- Best Villain/Badass: Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther. And it wasn't even particularly close. Last week, I called this a middling year for villainy, but looking more closely, there's some pretty weak choices and I had to stretch to fill up the category as much as I did. However, Killmonger is really strong, and definitely the best of the MCU, though that's not quite as impressive when you realize that the MCU has generally struggled with villainy. On the other hand, this is the second year in a row that this award has gone to an MCU villain, so they're improving. I suppose Thanos was far better than the nothingburger I was expecting, but that's a low bar, and his Malthusian motivations are, well, dumb. Killmonger, on the other hand, is a bit more sympathetic and has a genuine grievance to address, even if he's completely nutso (but then, that combo is what makes him a great villain). Special notice to Hugh Grant in Paddington 2, who is clearly having a blast, though it doesn't quite fit with the tradition of this award. Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible - Fallout is interesting, and I suppose I'm kinda spoiling this, but not really. There's also a nice meta-villainy aspect to Cavill too; he refused to shave his mustache during the Justice League reshoots, leading to bizarre uncanny-valley-esque CGIed scenes in that movie. Also that bit in the bathroom scene where he reloads his arms is glorious. But this remains Killmonger's show.
- Best Hero/Badass: Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Fallout. As with Cavill above, there's a bit of a meta-influence here, as Cruise's intensity and desire to perform his own stunts, even after becoming severely injured after that big jump, is hard to deny. Strong runner up with Nicolas Cage in Mandy, a bonkers movie that deserves some recognition for sure (but never fear, we'll get to that film soon enough). It's funny, but I also called this a middling list of nominees last week, but this is actually much stronger than I realized. A lot of the other nominees are really enjoyable. Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in Revenge put in a gutsy performance, You Were Never Really Here is anchored by the always great Joaquin Phoenix, Tim Blake Nelson's turn as the titular character in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is great, albeit to short lived, Tom Hardy goes for broke in Venom and somehow succeeds in a way that I doubt anyone else in the world could pull off, and even Jennifer Garner in Peppermint was fun, if a bit derivative. Of special note: Ma Dong-seok in Champion is perhaps the most unconventional and obscure choice, but he's absolutely fantastic and charismatic in the role, and a total badass to boot. Ultimately, though, it goes to Cruise's Ethan Hunt, a first time win for a frequent nominee.
- Best Comedic Performance: Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. Perhaps the most unconventional choice amongst the nominees, but her biting rejoinders and cruel banter are certainly worthy of recognition. Game Night and Blockers are a lot more conventionally funny than The Favourite and I tried my best to single out my favorite parts of the ensemble, but what works is the ensemble. It's getting to the point where I should probably just tweak this award to account for ensembles instead of singular performances, but I to be honest, even considering ensembles, The Favourite would do well in the voting. I mean it's a bleak, dark comedy, but it has such a great ensemble! Also, it seems like good comedies are few and far between these days, which is a bit sad. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough.
- Breakthrough Performance: Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. She belts out a couple of great songs in Bad Times and rivals Tome Cruise's onscreen running ability in Widows. And she holds her own in two pretty great ensembles too, so it's not just her pipes and physicality that do the work. I expect to see much more of her in the future. Also of note, two other folks from Widows, Elizabeth Debicki and Brian Tyree Henry (who is having an insane year and is in even more films than listed in my post, I just haven't seen them yet - and apparently he could rival Erivo, but I didn't get to them in time). Also of note: Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, who was a last second addition, as I only saw the film a night after the nominations were announced. Awkwafina did great in supporting roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight as well. But in the end, Erivo was the real eye opener this year.
- Most Visually Stunning: Mandy. Gorgious and trippy, Panos Cosmatos's pyschadelic fever dream of a movie didn't quite strike the chord with me that it did with everyone else, but I cannot deny how pretty it is to look at. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse managed to evoke the comic book aesthetic, bringing something new and exciting to a mostly stale animation field. The Favourite and Roma are both impeccable formal exercises that are beautiful, if sometimes distracting from the stories they were trying to tell. Free Solo has some of the best nature photography I've ever seen, tinged with potential tragedy (a topic that is best explored in a longer post, perhaps). But ultimately, it's Mandy. It was always Mandy.
- Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: One Cut of the Dead. I don't even particularly love zombie movies, and this starts out as a sorta rote zombie tale heightened by a long take, but then it becomes so much more. It's a shame that the US release is being jeopardized by a leak, but it's worth seeking out when it does become available. Strong competition from the likes of The Endless and its intricate time-loops, as well as Upgrade's AI exploration. A lot of strong horror this year, and after a strong showing for a while, SF is slipping a bit with this award (this is why the seemingly random combo of SF and Horror are included in this one award - SF often doesn't have enough good films in a year to make it worthwhile). Still, One Cut is just so charming and fun.
