Master of the Revels

In the English royal household, the Master of the Revels was responsible for overseeing royal festivities (aka revels) and stage censorship. An important role in the time of William Shakespeare, which turns out to be a key DTAP (Destination Time And Place) in Nicole Galland’s follow-up to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., aptly titled Master of the Revels. Galland had collaborated with Neal Stephenson on the first book, but took this sequel on by herself. I’m always curious about how authors collaborate on books with shared authorship, but it seems like in the case of D.O.D.O., Galland had done the bulk of the writing, with Stephenson adding some technical flavor and overarching story bits. As such, this sequel retains the feel of the first book, while progressing the story forward.

Master of the Revels

The story picks up right where D.O.D.O. left off. Our small group of intrepid heros have set up a small operation to counter the nefarious Irish witch Gráinne, who intends to utilize D.O.D.O. time-travel resources to reverse the evolution of all modern technology (and thus allow magic to be more freely practiced in modern times). Her travels take us to Renaissance Italy, feudal Japan, and of course, Jacobean England. It’s kinda hard to talk about the plot here without giving some stuff away or explaining what was covered in the previous book, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The story is told in an epistolary format, with everything being after-action reports, chat transcripts, bureaucratic documentation with acronyms galore, and so on. Much of the sense of administrative humor is retained, and it’s basically just a lot of fun to be hanging out with these characters again. We also get a few new characters, including Robin Lyons, Tristan’s sister and noted Shakespeare nerd, who is naturally recruited to infiltrate the office of the Master of Revels. She fits right in, and makes good friends with the Shakespeare brothers (in particular Bill’s younger and less famous brother Ned, who is another great addition to the cast). Alas, some of the original characters, notably Tristan himself, are sidelined for the majority of the book, but it all works well enough.

As the title of the book indicates, this English bits comprises the bulk of the story, so any Shakespeare nerds would really enjoy this. Actually, history nerds in general will get a kick out of this series. Lots of historical figures are mentioned, including the actual Master of the Revels during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, amongst other actors in the troupe. The other DTAPs are a little less detailed, though Leonardo Da Vinci is a key to one of them…

Gráinne makes for a fun villain, though I must admit that I don’t really get how her plan will work. The limitations of magic that have been set in the D.O.D.O. universe are such that her task seems impossible or at least, inadvisable. To be sure, the stakes are clear and our heroes’ actions to counter Gráinne make sense, it’s just the overarching strategy here that I’m not following. Such is the way with a lot of time-travel stories though, and this has the added complexity of quantum physics and multiverses too, which help make the hand-waving plot machinations successful (and which I maintain is a clever sort of explanation for the way magic works in this universe). To be sure, I’m still having a lot of fun with these books, even if they are a little too focused on more narrow episodes rather than any sorta grand plan.

As such, this story is resolved satisfactorily, but I don’t know that the series has progressed very much… and yet, I’m pretty excited to see where we go next, which is a good sign. As yet, I’m not sure if there actually will be a third book, but it seems likely and from interviews, the notion of a trilogy has been thrown out there, so I’m hoping we’ll get a third book at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoyed D.O.D.O., this will scratch that itch (and even though Stephenson’s involvement is minimal, it might tide you over until Termination Shock comes out).

Stephenson’s Termination Shock

This week saw the announcement of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock. It’s an Easter miracle! We’re big fans of Stephenson here at Kaedrin and any new books are treated as events. So what’s it about?

Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.

One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

As only Stephenson can, Termination Shock sounds a clarion alarm, ponders potential solutions and dire risks, and wraps it all together in an exhilarating, witty, mind-expanding speculative adventure.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation about Stephenson going down such a well tread path (the amount of recent science fiction addressing climate change explicitly or implicitly is high, and often quite didactic), but I’m confident that he has the tools to pull it off in a way that is entertaining and interesting. Stephenson’s tackled the environmental angle before, and managed to wrap it up in an entertaining thriller structure (in fact, it’s probably his most accessible novel).

In physics, the Termination Shock is one of the outer boundaries of the sun’s influence in the solar system, which perhaps indicates that we’re in for some space travel that the marketing blurb doesn’t mention. There is also the scare quotes around “elemental” that point to more potential scientific avenues that this will explore. As usual, hopes are high. The novel comes out on November 16, 2021.

In other Stephenson-adjacent news, I just finished the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and quite enjoyed it. Look for a review coming soon!

The Empty Man

The Empty Man is one of those movies that slipped through the cracks (er, gargantuan crevasses) of 2020 releases. The reasons for this are legion: there’s the ever-present pandemic, the Fox/Disney deal meant less marketing and support from the studio, a derivative title that calls to mind dreck like Slender Man or The Bye Bye Man, and so on. That said, there appears to be a growing following. After finally learning of its existence and getting over the title, I watched the damn thing and really enjoyed it.

It’s certainly not perfect. Clocking in at well over 2 hours, it’s far too long and ponderous. And yet, I found myself transfixed for the majority of runtime. I’ve noticed that I’m less and less patient with this sort of thing as I get older, but I was able to overcome that hurdle with ease. The only other issue is that the rules of the supernatural force that drives the story are a little hand-wavy. On the other hand, it’s a horror movie about a private detective and secret cults and whatnot. Not sure if clarity would really help here.

The film opens with a 20 minute long prologue that starts off like a typical young-folk on a hike horror setup, but quickly evolves into something more intriguing. What’s more, while the film looks great, it’s not like it’s reliant on CGI pixel stew or something. The effect of a creepy, well designed statue is enough to carry the entire sequence. There are several other scenes throughout the movie that manage that sort of hypnotic effect without relying on anything other than simple photography and good production design. I hesitate to call them set-pieces, because they really aren’t that complicated. Sometimes all you need is Stephen Root giving an ominous monologue.

