters

15) The Lobster

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If you’re single and you feel bad about it? Just watch The Lobster. I mean, you won’t necessarily feel better. You’ll laugh a lot, sure, but as much as is from the quiet absurdity of the jokes in Yorgos Lanthimos’ script, there’s plenty that ends up just being the uncomfortable recognition of real life reflected. The Lobster is a dark, brutal satire that deadpans its way through all of what it has to say, knowing it’s the quiet fury that hits all the harder. Colin Farrell’s David is perhaps one of the most surprising performances in years, an actor abandoning all vanity to give himself completely over to a character firmly opposite to him, and that chance lays dividends. The Lobster is a gorgeously bleak and hilarious and all too recognizable film.

Best Scene: David and The Shortsighted Woman’s tense walk through the mall

14) Kubo and the Two Strings

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Kubo and The Two Strings is a deeply felt film, that wears surprisingly difficult ideas about death, moving on, and the power of storytelling inside every frame of its epic video-game inspired adventure. Laika went bigger than they ever had before and it paid off, making a film of the kind of sweeping power that can mean something different to everybody. For kids, they see the trials of growing up. For adults, they see the trials of moving on. It’s also possibly one of the most gorgeous pieces of animation in years with its rich color and heartstopping motion and moment after moment where you just can’t imagine how they pulled it off. Yet it’s not in the biggest moments that Kubo finds visual strength, but in its smallest, in its textures and its facial expressions. Kubo is a stunning piece of animation and a deeply affecting one.

Best Scene: A beautiful goodbye to end the movie.

13) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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Joke for joke, this is probably the funniest comedy of the year. The Lonely Island crafted a movie that exemplified everything that brought them their deserved fame: their specificity, their enormous talent, their willingness to go weird and out-of-the-box, their ethos that anything and everything about a scene can be a joke, and the fact that they’re actually pretty strong songwriters. Popstar nails its target so dead-on that it excuses the well-worn ground they trod. It even makes you grow to care about these ridiculous people a little while you laugh at them.

Best Scene: A killer bee attack while the camera is turned off.

12) The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden is not the stuffy art film the picture above makes it appear. Yes, it’s an immaculately-composed work of Gothicism from Korean master Park Chan-Wook and yes it has plenty of ambiguity and dark psychosexual mindgames. It’s all that but it’s shoved into one of the most thrilling capers the year has to offer with a wicked sense of humor and a plot that twists every which way imaginable. It’s also got a masterful cast with two leads who deserve to be up at the Oscars this year. The Handmaiden is about as exciting and enjoyable as any blockbuster and as smart and well put-together as any art film. But that’s Park Chan-Wook for you, who continues to prove why he’s one of World Cinema’s best filmmakers.

Best Scene: This is a film where I don’t think I can pick a best scene, everything is so interconnected. Gun to my head? An early scene between our two leads in a bathtub.

11) The Edge of Seventeen

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Boy, I saw a few horror films this year and nothing made me avert my face from the screen quite as much as The Edge of Seventeen. A painfully identifiable look at teenagerdom through the eyes of the kind of teen we don’t see a whole lot on screen (not popular, not outwardly geeky, not some kind of saint), this is a film destined to join the canon of great teen films. Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut is a nimbly put together work, one that gives plenty of room to a wonderful script and an impressive cast that includes Blake Jenner showing he’s got chops and perhaps the most Woody Harrelson role that he has ever been able to play (and in that, he soars). But if Hailee Steinfeld wasn’t already a star, this would definitely be the movie that makes her one, giving one of the most impressive and nuanced performances of the year that never loses its capacity to find truth. Just a film of deep thought and feeling that wears every bit of emotion on its sleeve.

Best Scene: A confrontation between Nadine and Drian

My Favorite 15 Things That Weren’t Movies or TV in 2016

I’m a man of varied interests. By which I mean, I’m a man who’s interested in movies and TVs and I occasionally do other things to pass the time. You know, palate cleansing.

I’m not remotely qualified to really talk critically about anything here, but I did love all of it, which is kind of the criteria that brought it on this list. These are 15 things that brought me deep enjoyment in 2016 and that I’m probably going to revisit in the years to come. The bright spots of a difficult year.