- Best Sequel/Reboot: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Almost both a sequel and a reboot, this film knocks it out of the park, effortlessly introducing several new spider-beings, each with their own, unique origin story, while maintaining a strong central character in Miles Morales. Paddington 2's nicecore sequel is as strong if not stronger than the original (which, sadly, I slept on back when it came out). Mission: Impossible - Fallout continues the franchise that could; somehow maintaining or maybe even exceeding previous entries in the series. The Endless is only kinda-sorta a sequel and still functions as a standalone, but it's really fantastic and definitely better than the film it follows. The other nominees were mostly fun, well done entries in their respective series, even if they can't quite compete with their predecessors.
- Biggest Disappointment: The Predator. All the ingredients were there, but man, nothing came together like you would hope. Shane Black's best qualities seemed muted (or perhaps cut out, as the film seems to have been edited in an odd way), and his worst tendencies were amplified, leading to a disjointed, shambling mess. It's like there were three completely different movies jammed into one blender, then pureed to a slimy mush. Part of this is my general disdain for sequels and reboots. As per usual, I love the original Predator, but ever since then, it's been a rocky road. And not in, like, the fun, ice cream way. Such that it's hard to believe they're still making Predator movies, though again, on paper, this seemed like a slam dunk. Other nominees range from movies that I expected to be bad that were somehow even worse, to movies that really weren't that bad at all (Creed II and A Wrinkle in Time), with a couple of middling movies in the, um, middle. But I was really looking forward to The Predator!
- Best Action Sequences: The Night Comes for Us. Sometimes it feels like a cheat when a strong martial arts movie is available in this category, and indeed it does seem unfair to compare the non-stop, brutal action and gruesome carnage that is The Night Comes for Us with, say, the astounding spectacle of Mission: Impossible - Fallout. We could call it a tie, I guess, but despite being two action movies, it still feels like comparing apples to oranges. Make of that what you will, but those two movies are head and shoulders above the entire field this year. In fact, I had to kinda stretch to fill out the category as much as I did. But then, the winner(s?) are so great that it still feels like a great year for action.
- Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Hereditary. Obviously a bit of a spoiler even acknowledging that there is a twist/surprise, but there is one moment in Hereditary where my jaw dropped and I just sat in dumbfounded shock for about two minutes. I have my issues with the movie overall, but that is probably the most memorable moment I've experience in a theater this year. Other nominees have their charms, especially One Cut of the Dead and Sorry to Bother You and, you know what, they all have pretty great surprises and twists, so we'll just leave it at that. In a decent year for this sort of thing, Hereditary still takes the cake.
- Best High Concept Film: One Cut of the Dead. I don't want to spoil this one by explaining why, but the concept here is pretty great and very charming, such that it really wins you over as it plays out. Strong competition from Searching, the best of the burgeoning group of films set entirely on a computer screen that I've seen (a small subset of films, to be sure, but this one delivers pretty well). The other nominees aren't quite as high concept, which is admittedly a vague category and totally subjective, but they're all pretty good, unusual films in general so they're worth seeking out too.
- 2018's 2017 Movie of the Year: Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Frankly, I didn't see many new-to-me 2017 releases in 2018, and this seems to be a general pattern for this award. The award was instituted specifically because there was one year a while back where I really wanted to recognize two movies, but since then, I haven't done much with it. That being said, I watched these two Indian epics this year (the latter of which was released in 2017), and had an absolute blast with both of them, so I'm glad I have the ability to recognize them in some small way. The other nominees are fine, but relatively weak. Which is to be expected, since I have already seen most of the stuff I should have seen last year. On the other hand, there are at least a few high profile movies that I should have probably watched that could be contenders, but I just never got around to them, even when they became widely available on streaming services.
Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2018 movie (with the one caveat that some 2017 films were not accessible until 2018 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I've seen 79 movies that would be considered a 2018 release. Significantly less than your typical critic, but more than your average moviegoer and enough to populate these awards. Obviously this is a personal exercise that is entirely subjective in nature, but the world would be a boring place indeed if we all loved the same things for the same reasons, right? Right. Without further ado:
Another middling year for villainy. I didn't have any problem populating the list, and there are a couple that stand out as front runners, but still not a banner year. As usual, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc...) or ideas.
- Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
- Thanos, played by Josh Brolin in Avengers: Infinity War
- Screenslaver, voiced by Bill Wise in Incredibles 2
- Ava / Ghost, played by Hannah John-Kamen in Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Phoenix Buchanan, played by Hugh Grant in Paddington 2
- John Lark, played by Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible - Fallout
- Billy Lee, played by Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale
- Arian, played by Iko Uwais in The Night Comes for Us
- Captain Wafner, played by Pilou Asbæk in Overlord
- Riot / Carlton Drake, played by Riz Ahmed in Venom
- Jatemme Manning, played by Daniel Kaluuya in Widows
Perhaps better than villainy this year, and certainly a broader spectrum, but still a middling year overall. Again limited to individuals and not groups.