Stephen Root and James Badge Dale in The Empty Man

This is writer/director David Prior’s debut film. His past experience appears to be doing DVD/BD extras centered around David Fincher movies. Prior is clearly influenced by Fincher’s style and you can see that meticulous attention to detail all over this movie. It’s brooding and portentous without straying into indulgent or pretentious. Prior is able to blend the trashy thrills of an urban legend story with something more elegiac. It’s almost got a literary quality to it, even if it’s the sort of literary that would show up in Paperbacks From Hell rather than the New Yorker.

I’ve been deliberately vague about the plot of the movie. This is one of those things that would probably work best if you go into it blind. If you like horror flicks and don’t mind something a little more talky than your typical gore-fest, check this movie out. I suspect it will continue to gain an underground following over the next few years…

Notes on Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the more interesting books I’ve read during lockdown was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have always done a good job keeping up with reviews of fiction (particularly science fiction), but I’m awful at following up on non-fiction. This despite non-fiction often covering more interesting ideas in more relevant, concrete ways. We’ll try to do Da Vinci justice here.

First up is probably the most significant takeaway from the book:

While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge Drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.

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It’s worth noting that the notion of art has changed so dramatically since Da Vinci’s time that a lot of what he dealt with seems completely foreign today. His specific brand of naturalism is surely still a thing today, it’s just that it’s a much smaller proportion of art. This insight, that Da Vinci didn’t make a distinction between art and science, is one that recurs throughout the book. Take this:

…Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.”

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In these days of “out of context” journalism, going to the original source is as wise a piece of advice as ever. Over and over again, the need for immediate reporting and the bias of journalists lead us down false paths. Even once enough time has passed to figure out what really happened, the damage is done. No one reads the corrections.

Leonardo was human. The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That’s important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method – almost like a trick – for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at each detail. He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

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Another lesson we’d do well to learn. These days, everyone wants to be an immediate expert. No one wants to put in the time to actually become the expert, they just jump to what is considered “the best” and avoid everything else. Something important is lost in the process. I’m reminded of the computer scientist Peter Norvig. Frustrated by the proliferation of books with titles like “Learn Java in 24 Hours”, he wrote a book called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. I think Da Vinci had a similar approach.

He was constantly peppering acquaintances with the type of questions we should all learn to pose more often. “Ask Benedetto Portinari how they walk on ice in Flanders,” reads one memorable and vivid entry on a to-do list. Over the years there were scores of others: “Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on the bastions by day or night… Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Ask Maestro Giovannino how the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes.”

Thus Leonardo became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom. More important, he came to see that the progress of science came from a dialogue between the two. That in turn helped him realize that knowledge also came from a related dialogue: that between experiment and theory.

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More lessons to learn from Leonardo, and the notion that experience and theory are both worth pursuing is an excellent one.

Leonardo… was interested in a part-by-part analysis of the transfer of motion. Rendering each of the moving parts-ratchets, springs, gears, levers, axles, and so on- was a method to help him understand their functions and engineering principles. He used drawing as a tool for thinking. He experimented on paper and evaluated concepts by visualizing them.

Page 190

His drawings served as visual thought experiments. By rendering the mechanisms in his notebooks rather than actually constructing them, he could envision how they would work and assess whether they would achieve perpetual motion. He eventually concluded, after looking at many different methods, that none of them would. In reasoning so, he showed that, as we go through life, there is a value in trying to do such tasks as designing a perpetual-motion machine: there are some problems that we will never be able to solve, and it’s useful to understand why.

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I like the concept of “drawing as a tool for thinking”, and I see this a lot in my day job. Not only does visualizing something help with understanding it, but it makes a huge difference in communicating it out to others. One example of this sort of thing, I’d been reporting on the benefits of an effort for a couple of months. I had stated one benefit in a text bullet point, but was able to get some actual data and changed it to a graph showing a before and after. I’d been reporting the exact same information for 2 months, but no one really noticed it until I made the graph.

It’s also interesting that Leonardo found value in unsolvable tasks like perpetual motion. Again, it speaks to the expertise problem mentioned above. People want to become immediate experts, but are unwilling to approach anything if it means they might fail. Many of the outlandish things that Leonardo speculated about did come to pass, eventually:

This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the rout of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway. Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality.

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Of course, not all of these speculations had as much of an impact as they should:

These laws of friction, and in particular the realization that friction is independent of the contact surface area, were an important discovery, but Leonardo never published them. They had to be rediscovered almost two hundred years later by the French scientific instrument maker Guillaume Amontons.  … He also devised ways to use ball bearings and roller bearings, techniques that were not commonly used until the 1800s.

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He was mainly motivated by his own curiosity. … He was more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings.

This is true for all of his studies, not just his work on anatomy. The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history. … As the Leonardo scholar Charles Hope has pointed out, “He had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.” Although he would occasionally let visitors glimpse his work, he did not seem to realize or care that the importance of research comes from its dissemination.

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Here we find yet another lesson from Da Vinci. This time, though, it’s something he was bad at that can guide us. He was ahead of his time on many things and made important discoveries… but he never published them, so they had to be rediscovered later. Sometimes for hundreds of years. I suppose this could be seen as a consequence of his ravenous curiosity. He had so much on his mind at all times that he rarely finished any one thing. But he made tons of interesting observations. Some are seemingly trivial and weird, but when we dig deeper, we find something more:

Then comes my favorite item on any Leonardo list: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” This is not just a random entry. He mentioned the woodpecker’s tongue again on a later page, where he described and drew the human tongue. “Make the motions of the woodpecker,” he wrote. When I first saw his entry about the woodpecker, I regarded it, as most scholars have, as an entertaining oddity – an amuse-bouche, so to speak – evidence of the eccentric nature of Leonardo’s relentless curiosity. That it indeed is. But there is more, as I discovered after pushing myself to be more like Leonardo and drill down into random curiosities. Leonardo, I realized, had become fascinated by the muscles of the tongue. All the other muscles he studied acted by pulling rather than pushing a pody part, but the tongue seemed to be an exception. This was true in humans as in other animals. The most notable example is the tongue of the woodpecker. Nobody had drawn or fully written about it before, but Leonardo with his acute ability to observe objects in motion knew that there was something to be learned from it.