PODCASTS:

Hard Nation

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You may be sick of politics this year, but Hard Nation really isn’t about politics. Like all great improv, it’s just a jumping-off point for some truly riotous, bizarre, and often gross character-based comedy. Hard Nation is a fictional radio show hosted by brothers Mark Hard (Mike Still) and Pete Hard (Paul Welsh). Mark is a right-wing blowhard and Pete is a left-wing dude and together they interview some of the great political figures of our time and seemingly always uncover the most bizarre secrets of their lives.

Always fun, never boring, and a chance to break out the sort of impressions you really don’t get to see all that often, Hard Nation is the best comedy podcasting you’re not paying attention to. Start right at the beginning with this one, but Episode 3 is when they all really start to find their groove.

The Hilarious World of Depression

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This is a pretty fresh one, only five episodes in as of writing. But host John Moe has taken an often trod ground (comedians who struggle with the darker parts of themselves) and given it a fresh-feeling spin, perhaps some of that ol’ NPR shine. The Hilarious World Of Depression feels like a perfect cross between the informativeness of something like This American Life and the personal confessional nature of WTF. Perhaps it’s the deep empathy the show has for its subject that whether you’ve been there or you know someone who has or you’ve never crossed paths with depression, you always feel like you’re coming out with a better understanding.

Fighting In The War Room

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Little bit of a cheat, yes (as is the next one). Just a movie discussion podcast, there’s tons. But Fighting In The War Room stands out for being a uniquely well-informed movie discussion podcast and one that never feels quite like any other out there. The hosts, including Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, Thrillist’s Matt Patches, Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich, and freelancer/podcast extraordinaire Dave Gonzales, have a chemistry equal parts camaraderie and combativeness that keeps discussion always fresh. It’s got the vibe of a bar discussion between the most interesting people in the field, and who can hate that? No matter what they’re discussing, you can always laugh, get angry, or have a great time thanks to the knowledge and vibe the hosts bring.

You Must Remember This

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It’s a history podcast, honestly. You Must Remember This is a production by film historian Karina Longworth where she dives in deep to the tales that shaped Hollywood during its Golden Age. Much of this year’s season was an epic tale of the Hollywood Blacklist, told from all angles and given a due degree of thought and weight. This is Longworth’s specialty, always informed and thoughtful and with the production value to back it up. It’s almost some part an old-time radio show, a cast of characters flickering in and out to give texture to the history Longworth tells. Like the best non-fiction book that you’ve always meant to read, You Must Remember This floats you away into history.

VIDEO GAMES:

Inside

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From the creators of the haunting Limbo, Inside is a spiritual sequel that somehow manages to top that phenomenal original. A deeply atmospheric game that grabs hold of you from the first moment and gives you no quarter (nor do you ask any) until its jaw-dropping conclusion, Inside is just a barrel of chills and thrills that demands a second and third and fourth playthrough. Any more would be telling.

DOOM

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Look, I’m honestly as shocked as you are. But this reboot of seminal FPS Doom is the Fury Road of the franchise, doubling down on what makes this series so appealing and then ratcheting it up to the sky. DOOM is a fast-as-hell arcade experience that gives you just enough time to breathe in between nerve-ruining sequences of demon hordes. What DOOM especially excels at is a sense of power. In any other game, its talk of Doomslayers and you being the scariest dude on Mars might come off as unnecessary posturing. DOOM makes sure you feel it and live it in every moment.

Final Fantasy XV

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The truest blockbuster of gaming, Final Fantasy XV is a massive, sprawling, totally flawed experience that’s all the more lovable for it. This game has so much going on and part of the difficulty is just deciding at any given time what you’re going to focus on. But with a lovable cast and a story dripping in that good ol’ Final Fantasy cheese, you can’t help your slow endearment with the game that really keeps you flying through the adventures of a bunch of bros on their way to save the world.

Darkest Dungeon

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Darkest Dungeon hates you. That’s just being honest. Darkest Dungeon is designed to stress and designed to make the player scrape and scrap through encounters they’ll barely survive and come out all the worse for wear on the other end. All for a few scraps of victory and the little hopes in the bleak horror that you live game to game. It’s not what I’d call the most fun I’ve ever had, but Darkest Dungeon makes sure that your victories feel earned and that holding on to your sanity in the horror is the greatest thing you’ve ever done. On that merit alone, you can work through the hate.