- T'Challa / Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther
- Wade Wilson / Deadpool, played by Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 2
- Grey Trace, played by Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade
- Han Solo, played by Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Helen Parr / Elastigirl, played by Holly Hunter in Incredibles 2
- Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Fallout
- Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage in Mandy
- Jen, played by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in Revenge
- Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here
- Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Ito, played by Joe Taslim in The Night Comes for Us
- Mark, played by Ma Dong-seok in Champion
- Venom / Eddie Brock, played by Tom Hardy in Venom
- Riley North, played by Jennifer Garner in Peppermint
Best Comedic Performance
This category is sometimes difficult to populate because comedy so often comes in the form of an ensemble and that certainly impacts this year. Looking through what I watched this year, I see very few straight comedies, which is something that happened last year too. There are some decent choices, but obvious standouts are rare.
- Will Forte in A Futile and Stupid Gesture
- Jesse Plemons in Game Night
- Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 2
- John Cena in Blockers
- Michael Peña in Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians
- Rachel Weisz in The Favourite
Always an interesting category to populate. Sometimes, it's not so much about someone's industry breakthrough, but a more personal breakthrough. This can happen even with established actors who put out a performance that forces me to reconsider what they're capable of. This year, we've got more of a moderate crop of young up-and-comers. The main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). A somewhat vague category, but that's why these awards are fun.
- Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight
- John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman
- Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows
- Jibrail Nantambu in Halloween
- Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
- Ma Dong-seok in Champion
- Sterling K. Brown in Black Panther, The Predator, and Hotel Artemis
- Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians, All the Creatures Were Stirring, and Next Gen
- Brian Tyree Henry in Widows, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Hotel Artemis
- Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... A moderate year for this sort of thing, perhaps leaning towards more sober, well-photographed beauty than flashy spectacle, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
- Isle of Dogs
- Bad Times at the El Royale
- You Were Never Really Here
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- The Favourite
- Free Solo
I always try to throw some love towards genres. In the past, cinematic SF was so poor that I had to pad out the category with horror. In the last five or six years, though, SF has really come into its own. It's still far outweighed by horror, but there's often a handful of great SF movies in any given year. I suppose I should also note that I'm probably using a stricter definition of SF than most would for something like this, because I'm a huge nerd and think about that sort of thing a lot. But I digress.
- A Quiet Place
- Mom and Dad
- Hell Fest
- The Witch in the Window
- The Endless
- Sorry to Bother You
- One Cut of the Dead
Sometimes a difficult category to populate, and there was a fair share of duds this year, but there were still a surprising number of worthwhile sequels/reboots.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Ocean's Eight
- Paddington 2
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Mission: Impossible - Fallout
- The Endless
A category often dominated by sequels and reboots, and lo, this year is a bit of a return to form, though there's still some original films that were quite disappointing as well. This category is definitely weird in that sometimes I actually enjoy these movies... but my expectations were just too high when I saw them. Related reading: Joe Posnanski's Plus-Minus Scale (these movies scored especially poor on that scale).
- The Cloverfield Paradox
- Pacific Rim: Uprising
- A Wrinkle in Time
- The Predator
- Creed II
- All the Creatures Were Stirring
This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and this has been a pretty good year for action, though there are two clear stoundouts, with the rest just being filler. I honestly had a hard time coming up with these, so I had to reach for a few of them. On the other hand, the two frontrunners are so amazing that it still qualifies as a pretty good year for action.
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Mission: Impossible - Fallout
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- The Night Comes for Us
Well, I suppose even listing nominees here constitutes something of a spoiler, but it's a risk we'll have to take, right?
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Sorry to Bother You
- Bad Times at the El Royale
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- One Cut of the Dead
A nebulous category, to be sure, but a fun one because these are generally interesting movies. There are often borderline cases here, and this year is no exception, but a few strong standouts...
There are always movies I miss out on, whether due to availability or laziness, but when I do catch up with them, I'm often taken with them. Sometimes a very difficult category to populate, maybe because I didn't see much after I posted last year's Top 10, or didn't like what I did manage to see, or just plain forgot that I saw it (which, to be fair, probably says something about the movie's chances). Frankly, not a lot going on this year for this category...
- Wolf Warrior 2
- Baahubali 2: The Conclusion
- Ingrid Goes West
- Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
- Easy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari
Update: I just watched Eighth Grade, so I needed to update the Breakthrough Performance category. Also the Action Sequences, because man, that mall scene. Rivals the one in Commando. Just kidding, Eighth Grade is excruciating (in a good way?), so just the Breakthrough Performance one was added (because I know you still weren't sure.)
Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.