On the same list, Leonardo instructed himself to describe “the jaw of the crocodile.” Once again, if we follow his curiosity, rather than merely be amused by it, we can see that he was on to an important topic. A crocodile, unlike any mammal, has a second jaw joint, which spreads out force when it snaps shut its mouth. That gives the crocodile the most forceful bite of any animal.

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His notebooks feature tons of inventions and concepts that would not be rediscovered for centuries. Just conceiving the idea was often enough for him… but then, that’s a complicated process as well:

When Leonardo drew his Vitruvian Manhe had a lot of inter-related ideas dancing in his imagination. These included the mathematical challenge of squaring the circle, the analogy between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of earth, the human proportions to be found through anatomical studies, the geometry of squares and circles in church architecture, the transformation of geometric shapes, and a concept combining math and art that was known as “the golden ratio” or “divine proportion.”

He developed his thoughts about these topics not just from his own experience and reading; they were formulated also through conversations with friends and colleagues. Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it has been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor. Unlike Michaelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas.

This process of bouncing around thoughts and jointly formulating ideas was facilitated by hanging around a Renaissance court like the one in Milan.

… Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium and why the young Benjamin Franklin founded a club where the most interesting people of Philadelphia would gather every Friday. At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions.

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The funny thing about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man? It also wasn’t really published formally, it’s just a sketch in his notebook. And yet it’s one of the most famous pieces of art ever conceived. And it was a sorta collaboration, or perhaps competition would be more accurate. These days, when someone says Vitruvian Man, we immediately attribute it to Leonardo, but it’s actually a general idea that many artists tackled.

Given Leonardo’s tendency towards collaboration, I have to wonder how many things resulted that we have no idea were inspired by him. As it turns out, attribution is a particularly thorny topic for artists of this time period. They didn’t sign their paintings, so things get very complicated:

There is enough evidence, I think, to support an attribution, in whole or in part, to Leonardo: the use of a walnut panel similar in grain to that of Lady with an Ermine , the existence of some court sonnets that seem to refer to his painting such a work, and the fact that some aspects of the painting have a beauty worthy of the master. Perhaps it was a collaborative work of his studio, produced to fulfill a ducal commission, with some involvement from Leonardo’s brush but not his heart and soul.

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What is most interesting about the portrait is Silverman’s quest to prove that it was by Leonardo. Like most artists of his time, Leonardo never signed his works nor kept a record of them. So the question of authentication – figuring out which truly deserve to be called autograph works by Leonardo – becomes yet another fascinating aspect of grappling with his genius. In the case of the portrait that Silverman bought, the saga involved a combination of detective work, technical wizardry, historical research, and connoisseurship. The interdisciplinary effort, which wove together art and science, was worthy of Leonardo, who would have appreciated  the interplay between those who love the humanities and those who love technology.

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One of the veils blurring our knowledge of Leonardo is the mystery surrounding the authenticity and dates of some of his paintings, including ones we think are lost and others we think are finds. Like most artist-craftsmen of his era, he did not sign his work. Although he copiously documented trivial items in his notebooks, including the amount he spent on food and on Salai’s clothes, he did not record what he was painting, what he had completed, and where his works went. For some paintings we have detailed contracts and disputes to inform us; for others we have to rely on a snippet from the sometimes reliable Vasari or other early chronicles.

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… we need to look at copies done by his followers to envision works now lost, such as the Battle of Anghiari, and to analyze what were thought to be works by his followers to see if they might actually be autograph Leonardos. These endeavors can be frustrating, but even when they do not produce certainty, they can lead to a better understanding of Leonardo, as we saw in the case of La Bella Principessa.

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In 2011 a newly rediscovered painting by Leonardo surprised the art world. Each decade, a dozen or so pieces are proposed or pushed as having a reasonable claim to be previously unknown Leonardos, but only twice before in modern times had such assertions ended up generally accepted

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One of the striking things about Da Vinci is just how little work is actually attributed to him. And yet, two of his paintings (The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) are arguably the most famous paintings ever made. There is, of course, lots more of interest in the book, but I’ll leave you with a concept that he invented, called Sfumato:

The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke,” or more precisely the dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air,” he wrote in a series of maxims for young painters. From the eyes of his angel in Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously.

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Sfumato is not merely a technique for modeling reality more accurately in a painting. It is an analogy for the blurry distinction between the known and the mysterious, one of the core themes of Leonardo’s life. Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience an mystery, between objects and their surroundings.

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Link Dump

The usual roundup of interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

The “sweater curse” or “curse of the love sweater” is a term used by knitters to describe the belief that if a knitter gives a hand-knit sweater to a significant other, it will lead to the recipient breaking up with the knitter. In an alternative formulation, the relationship will end before the sweater is even completed. The belief is widely discussed in knitting publications, and some knitters claim to have experienced it. In a 2005 poll, 15% of active knitters said that they had experienced the sweater curse firsthand, and 41% considered it a possibility that should be taken seriously.

One of the themes I’ve come back to many times in my writing is the idea that people mistake empirical claims (this is true about the world) with normative claims (this should be true about the world). Nowhere is this more clear than with “hate speech” and censorship. I think hate speech laws are politically and morally wrong, a normative claim, but more importantly they don’t work, an empirical claim – one which if true renders normative claims that hate speech laws are good irrelevant.

The debate about whether we should censor unpopular views such as hate speech is an important one, but also a strange one. In my experience, it operates wholly independent from any consideration of the restraints of reality.

  • SETI Optimism is Human Future Pessimism – Another meditation on the Fermi Paradox, but with more math and some new terminology. Not sure I love the “grabby civilization” phrase, but it captures a useful idea in the discussion.

That’s all for now…

The 1978 Project: Part VIII

After a few months of neglecting the 1978 Project in order to catch up with and recap 2020 films, we return to glory! Again. Yeah, so it’s been about a year and a half since this project began, but we are finally reaching the homestretch. If I do something like this again, I should try and make it time-bound (like I did for 50 Under 50).