BOOKS:

The Caped Crusade

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So, I’ll cop. I suck at keeping up with new books. This list should be longer, but it’s not, because I suck at this. I mostly reread/finally getting around to much older works. So from that list, let me recommend Silence, Never Let Me Go, The Passage, A Head Full of Ghosts, and On Chesil Beach.

But the one definitely great book I read from this year was The Caped Crusade. For someone fascinated by the way nerd culture has developed over the past few years, The Caped Crusade is one of the most clear-headed looks at why Batman appeals to heavily to a certain group of nerd and how the overly dark evolution of the character has mirrored and mapped out his fans. Weldon attacks all this with clear prose and no small amount of humor.

MUSIC:

Touche Amore – Stage Four

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There’s been a lot of great works of grief this year, but almost none more focused and poetic than Touche Amore’s Stage Four, about the cancer death of lead singer Jeremy Bolin’s mother. Haunting and unrelenting and raw, Stage Four spans a wide range of the emotions and thoughts plaguing the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, with Jeremy Bolin’s pained howls producing the feeling of hearing someone barely keeping it together while they tell you a story. A more melodic riff style for this record adds a perverse catchiness that sticks those hard emotions all the more in your head.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

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Can we just say that Donald Glover had a hell of a year? He ended the year as the new Lando Calrissian and as the producer/writer/director/star of the smash hit Atlanta. Oh, and he put out this phenomenal record. Glover goes back to the 70s to pull a perfect blend of virtuosic funk and soul with his searing and frankly unexpected vocals. Songs are affecting, catchy, and ripping often all at the same time. Just one hell of an album and one he should absolutely be proud of.

Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

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You know what you’re largely getting with an Insomnium record at this point, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t surprise with how incredibly good it is. Winter’s Gate is ambitious, an entire album composed of a single 40-minute song (a far cry for a band that often puts out smaller and poppier melodic death cuts). But Insomnium hardly takes the excuse to wander, using the space to focus and move through gobs of beautiful and crushing riffs with Niilo Sevänen’s roars giving the whole thing that Viking funeral feel. Just about as good as it gets.

Khemmis – Hunted

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Traditional Iron Maiden-style metal can get a little repetitive, which is why when a band can make the genre feel fresh and new, you stand up and take notice. Taking influences from all across the spectrum (hints of Doom, Trash, Death, and more), Khemmis’ second album is grand in scope and grander in talent. I want to throw particular notice to the closing title track, which is a 13 minute journey with one of the best outros I’ve heard all year.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Hand in hand with the young pain of Touche Amore is this world-weary look of grief from absolute genius Nick Cave. Completed after the loss of his son, death and that black cloud hangs heavy over a man already so obsessed with death. It’s an album that knows things will never be the same again. Haunting and beautiful and layered, it’s almost too personal, a look into a man who is careful with how much he reveals. A once-in-a-lifetime work with the most tragic reason for it.

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

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I don’t know what the first album of the Trump-era will be, but let me nominate Run the Jewels 3. It’s perfectly of a kind with their first two, El-P’s cyberpunk beats underlining his and Killer Mike’s brilliant venom spitting against the powerful and hypocritical. No surprises there. But there’s a certain vitality that feels even new for RTJ3, it’s an anger that threatens to foment a revolution, even openly calling for it. Here, Killer Mike and El-P look into the future, and they’re ready to fight for it.

The Best TV Shows, Episodes, and Performances of 2016

Before we get this show on the road, let me do the standard preface that comes with any set of rankings. I’m one man and I can’t see everything. I have more blind spots here than I probably should, but oh well. This is all down to my tastes and nothing is “missing.” Cool, we good?

Let’s go. This was a more splintered year in TV than most, but there were still plenty of great gems that were worth hyper-focusing on. This was also a year of progress, where the best shows started to move away from the Golden Age prestige drama format and branch out in their protagonists, their genres, and in the way they dealt with their complex issues.

Best TV Shows:

8) Documentary Now!, Season 2

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One of the signatures of the Wiig/Hader/Armisen SNL era was a tendency to do sketches that largely seemed oriented towards what made the performers laugh, in the hopes that the audience would go along. While often a shaky foundation, this approach would yield results that spoke to the passion and commitment that these performers had for their material.