I've always enjoyed Science Fiction, but a little over a decade ago, I decided to make my casual enjoyment of the genre a little more formal by broadening my horizons and reading more important examples of the genre. One of the first things I did was read a bunch of Heinlein Juveniles (akin to what we'd probably call Young Adult these days). Robert A. Heinlein was never my favorite of the Golden Age authors, but I've gathered that he was among the most important, and after reading many of his novels, I've gained a solid appreciation for the novels themselves and their influence on the genre (and, for that matter, real-world space exploration). Since then, I've slowly been working my way through his bibliography, and this year, I decided to take a look at the unofficial 14th Juvenile novel, Podkayne of Mars. Heinlein himself doesn't consider it a Juvenile and he'd long since gotten tired of being regarded as a "writer of children's books and nothing else", but then, it is written mostly from the perspective of a 15 year old girl (with her eleven year old, snot-nosed little brother playing a big role), so it kinda fits within the Juvenile mold.
Podkayne "Poddy" Fries is a 15 year old girl living on Mars who dreams of becoming the first female starship pilot and leading deep-space exploration efforts. The novel is presented as a first person narrative consisting of her diary. As the story begins, she is about to embark on a trip from Mars to Earth, but the whole thing is scuttled when a hospital mixup inadvertently saddles her parents with three newborn babies to care for (in this future, kids are conceived early and then frozen in order to allow parents to "uncork" the children as time permits, though obviously not in this case). However, the trip is resurrected when Poddy's uncle Tom manages to arrange passage for Poddy and her unbearable (but genius-level smart) little brother Clark on a cruise ship to Earth, with a stop at Venus first. After some minor adventures and meandering, we soon learn that Tom's magnanimous offer to chaperon this trip is really just a cover for some sort of secret political wrangling, and higher-stakes hijinks ensue.
In short, this is probably my least favorite Heinlein novel, though it fails in interesting ways. There's a promising start, and some things play to Heinlein's strengths, but there's a fair amount of unfocused meandering and the whole thing falls apart completely towards the ending, which feels rushed and weirdly dismissive of our narrator/protagonist. Spoilers from here on out!
Speaking of which, our protagonist here is a teenage girl, a fraught proposition when it comes to Heinlein these days. He doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation for writing female characters, and if you were so inclined to look for it, you would find a whole host of things to be offended by in this story. You probably won't have to look very hard. For instance, Poddy seems to be intelligent, but opines on multiple occasions that a woman should hide that intelligence around men, or that a woman should never beat a man in any sort of game of strength (thus she pretends to lose an arm-wrestling match to her little brother), and then there's the thrill of discovering how to properly apply make-up, and so on. I suppose a more generous reading could be that depictions of sexism or the ways females cope with same is not an endorsement, but this novel (especially the ending, which we'll get to in a bit) strains that reading of the story. It's also worth noting that, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, this is the second earliest example of a SF novel that features a female protagonist (narrowly beat out by Naomi Mitchison's lesser known Memoirs of a Spacewoman). To be sure, there were earlier short fiction examples, some even written by Heinlein himself as early as 1949 (featuring a character who he eventually used as inspiration for Poddy), but this is notable in itself.
Other topics are more deftly portrayed, with Heinlein working in a more exploratory mode than he has in many of his works, which are often more prescriptive (i.e. there aren't bald lectures a la Starship Troopers). Indeed, when describing the laissez-faire corporatism of Venusian society, uncle Tom states that he "...can't make up his mind whether it is the grimmest tyranny the human race has ever known... or the most perfect democracy in history." Heinlein goes to great lengths to portray the "corporate fascism" of Venus without resorting too much to lecturing, and he allows the reader to infer a lot of the details so they can make up their own mind.
Alas, the ending really puts the breaks on things for me. Events escalate quickly and Poddy and her brother Clark end up kidnapped by nefarious political forces hoping to blackmail their uncle Tom for concessions. At this point, Poddy goes from being an intelligent, active character to being almost entirely passive, as Clark immediately senses the gravity of the situation (no matter what Tom does, there's no incentive for the kidnappers to keep the kids alive) and devises an escape plan. Furthermore, Poddy is grievously injured during the escape because she went back to the compound to rescue a semi-intelligent Venusian baby animal and Clark had forgotten to disable a nuclear bomb (another baffling subplot, to be honest), which inadvertently went off. The original ending that Heinlein wanted was to have Poddy die in the explosion, but that was apparently a bridge too far for the publisher, who insisted he rewrite the ending. You can kinda tell that Heinlein's heart wasn't in it, as the endings aren't that different and it's clear that he did the bear minimum to satisfy the publisher's expectations. Both endings are available in some editions, but to my mind, neither are particularly good, for reasons already expounded upon.
Another strange thing about the ending is uncle Tom's admonishing of Poddy and Clark's parents for not caring enough about raising their children. Given uncle Tom's use of the children as little more than human shields, disposable meat-pawns for his chess game of interplanetary politics, this is perhaps another example of depiction not being endorsement. Still, the ending strains all storytelling credibility in ways that I'm not used to from Heinlein. It doesn't help that Poddy, thanks to an experience on the trip to Venus where she had to help save babies in the nursery (an event that probably also influenced her decision to go back and save the animal), is implied to be reconsidering her dream of becoming a starship captain, which even from a storytelling perspective, is a bit odd given the opening of the novel.