For the uninitiated, I’m doing a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth (guess which year!) As of this writing, I’ve seen 83 films that were released in 1978. Not comprehensive, to be sure, but we’re getting respectable and we’ve only got maybe 5-10 more films I want to catch up with. The thing is, I keep finding new stuff I want to watch. This post covers a couple of doozies that I’d probably never have watched if it weren’t for this project, but which are impressive for movies encountered this late in the process.

I’ll say we’ll get to the traditional Movie Awards and Top 10 roundup sometime this spring, but who knows? I may end up watching 200 films from that year. In any case, it’s time to take a look at some of the1978 flicks I caught up with recently, so let’s hop to it…

Blue Collar – A group of assembly line workers at an auto plant, plagued by growing bills, a disinterested management, a corrupt union, and the ever-persistent IRS, conceive of a plan to rob their union. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. After making a name for himself by writing classic scripts like Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, Paul Schrader had built up enough credibility to direct his own scrip this time around. In case you can’t tell by the plot description or the other films he’s worked on, Schrader is a cynical guy, and this film is a stark condemnation of, well, everything.

It’s so grim that I wonder if Schrader’s non-directorial stuff tends to be more successful because some of his edge gets rounded out by collaboration. Of course, “success” isn’t necessarily the best arbiter of a film’s worth, and I will say that this movie, while bleak and uncompromising, is a story-first affair. Schrader himself has commented on how this film had to “operate in the area of entertainment”, even if he was saturating the film with political realities. The result isn’t exactly a fun watch, but it’s engrossing and insightful.

Blue Collar

It helps that Schrader cast a trio of ringers as the leads. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto are all phenomenal as the down-on-their-luck workers seeking a big score, only to find themselves ensconced in a convoluted machine that they can’t escape. And that’s before the back-stabbing, corruption, and murder. Visually, Schrader presents the story with blunt realism, though he makes room for bitter irony, like the shot of a billboard ticker that tallies Chrysler’s production numbers. Petty union squabbles pitting “…the lifers against the new boys and the young against the old. The black against the white.” None of that matters to the numbers. Know your place in the scheme. Schrader’s incessant cynicism is often hit or miss with me, but for whatever reason, this one hits hard. It’s a difficult movie to recommend, but it’s quite good if you’ve got the stones for it. ***

Big Wednesday – You wouldn’t expect this meandering movie about the trials and tribulations of three surfers living through the 60s and 70s to come from a guy like John Milius (more famous for bombastic fare like Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, not to mention some of the most iconic, badass lines in cinema history), but here we are. In some ways, it resembles films like American Graffiti (made by Milius’ pal George Lucas); a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Big Wednesday has a more focused core of characters though, and it covers a much larger swath of time. As a result, it does provide a little more insight and character depth. Again, this is helped by solid casting of the three surfing friends: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey. All three are doing surprisingly good work here, as they’re not exactly known for subtlety in their careers. Jan-Michael Vincent gives the best performance (in the movie and perhaps of his career) and displays the most range. It’s amusing to consider Busey in this movie and contrast with his later role in Point Break. Even bit players like Sam Melville as the surf board guru, Bear, puts in a career-best performance.

Big Wednesday

It’s maybe a tad long, and I can see why it wasn’t successful at the time, but it appears to have garnered a following amongst film nerds. Take, for example, Quentin Tarantino:

“I don’t like surfers. I grew up in a surfing community and I thought surfers were jerks. I love Big Wednesday so much. Surfers don’t deserve this movie.”

This sort of movie (light on plot, high on character), isn’t usually my thing, but like Tarantino overcoming his distaste for surfers to like this movie, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. ***

Heroes of the East – A Chinese man is thrust into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman. Cultures clash, and the man inadvertently challenges her entire family’s martial prowess. Thus he must prove that Chinese Kung Fu really is superior to Japanese martial arts through a series of duels. Yes, another in the seemingly endless reserve of Hong Kong martial arts flicks made in 1978 (and we’re not done yet!)

To be frank, I’m not really qualified to comment on the whole culture clash element of the story. I’m aware of enough Chinese/Japanese history to see why this rivalry could emerge, but again, not really qualified to engage in specifics. As an American who is constantly running up against other cultures (speaking generally here, not in terms of specific culture war topics that are so hot these days), the rather extreme response by both parties seems a bit overheated, but then, you know, you wouldn’t have a movie if everyone would act reasonably. Also, there’s that Chinese/Japanese history to contend with.

The main attraction of these films are the action set pieces anyway, and this one has them in spades. It’s not the best of 1978 nor is it one of the first I’d recommend, but it’s a perfectly cromulent entry in the genre and worth checking out for fans of this sort of thing. **1/2

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Two narrators discuss the possible connections and controversies surrounding a series of paintings. This French arthouse film is literally about actual art, so it is incredibly pretentious. Luckily, there are some fascinating ideas at its core and it is blessedly short, which keeps things moving along well enough. The visual convention of one narrator walking through three-dimensional reproductions of each painting is a fantastic touch, and really helps illustrate the story behind the paintings (and the connections between paintings). The notion that you could obsessively study each painting and find enough connections between them to infer that there is a missing painting in the progression is quite engrossing… but it ultimately has nowhere to go.

Watching this, I was consistently reminded of Rembrandt’s J’accuse, a documentary about visual literacy and obsessively breaking down the story behind a famous painting. Both films are pompous and stilted, but they cover interesting topics and they do so in visually inventive ways. I’m really glad I caught up with this film though, and I would really love to watch it again if it ever gets a good release (there are DVDs, but to my knowledge, there has not been a Blu or 4k release). **1/2

Shaolin Mantis – Look, there’s a whole thing about the Qing dynasty sending a spy to infiltrate rebels and he falls in love with the rebel leader’s granddaughter and so on… But really this is a movie about how a defeated martial artist invents a new style by observing and imitating a praying mantis. Then he uses that to seek revenge. Yet another Hong Kong martial arts movie released in 1978.

