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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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…
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…
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).
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
The 2020 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners were announced last week. 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 awards system will fail to capture all the nuances and complexity available; hence the 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, but most are just, well, arbitrary. These are always fun, but in a year as weird as 2020, they are also necessary. Previous Arbitrary Awards: [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:Tenet. Look, I really love this movie and it will most likely find a spot on my top 10… but it has the absolute worst howler of the year. Upon discovering that her husband’s plan will kill everyone on the planet, the character of Kat feels compelled to inform us that this is “Including my son!!” Elizabeth Debicki is a good actress, but no one could deliver that line in a way that would not result in at least a snort from the audience. The rest of the dialogue in the film isn’t particularly noteworthy either way, though it does seem like Nolan is trolling people a bit for complaining about all the exposition in Inception (and thus we get the “just feel it” line here). And yet, the “Including my son!!” line is just so bad that it wins this award all by itself. (There are probably movies that overall have worse dialogue, but it’s the extreme contrast here that just sinks it – how can a movie this carefully constructed and well thought out include such a terrible line?)
The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity:Save Yourselves! Of course, that’s kinda the point of the movie. However, just because a movie is self aware and pits two know-nothing hipsters against a Critters-like alien invasion doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable. It feels more sad than funny. Again, that’s kinda the point of the movie, but still, I couldn’t get past how stupid these two were.
The Garth Marenghi “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards” Award for Achievement in Didacticism: Bacurau. I go back and forth on this movie in general, but it is unquestionably a blunt commentary. Again, not sure how to take that. On the one hand, I don’t usually like that approach… on the other, you have to admire the brazenness. I have a feeling this is going to become a recurring Arbitrary Awards category (like the previous two).
The “Weiner” Award for Unparalleled Access to Documentary Subjects: The Painter and the Thief. It’s a rather amazing story, and the documentary covers a very long period of time. That the thief agreed to be a subject for the painter in the first place is pretty amazing. The documentary footage is just icing on the cake at that point. Certainly not as amazing as this award’s namesake, but still pretty good… Honorable mention to Tread, which certainly had a wealth of audio to pull from, but mostly because the subject thoughtfully left it for people to discover.
The Beer Baron “To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems” Award For Contemplating Man’s Relationship With Alcohol:Another Round. There are times when I think this movie nearly endorsed alcoholism, but it clearly backs away from that by depicting some rather severe consequences while still retaining the idea that alcohol itself can be a fine thing in moderation.
Best Action-Packed Long Take of the Year:Extraction. The movie clearly hews to the Netflix mold of generally bland storytelling, but there is one action sequence that is portrayed as a single long take that is very well executed.
Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence:Possessor. Perhaps an unconventional pick, as it’s not like this is wall to wall violence, but when it goes there, it goes hard. The violence is absolutely gruesome here, and hard to watch. A more conventional pick would be VFW, which isn’t exactly cartoonish violence, but not as affecting as Possessor.
Best Motion Picture Score:Soul by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with Original Jazz Compositions by John Batiste. Around 30 years ago, Trent Reznor was writing songs about fist fucking and commissioning music videos that bordered on snuff films. Now, he’s composing movie soundtracks for G-rated Disney/Pixar fare… and it’s amazing. Reznor and Ross effortlessly transition between Batiste’s jazzy compositions and the more whimsical numbers reserved for the afterlife. It also demonstrates the protagonist Joe’s love of music and the inspiration it can provide. Honorably mention to Carpenter Brut’s synthy score on Blood Machines, a movie that is otherwise mostly awful. Do yourself a favor and skip the movie, but look up the score. It’s great.
Award for Pandemic Creativity:Host. Most of the stuff produced whilst in lockdown during the pandemic has been painfully bad, but this short found footage horror jam was very well executed. A bit derivative, for sure, but entertaining and spooky.