One of the things I've always enjoyed about Heinlein is his fondness for experimenting with ideas, asking "what if?", and there's certainly some of that going on here. I suspect even his more prescriptive works (the aforementioned Starship Troopers comes to mind) are more stronger-stated thought experiments than strict representations of Heinlein's actual beliefs. There are certainly themes that underlie his work, but from what I've read (which is certainly not comprehensive), they might not be quite as well-defined as usually portrayed. Indeed, one of those underlying themes is certainly his propensity for thought experiments, and thus you get a hard-right book like Starship Troopers followed a year later by the sixties counter-culture template of Stranger in a Strange Land (and just a few years after that, the proto-libertarian The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). As such, Podkayne of Mars occupies an interesting, if not entirely successful, place in Heinlein's oeuvre (coming in between the three books just mentioned) and perhaps SF in general (as an early SF novel with a female protagonist, if not a particularly great example). Owing to Heinlein's importance to the genre, there are actually tons of biographical materials about his beliefs and how they influenced his work, and it's something I should probably look into more sometime. Still, judging solely based on what I've read (and my tendency towards optimism), I gather I have a mildly different view of Heinlein than a lot of other people. Perhaps we should be less concerned with what Heinlein thought than how we interpret his works ourselves. It's entirely possible that I'm just projecting my love of thought experiments onto Heinlein (though given his endless imagination for wide-ranging stories, I suspect there's some basis for my thoughts here). That being said, of his juveniles, I vastly prefer Tunnel in the Sky and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. While not entirely enthused with this one, I'm not deterred from continuing to explore Heinlein's works much at all.
- 356 films watched
- 618.7 hours watched
- 29.7 movies a month on average
- 6.8 movies a week on average
So it's been a banner year of movie watching for me. Stay tuned, as the Kaedrin Movie Award nominations come out next week!
- Only 10 non-fiction books in 2018, which is actually an improvement over 2017 (when I had just 7), but still something I should probably try to improve in 2019.
- Only 15 books were written by women, which is a step down from last year when the proportion was roughly 50%. Then again, none of this happened by design and just came in the natural course of reading, so go figure.
- The oldest book I read all year was Isaac Asimov's robot story Runaround (for the 1942 Retro Hugos, which I didn't vote in because I didn't end up reading all the stories). Since that was a short story, the oldest actual "book" was Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump, written in 1955.
- A brief scan of the list sees that somewhere around 30 were Science Fiction, which is about in line with previous years (but more than last year, which was a divergent year for some reason).
- Wings (1927) - While technically the first Oscar winning movie, Wings does tend to get overshadowed by F.W. Murnau's classic Sunrise (which won the defunct "Best Unique and Artistic Picture" award). Wings is certainly a more conventional movie and it's overly sentimental and corny as hell, but it does have a lot going for it. It tells the story of two pilots who are in love with the same woman, and another woman who's in love with one of the pilots. Off at war, the two pilots become good friends until the love triangle is revealed, which heightens tensions among the two. Again, super corny love story here (a clear precursor to Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, which mostly lifts the love triangle element whole, right down to one pilot being presumed dead), but it's hard to fault it for that. The aerial combat sequences are still quite effective, even 90+ years later, with some real eye opening sequences and breathtaking shots. Even some of the more mundane bits are great, such as the tracking shot through the tables at a nightclub (a shot that obviously inspired Rian Johnson's similar zoom through the casino in The Last Jedi).
