Link Dump

Just the usual spin around ye olde internets for interesting links:

Mr. Coen’s chronic deceitfulness likely hurt his lead actresses’ performances. Co-leads Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan seemed distracted and confused — what faulty direction did Mr. Coen give them? Did he tell them something perplexing? Did he give them information that didn’t quite compute? More to the point: Did he tell them that I got diarrhea on the monkey bars in fifth grade? He tells everyone that even though it’s not true! I was on the monkey bars and then got off and ran inside to use the bathroom! That is not getting diarrhea “on” the monkey bars! And I was only sick in the first place because I got the flu that Ethan brought home from Mike Fegel’s birthday party! DID ETHAN TELL MARGARET QUALLEY THAT I GOT DIARRHEA ON THE MONKEY BARS?!?!?! I AM GOING TO ABSOLUTELY DIE IF HE DID THAT!!! HE IS SUCH A MEAN JERK!!

While we waited for our food, the writer of dystopian sci-fi confirmed that if you work for the CIA, lawyers have to vet anything you publish. But they were more lenient than I would’ve guessed. She said that one of her novels had helped change how the agency viewed fiction versus nonfiction. While reading her novel, the lawyers decided that just because a character in a novel says something doesn’t mean that the author necessarily agrees, so there should be more leeway for CIA fiction writers. (Which suggests CIA lawyers are more nuanced literary critics than half of Goodreads.)

That’s all for now. Next week: The Oscars!

Favorite Movies of 2023

We conclude Kaedrin Movie Awards season with a traditional top 10 list of my favorite movies of 2023, only a month and a half (or so) late! This marks the eighteenth year in a row that I’ve posted a top 10. For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

It’s traditional at this point to discuss themes of the year in film, usually a fraught exercise even in the best of times, but there’s almost always something worth exploring in this space, however dubious it may be… The two big themes of this year: the decline of superheroes and the rise of… brands? There were a couple of successful superhero standouts this year (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), but there were a ton of movies that were both artistic and box-office failures (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and several others). Part of this is post-Endgame superhero fatigue, but part of it comes down to quality. DC has always been a mixed bag, but Marvel has clearly overextended (the likely culprit being the Disney+ shows, but the overall franchise service in the MCU was already getting overbearing) and the quality has suffered greatly. 2024 will likely continue this trend, but after a Hollywood strike-fueled delay, 2025 will see an uptick in offerings. Only time will tell if this will be the last gasp of a dying genre or a revitalization and return to dominance.

In 2023, at least, part of the slack was taken up by “brand” movies. Not all of these were huge box office successes and I don’t quite think that the genre has legs, but obviously we’re going to see more of these in the future. At minimum, we’re going to get several more Barbie movies, and who knows, we may experience a resurgence not seen since the heady days of the Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour. Um, anyway, there were tons of other brand movies in 2023, including Tetris, Air, Flamin’ Hot, and BlackBerry. Again, not sure how widespread this will ever get, but it was certainly a thing in 2023.

Smaller trends include half-movies, some of which were hidden by marketing, which is also a component present with the marketing of musicals as if they weren’t musicals. More heartening is the fact that 3 of the top 5 movies are, well, not quite original, but to be disgustingly businesslike, they are basically new IP (and there’s another original movie in the top 10). This is not exactly the Retvrn we may all desire, but it’s a promising step after the last few decades…

As of this writing, this top 10 list is pulling from a total of 119 movies I’ve seen that could be considered a 2023 release. This is less than your usual critic, but probably more than your typical moviegoer. Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s always worth noting that due to release schedules (especially in these plague years), some movies from 2022 that didn’t become available until 2023 qualify for this list. Alrighty then, I think we’ve covered all our bases, so let’s get to the feature presentation:

Top 10 Movies of 2023

* In roughly reverse order

Godzilla Minus One – The best Godzilla movie I’ve seen since the original 1954 classic. While this has plenty of monster smash action, the thing that sets this apart is the focus on a culturally and thematically rich human story at its core. Minus One centers on a flawed but striving protagonist that you can’t help but root for, and that imbues the struggle with Godzilla with much more power than most monster slugfests. It manages to balance spectacle with just the right dollops of melodrama and thematic heft, tying it all together in a surprisingly effective package.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]

Killers of the Flower Moon – I’m not quite as rapturous about this Martin Scorsese epic on the plight of the Osage people as many folks are, but it’s an immensely well made film, energetic and agonizing at the same time.

Killers of the Flower Moon

This excruciating portrayal of a town of amoral monsters with no interest in or sense of right-and-wrong isn’t exactly fun to watch, but Scorsese does manage a few Coen-esque moments of dark levity here and there. It’s a bit indulgent and certainly overlong, but also something of an achievement that a movie this unpleasant can still succeed this well.

More Info: [IMDB] [Apple TV+] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

John Wick: Chapter 4 – The final installment (for now, I guess) of the Wick saga is also maybe a tad indulgent and overlong, but it’s suffused with grandeur and an unexpected melancholy that suits the series well. It looks great and has several of the best action sequences of the year, including an overhead oner that is utterly glorious cinema. A fitting end to the series, even if it will shamble on in spinoffs and sidequels or whatever they call it.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]

The Killer – David Fincher’s self-deprecating paen to the hollowness of perfectionism, a universal critique of the justifications and rationalizations we all indulge in all wrapped up in a tight genre exercise that’s thrilling and even a little funny on its surface levels. It’s better when you know more about Fincher, but his critique isn’t quite as devastating because he’s also making so much fun of himself (or, at least, his filmmaking persona). He’s in it with us.

The Killer

Great performances from the likes of Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton (not to mention all the bit parts swallowed up by character actors like Charles Parnell) and a digital aesthetic that’s actually distinctive (something Fincher’s been doing for a long time). I wish it got more of a theatrical release.

More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]

The Artifice Girl – Talky, stagey, micro-budget, ideas-driven Science Fiction is my catnip. Underseen and probably best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, so I’ll leave it at that, but it’s a movie that will turn the tables on you multiple times, despite mostly being set in a single room with folks chatting.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]

Anatomy of a Fall – The French court system, as portrayed in this movie, is absolutely wild (I’m assuming liberties are taken, but the wacky way the trial unfolds is one of the joys of watching this movie as an outsider).

Anatomy of a Fall

I’m a sucker for twisty courtroom dramas, and this hits all those notes well (French wackiness notwithstanding), anchored by Sandra Hüller’s performance, but I’ve also always connected with the thematic point about the difficulty of recreating the past in the present as well. It’s a daunting problem even in the best of situations, but this movie is a good demonstration of the nuts and bolds of why it’s so difficult to know actually what happened (and not to sermonize, but it’s only going to get more difficult in the future).

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Pigeon Tunnel – Errol Morris documentary on the storied life and career of David Cornwell, more famous as his pen name John le Carré. It takes the form of an extended interview (or, should I say, interrogation, a key distinction that sets this apart from Morris’ other similar efforts), but it fits surprisingly well with Morris’ filmography and the impenetrable nature of Cornwell’s character.

The Pigeon Tunnel

Morris and by extension, the audience, is never quite sure where Cornwall is drawing the line between fact and fiction, but he’s such an engaging presence and natural storyteller that it doesn’t really matter. It made me want to read more le Carré, which is always a good sign when watching a movie like this.

More Info: [IMDB] [Apple TV+]

BlackBerry – The best of the rash of “brand” movies we saw in 2023, partly because it covers both the rise and fall of said brand (a few of these movies feel like two hour advertisements for the brand, but not this one), but also because of its good humor and great performances, particularly from Glenn Howerton as the enraged co-CEO.

BlackBerry

He’s really cooking here, but even the bit parts from the likes of SungWon Cho or a terrifying Michael Ironside are lights out.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Command Z – Steven Soderbergh’s experimental series wasn’t seen by many folks due to its unconventional distribution scheme, but hopefully it’ll wind up on a streaming service soon enough where it will be seen by many. A unique spin on low-fi time travel with a humorous bent and solid performances, literally episodic in nature, but hits the sweet spot in the overall runtime of 90 minutes or so. It’s worth the hoop jumping that it takes to watch it right now, but it will hopefully be more readily available soon enough.

More Info: [IMDB] [Command Z Website] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]

Oppenheimer – Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II is the obvious choice here.