Documentary Now! is that on the whole, applying the passion that Fred Armisen and Bill Hader (along with executive producer Seth Meyers) has for performance and for these documentary stories. It’s an insanely impressively committed series in how closely it replicates and builds on the jokes through performance and its own wry wit, often turning the original documentary into making a new point through the episode. Like episode “Juan Loves Rice and Chicken” that takes the passion for cooking from the original Jiro Dreams of Sushi and adds its own thoughts on legacy and family. It’s one of the most impressive and dedicated bits of comedy play on television, well worth it for people who know the originals and those who don’t.

7) Westworld, Season 1

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I will confess how often I got annoyed by the conversation surrounding the first season of Westworld, HBO’s successful attempt to find a show to slot into the impending Game of Thrones void. It often seemed like we attempted to make this either a puzzle box to be solved or a grand treatise of god and man, to the exemption of the other.

As I powered through the season, it became clear that the show was best experienced as both. It’s a constantly shifting mystery that’s tons of fun to take in and piece through and pull out clues. It’s also a remarkably powerful piece of thematic meditation on what it means to be human and how we relate to our minds and to the ideas of God. It’s also a wicked fun piece of television, stacked to the rafters with great actors, awesome music cues, and plenty of tense thrills all the way to the final moment of its first season.

6) Bojack Horseman, Season 3

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No show has ever ramped up quite like Bojack Horseman. It started out as a half-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and quickly turned into a full-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and also some of the most realistic portrayals of self-loathing and depression and the difficulties of professional and personal relationships when you’re depressed and self-loathing.

Season 3 continued that weird mix of riotous hilarity and all-too-real drama with some of Bojack Horseman’s best material so far. It smartly expanded its world, fleshing out the phenomenal supporting cast and their backstories and inner lives, all while maintaining the focus on its surprisingly compelling lead and the emotional trauma he continues to go through.

5) Fleabag, Season 1

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One of the most remarkable trends of recent years is the auteurist television show, a single voice crafting an enormously personal story told for however many seasons they get. Fleabag is one such show, marked by how raw and real the situations Phoebe Waller-Bridge puts herself (as lead character Fleabag) into and how many dark laughs she’s still able to wring out of it.

From the moment she first looks into the camera and speaks to us, Fleabag feels masterfully in control of itself (even as it depicts characters who aren’t), gliding through a wealth of difficult tonal situations and cringe moments with the utmost grace. Fleabag is a hard watch, but seeing what Waller-Bridge gets out of a broken character and a few bad situations makes it all worth it.

4) Game of Thrones, Season 6

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The biggest show on TV (if we’re being real here) had a lot to deal with going into its 6th season. It would be the first without George R.R. Martin’s source material to back it up and it was coming off a 5th season full of questions and controversy that worked against the show, rather than for it.

Fortunately, the challenge was one that gave Game of Thrones a serious kick in the ass, letting them turn in what is, for my money, their best season yet. Almost every storyline, even the most famously slack of the show, was firing on all cylinders and seemed focused and ready to reach their end. This was a show that didn’t just feel like it was wandering while they figured some stuff out, but actually felt full of purpose and excitement to show you what it had in store.

Combine that with some of the best direction and action the show has ever seen and you’ve got an epic the like of which TV has never really had a chance to see before.

3) Atlanta, Season 1

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Another auterist show, from the apparently infinitely talented Donald Glover, that manages to pull off the greatest trick of all.

It’s a show that is crafted by one person that’s almost never about him.

Instead, Atlanta is the story of a city and the lives of those in it. Sure, Glover is great as Earn, but the show is equally and perhaps even more powerful as it moves to episodes about his friends, his family, and the city surrounding. Atlanta is a hazy dream, capturing the feeling of a city that’s too often just dressed up to be somewhere else. Sure, I live a divorced experience from what the characters of this show have, but I recognize their place, their environment, who they are. It’s a smartly-written and impeccably directed show that creates a small universe that you want to explore every nook and cranny of. It’s specific, real, and lived-in, as clever as it is affecting.

2) American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

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Did anyone expect the return of OJ Simpson this year? The man and his story vaulted back into relevance, and its not hard to see why. Intersecting and difficult issues of race, class, fame, and power all collided in the Trial of the Century and on the precipice of our reexamination of all of them, there was OJ to remind us part of the journey that took us where we were.