Clocking in at 141 minutes, it's perhaps overlong, but it never really drags and is actually paced quite well. It might not be the classic that Sunrise is, but few films are, and this is one of the better silent films I've seen. ***
- Ramrod (1947) - Strange little mashup of Western and Noir tropes starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (a sorta reunion of the leads from Sullivan's Travels) and directed by the famously eyepatched Andre De Toth. Lake stars as the widow of a rancher who died in a sheep vs cattle feud. She vows to spurn the advances of the local sadistic and corrupt ranchers and keep her ranch going with the help of her "ramrod" (ranch hand), who has motivations of his own. Or something like that. It's actually pretty weirdly paced and filled with awkward exposition punctuated by the usual western tropes and noir-esque twists and turns. It moves in fits and starts, but it has an interesting combination of the moody, murky morals of noir films with the western's tendency to punctuate boring riding and climbing sequences with shootouts and other action beats. The characters, perhaps due to excellent performances, are more complex than the usual western or noir programmer would be. For instance, Lake plays a sorta Femme Fatale who gets off on sending men off to die for her, but while there's something cold and calculating about the way she does this, there's also enough depth to show that she's beaten down and lonely and maybe this is just her way of fighting back. It might sound like I'm down on this film, but that's not quite it; it's more unusual than that and it feels like it's more than the sum of its parts (or, at the very least, a unique collection of fascinating parts). **1/2
- The Leopard Man (1943) - One of the more unsung films from Val Lewton's RKO run, it's clearly another case of a film that started with a sensational title that Lewton wrangled into something more complex and psychological than the title would have you believe (indeed, it almost feels like a conscious attempt to recapture the success of Cat People). At a swanky New Mexico nightclub, a dancer brings a leopard on stage as something of a publicity stunt. Naturally, the leopard promptly escapes and later in the evening, a young woman is found mauled to death. Soon, the bodies are starting to pile up as our heroes race to find the escaped cat. Despite some feints, there are no supernatural elements to this story and it ultimately turns out to be an early serial-killer story. Despite the more mundane subject matter, director Jacques Tourneur keeps the shadowy atmospherics at supernatural horror levels, making for an interesting contrast. The film also veers more towards a sorta police procedural than other Lewton joints, and that mostly works too. It does get a bit repetitive in the second act and the final twists are pretty easy to see coming, but it's an entertaining, short feature and Tourneur keeps things moving briskly. Not top tier Lewton/Toruneur, but worth checking out. **1/2
- Heaven Can Wait (1943) - A spoiled urbanite dies and makes his way to the gates of hell, sure that his life has earned a one way ticket down. The devil, however, is not so sure, and makes the man recount his life, which we view in flashback form. It's an interesting and playful little beginning, but the grand bulk of the movie is a sorta romantic comedy of errors that is quite entertaining, if a bit more conventional than the framing device might imply. Still, a lot of the humor still works, and the man's surety of his guilt does indeed seem a bit misplaced. This was apparently the first film that director Ernst Lubitsch made in color, and he actually uses subtle changes in color to mirror the arc of our protagonist. Played by a young Don Ameche (who eventually puts on some aging makeup and looks remarkably like he would later in life), the performance is a good one. The film is consistently funny, displaying a dry wit with some nice ironies sprinkled throughout. Once I got to the end, I was a bit confused as to why he thought he'd deserve an eternity in hell, but hey, it makes for a happy ending, so there is that. ***
- Holiday Inn (1942) - The song White Christmas originated in a movie, but not the one that bears its name. Rather, it comes from this Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire vehicle about, well, a remote Inn that's only open on Holidays (and features song and dance shows) and a pretty rote love triangle situation. Roger Ebert used to note the similarities between Musicals and Martial Arts action movies, saying the plots were incidental. There's a plot, sure, but it's all really just an excuse to get to the song and dance numbers, which are great, if that's your thing. Except, um, for the blackface number, which doesn't exactly play well to modern eyes (and the song itself is pretty embarrassing as well, so modern ears don't fare any better). Still, White Christmas is the highlight and a deserved classic. Unfortunately, I'm not a particularly big musical fan, so while I can appreciate the charms of something like this (especially given charismatic performances from all three leads), it ultimately fell a little flat for me. I'm still glad I managed to cram a musical in the 50 under 50 umbrella though, so there is that, and if you're going to watch this movie, this time of year is perfect for it... **
- Suspicion (1941) - And of course, we've got to finish off the resolution with another Hitchcock, who was the director I watched most often this year (at 4 films - the runner up is the relatively obscure Nick Grinde, who made three of those Boris Karloff programmers I watched during the Six Weeks of Halloween). This tale of a shy spinster type (or, uh, Hollywood's version of such a thing, which is a gorgeous woman, only she's wearing glasses and thus destined to be alone or something) who falls in love with and marries a famous eligible bachelor. Alas, he has a penchant for gambling and mooching, owes tons of money to various people, and consistently devises quick money schemes that are suspicious at best and sometimes downright sinister. Soon, our former-spinster begins to suspect murder is in the cards.
Four police officers open up a lobster restaurant as a cover in order to catch a notorious drug dealer, only to find their secret recipe is more popular than they expect. When they get caught up in their new business venture, they find a bigger conspiracy at work.Alright, so maybe not that weird, but the trailer does have a goofy sense of humor and I kinda love the idea behind the movie.
- Eighth Grade - This is one of those movies that doesn't seem at all like my thing, but which could totally surprise me... or it could confirm my doubts. Regardless, this is universally hailed as one of the best of the year, so I'll give it a shot.
- Three Identical Strangers - One of those quirky little documentaries that I don't know much about, but which seems like it could be up my alley. Something about adopted guys finding out they were triplets that were split up at birth.
- American Animals - Dumb kids come up with some sort of cinematic heist idea? This could certainly go either way for my sensibility, and it totally seems worth checking out.
- Tully - I was generally mixed on the last Reitman/Cody/Theron collaboration (Young Adult) and this didn't look much better, but from what I've heard, the marketing doesn't give away something more fantastical that happens later in the movie. Or something? I mean, I haven't seen it, but I've heard enough to know that maybe I should check it out.
- Red Sparrow - This actually got mixed reactions back when it came out, but Cold War throwback spy thriller seems cool to me. I've been meaning to catch up with it, so now's the time.