Oppenheimer

Ambitious, adventurous filmmaking at its best, which is funny because it’s mostly just a movie filled with dudes talking in rooms about serious subjects, but Nolan just can’t help but make it immersive and thrilling. A masterpiece.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Honorable Mention

* In an order I dare you to discern

American Fiction – A black author writes a satirical parody of “black” literature in an attempt to expose the publishing world’s hypocrisies only to find surprising success. In some ways, it lets its satirical targets off the hook, but on the other hand, it’s probably a more entertaining and funny experience because of that choice.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Boy and the Heron – Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, a contemplation of legacy that perhaps meanders a bit, but pulls it all together admirably in the end. It’s not a crowd pleaser and doesn’t balance the dream logic with its weighty themes as well as some of Miyazaki’s best, but it’s effectively done and worth checking out.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial – A solid farewell for William Friedkin. Formally tight but visually simplistic and unshowy, this is a film driven far more by its taught writing than its visual prowess, which fits with the story being told. I can’t help but think that there’s a better version that blends the two screen versions of this story, but this pure courtroom drama approach is certainly valid and Friedkin pulls great performances from the impressive cast as well.

The Caine Mutiny Court Martial

The core drama is preserved and just as thorny as ever, even if we don’t see any of the action and only get the courtroom accounts of what happened (another film about piecing together what has happened in the past, and all the complications inherent in that enterprise).

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Dream Scenario – Great high concept story about a man whose life is turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams. A sorta exaggerated parable of social media and memetic power that’s obviously quite relevant, it can’t quite maintain momentum throughout the runtime, but it’s a worthy attempt and Nicolas Cage is great in the role.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – A charming action/comedy that’s way better than anyone could possibly have expected. Self-aware without being drenched in ironic detachment, it perfectly balances the goofy way a D&D campaign can progress and features plenty of fun characters and solid action. On the bubble for the top 10, but just barely missed and on another day, could very well have made it.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

The Equalizer 3 – It’s so funny to me that Denzel Washington has only made two sequels and they’re both in this series, but this might actually be the best of the three. The action moves to Italy this time around, and while it obviously engages in familiar tropes, Washington imbues it all with surprising gravitas, and director Antoine Fuqua captures the action well, especially in the finale, which almost resembles one of those slasher movies where you root for the killer.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

Ferrari – Michael Mann’s longtime passion project, a biopic covering a particularly tumultuous period of Enzo Ferrari’s personal and professional life (three pretty traumatic events converging in a relatively short time period) isn’t quite as fast paced or crowd pleasing as Mann’s best work, but it’s still effective and we get a few corkers of monologues or racing action that make the whole thing a worthwhile exercise.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Full Time – French film in which a woman tries to balance caring for her children, her job, and interviewing for a new career, all during a national transit strike. It might not sound like it, but it’s almost like a Safdie-style thriller, with a fantastic, pulsing, anxiety inducing score (that, for some reason, I can’t find anywhere – someone release this thing!) and excellent lead performance. It doesn’t quite descend into full-on tragedy and I think the surprising ending really cemented the film for me.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The History of the Minnesota Vikings – Jon Bois has carved out a truly unique style of documentary filmmaking for himself that is perhaps overlooked due to the subject matter, but probably more because these things just show up on YouTube every year or so. That being said, these long sports documentaries that center around a thematically relevant graph are more interesting than the grand majority of talking heads documentaries or activist exercises. I don’t even particularly care about the teams (and sometimes even the entire sports) that Bois covers, but I can’t help but be compelled by these documentaries.

More Info: [IMDB] [YouTube] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

The Holdovers – Effectively captures that 1970s throwback vibe that it’s going for, with exceptional performances from Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. This is exactly the sort of movie people claim isn’t being made anymore, but here it is, and too many people probably skipped it. A nice coming of age drama with well drawn characters and darkly humorous tone.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

LOLA – British micro-budget found footage flick about sisters who invent a time travel device during WWII. Seamlessly integrates authentic newsreel footage with fictional found footage to effective ends, telling a twisty time travel story that is reasonably clever and somewhat unique (the time travel consists of information broadcasts from the future, not actual matter). Short and sweet, I’m guessing the David Bowie music license cost more than the rest of the movie combined.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One – The best half-a-movie of the year, by far. Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie continue their consistent one-upping of themselves here with a couple of really amazing action set-pieces. Heck, even one of the more conventional sequences earlier in the film puts a similar sequence in Fast X to shame. It’s not quite as cohesive as Fallout, but it’s also only half a movie, even if it finds a good place to end.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]

Past Lives – Another one of those adult dramas that people like to claim aren’t made anymore, and to be fair, this one-that-got-away tearjerker is generally not my favorite sort of thing, but it’s well done, very well acted, and there’s plenty to relate to for just about anyone. I found myself surprisingly moved, and that’s one reason I like catching up with so many movies that I would otherwise skip at the end of the year…

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Rye Lane – The best romantic comedy of the year, with a charming and sweet chemistry between the leads, some visual flare, and a solid structure behind it. Brisk and frothy fun, it puts enough of a spin on the well worn genre that it comes off feeling fresh even if we’ve seen many of these elements before.

Rye Lane

Part of this might just be its British origins, but I still think it’s distinct enough… Well worth seeking out.

More Info: [IMDB] [Hulu] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

When Evil Lurks – Intense Argentinian thriller about a vaguely demonic evil infesting a small town and growing in power or somesuch. It’s messed up and often shocking and thus quite effective. I don’t normally groove on this sort of nihilistic exercise, but it works well here and director Demián Rugna is capable of crafting exquisitely painful sequences. Not exactly fun, but if you can get on its sick frequency, you’ll have a good time.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Just Missed the Cut

But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:

Should Have Seen

Despite having watched over a hundred movies made in 2023, there are plenty that I probably should have caught up with. Sometimes they weren’t readily available, sometimes I couldn’t muster up the will to get to the theater, sometimes I just didn’t wanna watch (because reasons, that’s why). I will almost certainly end up seeing some of these and loving them, which is why the Kaedrin Movie Awards always has a category about the previous year’s movie…

That just about covers it for the top 10 movies of 2023 and Kaedrin Movie Awards season in general. The only thing that remains is Oscar speculations, which are coming up quickly… Stay tuned!

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Star Maker

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Info-Dumps inhabit a unique place in Science Fiction. Much maligned and discouraged by conventional standards, they nonetheless serve an informative need that might otherwise be impossible in a traditional narrative. Obviously this can be done well and it can be done poorly, not everyone can be Greg Egan or Neal Stephenson, and in a very real sense it often conflicts with admirable rules of thumb like “show, don’t tell.”

There are some tricks that can hide the worldbuilding in the very mind of the reader by implying rather than baldly stating information. The typical example of this is when you encounter the phrase “ground car” in a science fiction story. There’s an obvious meaning here, a car that drives on the ground just like many of us ride in every day, but the inclusion of “ground” as a modifier implies not just the existence of other modes of transportation (most likely an “air car”) but potentially entire worlds that can be unlocked (including, for example, differences in architecture or how accessibility of previously difficult terrain changes, and so on). Eric S Raymond explains how these SF words indicate prototype worlds, delves deeply into what makes them work, and how this operations within the works of the genre, but the ultimate point is that science fiction operates on information and as such, info-dumps, even ones cleverly implied by previously established jargon are a key part of the genre.

Star Maker book cover

I say all of this because Olaf Stapledon’s 1938 Star Maker is less of a novel than an extended info-dump. A man gazes at the stars one night only to find himself hurtling through the firmament, a disembodied mind exploring the cosmos, stumbling on alien cultures, and traveling beyond galactic boundaries, eventually to glimpse the eponymous Star Maker, an inveterate and eternal tinkerer who has been creating each cosmos with more ambition than the last.

All of this basically takes the form of a sorta fictional Athropological text, part memoir, part travelogue (I suppose the more accurate term would be Xenology). Stylistically stripped down, simplistic, and conversational in tone, it’s not really a fast-paced page-turner, but neither is it bland or boring. This is why info-dumps are generally frowned upon in the first place, but on the other hand, the idea quotient is astounding. There’s a massive amount of imagination on display as Stapleton cycles through observations of astronomical features, exoplanets, alien life (humanoid at first, but then stretching boundaries to all manner of strange consciousnesses, galactic societies, utopias, and eventually even alternative cosmoses.)

The sheer quantity of novel ideas on display is impressive. Stapledon covers a lot of ground and popularizes if not originates numerous concepts that would become famous genre tropes later. For example, Freeman Dyson credits his idea of a hypothetical megastructure that surrounds a star and captures a large percentage of its solar power output to Star Maker, even suggesting it be called a Stapledon Sphere (it’s now known as a Dyson Sphere). That example is also illustrative of the fact that Stapledon was writing this before the terminology or jargon was even invented. He touches on things like the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Great Filter, and the Dark Forest Hypothesis, even if he didn’t have the words to describe it. And I’m only really scratching the surface here. There are a ton of big ideas that originate from this book. The only thing that isn’t particularly well captured are computers and artificial intelligence (and associated speculations like the Technological Singularity, etc…), but that’s a topic that wasn’t particularly well explored in science fiction for another 30ish years (and even those early examples were rudimentary compared to later efforts).