Best Faked Death Sequence: The Air Conditioner in Dick Johnson Is Dead. This is a very strange film, a little messy at times, but the concept at its core is an eye-opening one. A documentary filmmaker works with her aging father to stage a bunch of fake death scenes, perhaps as a way to cope with the coming grief of his inevitable passing. It’s an interesting, if a bit indulgent, conceit. It gets a bit messy when other things develop, but it’s all worth checking out if you’re in an existential mood.
The Irishman De-Aging Was Terrible Award for Best Flashback Alternative: Da 5 Bloods. I wonder if Spike Lee tried to convince Netflix that de-aging his cast for the Vietnam sequences was worthwhile… In any case, I’m glad he didn’t get that de-aging money, because the alternative he devised – just using the actors, unchanged – is far more effective.
Best Badass/Villain That Didn’t Get Nominated Because I Hadn’t Seen the Film Yet: Han, played by Hae-soo Park in Time to Hunt. I caught up with this post-apocalyptic heist flick a few days ago, and it’s a neat little flick, if a bit derivative. Han is the character that is hunting down our protagonists after the heist, and he’s pretty darned badass. He wouldn’t have won the category, but if I’d seen the movie before the nominations came out, he would have garnered a nom.
Best Badass/Hero (non-Human Edition):My Octopus Teacher. What a neat little film. It’s a little stilted, but the octopus at its heart makes for a great subject for a documentary.
So there you have it, another bout of Arbitrary Awards. Stay tuned for the traditional Top 10 list (with honorable mentions and the coveted Quantum Jury Prize), which will probably be up in two weeks (though maybe I’ll have a productive week and get it down by next Sunday, who knows?)
The nominations for the 2020 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. The Vegas odds-makers, starved for movie-related action due to the delay of the Academy Awards, have been chomping at the bit ever since. Next week, I’ll announce the winners of some more goofy, freeform categories that we call the Arbitrary Awards, and not long after that, I’ll post my top 10 of 2020. Alrighty then, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to the Kaedrin Movie Award winners. And the KMA goes to:
Best Villain/Badass: Nix, played by Samara Weaving in Guns Akimbo. A sorta cheat, to be sure, because while undoubtedly a badass and a joy to watch onscreen, her villainy is a bit suspect (trying to avoid spoilers here). Still, I suppose the badassery was enough to overcome the villainy and Samara Weaving is a Kaedrin fave, so here we are (plus: putting her in the hero/badass category is fraught with similar issues).
Funnily enough, another nominee (Saju, played by Randeep Hooda in Extraction) has the same sorta relatable villainy problem (again, trying to avoid spoilers). Anyway, while I like a good deal of the other nominees, none could really overcome Weaving’s performance. Runner up would probably be Skinny Man, played by Walton Goggins in Fatman. Goggins isn’t exactly treading new ground, but he’s good at this sort of thing and I enjoyed his performance quite a bit. I’ll also give a shoutout to Anne Hathaway in The Witches, who is having a lot of fun in a middling movie.
Best Hero/Badass: Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin in The Hunt. This movie became a political football, which is weird to me because it’s much more about moderate, politically tribeless people beset on all sides by partisan maniacs bent on isolation and destruction. Betty Gilpin’s Crystal is caught up in a bizarre political vendetta wherein rich liberals hunt conservatives for sport, but it’s not really about left and right, but rather the ever widening partisan gap and extremism. It’s another in a long line of spins on Richard Connell’s infamous story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, where the hunted turns the table on the hunter, and Gilpin does a great job in the role.