From the American Horror Story team, I honestly didn’t expect what I ended up getting out of this show, though maybe it’s because Ryan Murphy took a backseat on this one to showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who crafted a thriller that kept you on the seat even when you knew the ending. They opened up one of the most covered stories of the last century to examine everything inside it. It was a show smart about race and fame and how the two of them combined. It also featured some of the most jaw-dropping TV performances of the year, from actors you would absolutely expect it from (Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson) and from actors who came here to surprise (Sterling K. Brown and David Schwimmer). As a procedural, this was an absolute delight and a nail-biter, but what makes it a classic is that this is perhaps one of the smartest looks at how we got to The Way We Live Now.

1) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Seasons 1 and 2

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There is no show that found a quicker way into my heart than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A show that is at all times aware of what it is and what it’s doing and uses that awareness to constantly subvert itself. One of the smartest shows about mental illness and its effect on others. A daring show that’s a full-blown musical starring perhaps one of the most difficult and toxic protagonists since Breaking Bad. A labor of love that feels like it doesn’t that as an excuse to not keep its plotting and pacing tight. It’s a show that sings (no pun intended) in almost every moment and every character interaction. One of the quietly best casts on TV anchors some of the quietly best writing on TV. Brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking all often in the same episode, there’s just not much better right now than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 

My 10 Least Favorite Films of 2016

Welcome to THE END OF 2016. We made it. Sort of, let’s hope, there’s still a few more days.

This year has been hell, let’s be real here. We’ve been through a lot, so kudos to you for still standing here. You’ve got a lot more standing to do, but for now you can take a look back and marvel that we all made it through.

I’m starting off this way to kind of purge the negativity. To be honest, this was an amazing year for movies, there have been some truly awe-inspiring works and the coming celebratory lists are probably going to be the hardest I’ve ever worked since I started doing these about 3 years ago (this will be my 4th.)

So in order to clear the mind, let’s get the negativity out of the way. Let’s talk the bad films, the films that baffled and confused and inspired awe of an entirely different sort. They may have been morally repugnant, absolute narrative failures, or so cheap that they killed a whole genre, but they all made you go “Sure…what…wait…no.”

Note: I am distancing this list from the “Best of The Year” lists. You won’t see those until January.

10) War Dogs

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The cinematic equivalent of a jerk-off motion, the fantasy of every douche who watched Scarface and thought he could totally do that. War Dogs is Hangover director Todd Phillips’ attempt to play in the Martin Scorsese sandbox without any of the self-criticism or skill or brains that Scorsese brings. War Dogs is (possibly accidentally, unfortunately probably on purpose) a celebration of the worst excesses of American business culture and a clumsy handling of what could have been prime material. Miles Teller isn’t giving anything to this film, Jonah Hill is giving too much. I didn’t know I could roll my eyes for two hours.

9) Suicide Squad

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Honestly? If you’d asked me in about May, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be the DC Comics film that ended up being my most reviled of the year. Where Batman v Superman: MARTHA reaches for the stars and craters into the Earth, Suicide Squad is content to never come up from the sewers. The experience of watching this film is trying to untangle your headphones while staring straight into a strobe light that’s blasting “Sympathy for the Devil.” An absolute nonsensical assault on the senses that seems to have been pounded by the studio into something flat and lifeless, it continues to be a shame how much Warner Brothers tries to snuff the DC Extended Universe in the crib.

8) Hacksaw Ridge

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You almost got away with that one Mel! Marketing this as a prestige film about Christianity during the horrors of war was a good move, but Hacksaw Ridge can’t hold back the tide of what’s actually going on here for too long. Hacksaw Ridge is a piece of vicious and bloody propaganda, existing mostly for Mel Gibson what horrors he can put the human body through. There’s no reflection, just a sick salivating gore being held back by an empty “Aw shucks” Americana.

7) American Pastoral

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This wins what I’m now calling the “Lost River Award.” It will be awarded whenever an actor seems like they’re earnestly trying to pull off directing, to the point where I feel bad that it isn’t working for them (named for Ryan Gosling’s debut Lost River). Look, I get that Ewan McGregor stepped in last minute and just wanted to make this movie happen. And hey,  an American Pastoral adaptation would have been hard for any director to pull off. But wow.