More surprising is how spiritual the book can get. Stapledon was an agnostic, but the yearning for meaning and utopia that is present here is essentially a religious impulse. When the titular Star Maker appears, it’s portrayed in conflicting terms as indifferent yet somehow also loving, but also at its core: unknowable. Our humble narrator is overwhelmed by the task of describing it using our imperfect language, and essentially leaves it at that. Still, he describes many an alternative cosmos, including one that is basically Judeo-Christian in nature: a universe that consists of successive phases where lives end in one phase and reappear in another (there are two alternative secondary phases that could be described as heaven and hell). Stapledon’s story doesn’t entirely resolve anything here – you could see this as a a Turtles all the way down type of situation – and as such, there are some who could consider this view of God as heretical. For instance, C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, famously quipped that Star Maker “ends in sheer devil worship.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the spiritual endgame of the universe is something you don’t see often in science fiction.

It’s a fascinating, seemingly foundational work of science fiction. It doesn’t necessarily dive deeply into every concept, but it prefigures much of what would come after. It’s not really a beginner’s text, nor is it a fast-paced page-turner, but it’s not impenetrable either. Very much worth seeking out for students of the genre and a perfect example of the sort of thing Vintage SF Month is all about.

2023 Kaedrin Movie Awards: The Arbitrary Awards

The 2023 Kaedrin Movie Awards Winners were announced last week, which means that it’s time for more arbitrary considerations. The idea is to recognize aspects of films that aren’t reflected in more traditional awards or other praise like a Top 10 list. However, any consistent, formal awards system will fail to capture all the nuances and complexity available; hence the 2023 Arbitrary Awards, an opportunity to commend movies that are weird or flawed in ways that don’t conform to normal standards. A few of these “awards” have become an annual tradition, some were stolen from other folks, but most are just, well, arbitrary. Previous Arbitrary Awards: [2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

The “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else” Award for Worst Dialogue: Shazam! Fury of the Gods. I give this award every year, but it’s always one of the most difficult because memorably bad dialogue is actually somewhat rare. Or at least, it is for me. A lot of the worst dialogue is bad because it’s distinctly unmemorable. Anyway, this sometimes means there’s a recency bias in this award, and I literally just watched this one. It has lots of awful dialogue, but the thing that pushed it over the top was: “The most powerful thing about you… is you!” Alright, that’s not great, but is it really the worst of the year? Well, it might not have been if they only said it once in the movie. Instead they say it again, just really calling attention to the badness. Also of note, The Marvels has a planet where everyone has to sing their dialogue, which is just awful but in an almost defensible way. I mean, I don’t like it, but I suspect there are a lot of people who could get into that idea and think it’s fun. That being said, it doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions and abandons the singing halfway through the scene. Anyway, this is more due to the way the dialogue is delivered than the actual contents of the dialogue, so we’ll just leave it as not winning.

The Proximity to Jason Voorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: It’s a Wonderful Knife. There’s some things to like about this movie, but I found myself baffled by how stupid a lot of it was. A slasher inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life is an interesting idea, but they can’t even really get the premise right, let alone have the characters do things that aren’t just nonsense. Also of note: Scream VI has well and truly driven the series into the ground, and No One Will Save You gets a bit of a pass because the dumbest characters are the invading aliens.

The Garth Marenghi “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards” Award for Achievement in Didacticism: Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s a good movie, maybe even a great movie, and I think the grand majority of the movie is thematically rich and thought provoking, but then Martin Scorsese, perhaps worn down through decades of people willfully misinterpreting his movies as glorifying the actions of horrible people, literally comes on screen and says something to the effect of “These people were all bad.” I get it, and he actually does it in an interesting way that doesn’t ruin the movie or anything, but that’s why this award is here. One of the fun things about the Arbitrary Awards is that things that seem like they’re a bad category to win aren’t actually bad. They’re just weird (and weird is good in this context!)

Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence: Sisu. The Finnish role in WWII notwithstanding, that guy sure did blow up them Nazis real good. Also of note: Thanksgiving, which has some pretty gnarly effects going on.

The “Scotty Doesn’t Know” Award for Best Cameo: Bradley Cooper in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Genuinely unexpected and probably even unnecessary, the two hallmarks of the best cameos.

Bradley Cooper in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Also of note: John Cena as a Merman (Merken?) in Barbie.

The Hank Scorpio Award for Cheerful Villainy: Pom Klementieff in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. In particular, the sequence where she’s chasing Cruise and Atwell through Rome in a HMMV-like vehicle, just grinning dementedly as she pancakes bystanding cars in pursuit. It’s the sort of performance the elevates an almost rote henchperson role into something much more… Also of note: Casey Affleck’s performance as Boris Pash in Oppenheimer. Infused with a perfect sorta smiling menace and dread, you almost don’t even need Matt Damon’s character to explain Pash’s past exploits to know how much danger Oppenheimer put himself in with that meeting. Genuinely want to explore more about Pash, who seems like an interesting (if a bit unhinged) guy.

Most Unnecessary Subtitle: Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. I mean, the whole title is somewhat bad, and honestly, most subtitles that aren’t sequels are unnecessary, but man, what were they thinking here? I really enjoyed the movie quite a bit, a frothy, fun spy caper thing that really didn’t catch on, but is worth seeking out if you like that sort of thing. But with a title (and subtitle) like that, I don’t blame you for not knowing about it…

Best Retired Spy: The Equalizer 3. It’s so funny that Denzel has only done two sequels in his career, and it’s these Equalizer movies he keeps coming back to… but this third installment is actually quite good! Maybe even the best of the series. Denzel’s retired spy turned drifter winds up in Italy, and finds peace… until he doesn’t and turns into an avenging spirit, almost like a slasher villain or something (but, like, heroic instead of villainous).

Best Badass/Villain (non-Human Edition): Godzilla from Godzilla Minus One. One of the great things about this movie is that they let Godzilla be a monster, instead of like, a sorta heroic monster that protects humans from bad monsters.

Godzilla Minus One

Most Underseen Romantic Comedy: Rye Lane. Delightful British RomCom that didn’t get much of a release here, but is well worth seeking out for fans of the genre (it’s on Hulu).

Best U.S. Military Cameo: The AC-130 in The Covenant. The movie has some tense action sequences and plenty of intractable bureaucracy, but I was not expecting the AC-130 “Angel of Death” sequence towards the end of the film. It’s disturbingly satisfying to watch.

Bleakest Horror Movie: When Evil Lurks. Absolutely messed up, nihilistic, doomcore, just plain mean movie. It’s pretty damn good.

Best YouTube Release: The History of the Minnesota Vikings. Clocking in at 9 hours and change, this is more of a TV series than a movie, but documentary director Jon Bois has really carved out a particular niche, complete with his own auteurist style. I don’t know if it’s quite as good as his History of the Seattle Mariners series, but it’s still pretty great.

Should Host the Oscars: Chancellor Jarnathan from Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Other candidates: M3GAN, The Cocaine Bear (which actually showed up at last year’s Oscar ceremony), and of course, The Entity from Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

That does it for the 2023 Arbitrary Awards, but stay tuned, moar 2023 movie commentary incoming, including the traditional Top 10 list (this will probably take a couple weeks) and some Oscars commentary…

2023 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners

The nominees for the 2023 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week, and today we announce the award winners. The Oscars were also announced this past week, and the discourse has produced the usual unhinged complaints about snubs and relatability and other bitter recriminations. As with many things, the Oscars has had a weird few years in this post-pandemic era. Hosting woes, The Slap™, and ever present controversy has taken a toll, but it’s still fun if you don’t take it too seriously. Speaking of which, it’s about time to get to my silly little awards. I realize this is happening about a month or two later than most publications’ year end roundups, but I’m not a critic with access to screeners, so I’m still catching up with a lot of 2023 movies. Anywho, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to the fireworks:

Best Villain/Badass: Leonard, played by Dave Bautista in Knock at the Cabin. This was a surprisingly hard choice, and to be sure, Bautista’s Leonard isn’t your typical villain, which is probably why I ended up choosing him. Bautista’s soulful performance contrasted with his almost comical physical presence was a big part of it. The movie wasn’t my favorite, but his performance was memorable and effective.

Dave Bautista in Knock ad the Cabin

The competition was also quite weak this year. I considered the Marquis, played by Bill Skarsgård in John Wick: Chapter 4, but he’s a sniveling weakling who hides behind Donnie Yen’s Caine (who perhaps should have been the one nominated, but he’s too sympathetic and friendly with John Wick – one of those weird borderline cases that come up in this award sometimes). Gabriel, played by Esai Morales in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was also in contention, but he’s such a weird addition to the franchise – they play it like he’s been there all along, but this is the first we’ve seen of him. He’s certainly good in the role and I’m looking forward to the next movie, but he doesn’t really stand out. Also of note are the dueling Hugh Grant nominations for Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, both underrated movies deserving of more love (and Grant has lots of fun in both roles). It’s also nice to see a strong showing from the Slasher contingent in the nominees, but in the end, the unusualness of Bautista in Knock at the Cabin takes the cake.