Runners up include Charlize Theron in The Old Guard, who is always great (and a former Kaedrin Movie Ward winner of hero/badass) and Colin Farrell in The Gentlemen (which I seemed to like a lot more than other folk, and while I zeroed in on Farrell, there’s plenty of badassery to go around in that movie…
Best Comedic Performance: Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs (tie). The biggest problem with this award is that so many comedies rely on an ensemble, so while there are certainly singular performances that win this award (which justifies the existence of the award in the first place), it’s often one person representing the movie as a whole. In this case, I opted to just choose the two leads, and chalk it up to this being a weird year. This movie came out in middle of lockdown and provided some much needed laughs, and a big part of that is the performances (and chemistry between) Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. Second place in the voting was Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a movie I didn’t much care for, but her performance is certainly worth singling out. I also quite enjoyed Vince Vaughn in Freaky and Seth Rogen in An American Pickle, both doing good work. Also just a quick shoutout to Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Birds of Prey, who was very funny (and probably could have qualified for best badass too), though that’s a small part of the movie…
Breakthrough Performance: Van Veronica Ngo in Da 5 Bloods and The Old Guard. I guess it’s just a weird year all around. It’s really hard to call these breakthrough performances because they’re so small, but a key criteria here is that I see someone in a movie and immediately check IMDB to see what else she’s been in. I really do suspect that she will breakout in the next few years, and she could be a top tier action star if given the opportunity (see also: Furie). Some other good performances listed amongst the nominees, but few true standouts, hence the weirdness of the winner.
Most Visually Stunning:The Vast of Night. Another tricky award without an obvious winner, I gave it to this one for its visual inventiveness and propulsion. This wasn’t a huge budget extravaganza, but it still managed some breathtaking camera movements and long takes, and it also knows when to dial it back to just a black screen and audio. The obvious alternate choice was Tenet, but as we’re about to see, it’ll be recognized in other ways. Blood Machines is certainly a visual feast for the eyes, but wow does the story just sink that flick (the special effects crew and Carpenter Brut deserve better). Bacurau features some gorgeous photography and landscapes, and David Fincher apes the old-school Hollywood look well in Mank. Still, I’m glad I could get The Vast of Night some love, and it certainly deserves it.
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film:The Wolf of Snow Hollow. A divisive choice for sure. On paper, this is one of those movies that’s too funny to be scary, but too creepy to be funny, and too silly to be a serious drama. And yet it manages to be all of those things in a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kinda way. I loved it, but can’t fault anyone for not getting on its wavelength.
The aforementioned The Vast of Night is certainly a contender here too, and not to give anything away, but both will be showing up on my top 10, so there’s that. The Invisible Man is another success from Leigh Whannell and worthy of attention for sure. Freaky and Satanic Panic were both really fun horror comedies that deserve more love too. Tenet certainly has the chops for this award too. In the end, I’m giving it to Snow Hollow because of its strange dedication to cross-genre flare.
Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake:The Invisible Man. Leigh Whannell strikes again, this time taking on a classic Universal monster movie and updating it from both a technology and thematic perspective. Great performances and amazing use of negative space taking full advantage of the invisibility concept. It’s unusual that a remake/reboot like this connects with me, as I usually come away just loving the original that much more. Here it’s a situation where both movies are great, just for different reasons. Bill & Ted Face the Music was also a big surprise and a whole bucket of fun just when we needed it. Many sequels/reboots/remakes were obviously delayed last year, so the pickings were slim, but these two films are certainly worthy, even in a normal year.
Biggest Disappointment:Wonder Woman 1984. There’s actually a lot to like about WW84 and I actually quite enjoyed the first hour or so of the movie, but even that felt a bit messy and then it went off the rails and never really recovered. There were certainly worse movies last year, but the first Wonder Woman was so good and showed so much promise that I really had high hopes for WW84. The second film in a superhero franchise is often better than the first… alas, WW84 joins Iron Man 2 in the disappointing sequel department. One can still hold out hope for WW3 though. The general lack of blockbuster releases and sequels last year also puts a damper on this category, though there were still a few big disappointments. That said, it’s not like I was expecting much out of Scoob!, so the it doesn’t register as much on the Plus/Minus Scale.
Best Action Sequences:Tenet. I keep feeling like there should be a better, less-obvious candidate for this award and it’s true that I haven’t gotten to much in the way of martial arts movies this year, but Tenet certainly has tons of cool, large-scale action going on. There’s some Bond-like setpieces and the whole temporal pincer movement and it’s all very impressive. Perhaps this category is also impacted by a lack of blockbuster releases in 2020. The other nominees certainly have decent action, but Netflix fare like Extraction and The Old Guard, while entertaining and diverting enough, can’t really compete with Christopher Nolan’s more ambitious staging.