- Super Troopers 2 - Another one that wasn't exactly lighting the critical world on fire, but critically lauded films tend to be grueling and watching a bunch of them in a row can be draining, so it might be nice to sprinkle in some dick and fart jokes for the sake of levity.
- Let the Corpses Tan - Seems like a Giallo-esque premise about some thieves trying to lie low somewhere, but getting caught up in a deadly game of cat and also-cat. Or something like that. Could be fun.
- I Kill Giants - I know very little about this and can't remember anyone really talking about it when it came out, but it sounds like it could be interesting.
- The Death of Stalin - Armando Iannucci is usually worth checking out, and a profane, quasi-comic take on Soviet power struggles could be interesting.
- Peppermint - Not expecting much out of this revenge flick, but it could be good fodder for the "Best Hero/Badass" category of the Kaedrin Movie Awards.
- Alpha - This film came and went with little marketing or fanfare, but it actually seems like it could be decent?
- The Night Comes for Us - Sounds like a bonkers action film from Indonesia, which has a pretty good recent pedigree for that sort of thing... Available on Netflix now!
- Suspiria - Pretty sure I'm not going to like this, but you never know, and its supposedly coming to Amazon Prime, so it'll be easy enough to find...
- Roma - Alfonso Cuarón's latest is in limited release now, but will be coming to Netflix soon enough. Doesn't really tick my checkboxes, but again, those are sometimes the big surprises of the year.
- Cam - One of those Netflix releases that seemed destined to disappear into the ether when Stephen King gave it a shout out, thus reviving its chances of being seen (I might not have heard of it otherwise). Seems like a Twilight Zone style premise, which could be fun.
- Vice - Not sure I really want to watch this, but I enjoyed The Big Short way more than I'd have thought, so there is that. But it feels like this movie is, like, 10-15 years too late.
- High Life - Not sure if this will even be available to watch in time, but it sounds bonkers.
- Dragged Across Concrete - Making some festival rounds now, not sure if it'll be available to watch anytime soon, but anything from S. Craig Zahler is going to be on my watchlist...
- Third Kind - Thirty minute SF short film about researchers returning to earth to investigate a mysterious five tone signal (presumably an allusion to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). A hit at Cannes, it doesn't look like it's available anywhere at the moment, but it sounds interesting.
- Shadow - Zhang Yimou's latest has been called a return to form, which sounds great... if we ever get to see it (not sure of release details).
- Ricky Jay's 52 Assistants - RIP Ricky Jay, this hour long show is well worth a watch.
- Secrets of the Magus - And a New Yorker profile of Ricky Jay, featuring one of my favorite anecdotes:
Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited him to a New Year’s Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee table as Jay, at Baron’s request, did closeup card magic. When he had performed several dazzling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest named Mort said, “Come on, Ricky. Why don’t you do something truly amazing?”
Baron recalls that at that moment “the look in Ricky’s eyes was, like, ‘Mort—you have just fucked with the wrong person.’ ”
Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, “The three of hearts.” After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.
“O.K., Mort, what was your card again?”
“The three of hearts.”
“Look inside the bottle.”
Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party broke up immediately.
- Man Abducts Scientist To Make His Dog Immortal - It's always a Florida man.
- The First Film Version of Frankenstein, Newly Restored! By the Library of Congress. Still looks tattered, but it's from 1913 after all, and it looks better than I've ever seen it. Plus, film preservation is a worthy cause.
- ‘Something doesn’t smell right’: Farting controversy clouds dart championship - Alright, fine, I'll read your stupid article.
- Wait For It - Just watch it, it's short. Kid can fly. And now I'm down a rabbit hole of similar videos...
- The Passage by Justin Cronin - A secret government attempt to breed super-soldiers only succeeds in creating what are basically vampires. As all secret government projects are wont to do, this one fails spectacularly and unleashes a hoard of vampirism across the country (and probably the planet). Various enclaves have survived, like the Colony, a small refuge of humanity protected by massive banks of ultraviolet lights that keep the vampires at bay. But a century or so later, and the technology is starting to wear out. Enter Amy, a mysterious young girl who shares the vampire's immortality, but lacks the bloodsucking monstrous parts. Does she represent hope? It's a nice spin on the vampire mythologies that we all know and love, especially for those who don't like the whole sexy sparkling brooding emo vampires that became common for a while there (one review mentions that you won't be seeing any "Team Babcock" tshirts anytime soon, though I think they'd actually be pretty cool (Babcock is one of the original twelve vampires in The Passage)). I like the background and there are some later revelations about how they work and what their community is like that are really interesting. Unfortunately, those bits tend to be drowned out by endless, inchoate chapters of characterization. With a massive, sprawling cast of characters, this is sometimes fine, but ensemble pieces always suffer from unevenness, and this is no exception. Cronin's longwinded style drags things out longer than is probably needed, and it doesn't help that a lot of these character bits are about people going through something dysfunctional if not downright traumatic (and this is before we even get to the vampires). The first third or so of the novel works pretty well, but then things shift dramatically and unexpectedly (an interesting development). We're shifted to an entirely new set of characters and this is where things bogged down for me. Eventually they got moving again, and I think the novel ends strong. Ultimately, I loved the vampire bits, but found it a bit overlong and bloated. There are two more books in the series, but I'm on the fence as to whether I'll get to them...