Best Hero/Badass: John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4. I don’t know how this happened. Somehow, there’s been three previous John Wick movies and Wick/Reeves has not won this award. In some ways it’s fitting that this series finale finally generates the long sought after award win, in other ways, I worry that I’m becoming like the Oscars, handing out lifetime achievement awards over more deserving winners.

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4

On the other hand, there really isn’t an obvious challenger to Wick and the choice is eminently defensible. Funnily enough, one of the leading challengers would be Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, who defeated Wick a few years ago for this very award (plus, to lean into the Oscar politics aspect, Cruise has won this multiple times). One other strong contender was Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3, a movie I enjoyed way more than I thought I would (and which seems a bit slept on). Ultimately, though, it was finally time to hand the award to Wick.

Best Comedic Performance: Jennifer Lawrence in No Hard Feelings. A genuinely tough choice as there wasn’t really an obvious winner, though I do think that Lawrence’s performance is genuinely funny and she really put herself out there with this movie (sometimes, *ahem*, literally). The other nominee that I strongly considered and wanted to highlight was Glenn Howerton in BlackBerry. It’s a great performance, quite funny, and deserving of recognition. I dunno, maybe consider this a tie or something? This award is frequently strange because there are so many comedies that are more ensemble pieces than singular comedic vehicles. Plus, comedies are something of a rarity these days, with so many being a component of a larger genre (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is an adventure with a bunch of comedic beats for flavor, rather than primarily a comedy). Anyway, it’s nice to see an R-rated sex comedy these days, it’s a genre seemingly on the verge of extinction. Margot Robbie was great in Barbie, but I also feel like that’s more of an ensemble piece with a lot of humor coming from elsewhere. Paul Giamatti is amazing in The Holdovers, but while he delivers some zingers and humor, it’s more of a dramatic performance than comedy.

Breakthrough Performance: Sydney Sweeney in Reality and Anyone But You. I’ll admit to this award being somewhat nebulous, but it seems clear to me that Sydney Sweeney is going places, and that we’ll be seeing a lot more from her in the next few years. I will say that I wouldn’t have chosen her if I didn’t catch up with Reality, a high concept acting exercise that shows more range than expected. It seems obvious that Sweeney could achieve success with romantic comedies like Anyone But You, but it seems like she could choose more challenging roles and pull them off if she wanted to… Lily Gladstone was great in Killers of the Flower Moon and I suspect we’ll see more of her, and I do want to call out the last minute addition of Dar Salim in The Covenant. It wasn’t a movie I was particularly excited to see, but his performance was razor sharp and I hope we see a lot more of him in the years to come.

Most Visually Stunning: Asteroid City. Somehow, I’ve never given this award to a Wes Anderson movie. He’s one of our most distinct auteurs and visual stylists, with a brand of fussy, weaponized quirk that is truly beautiful to observe, even if you don’t love the movie (for the record, I really like Asteroid City, though it’s far from my favorite Anderson and probably won’t make the top 10).

Asteroid City

It’s obviously worth noting Barbenheimer (Barbie and Oppenheimer) here, as they’re both visually stunning, and I’ll also through out extra mention to Poor Things and The Creator, which are also beautiful movies.

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Command Z. A genuinely hard choice here, but I figured I’d spread the love around a bit. Command Z is one of those experimental Steven Soderbergh movies, but its genre elements (involving time travel, amongst a few other sub-genres) tickled me in just the right way. It’s worth seeking out, and you truly do need to seek it out because one of the experimental things about this movie is its distribution, which means it’s only currently available via its website. I’m sure it’ll show up on a streaming service at some point, but it’s worth the effort to watch now. I’ll hold off on the runners up, as some will be showing up below. The only thing I should mention though is that I caught up with When Evil Lurks a few days ago and it’s certainly worthy of attention for horror fans (and would have been nominated if I saw it before the nomination post). It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s quite effective.

Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake: Godzilla Minus One. A surprising amount of good choices this year, but this was perhaps the most surprising in that I think it’s the best Godzilla movie I’ve seen since the original. The biggest problem with most Godzilla movies is that the human stories surrounding the monster are often so rote and boring. Minus One centers around a flawed but striving protagonist that you can’t help but root for, and that embues the struggle with Godzilla with much more power than most monster slugfests. Culturally and thematically rich, I haven’t seen this sort of thing in a Godzilla since the original. Lots of competition for this award though, including the trio of John Wick: Chapter 4, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and The Equalizer 3, all with a similar sort of bent. Heck, it was even nice to catch up with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and A Haunting in Venice, from series I hope to see more of in coming years…

Biggest Disappointment: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Marvel’s fate post Endgame has been mostly mixed, but this, for me, was where I think it fully went off the rails. I can generally excuse things like poor special effects (like, seriously, did they let these shots finish rendering or what?) if the story is good, but this was so deeply unpleasant. Perhaps it was the near standalone nature of the first two films that made me like them so much, but nearly everything I loved about them was absent here. Not just some of the characters (Luis!) but even something as simple as the good natured relationship that Scott Lang has with his family (including his ex-wife’s husband, etc…) It was always something I loved about this sub-series, and it’s just completely jettisoned in favor of obnoxious daddy/daughter strife and crushed under the weight of Marvel’s franchise-service.

Best Action Sequences: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Two of the most amazing action set pieces of the year here: one a stunt where Tom Cruise drives off a cliff on a motorcycle and another in which a train crashes. Even some of the more mundane set pieces were noteworthy – a car chase through Rome works incredibly well thanks to Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell’s comedic tension, not to mention the deranged but gleeful grin that Pom Klementieff sports as she barrels her way through Rome in pursuit. It’s even more effective when you see Fast X try something similar, with much less success. Anyway, tons of competition here and you could certainly mount a strong case for John Wick: Chapter 4 (in particular, the overhead Dragon’s Breath sequence), but let’s spread things around a bit.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise: The Artifice Girl. Obviously I won’t be spoiling this here, especially since I went into this knowing very little about it (which helps with an award like this). Fortunately, this is an underseen movie, so you too could have such an experience. It’s talky and set mostly in a couple of small rooms, but it’s fantastic. Also a strong contender for Best SF/Horror and Best High Concept, I’ve again opted to spread the love with these awards and am sticking with this choice here. Plenty of other worthy nominees, but I feel like even just nominating them is a partial spoiler, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Best High Concept Film: Silent Night and No One Will Save You. Once again, a very tough choice here, so I’m choosing the cop out, because both of these movies essentially have the same gimmick: almost no dialogue in the film at all. It’s a neat gimmick and emphasizes film as a visual medium. If I had to choose one, it would probably be Silent Night, because it’s so clearly a John Woo movie, touching on many of his themes and hobbyhorses, but he’s able to distill his vision in a stripped down, visual way, rather than through clumsy dialogue.

2023’s 2022 Movie of the Year: Orphan: First Kill. The pickins were pretty slim this year, and this award has always been a little weird in that way. The idea was that I was frequently catching up with this after my top 10 that were worthy of recognition, so I created this award for that purpose. The problem is that I rarely catch up with something that’s really that spectacular, and last year was particularly rough on that front. Even some of the nominees weren’t exactly favorites (I’m sure lots of folks would look at that list and think the obvious choice was Triangle of Sadness, but while I respect what that movie is doing, I didn’t exactly love it.) Anyway, I’m giving it to Orphan: First Kill because I wound up having a blast with the movie. Like its predecessor, it’s not exactly good, but the premise in and of itself is almost hilarious. While this seems like simply more of the same at first, it does have a twist that really makes the movie. It’s not the greatest movie or anything, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would…

Congratulations to all the 2023 Kaedrin Movie Award winners! And stay tuned, for next week, the awards go arbitrary!