Best Plot Twist/Surprise:Tenet. Look, don’t ask me to explain it in great detail, but once the movie starts to take shape and you realize what’s happening… it just gave me that sense of wonder jolt that I love so much. Sure, some of the intricate plotting and details might require some additional noodling, but it’s easy enough to discern that shape of what’s happening, and the cascade of revelations in the film’s second half is worth digging into. The other nominees include some twisty crime thrillers and some genre exercises, but nothing quite surprised me like Tenet.
Best High Concept Film:Freaky. I feel like this is one of those films that would have been a sneaky box office success. Instead, it sorta faded into VOD for a week and didn’t get much play. And sure, it’s not exactly breakthrough stuff, but as body-swap horror-comedies go, it’s pretty great and a ton of fun. The idea of a “high concept” film is pretty nebulous to start with, but this year didn’t exactly rock the boat in this respect either. Most of the other nominees are worth checking out though, and are either doing something new and weird, or they’re putting a new spin on an old trope.
2020’s 2019 Movie of the Year: Doctor Sleep. Mike Flanagan’s woozy sequel to The Shining manages to find a line between servicing the book and the very different Kubrick adaptation. Some might see that as trying to have your cake and eat it to, but it worked well enough for me. Sure, I don’t think it would displace any of my top 10 picks from last year (none of the nominees would), but I’m really glad I caught up with it. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the critical darling of the year and having seen it, I can see why it garnered praise and I like some bits a lot, but if you had asked me to create a parody of a French art house film, it would have looked something like that movie. That’s probably more of a me problem than anything else, but still. The other nominees are mostly solid genre exercises that are worth catching up with if you’re a fan of those genres. But I do want to single out I See You, which seems like a criminally underseen movie. What starts as a sorta rote, dour serial killer thriller takes a fascinating turn about halfway through that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. It’s worth catching up with!
Congrats to all the Kaedrin Movie Award winners in this strange year. Stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards, coming next week!
Welcome to the fifteenth annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! The idea is to recognize films for various 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]
Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2020 movie (with the one caveat that some 2019 films were not accessible until 2020 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I have seen 80 films that could be considered a 2020 release. This is significantly less than previous years and probably most critics, but probably more than your average moviegoer and enough to populate these awards.
It’s tempting to blame this entirely on the pandemic, but the truth is that there’s been a lot of small films available, I just didn’t do as well seeking them out until it was pretty late in the year. I’m still working through some things for sure, but delaying any more than normal seems ill-advised (I’m already posting this a couple weeks after most folks do their year end jamboree). The show must go on, and so here goes:
Best Villain/Badass An interesting year for villainy with a few pretty solid choices, but to my mind, not a real standout. Complicating matters are two villains who turn out to be kinda/sorta not villains. Or at least more sympathetic than you’d usually expect out of a villain. 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.
Best Hero/Badass A solid year for heroism, and despite the number of lopsided movies (i.e. where you don’t have both hero and villain roles well filled), there’s actually something like parity between the Hero/Villain lists. Again limited to individuals and not groups.
The Protagonist, played by John David Washington in Tenet
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). I also noticed a distinct bias towards smaller side roles or cameos this year, which is neat, but makes it hard to pick those roles as a winner.
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 (this year, we get a minor resurgence in relatively well established actors turning my head for the first time).
Most Visually Stunning Sometimes even bad movies can look really great… A middling year for this sort of thing, perhaps leaning towards more sober, well-photographed beauty than flashy spectacle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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. This year, though, I probably could have created two modestly populated categories if I wanted, as there were lots of good options in both genres.
Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake Always an awkward category to populate, especially given my normal feeling on this sort of thing. This year complicates matters a bit because many sequels/reboots/remakes were delayed due to a goddamn plague, but there were still a few decent options.