McGregor’s American Pastoral is just an absolute whiff. It can’t navigate any of the characters or the tone and it can’t get over how fundamentally difficult American Pastoral is to turn into a work of anything but prose. It’s a clumsy and relentlessly on the nose work, maudlin to the point of laughter. At this point, putting Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in a 60s movie should be at least a misdemeanor in California.

6) Allegiant

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Have you ever screwed up so bad that you ended a whole franchise? How about a whole genre?

The death knell of the “YA Dystopia” film, Allegiant was a baffling kind of bad. One of the cheapest looking feature films I’ve seen this year, it seemed more like an outline for a work that ended up getting accidentally labeled a shooting script. The cast earnestly IS trying here and I’m willing to accept this is a franchise that isn’t for me. But apparently this one wasn’t for anyone. Maybe it was the weird anti-intellectual undertones, maybe it was the fact that the mythos here reads like the homework from a “Writing YA Fiction for Dummies” workbook, but Allegiant seems like an ignoble end to a now more relevant than ever genre.

5) Zoolander 2

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It sometimes felt like every laugh Zoolander gave me, Zoolander 2 took back. Good god was anyone asking for this one? Did anyone desperately need more Derek Zoolander than his occasional cameo? Because this film showed you that an abundance of the character stops him dead in his tracks. He’s one joke, this film is one joke, and it happens again and again and again. I believe that’s the same principle they use for Chinese Water Torture.

4) The Sea of Trees

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There’s way too much talent here to be this bad. In a year that gave us Kubo and the Two Strings and Manchester by the SeaThe Sea of Trees missed the mark on grief by the widest berth imaginable. Nothing here works, great actors reduced to emotionally closed off sketches, great directors reduced to indistiguishable setting and trying to pull your strings for a twist that would make Nicholas Sparks gag. This one didn’t have to be distributed, one wonders why anyone bothered to spend the cash.

3) Gods of Egypt

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A glittering spire of confusion, this gold-plated franchise stillbirth had some potential. After all, how many would dare to make a film this daringly excessive, this seemingly deliberately mythological and on its own planet? But all I tended to see was a world where if everything was huge, nothing was. A disaster of characterization and narrative, a visual style that burned out the pupils, and actors that seemed to be in 8 different movies at any given time. Look, I wanted to like this one. But if Zack Snyder has a more coherent visual masturbation product in your same year, you’ve gotta look in the giant CGI mirror and ask some tough questions.

2) Alice Through The Looking Glass

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Just to let you know, I let out an audible groan writing this when I got down the list and remembered I had to talk about Alice Through The Looking Glass. 

For me, his is the film that exemplifies the sins of franchise filmmaking in 2016. A long-gap sequel to a successful film that nobody remembers. A whole host of actors slumming it to no effect for the actual film. A visual style that runs the gamut from ugly and incoherent to bland and boring. A story that steals beats from every other movie in an attempt to get away with never crafting a narrative. The excessive need to connect the dots and explain EVERYTHING. It’s a franchise movie that inspires revulsion, not awe. That seeks to parade creativity in front of us then capture it into a cage and try to explain it and pimp it out for the ever-shrinking theater market. My excessive distaste for this movie and its mode of filmmaking had it firmly at the bottom of this list for most of the year until just two weeks ago today when the top spot was stolen by…

1) Collateral Beauty

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Those of you who read me regularly should have seen my review and should find this no surprise. For those of you who haven’t, let me reiterate.

COLLATERAL. BEAUTY. IS. AWFUL.

This is a vile, evil film. In fact, it’s the worst sort, the kind that believes it’s doing good. Lashing back against the critics who rightly destroyed it, Warner Brothers was still pretending this was a sentimental heartwarmer. Let me be clear that it is not. This is a film that posits a man’s deepest tragedy as an unfortunate obstacle to a business deal. This is a film that sees no problem with gaslighting, that it in fact can help people see what’s really going on. I have seen Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, I have taken in a viewing of Straw Dogs, I got about 30 minutes in to Addio Zio Tom and I will finish it eventually. All of those films have made me feel less morally repulsed and less gross and distrustful of the people around me than this one. It’s a film that praises evil and calls it good. It would be a bad and baffling picture without it, but its moral core makes it all the worse. So one last time, let me reiterate.

COLLATERAL. BEAUTY. IS. AWFUL.