2023 Kaedrin Movie Award Nominees

Welcome to the 2023 Kaedrin Movie Award season, which we’re kicking off with nominees in our standard categories! The idea is to recognize films for achievements that don’t always reflect well on top 10 lists or traditional awards. There are lots of formal award categories and nominees listed below, but once those are announced, we’ll also leave some room for Arbitrary Awards that are more goofy and freeform. Finally, we’ll post a traditional top 10 list (usually sometime in early/mid-February). But first up is the awards! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022]

Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2023 movie (with the one caveat that some 2022 films were not accessible until 2023 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I’ve seen 93 movies that could be considered a 2023 release. This is right about where we were last year at this time, which means that I’ve actually caught up from being behind in early December, but 2023 has been a pretty jam packed year. There are still several films that I want to catch up with, but even though I probably have seen less movies than many critics have seen, I have seen more than your typical moviegoer and have certainly seen enough to populate the awards. I think that’s enough preamble, let’s get to it:

Best Villain/Badass
A moderate year for villainy here, lots of decent choices, but I’m not sure if there’s a true standout. I don’t envy the voting body on this one (um, wait a second…)! In accordance with tradition, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc…) or ideas. This exclusion also, um, includes inhuman monsters or creatures (sorry Godzilla, we’ll hit you up in the Arbitrary Awards). Sometimes there’s a fine line here and certain nominees might be borderline, but we’re all just going to have to learn to live with it.

Best Hero/Badass
A better year for heroism, though this time around there are a few standouts such that the voting will probably not get very contentious (phew)… One fun thing about both the hero and villain categories is that they are not as dominated by superhero movies anymore, even if there is one token representative from the genre… Again limited to individuals and not groups/creatures.

Best Comedic Performance
This is sometimes a difficult category to populate due to the prevalence of ensembles in comedy movies (this year being no exception). That being said, there were definitely a few standout solo performances this year that are definitely worth recognition.

Breakthrough Performance
This used to be a category more centered around my personal evaluation of a given actor (rather than a more general industry breakthrough), but it’s trended more towards the youngsters breaking through as time has gone on…

Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great… But this is a pretty solid list!

Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
It’s always nice to throw some love to genres that don’t normally get a lot of recognition in end-of-the-year lists. As an avid SF fan, it’s sad that the genre usually has to be combined with Horror in order to come up with a well rounded set of nominees, but here we are.

Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake
Always an awkward category to populate, especially given my normal feeling on this sort of thing (i.e. not a huge fan of sequels), but this year wasn’t that hard.

Biggest Disappointment
A category often dominated by sequels and reboots, but the occasional original film makes an appearance. Note that these movies don’t necessarily need to be “bad” in order to be a “disappointment”. Basically, these movies scored poorly on Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale.

Best Action Sequences
This award isn’t for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film. We’ve got a pretty great, extensive lineup this year. The added accessibility of streaming DTV actioners has been a boon to this category.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise
I suppose even listing that there is a twist is a bit of a spoiler, but I guess we’ll just have to risk it.

Best High Concept Film
A bit of a nebulous concept for this category, but there’s some good stuff worth recognizing here because they took chances on a weird concept.

2023’s 2022 Movie of the Year
This is a weird category that is sometimes difficult to populate. The idea centers around movies I never caught up with last year during the Kaedrin Awards season, but which are worthwhile in their own right. During the pandemic, things were even weirder with this category, but we’ve seemingly emerged from that wilderness. Still, I must have done a good job with last year’s catch-up, because pickins were slim this year. This list is modest and none of these would kick something off my top 10 from last year but a couple are worthwhile…

So there you have it, please congratulate all of the 2023 Kaedrin Movie Award nominees! Stay tuned for the winners (probably next week, but you never know), followed by the Arbitrary Awards and Top 10 list. I’m still catching up with various flicks, because as usual, those 9 and 10 slots in the top 10 are a little difficult to fill (not, I should add, because there aren’t worthy candidates, but more because there are so many vying for those slots)…

2023 in Movie Watching

We’ve already covered our 2023 in book reading, so now it’s time to examine our year in Movie Watching. Insert standard disclaimers concerning the arbitrary or rationally considered nature of dates and astronomical movements in the solar system and whatnot. As with book reading, movie watching in 2023 has basically settled into a plateau after a big spike during the pandemic.

I keep track of all my movie watching on Letterboxd, so if you’re reading this and are a member, we should be friends there. One of the neat things I can get from there is fancy stats and graphs and whatnot, so let’s take a deeper dive into my 2023 in movie watching:

Overall Stats

A general look at my 2023 in movie watching:

  • 388 Movies Watched (-1 movie from 2022)
  • 693.9 Hours Watched (-19.1 hours from 2022)
  • 32.3 Movies a month on average (-0.1 movies from 2022)
  • 7.4 Movies a week on average (-0.1 movies from 2022)

The general numbers are extremely close to last year, with only the “hours watched” metric being a little more volatile (interestingly, the differential was also down significantly last year – I suspect this is due to the occasional TV series being tracked “as a movie” on Letterboxd – something that has been declining for me). The numbers are also pretty close to pre-pandemic 2019, though that was a record-breaking year at the time (immediately shattered by 2020 for obvious reasons). After a few years, this seems to be the plateau.

Breaking that down by decade:

2023 Movies by Decade

So watching by decade is roughly similar to the past couple years, though the 20s-60s mostly saw modest declines (steeper declines for 50s and 60s). That slack was picked up by the 70s and 80s and the 2010s and 2020s. I haven’t done the 50 From 50 postmortem yet, but I suspect most of those were recent (and took away from time that would have gone towards older movies). Perhaps its time for a movie resolution for older movies again, akin to the 50 Under 50 project?

2023 Movies by Week

Movies by week remains relatively consistent. The only interesting pattern is that towards the end of last year, I had a few months of remarkably consistent viewing, and that seems to have carried over into the first quarter of this year. Then I went on vacation (a few times) and things got a little more choppy as the year progressed, with a general spike during the 6 Weeks of Halloween. In terms of day of the week, we’re slightly more consistent here, but the weekend still gets the bulk of watches and Tuesday (which is game night) gets the least time.

Genres, Languages, and Countries

2023 Genres, Countries, and Languages

Here we see the usual dominance of USA and English language. You can’t really see it, but the 50 From 50 project did have an impact and overall count of USA and Anglosphere is actually way down. But since that project spread watching across tons of other countries, no one country stands out. The biggest changes came from a surprising showing from Mexico and Spain, which knocked China and Japan off the chart this year.

There some minor movement on genres, with Horror jumping up into the #2 slot after a stint at #5 last year. But genre fare still seems to be high here, and I do think the 50 From 50 project had some influence here as well – a lot of those films were horror or action (but again, we’ll need to do a full postmortem to really see what the breakdown was). Also of note: Documentary drops off the list of top genres (which aligns with a decline in non-fiction book reading last year as well). I don’t know that this means anything, but it’s interesting…

2023 Themes and Nanogenres

A new feature on the Letterboxd stats page is Themes and Nanogenres. Fun, but not too surprising – these are mostly related to action, thriller, and horror.

2023 Map of Movies Watched

Despite the USA and English language dominance, you can really see the effect of 50 From 50 here in the map, which shows probably the most coverage of any year yet. Definitely the most coverage for South America and Africa in any given year, and the funniest thing about this map is that some countries that I normally cover were not – notably Ireland and New Zealand (both were excluded from 50 From 50 due to being Anglosphere countries – doesn’t mean I couldn’t watch anything from them or anything, but I didn’t go out of my way). Even funnier is that we’re only two weeks into 2024 and I’ve already seen a movie from Ireland. Go figure.

Ratings and Other Patterns

2023 Ratings and other Patterns
  • 20.6% of my watches were a 2023 release, which is actually a bit of a drop from 2022. (Funnily enough 100% of my 2024 watching so far has been 2023 releases, so I’m catching up…)
  • 24.2% of my watches were actually rewatches, which is just slightly below 2022 numbers (a 0.2% difference) so we’re mostly on par with that.
  • Ratings Spread continues to be roughly bell-curve shaped and centered on a 3 star (out of 5) rating. There’s a decrease in 3 star reviews, but those got distributed in the adjacent ratings (rather than more extreme ratings). Interestingly, while I rarely give out the 1 star rating, I gave out 4 this year. That’s actually a mild decrease from 2022, but I literally sought out terrible movies in 2022 as part of a project with friends. This year I just watched some bad movies on my own. Go me.
  • Letterboxd has a watchlist feature where you can add movies you want to watch (or at least, not lose track of). This year saw a notable increase in both movies watched from the watchlist… but also movies added to the watchlist. As a percentage, I probably did significantly better than last year, but overall still added 23 movies to the overall list. Will 2024 finally be the year in which I make progress on the watchlist? (So far I’m at parity – 3 added, 3 watched (not the same 3))

Stars and Directors

2023 Most Watched Stars

Sylvester Stallone takes the cake this year, mostly on the back of rewatches (including smaller roles like in Guardians of the Galaxy movies and The Suicide Squad). Only two women on the list (down from 3 last year), but it’s nice to see Lin Shaye and Michelle Yeoh on the list. Two black men on the list, an actual improvement over last year, though obviously not outstanding. So not exactly diverse, but not completely generic either.