- Artificial Condition by Martha Wells - The second in Wells' Hugo winning series of novellas concerning a Murderbot who only wants to sit around binging TV shows, but ends up getting sucked into human affairs and protecting foolish humans from themselves. In this one, our Murderbot protagonist makes another AI friend and meets up with some naive scientists who want to recover their data from murderous, bloodsucking corporate suits (but um, not Passage-esque vampires, I'm being more metaphorical here). It's a lot of fun. I like the new AI companion, and Wells is decent enough at the whole corporate intrigue thing too. Along the way, we find more about Murderbot's mysterious past, and Wells does a good job blending those elements into the novella without overwhelming the rest of the story. I'm pretty excited by this series, and will most certainly be checking out future installments (which have been coming at a pretty steady clip).
- The Uplift War by David Brin - The conclusion to Brin's Uplift Trilogy, but then, each book is pretty much a standalone, with only small direct connections (though, all taking place in the same universe, we see lots of indirect overlap). In this universe, most alien races were originally non-intelligent creatures that have been "uplifted" by one of the higher races in the galaxy. Once uplifted, a race must serve it's patron for a long time before they are permitted to uplift other species on their own. However! Earthlings appear to have developed their intelligence all on their own, which upsets the galactic society to its core. Where the first book, Sundiver, concerned a mostly human story, the second mostly followed the human-uplifted dolphin race, while this third book mostly focuses on human-uplifted chimpanzees. Now, this is a tough book to judge, because the second book in the trilogy, Startide Rising, is phenomenal and thus represents a tough act to follow. In truth, this didn't really reach Startide's heights, but it remains good on its own. The story, about one of the affronted alien races attempting to invade a human/chimp planet in order to blackmail humans into revealing more about their recent discovery of an ancient Progenitor ship (an event from the previous book), is mostly self contained, and while kicked off by the whole Progenitor angle, doesn't really do much to progress that overarching story (I assume this is addressed in future books of the series). But the self-contained story is done well enough by itself, and most of the characters are likable and competent in their own right. Like previous books, this story seems enamored with what I like to call Earthican exceptionalism, but given the more downbeat titles of current SF, this actually represents something refreshing to a modern reading. That being said, the ending does make you feel a little bad for the invading Gubru, who are so thoroughly defeated and humiliated by the humans (and their trickster-like Tymbrimi allies) that you just can't help it. On the other hand, the Gubru are presented as being humorless, entitled, and petulant (as, indeed, are a lot of alien races in this universe, making you wonder how they've all become so powerful in the first place), so take it with a grain of salt. The overarching narrative that spreads across all three books doesn't move very much in any of them and is not resolve here, but I assume it is in the later books... Ultimately, while the whole Uplift Trilogy is pretty darned good, the real gem remains Startide Rising. I've enjoyed these all enough that I'll probably get to the sequel trilogy at some point, and obviously Brin has written lots of other stuff as well.
- Head On by John Scalzi - This sequel to Scalzi's Lock In mostly represents an improvement on its predecessor, if only because the universe is established and thus Scalzi can focus on the mystery of the week bit of the story rather than the worldbuilding (which is a little clunky to start with, and which was poorly established in the first book). The mystery itself is, once again, a pretty decent take on a futuristic detective procedural (i.e. better than your typical CBS crime show, but not exactly even reaching for the top tier of literary mysteries). It's nothing that's going to win awards (at least, it won't be making my Hugo nominating ballot), but it's a fun and entertaining read. While this isn't my favorite setting, I enjoy spending time there well enough and Scalzi is good at fast paced plotting and snappy dialogue, making the pages turn quickly. Well worth checking out.
- The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell - Captain John "Black Jack" Geary is a legendary war hero presumed lost in the early days of a war between the Alliance and the Syndics. The war isn't going particularly well for the Alliance when they miraculously discover Geary, who survived in hibernation. Geary is shocked to learn that he's revered as a hero, but resolves to do his duty, whip his fleet into shape, and dodge the onslaught of Syndics coming his way. This is basically a military "long retreat" story adapted to work in space, and it's a surprisingly good fit. Geary makes for a good protagonist and the situation he's in generates plenty of fodder for internal conflict that must be overcome before the external conflict with the Syndics can be properly dealt with. Again, this is a pretty enjoyable spin through military SF tropes, even if it's not exactly breaking new ground. Then again, "strategic retreat" isn't a particularly revered military SF trope, so props to Campbell for going with this unsung but important angle. There are more books in the series, and I'll mostly likely seek them out at some point (always a good sign for me, as I tend to be sequel averse...)