At this point, I could probably do a top 10 Hong Kong martial arts movies of 1978 list (and still leave off, like, 20 movies). Would this list make that top 10? It’s possible, but it’d be towards the lower end of the list. This is more because there’s just so many really great entries in the genre though. Shaolin Mantis is entertaining and the action is great. As a story, it doesn’t quite hold together, but it’s functional enough and as already established, the story is really just an excuse to get to the action. Which, again, is copious and well done. I liked this a bit better than the aforementioned Heroes of the East, but I’d put it in the same territory of movies that aren’t essential, but which could be interesting for students of the genre. **1/2

Rich Little’s Christmas Carol – It’s Dickens’ classic story, with Rich Little playing basically every part himself. He plays each part as himself doing an impression of someone else playing the part. Does that make sense? So Rich Little is playing Marley by doing an impression of Nixon playing Marley. It’s an insane conceit and it makes the process of watching the movie more of a meta-exercise than an entertainment in itself. I mean, we all know A Christmas Carol and this isn’t a particularly good retelling of it, but I couldn’t help being transfixed by the sheer audacity of the thing.

It’s also a bit of a time capsule in that most of the impressions aren’t exactly timeless. W.C. Fields as Scrooge! Truman Capote as Tiny Tim! Many of these weren’t recognizable to me, and it’s also not like Little’s impressions are that good. Though I did kinda appreciate that the three ghosts of Christmas were all famous screen detectives. It adds an extra meta level to the proceedings. Rich Little impersonating Peter Falk playing Columbo as the Ghost of Christmas Past! Why famous screen detectives? Damned if I know, but I can’t help but watch . Not really recommended, except for people interested in this deeply weird gimmick. I think this sorta defies rating?

There are definitely a few more films I want to track down before I start in on the Movie Awards and Top 10 list, but I’m guessing we’re in the homestretch now, so it shouldn’t be too long. Because I know you’re all on the edge of your seat. Just keep calm, it’s coming.

SF Book Review – Part 36: The Puppet Masters and Moar

Now that we’ve gotten the Movie Awards and various year-end recaps out of the way, it’s time to catch up on some science fiction reading. I did cover a few things already during Vintage SF Month, but I’ve been sorta slacking on the SF front of late. Still, I’ve read some things lately that are interesting enough.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein – I read this towards the end of Vintage SF Month but never got around to doing a full writeup. Slug-like alien parasites have arrived on earth, attached themselves to people’s backs, taken control of their nervous systems in order to ride them like a puppet master. Two secret agents from a clandestine US intelligence agency have been sent to a small town to investigate a flying saucer sighting (and the disappearance of other government agents) and discover the plot.

The Puppet Masters book cover

If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s similar in content and theme to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was published a few years after Heinlein’s novel, yet it became far more famous thanks to a classic film adaptation (or two). Heinlein’s novel did finally get a schlocky film adaptation in the 90s, but I don’t remember thinking it was anything special (I do want to revisit it though) and really, it doesn’t get at some of the more out-there ideas in Heinlein’s novel.

Written in 1951, Heinlein was probing and echoing the paranoia and fear that drove the Red Scare, explicitly drawing comparisons between the mind-controlling parasites and Soviet communists. Still, much of this is really just an excuse for solidly paced storytelling and explorations of wacky ideas. Some of this has to do with the puppet masters themselves, but much of it is indirectly explored as part of the setting. You get the usual ray guns and flying car tropes, Heinlein reprises his infamous “the door dilated” line, and so on. There’s so more out-there notions too, like the notion of marriage being nothing more than a contract (and one that is frequently limited to short terms).

The fight against the puppet masters involves lots of common sense maneuvering between both sides, though even that gets a bit wacky because Heinlein posits that the best way to fight the parasites is to normalize nudity (if you’re nude, you can’t hide the parasite, you see – totally not a perverted idea at all). Still, the pacing is good and each step makes sense, even if a couple stray a bit far afield.

One conversation towards the end felt particularly fitting: someone speculates that all of the measures they’re taking to fight the Puppet Masters won’t go away overnight, or probably ever. Because we won’t be able to guarantee that every parasite has been eradicated, all of those protections will have to remain in place in one way or another. Fortunately, our battle with Covid 19 doesn’t involve some of these extreme measures, but it does appear to be here to stay.

All in all, it’s a solid little book, perhaps middle tier Heinlein. I can see why it wasn’t immediately jumped on for a film adaptation, but it’s a fun read for sure.

Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold – The 9th novella in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series, though in terms of the internal chronology of the series, it falls somewhere in the middle. This one finds Pen & Des trying to hunt down an ascendant demon and a shipwrecked madman with the help of various locals from the canal town of Lodi (think Venice). It’s got the usual twists and turns one can expect from this series, and I always enjoy spending time with Pen & Des (and the ever expanding cast of characters in their orbit). The series as a whole is consistently great and highly recommended.

Into the Black by Evan Currie – The story of the human spacecraft Odyssey and her crew as they embark on their maiden voyage… and almost immediately get caught up in an interstellar war. It’s a nice little military SF tale with some space opera elements, I found myself thinking it resembled Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet Series. This is only the first novel in Currie’s series, so it hasn’t quite built up the same level of enjoyment just yet, but I could see it getting there. It’s not doing anything new, to be sure, but it’s enjoyable and interesting in its own way. I will probably revisit the series at some point.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – The King’s chief scholar, called The Magus, has found the site of an ancient treasure. Said treasure is guarded by a series of locks and countermeasures that require the skills of a good thief. It just so happens that Gen has recently been imprisoned because of his excellent thieving skills. The Magus recruits Gen and they set off on a quest to find the secure the treasure for the king.

Short and sweet, this might bog down a tad in the middle, and while I wasn’t entirely sure I loved the characters at first, they grew on me. There’s a good setup and premise for sure, but some of the journey is a bit perfunctory. I wasn’t especially engaged by long segments explaining the mythology of this world, and much of it seemed extraneous. However, by the time it ended, I was fully onboard, and actually kinda excited for the next book in the series. I found this because Lois McMaster Bujold posted something about it on Goodreads, and she seemed to indicate that the series gets better as it goes.