2023 most watched Directors

The director list is significantly less diverse, though there are far fewer outliers here (usually there’s someone with more than 4 movies, for example) and there are a few folks where I watched 3 of their movies, but they’re not on the list because it’s limited to 10. Go figure.

Highs and Lows

2023 Highs and Lows

The appropriately titled High and Low takes highest rated this year, certainly a worthy successor to last year’s The Godfather. Best. Christmas. Ever! (one of those Hallmark Christmas imitation movies that Netflix somehow manages to convince real stars to be in…) was the lowest rated thing I watched all year, which is saying something in a year when I also watched Sharknado and They Saved Hitler’s Brain. No surprise that Barbie was the most popular movie of the year on Letterboxd. And Most Obscure was a documentary I watched for 50 from 50 about Nokia (would make for an excellent double feature with Blackberry if you were so interested).

So there you have it, 2023 was a pretty great year for movie watching, here’s to 2024!

2023 in Book Reading

It’s become fashionable to point to a specific date on the Gregorian calendar and call it arbitrary (and I’m certainly guilty of this), but the calendar is based on astronomical movements in the solar system. Even granting that it doesn’t perfectly capture, for example, moon cycles (not to mention other idiosyncrasies), it’s not entirely arbitrary. It’s rational and considered. Our tendency to use this specific time to take stock of our lives, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed, is perhaps a touch more arbitrary, but I dunno, it’s cold out and I’m stuck inside, so might as well do something. Given the state of the world these last few years (not to mention that 2024 is a presidential election year in the US), such examinations can get a bit depressing, but let’s focus on the positive and less-existentially terrifying aspects of life, like book reading in 2023.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade. So let’s get to it…

Graphing Books and Pages Over Time

I read 56 books in 2023, a little above last year (and my usual calendar-based goal of 52) but still a far cry from the pandemic fueled heights of 2020. It’s more or less in line with pre-pandemic reading patterns…

Number of Books by Year

You can see the full list of books I read in 2023 on Goodreads. Pandemic patterns have mostly disappeared, socializing and other activities are higher than the past few years, and so on, such that earlier in the year I was actually lagging behind my usual goal. But then I got kinda hooked on a series (who happened to have a great audibook reader) and that fueled something of a resurgence.

Average book length was 347 pages, a slight uptick from last year, but basically on par with established patterns (and honestly not that far behind my record average of 356, set in 2013). I didn’t read a lot of short fiction this year (I also didn’t participate in the Hugos, which can drive shorter fiction reading), though I didn’t read a ton of massive tomes either. Overall page length is also basically on par with last year as well (again, a slight uptick).

Page Numbers by Year

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, which can be very misleading. In any case, this seems like a pretty solid pace that I seem to be gravitating towards.

The extremes

Shortest and Longest Books of 2023
Most and Least Popular Books of 2023

The shortest story being just 26 pages is notable given the relatively high average this year, but it was basically the only short fiction I read all year (maybe one novella?). The longest story being 758 pages is the lowest since 2017, though not by much. Basically, this just speaks to me having read mostly 200-400 page books throughout the year, with only a handful of things significantly above that count. The most shelved book is Agatha Christie’s first Poirot book, a series that I read several entries in last year (and will most likely continue to explore). The lowest shelved book was something I didn’t enjoy very much, which perhaps indicates why it’s not very popular… All of these extremes are fiction, and I do seem to have had an off year on the non-fiction front.

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

I’ve been leaving off the graph of publication years because I read some Shakespeare a few years ago which has made the overall chart look awkward (a ton of whitespace), but last year’s reading was sufficiently diverse in publication year that I think it’s worth trying to crop the chart down a bit.

Books Graphed by Publication Date

The X Axis is cut off to avoid copious whitespace, but the last two columns are 2023 (click the image to embiggen and see the full, uncropped image).

Of course, there’s still something of a bias towards recent releases, but the overall pattern is more consistent.

  • Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad was the oldest book I read in 2023. Published in 1904, it’s also the fourth oldest book I’ve read since 2010. That said, the bulk of Agatha Christie novels that I read were all in the 1920s and 1930s, and there was also some Vintage SF Month entries early in the year. Plus, a bunch of 1960s and 1970s novels creeped in, which drove a pleasing pattern to 2023’s reading in the graph above…
  • 7 non-fiction books in 2023, a dramatic decrease from last year. I can’t think of a particular reason for this, but it’s something I should try to improve in 2024, I think…
  • 14 books written by women in 2023, a significant decrease from last year. This isn’t something I generally try to consciously control, but it’s worth noting that at least half of those 14 were written by Agatha Christie. I suspect this number will go up in 2024, but you never know…
  • 26 science fiction books in 2023, a bit of an uptick, mostly driven by the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson, which I kinda got hooked on (and which represents a rather significant portion of my overall reading in 2023). I have mostly caught up with the series at this point, though, so it’s a bit of an outlier in 2023.
  • My average rating on Goodreads was a 3.9, which is a tad higher than last yea, but I will note that I tend to round up to 4 stars for the grand majority of books. A lot of those 4 ratings would be 3.5 if that option was available. Also of note: I didn’t participate in the Hugo Awards this year, and that tends to drive at least a few lower ratings…

So 2023 was yet another solid year in book reading. The only thing I think I’ll consciously change in 2024 is seeking out some more non-fiction. I’m still on the fence for participating in the Hugos, but I’ll at least be checking in on the nominees.

Anywho, stay tuned for the year in movie watching, at least one Vintage Science Fiction Month review, and the kickoff of the Kaedrin Movie Awards, starting in mid-January and culminating in the traditional top 10 in February sometime (yep, two months after most people post theirs, I know, I know).

50 From 50 – Success!

Back in March, I made a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries this year (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post) and about 50 weeks into the year, we have a success on our hands. Because I started in March, I’ve been playing catchup in terms of recapping qualifying movies, but I mostly caught up during the Six Weeks of Halloween. That said, this post will cover the final 9 qualifying films (and some may not be as thorough as others). As with previous movie-based projects, I will probably get to a Postmortem at some point, but it may be a while since we’re rapidly coming up on end of year posting and 2023 movie awards and whatnot. Anywho, let’s finish recapping the films that brought us to 50 from 50 success. More 50 From 50: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | 6WH Week 2.5 | 6WH Joko Anwar | 6WH Speed Round]


Saudi ArabiaThe Book of Sun – High school senior Husam finds himself drawn to the world of filmmaking and sets about making a no-budget horror movie with the help of his friends and one supportive teacher. A coming of age story mixed into a guerrilla filmmaking plot makes for a nice combo, and while this doesn’t cater to Western audiences, it’s more interesting because of that and still quite relatable. Perhaps the human impulse towards art and being opposed by crusty old deans are more universal themes than I thought.

While not quite as low budget as the horror movie within the movie, this production makes the most of its limitations, even deploying some mixed media and animation in service of an entertaining little story. At 130 minutes, it’s a tad overlong and some of the beats are derivative and predictable, but the pacing is brisk and it never really drags. This is one of those movies that sorta languishes in the depths of Netflix’s catalogue (though, hmm, it appears it’s no longer there) and I only found it because I was scouring Letterboxd for 50 From 50 movies from unlikely countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s not perfect or anything, but I’m really glad I stumbled onto this one, and it’s one of the bigger surprises of the whole 50 from 50 exercise. **1/2


BoliviaSealed Cargo – A police officer whose career is on the rise gets tasked with smuggling cargo containers filled with toxic waste to Chile. He commissions an old train for the trip, but things do not go to plan as the entire population of Bolivia is seemingly aware of the cargo and assumes it’ll be dumped on their land. There’s a lot of potential avenues for drama here, maybe even political satire, but nothing quite comes together in a cohesive way and the entire endeavor drags.

It’s well shot and looks good, plenty of painterly landscapes being traversed by an old-timey train, and it touches on lots of potentially thorny themes, including duty and honor, government corruption, local resistance movements, and so on. Alas, this doesn’t really deliver on any of those promises and sometimes veers sharply in confusing directions (at one point, a policeman decides to start literally eating the neon blue, probably toxic dirt that’s being transported for no discernable reason… another scene involves one of the policeman assaulting a woman who was trying to hitch a ride on the train to escape her local problems… and so on). Points for the attempt, but it doesn’t quite get there. *1/2


Mongolia Genghis: The Legend of the Ten – The Mongolian title for this movie is Aravt, a reference to the way Ghengis Khaan organized his troops into decimal-based units of 10, 100, 1000, etc… It translates literally to “ten families” and consisted of ten soldiers from ten different families. This movie tells the story of one Aravt tasked with finding and retrieving a doctor to help with an illness plaguing Khaan’s troops. Naturally, they find themselves facing obstacles all along the way, including an abandoned infant that needs care and an enemy force informally led by a power-hungry soldier willing to betray everyone to get his way.