Link Dump

The usual link dump of interesting oddities from the depths of ye olde internets:

What are one-way and two-way door decisions? One-way door decisions are decisions that you can’t easily reverse. These decisions need to be done carefully. Two-way door decisions can be reversed. You can walk through the door, see if you like it, and if not go back. These decisions can be made fast or even automated.

So there you have it, another link dump on the books. Stay tuned for the triumphant return of the 1978 Project, amongst other things.

Favorite Films of 2020

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

At this point, I usually try to suss out some themes for the year. This is a fool’s errand even in the best of times, but probably even moreso in 2020. A year marked by pandemic, lockdowns, social unrest, protests, riots, a particularly contentious election, and just all-around anxiety, 2020 might also be the death knell for movie theaters. Many of the movies this year complemented these events eerily well (considering that they were made before the events in question happened), but thankfully there were at least some that contrasted the year’s nasty tone. Last year’s “Eat the rich!” theme seems almost equally prevalent this year, with numerous films tackling capitalism and income inequality (amongst other inequality). The continued growth of streaming services accelerated markedly this year, for what I assume are obvious reasons. I feel like there were a bunch of movies this year that were inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, and good ones too (you’ll see a couple below).

On a more personal level, my general tendencies to indulge in genre exercises continues, with the bulk of my top 10 being comprised of such efforts. The word “elevated” has been overused and thus overanalyzed, but then, I wouldn’t be recognizing these films if they weren’t elevated by something. I recently read William Goldman’s collection of essays The Big Picture, and he had this tidbit about top 10 lists:

… When movie critics give their ten-best lists, they may cite historical precedent, they may pretend erudition – all b.s. They just liked one movie better than another.

I wish more critics would take this sort of attitude to heart (either that, or critics are a far too homogenous population). As I’ve said before, the world would be a boring place indeed if we all liked precisely the same things.

So many movies were delayed or quietly relegated to streaming that I wasn’t sure the annual awards and top 10 could happen at all. But after a couple months of playing catch-up I did manage to cobble something together. As of this writing, I’ve seen 91 movies that could be considered a 2020 release. This is slightly down from last year, probably more than your average movie-watcher, but less than your average critic. On the other hand, in 2020, who the hell knows? Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s especially worth noting that due to regional release strategies, some of these would be considered a 2019 movie, but not available until 2020. Alrighty then, I think that’s enough caveats, let’s get to it:

Top Ten Movies of 2020

* In roughly reverse order

The Hunt – This riff on The Most Dangerous Game was pilloried by extremists of all colors, perhaps because it’s a bitter condemnation of such politicization. Moderate, politically tribeless people beset on all sides by partisan maniacs bent on isolation and destruction will enjoy this story of bizarre political vendettas quite a bit.

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

Tenet – Christopher Nolan’s latest fits squarely within his traditional oeuvre of cinematic puzzles, combining byzantine plotting with stunning action setpieces. It’s perhaps not for everyone and there are some rough edges, but it’s bold, adventurous, and so large in scale that any weaknesses were overcome by its fulfilled ambitions. In a year where most blockbusters were delayed, it stands out even further.

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

Soul – Pixar may have peaked a while ago, but if they are still capable of putting out bangers like this, they’re doing something right. I’m always fascinated by the way in which Pixar can approach deep existential themes like this in a funny and endearing way that is almost universally applicable. It’s perhaps reminiscent of previous Pixar gems like Ratatouille and Inside Out, but those are two of their best, so this hybrid is most welcome.

More Info: [IMDB] [Disney+] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]

Palm Springs – A modern day spin on Groundhog Day that might lose points on originality, but there are enough new elements that it still feels fresh and exciting. Plus, it’s very funny and endearing, and it came right smack in the middle of the bleakest parts of 2020, so it was a truly welcome salve. Also, comedies don’t get enough love in this sort of year-end activity, especially romcoms.

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

Extra Ordinary – Speaking of comedies, this Belgian/Irish gem went mostly unnoticed, but it’s such a good-natured, fun little film. In a year where optimism and hope were in short supply, sweet, delightful movies like this feel almost radical. You’d be much better served seeking this out than watching whatever reboot of Ghostbusters is on its way.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

The Vast of Night – This alien abduction throwback features lots of other familiar tropes and nostalgia, but the rat-a-tat cadence and filmmaking wizardry keep things feeling fresh and exciting. The film has lots of stylistic energy and is visually impressive, but it also knows when to slow down and leverage a more minimalist approach too.

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

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal – The story of a musician who is losing his hearing, this is a moving depiction of the human tendency to resist change, especially change that has been thrust upon us by external forces. The desire to return to normality at any cost is surely a natural one, but this film does an excellent job portraying the path towards acceptance. This perhaps takes on added resonance in 2020’s pandemic-infused change… without feeling like a lecture.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Arkansas – Fascinating country noir about a pair of low-level drug dealers trying to navigate a deal gone horribly wrong. Perhaps another throwback to 90s crime flicks, but the non-linear structure is well played and adventurous, even by those standards. Some found this a bit slow, but I thought it was riveting.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

Tread – Documentary about a man with deeply dysfunctional relationship with his town. Driven by paranoia and rage at perceived wrongs perpetrated by certain families and political structures, he buys a bulldozer, fortifies it, and goes on a rampage in the town. I should repeat that this is a documentary, and it presents us with a microcosm of 2020’s tendency towards fractious relationships and political strife, albeit a rather extreme example. A fascinating story, well documented.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

The Wolf of Snow Hollow – Too dark to be a comedy, but too funny to be scary, and too wacky to be dramatic. And yet! It’s all of those things and more. Not everyone will be able to get on writer/director Jim Cummings’ wavelength, but if you can get there, this is a real treasure.