This feels a lot like a Western (the baby subplot reminded me of 3 Godfathers, for instance) with integrated Mongolian culture and history (perhaps that should be phrased in the opposite way, given that this is a Mongolian production). It’s shot well, another movie with lots of beautiful landscapes, and it features some decent small-scale action that gets a little more fantastical as the film approaches its climax. It’s reasonably well executed and entertaining enough, and though it doesn’t break new ground, it is interesting to see a sorta on-the-ground, soldier level view (as opposed to focusing on Ghengis Khaan and epic battle sequences, as a lot of movies have done) of the era from a Mongolian perspective. **


DenmarkPusher – Nicolas Winding Refn’s debut is a crime movie about a drug pusher who desperately tries to recover from a botched deal and thus finds himself deep in debt to his suppliers. Shot in a vérité style, lots of handheld camerawork and long takes following our characters from behind, it does not paint a pretty picture of drug dealing.

Pusher

Most crime films at least make some attempt to show why people would be attracted to this way of life before pulling the rug out later on, and sure, the opening of this film isn’t entirely miserable, but our protagonist is clearly not doing great. Once the inciting incident occurs, he’s immediately thrust into a life or death scenario that he has little hope of escaping. The ending has a bit of ambiguity to it, but not really, and it hits pretty hard. Kim Bodnia plays the titular pusher and puts in a remarkable peformance. Mads Mikkelsen is great as usual, but has more of a supporting role (apparently he becomes the main protagonist in the sequels). It’s an impressive debut and very well made, but its the sort of film that doesn’t really appeal to me. Your mileage may vary. **1/2


EgyptKarmouz War (aka No Surrender) – In colonial Egypt, a police captain refuses to hand over British soldiers who raped a local woman. British forces lay siege to the police station in an attempt to force the release of the prisoners. Amusingly blatant anti-colonial propaganda with larger than life Egyptian heroes and despicable British villains. At its best, it reminded me a bit of over-the-top 80s action B movies starring Chuck Norris. At its worst, it reminded me a bit of over-the-top 80s action B movies starring Chuck Norris. It’s certainly a little overheated and ridiculous at times, but it has its moments. I stumbled onto this movie because it features Scott Adkins, but as it turns out, he’s only shoehorned into about 5 minutes of the movie, and while he injects some more acrobatic action into the proceedings, it’s certainly not a typical Adkins DTV actioner. Not a movie I’d recommend, but it’s got some interesting stuff in it. **


Cambodia The Prey – Cambodian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson made a name for himself with martial arts actioners like Jailbreak, but here he tackles yet another spin on The Most Dangerous Game. An undercover Chinese agent finds himself in a jail that sells prisoners to trophy hunters. This time, the prisoner turns the tables and the hunter becomes the hunted. Obviously a tired premise, but this is a well executed version of the story with a few minor wrinkles that make it all a worthwhile exercise. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for future Henderson offerings. **1/2


USSR Stalker – Based on the novel Roadside Picnic, this tells the story of three people traveling into the Zone, a place where normal laws of physics cease to operate as expected. The titular Stalker is a guide, and the others are hoping to find a specific area of the Zone that grants your most desired wishes. Widely considered a classic, it’s one of those films I find rather frustrating. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography, framing, and compositions are exceptional and deserving of all the praise the film gets.

Stalker

The ideas in the story are thematically rich and thought provoking, even if this sort of blunt philosophizing can seem a bit ham fisted at times (it’s certainly a step up from dorm-room philosophizing and I’m willing to grant that something may be lost in translation). It’s certainly not surprising that a Soviet filmmaker in 1979 would be interested in exploring the philosophy of desire and the human inability to actually know their deepest wants and needs. At this point in the USSR, central planning was clearly struggling, and this movie represents a sorta morose acknowledgement that it might be impossible to accurately know our own deep-seated desires, let alone those of others (especially at a societal level).

Stalker

While it’s a visually spectacular movie, it certainly takes its time, lingering on nearly every shot much longer than needed. Yes, yes, this extra time gives you the space to consider all the ideas and ponder great mysteries and so on, but I’ve always been suspicious of Andrei Tarkovsky. In Solaris, there’s an infamous sequence where a guy travels from the countryside to a city via a highway, with visuals that look more “futuristic” as he approaches the city. It’s nearly five minutes long, and while it does emphasize one of the film’s themes (juxtaposing the natural world with the man-made world), did it really need to be that long? Lots of folks will say yes, but I distinctly remember listening to the Criterion Collection commentary for that film where they explain that the “futuristic” footage of the highway was actually filmed in Tokyo (and in 1972, Tokyo was sufficiently futuristic looking for those in the USSR) and that Tarkovsky included so much of it because he had to justify the expense of his trip.

Maybe I’m overstating this, as clearly Tarkovsky likes his films to be deliberately paced, but man, you really feel that time. In fairness, Stalker is not nearly as bad as Solaris in this respect, but the glacial pacing can be a challenge, especially when combined with some of the more surrealistic components of this story where you struggle to make sense of what you’re being shown. I have a lot of respect for what this movie is doing and I’m glad I’ve finally caught up with it, but it’s a hard movie to recommend and I’m not nearly as rapturous about it as a lot of people… ***


Pakistan Altered Skin – Ostensibly a blend of zombie horror and conspiracy thriller, this tends to lean harder into the latter, with middling to poor results. I usually don’t mind a derivative plot if it’s executed well, but this is one of those examples where it’s trying to do two different things, but doesn’t really succeed at either. The acting and performances are awful, and it’s visually mediocre. Look there’s no shortage of crappy zombie films out there, but I was hoping the conspiracy angle would give this a leg up. Unfortunately, it’s poorly executed and the only real spin on the formula is the setting in Pakistan… but I don’t think that’s really enough to save this. *


NetherlandsThe 4th Man – This was the last film Paul Verhoeven made in the Netherlands before heading off to Hollywood. A psycho-sexual nightmare thriller with some homoeroticism and Catholic guilt thrown in for extra flavor, it tells the story of Gerard, an alcoholic author who starts an affair with Christine, a cosmetologist with a mysterious past. Filled with religious imagery, gratuitous sex, and surreal, dreamlike violence, it’s certainly not a subtle film, but neither is it a bombastic exercise a la some of Verhoeven’s Hollywood productions. Indeed, I’m not sure if the story isn’t happening entirely in our protagonist’s head.

The Fourth Man

Speaking of whom, he’s played by Jeroen Krabbé, who has been in lots of stuff, but I most associate him with his memorable supporting turn in The Fugitive. He’s excellent here, as is Renée Soutendijk as the kinda, sorta femme fatale. It’s an interesting movie, I’m glad I caught up with it, and I’d like to explore more of Verhoeven’s Dutch films. Certainly not my favorite, but worthwhile! ***


And so that marks 50 different films from 50 different countries. Alright, there are some minor cheats here – Stalker being USSR when I’d already watched a Russian movie is questionable, for example. And I will probably not get to 20 movies from one country (as originally planned), though I did get to 10-15 movies from both Hong Kong and Italy, so I figure that counts for something. As mentioned above, I’ll probably do a postmortem for the project at some point, but it may be a while, as we’ve got a packed schedule coming up with the usual year-ending recaps and Movie Awards and whatnot…

The Great Movie Catch-Up, 2023 Edition

Tis the season to draw up a list of 2023 movie releases that I want to catch-up with before embarking upon the traditional Kaedrin Movie AwardsTop 10, and other year ending nonsense. Of course, the professionals are releasing their Top 10s and year end summaries right now, but for us normals who don’t go to Sundance and Cannes or get screeners and other opportunities, it takes a bit longer. So the Awards happen in January and the Top 10 usually in February (hey, at least we’re faster than The Oscars!)

As of this moment, I’ve seen 67 movies that could be considered a 2023 release. This is actually a significant drop from the last few years, even though my overall movie watching numbers have not declined too much. Part of the decline may be the focus on 50 from 50, but I think at least some of it has to do with the industry’s return to theatrical releases and floundering streaming channels. Obviously streaming exclusives are still a thing, I’m still seeing plenty of streaming slop, and while the theatrical windows for a lot of movies are returning to pre-pandemic levels, many are still available pretty quickly. I haven’t actually done a deep dive on this to see if it’s true, but it does feel like a heartening trend. Movies are back, nature is healing, etc…

Anywho, it’s traditional around here to take stock of the year so far and take a look at what I missed as well as what’s coming soon. The end of the year usually results in a deluge of prestige pictures looking for Oscar nominations. The pandemic threw a bit of a wrench into that pattern for sure, but it does seem as if this December is jam packed (and January will no doubt see some stragglers in theaters as well). Standard disclaimers apply: I consider some 2022 movies a 2023 release if it didn’t get distributed in the US until 2023. This list is not comprehensive. I probably won’t watch everything on this list. I will probably watch things not on this list. I started compiling this post a couple weeks ago and have already seen some of the movies on it. And so on. Let’s get to it:

Blockbusters

Napoleon – A Ridley Scott historical epic always piques interest, especially after the underrated/underseen The Last Duel, and the subject matter hasn’t been overdone (despite being of interest to lots of famous auteurs, notably Kubrick).

Napoleon

Update: I have seen seen this movie! It’s very messy and glosses over too many events in an attempt to cram in everything it can, but Joiquin Phoenix’s Napoleon is an astounding buffoon, the battles are epic, the pace never falters, and while it’s not entirely my thing, I’m glad I caught up with it. Curious about the rumored 4 hour cut, though I doubt it would change my feelings too much

Ferrari – Michael Mann’s passion project has been a long time coming, and it’s been quite a while since his last film (the disappointing Blackhat), but I’m always curious to see what Mann’s got cooking.

The Creator – This low(ish) budget came and went without much fanfare and I never caught up with it (such is the fate of movies that are released during the 6 weeks of Halloween). I’m not expecting much given what I’ve heard, but it looks visually spectacular and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it well enough.

Dumb Money – The story of the Gamestop stock craze is a fascinating one, so even though I tend to prefer a documentary over dramatizations, I’ll certainly give this one a look.

Next Goal Wins – It’s become fashionable to hate on Taika Waititi and the guy has mostly brought that upon himself (plus, the last Thor movie wasn’t very good), but I’m always curious to see what he’s got up his sleeve. This seems a bit derivative, but it could be fun. Alas, I appear to have missed out on the theatrical release, and you never know when things will show up on streaming/rental these days, so who knows if I’ll actually get to this.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem – I’ve heard good things about this and the animation style looks interesting, but there are some hesitations as well. Will definitely check it out at some point.

Elemental – Disney has trained us all to wait for streaming, so that’s what I’ve done. Pixar’s star has fallen a bit of late, but they can still put out great stuff, so this is certainly worth a look.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie – Not expecting a whole lot, but it’s the second most successful movie of the year and it’s quite possible this will tickle some nostalgia in my bones, so I should probably take a gander.

Streaming Exclusive

Maestro (Netflix) – Bradley Cooper’s directorial biopic has lots of Oscar buzz and it’s interesting that Cooper has become something of an event filmmaker (in a way), so I’ll certainly check this out.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Poison, The Swan, and The Rat Catcher (Netflix) – Wes Anderson made this series of short films based on Roald Dahl stories earlier this year, and they sorta just came and went in the way Netflix exclusives do, but I definitely want to catch up with them. Come to think of it, Asteroid City didn’t make too many waves either, but I enjoyed it well enough, and Anderson is always up to something interesting.

Candy Cane Lane (Prime Video) – Eddie Murphy Christmas movie jam that could be fun, I guess. Update: I’ve seen this. There are a couple of fun things about it and at least it doesn’t follow the Hallmark formula, but it’s maybe only a hair above Hallmark in terms of quality. Jillian Bell is great though, and this is fine low-stakes fodder, I guess.

BS High (Max) – Sports documentary about a sorta fake high school football team? Sounds interesting. Update: I’ve seen this, and it’s an absolutely bonkers story with some crazy twists and turns and a charismatic con-man villain who just gets worse and worse as the story unfolds. Stylistically straightforward, but worth a look even if you’re not a sports person.

Reality (Max) – An intriguing concept: the script for this movie is simply an FBI transcript of an interrogation into an intelligence worker who is alleged to have leaked classified information. Again, I may prefer a documentary over the dramatization (and there actually is such a documentary), but the gimmick here certainly seems worth a look.

May December (Netflix) – Lots of buzz in the film dork community around this one. I’ve never been much interested by Todd Haynes, but I’ll probably give this a look.

Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire (Netflix) – Zack Snyder’s faux Star Wars certainly looks interesting and bombastic and I’m honestly glad he’s not doing DC comic book movies anymore. Hopefully this will pay off.

Rye Lane (Hulu) – British romantic comedy with under-the-radar buzz, I’m into it.

When Evil Lurks (Shudder) – It’s always telling when a horror movie attains a reputation as being extra dark, as this one has, so I guess I should find some time for it.

Hit Man (Netflix) – Richard Linklater directed this movie starring Glen Powell that apparently did well in the festival circuit, but couldn’t secure a full release, instead going to Netflix. It’s unclear when this will actually be released, and at this point, I’m guessing it won’t be a 2023 release…

Independent, Foreign, and Art House

The Holdovers – Alexander Payne can be hit or miss for me, but this story about a grumpy prep school teacher forced to spend Christmas vacation with a student seems like it could be up my alley.

The Holdovers

Update: I’ve seen this, and it’s a hit. I’m not as rapturous as some people are about it, but I like it quite a bit, and while it maintains an acerbic edge, it’s got some sentimentality and wit to it as well.

Poor Things – Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly a weirdo, but that often translates to interesting filmmaking. This has been getting lots of praise in the festival circuit, and I’m looking forward to catching up with it when it goes wide later this month.

Polite Society – Billed as an action comedy, this British flick sounds like an interesting and unconventional combination of elements like martial arts and a… wedding heist? This has been on my radar for a while, but it’s now on Amazon Prime, so I will definitely be catching up with it soon. Sounds like a hoot.

Sound of Freedom – The little Angel Studios thriller that could, this sucker cleaned up at the box office and garnered bizarre conspiracy theories about its support of conspiracy theories, but I will definitely catch up with it at some point.

The Boy and the Heron – Hayao Miyazaki has returned from retirement (again) and while I don’t know anything about it other than its director and the title, that’s enough to make me want to see it.

Jules – I’m going with “modern-day Cocoon” to describe this one, but it’s probably better than that sounds.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial – RIP William Friedkin… his final film sounds interesting enough and I definitely want to check it out.

Dream Scenario – High concept Nicolas Cage flick about a guy who starts showing up in everyone’s dreams. Sounds interesting!

Past Lives – An art house favorite that came out early in the year, but still seems to have some buzz around it.

Return to Seoul – A film that appeared on many critics best-of lists last year, but wasn’t really available to watch in the US until this year.

AKA – Alban Lenoir is a French action star that I know from the Lost Bullet movies (both of which are great fun) and this is his latest. It’s on Netflix, so why not check it out? (This approach worked well for those Lost Bullet movies, also on Netflix)

Pathaan – I saw a clip from this Indian action flick on Twitter the other day and, yes, I will watch this.

Full Time – I learned about this one from John Waters’ best of 2023 list (his lists are always edifying). He describes this as being about: “a normal single-mother hotel worker and whether she’ll get to work on time” and I’m sold.

Miscellaneous, Genre, Mutant Fam, etc…

The Toxic Avenger – Can a remake of the crude, schlocky 1984 masterpiece even begin to approach the original? I guess we’ll find out (and early indications are that it’s great). The involvement of Macon Blair and others in the production are certainly encouraging. As of yet, no idea when this will be released (it could very well be a 2024 release).

The Artifice Girl – Micro-budget SF about AI that sounds right up my alley. Whether or not I end up liking this, it’s exactly the sort of movie I write posts like this for: I never would have even known this existed if I didn’t explicitly seek out 2023 movies to catch up on…

Lola – Another Micro-budget SF movie (this one about time travel) that I never would have known about if I wasn’t going through this exercise. Looking forward to catching up with this.

The Conference – German slasher movie set at a corporate retreat? Sure, why not?

Sisu – This Finnish WWII action flick actually got a push in theaters early this year and I’m not sure how I didn’t catch up with it back then, but I didn’t, so I feel like I need to catch up with this one…

We Kill for Love – A documentary about the obscure sub-genre of the erotic thriller that had a moment in the early 90s (mostly with DTV, cable, and VHS, but which also broke into the mainstream for a bit). Discovered this when the director was interviewed on the Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast. Definitely an interesting interview and it makes me want to watch the movie.

Late Night with the Devil – Low budget horror movie about a TV broadcast that unleashes evil or somesuch starring David Dastmalchian. Not sure if this will come out in time for 2023, but it appears that it will be a Shudder release at some point.

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person – Goofy sorta premise about a vampire who is too sensitive to kill running into a suicidal guy that could save her life. Could be fun! That being said, I have no idea when this is actually coming out.

Blackout – Larry Fessenden’s take on werewolves is another movie I’m not sure will come out in time for 2023, but it sounds interesting and I’ve heard good things about it, even if Fessenden is another hit-or-miss filmmaker for me…

Phew, that’s a lot of 2023 movie releases to catch-up with, though as noted, several are not likely to be released in time.