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

Honorable Mention

* In an order I dare you to discern

Another Round – A few teachers test the hypothesis that keeping a low-level of intoxication all the time will improve performance. Fascinating study of humankind’s relationship with alcohol, it manages to walk a fine line between the benefits and deficiencies of booze. As someone who partakes, I found it particularly relevant (even if I think the “experiment” proposed by the film is ludicrous and just asking for trouble). A definite candidate for the top 10 that, on a different day, may have displaced something from the above list.

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

Fatman – Mel Gibson plays a grizzled, down-on-his luck Santa Claus who works for the government and is targeted by an assassin hired by a spoiled brat on the naughty list who got coal for Christmas. It’s not quite the batshit romp that the premise promises, but it has a perfectly calibrated melancholic tone that works well. Very nearly made the top 10.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Invisible Man – Leigh Whannell continues to churn out well crafted horror flicks, this time reprising a hallowed Universal monster in fine fashion. This movie makes exceptional use of negative space and other visual strategies while also telling a story with exciting twists and turns and even some satisfying ambiguity in the end.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Freaky – Christopher Landon has emerged as a reliably fun genre director, delivering fresh takes on derivative tropes. In this case, he takes body-swap comedies and injects a serial killer into the mix, with amusing results. This isn’t the sort of movie that will blow your mind or change your life, but it’s heartily entertaining and a lot of fun. It’s the sort of thing that perhaps plays better in a year like 2020, but it could be appreciated in any year.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

My Octopus Teacher – This tale of a burnt-out editor who moves to an oceanside retreat and, while snorkeling every day, befriends and becomes fascinated by an octopus living in the area. It’s perhaps a bit melodramatic and relies too much on anthropomorphism, but it’s still effective and fascinating.

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

Possessor – With this story of an assassin who uses brain implants to take control of other people’s bodies, Brandon Cronenberg has inherited his father’s ability to unsettle viewers with graphic tales of newly invented avenues of strange science and body horror. Lots of genuinely disturbing subject matter here, both in a literal and visceral way (as in scenes of violence and gore) and in more abstract, thematic ways.

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

Bill & Ted Face the Music – Long gap sequels like this are difficult to pull off and I don’t know that anyone was really clamoring for another Bill & Ted movie, but I have to admit that they managed to pull it off. Another antidote to the year’s downer tendencies, I had a lot of fun with this.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Painter and the Thief – Surprising documentary about an artist who befriends a thief who had stolen her paintings. He was high at the time and doesn’t remember what became of the paintings, but he agrees to sit as a subject for her. Along the way we gain a lot of perspective on both thief and artist, and the story takes some unexpected twists and turns. Well worth seeking out.

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

Bacurau – What starts as a sorta day-in-the-life profile of a small, out-of-the-way town in Brazil slowly morphs into something far more strange. I won’t spoil it, but it becomes almost cartoonishly violent and features an interesting third act twist that was certainly eye opening. As social commentary, it’s perhaps overly blunt, but I also have to admire the brazenness of the approach.

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

The Quantum Jury Prize

Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states. If you’re not sure what that means, that’s kinda the point. To confuse matters even further, the “two or more states” tends to also change from year to year. Last year, this was awarded to four movies that could have been #10 on the top 10. Previous years have been about movies that I go back and forth on and can decide whether I like them or not, even if I recognized the skill and craft on display.

This year, I’m awarding this prize to two efforts that straddle the line between television and movie. As we grow into the streaming revolution and the strict definition of “movie” gets broken down little by little, more examples of works that are hard to categorize are appearing. Like Shcrodinger’s Cat, the answer exists in a superposition that will only experience a waveform collapse once we observe it. But every time I observe it, I get a different answer. Hence the need for the Quantum Jury Prize. This year’s winners are strangely related, almost reflections of one another, adding another interesting wrinkle.

The Last Dance – This ten part documentary covering the life and career of Michael Jordan was surprisingly riveting, especially given my general distaste for the the sport of basketball. The episodes move effortlessly between Jordan and his teammates, and they intercut it all with a non-linear exploration of his career that works well. This was another one of those key pieces of early quarantine viewing that was very welcome at the time. Hard to categorize this 10 hour series as a film, but worthy of recognition anyway.

More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]

The History of the Seattle Mariners – This six-part documentary on MLB’s most embattled franchise is pretty well done for a film centered on a big graph of wins/losses, and the perfect double feature with The Last Dance. Also it’s almost the complete opposite experience: low budget, no access, and covering a terrible team. But they’re a lovable team! As the narrator intones, “The Seattle Mariners are not competitors. They’re protagonists.”

More Info: [IMDB] [YouTube] [Capsule Review]

The Speed Cubers – Radically nice documentary about a pair of speed cubers (i.e. people who can solve Rubik’s cubes really quickly). Surprisingly touching stuff and a great antidote to the relentless pessimism of 2020. Clocking in at 39 minutes, it has the opposite problem of the previous two flicks, but again, worthy of recognition.

More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]

I suppose I could also include Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s self-described “anthology series” of five stories about the people in London’s West Indian community, but I did not watch all of them and to be honest, the individual entries in this series feel overrepresented in the general critical community, so I’ll just leave this mention here and move on…

Just Missed the Cut

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

Should Have Seen

Despite having seen around 90 of this year’s releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don’t wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:

Normally, at this point of the year, I’d be talking about the Oscars, but they’ve been delayed. I’m genuinely curious to see how they go this year though, because it’s such a strange set of circumstances we find ourselves in…

2020 in Movies

The end of the year is traditionally a time to reflect on what’s come before and what will come next. We duly trot out metaphors like Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looked to the past with one face, and the future with another (and for whom the month of January is named). Or if you’re a particular type of nerd, you make a joke about orbital mechanics. It’s all arbitrary, of course, but I’ve always found it to be a fun exercise, even if I’ve been particularly lax about the timing for the past few years.

2020 has been an unusual year in most respects, so being a little late with something like this recap of overall 2020 movie watching (n.b. not just 2020 releases, but all movies watched in the year) is perhaps not that remarkable, but it’s actually pretty well in line with my normal schedule (actual film publications typically do their recaps starting in November/December, though this year was a little more freeform for, again, obvious reasons).

Here at Kaedrin, we’ve already done the Movie Awards and Arbitrary Awards, so all that remains is the annual top 10. I am, however, still catching up with a few things, so that will probably have to wait until next week (or maybe even the week after!) In the meantime, let’s take a spin through my 2020 in movies, which has been the most productive movie-watching year in recorded history. It turns out that when the world is fighting a pandemic with lockdowns and social distancing, I watch a lot of movies (and read a lot of books and drink a lot of beer), go figure! 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. They also provide some stats, which I’m going to dive into below…

Overall Stats

This is what I watched in 2020:

  • 445 films watched
  • 788.9 hours watched
  • 37.1 movies a month on average
  • 8.6 movies a week on average
  • 31 movies made in 1978

That’s a lot of movies! Last year I “only” watched 392 films, so this is a significant increase, driven almost entirely by lockdown. I’ve already started to trail off from that pace though, and I’m hoping that as we return to some sense of normalcy in 2021, next years numbers won’t be nearly as high. I tend to do pretty well with structure when it comes to this sort of thing, but 2020 has been perhaps too structured. I should find a way to break out of some of those ruts.

I made good progress on the 1978 Project, but largely fell off that bandwagon when it came time to catch up with 2020 releases. Things will resume in the next few weeks, and I intend to do a full yearly recap at the end (with the same Movie Awards and Top 10 format as I have done for the past 15 years or so).

2020 Films by Week

Some variability by week, but actually much more evenly distributed than recent years. Again, this is almost all driven by pandemic-related sheltering in place. There are still various spikes, such as the Six Weeks of Halloween or the last weeks of the year (in which I took some vacation time, but the whole area was in an extra-festive Holiday lockdown, so I basically stayed home, drank beer, and watched a bunch of movies). In terms of day of the week, Tuesday and Wednesday are still my least productive (at least partially owing to a group of friends and I maintaining a remote RPG game night over discord), and Friday/Saturday being when I watch the most stuff. Still, this was a pretty consistent 2020 in movies.

Genres, Countries, and Languages

Stats on Genres, Countries, and Languages

When it comes to genres, countries, and languages, it’s not that big of a surprise to see US and English leading the pack. Given the extremes there, it’s hard to see that the other countries did see modest increases across the board. France and Hong Kong bumped up in the rankings this year, though Germany and Italy still fare well. Japan makes it to the list this year (while Spain drops off). This balance could improve for sure, and so far in 2021, I’ve been pretty good, but that’s driven by catching up with 2020 releases from other countries.

Comedy makes a jump to the top of the genres, perhaps not surprising given the harrowing year we had. Action, Thriller, Horror and the catch-all Drama remain healthy contenders. Interestingly, Documentary fell off the list, which is something I should probably correct in 2021.

World Map of movies watched

I didn’t count the number of different countries, but this seems about on par, though perhaps more diverse than previous years. For whatever reason, I hadn’t watched anything from the entire continent of Africa in the past couple of years, but that changed this year, including a film from Wakaliwood, which I’m most definitely going to need to explore more fully. If I can find their releases!

Ratings and Other Patterns

Movie Ratings Breakdown and other patterns

Only 16% of my watches were a 2020 release, though this is at least partially driven by studios pushing back releases to 2021. 25.2% of watches were actually rewatches, a slight increase from last year, but in the general range for me. My ratings spread continues to movie slightly lower, really centering around 3 stars, but generally resembling a bell curve, which is decent enough I think. I suppose there’s a slight bias towards the higher end of the scale (probably driven by rewatches, which tend to be movies I love).

Stars and Directors

most watched stars of the year

I certainly didn’t set out to watch a bunch of Joe Chrest movies in 2020, but as a testament to “that guy” character actors, it’s nice to see that they can outgun prolific superstars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington. The list is still largely white and largely male, but who knows how Letterboxd orders the stars. They do show you the next 10 most watched actors, and they all had 5 films too… Interestingly, this list is usually dominated by franchise rewatches, but I didn’t do a whole lot of that this year (though I guess Mad Max and Ocean’s rewatches drove a couple people into the list). Special shoutout to Van Veronica Ngo, winner of the Breakthrough Performance Award in the Kaedrin Movie Awards. She had small roles in a couple of 2020 movies, but her performances made me want to go back and watch some of her Vietnamese movies, hence her relatively high ranking.

Most watched directors of the year

Sadly, this is only the first time that a woman has made my list of most watched directors in a year, but I followed along with the Blank Check podcast this year, which drove both Nora Ephron and Robert Zemeckis on this list (they also did Demme on their podcast, though my watches were mostly decoupled from that). So not exclusively white and male, but I could probably still do better on that front.

Highs and Lows

Highest and Lowest Rated, Most Popular, and Most Obscure movies of the year

I have to admit that I don’t really get why Stop Making Sense is so highly rated. It’s a documentary that captures a great concert experience for sure, but that average rating is absurdly high. I certainly do get why The Star Wars Holiday Special is so lowly rated though; it’s mindblowingly bad. Knives Out was also my most watched movie of the year. For some reason, I never get sick of that movie, and I watched it five times in 2020 (though two were with various commentary tracks). I suspect the overall popularity on Letterboxd also has to do with it being available on Amazon Prime.

Finally, the most obscure movie I watched was No Chance, a bizarre, parodic quasi-sequel to Commando (a classic 80s action flick). I find it hard to recommend the movie, but it certainly has some charms. Shoutout to Revanchist, an obscure Hong Kong action flick with an absolutely bonkers ending action sequence. It held the Most Obscure spot for quite a while. it’s a shame so many of those great Hong Kong action movies are so hard to find these days…

So that was 2020 in movies. Another banner year of movie watching here at Kaedrin HQ. I suspect things will settle down a bit in 2021, but I’ll probably still watch a crapton of movies.