Biggest Disappointment A category often dominated by sequels and reboots, but the relative lack of big-ticket franchise entries this year sees a downtick in this category… Some original films are picking up the slack. I should note at this point that sometimes I actually enjoy these movies… but my expectations were just too high when I saw them. Related reading: Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale (these movies scored especially poor on that scale).
Best Action Sequence This award isn’t for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and there’s a decent enough range here, but I suspect the pandemic put the brakes on some of these too.
2020’s 2019 Movie of the Year This is a weird category. Once I get past my top 10, I rarely tackle challenging material from the previous year, though I do sometimes find a few diamonds in the rough. This category emerged from one frustrating year in which I saw two movies far too late for the top 10, so I created this award to recognize them. Since then, the nominees are pretty lackluster (and indeed, the amount of films I watch that qualify are usually pretty low to start with). The last couple of years, for whatever reason, I’ve managed to see more things that would qualify for this than usual. None that I think would override my top 10 from last year, but it’s always nice when this category fills up.
So there you have it! Another set of nominations for the Kaedrin Movie Awards, well ahead of the Oscars, which have been delayed due to the Pandemic. This means that all the Kaedrin Movie Awards, including Arbitrary Awards and a Top 10 will most likely be posted before the Oscar nominations even come out, which will be a first (we’re usually well correlated, with only a week or so’s difference), though in true Kaedrin fashion, we’re still well after everyone else in the world has finished their 2020 recaps.
Around this time of year, I usually make up a list of 2020 movie releases to catch-up on, but this year? The pandemic obviously had a huge impact on movies this year, in some cases pushing up releases and making them more accessible through streaming, in other cases pushing them back to next year. As of this moment, I’ve seen 66 movies that could be considered a 2020 release, which is significantly less than what I’d seen at this point last year. Is that because there’s less to see?
After a brief spin around the moviesphere, I observe that there are a lot of movies that I could catch-up with. Standard disclaimers apply: I consider some 2019 releases a 2020 release if it didn’t get released in the US until 2020. This list is not comprehensive. I probably won’t watch everything on this list. And so on. Let’s get to it:
Tenet – Christopher Nolan’s latest is an obvious must, and I guess I’m part of the problem that theaters are facing, because I never got off my arse to watch the thing in theaters. I don’t want to make this a referendum on theaters though, so I’ll just say that duh, yeah, I need to see this movie before I put together a 2020 movie recap/top 10.
Update: I’ve seen it! It’s great, just… don’t ask me to explain it. It’s certainly part of Nolan’s cinematic puzzle tradition, and everything seems to fit together… but I may need to watch it again. And again. (It’s worth noting that I actually do want to watch it again. And again. Which I think says something important.)
Wonder Woman 1984 – Another movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I really enjoyed the first movie and in a year that’s lacking in superhero flicks, this one kinda corners the market, right? Update: I have also seen this! It’s… not great. Or, at least, very disappointing. The thing that kept it afloat for me is the performances, innate charisma, and chemistry between all the stars. The first hour is decent, if a bit disjointed, but it’s not a solid foundation for the rest of the movie, which just continually devolves. I don’t know that it’s quite the disaster that some are portraying it as, and it’s eminently watchable, but it does have some troubling interpretations and whatnot, and it definitely just doesn’t fit. A big letdown from the first movie.
Soul – Pixar’s quality level has dipped a bit from its heyday, but I’ll always give a new release a look. This one is getting some good early buzz and it’s not a sequel, so I’m looking forward to it.
Hamilton – I guess I should finally watch this thing. It’s cultural dominance over the past few years is a bit of a turnoff, but I always appreciated the idea behind it, so I’ll most certainly have to catch up with it.
The King of Staten Island – I know what you’re thinking – is this really a blockbuster? Well, in 2020 it probably counts as such. I’m hit or miss on Judd Apatow’s directorial efforts and I don’t have much love for Pete Davidson, but I’m guessing this movie will at least be worth the watch…
On the Rocks – Sofia Coppola’s latest and a reunion with Bill Murray, the biggest thing holding me back from this is that it only appears to be available on Apple TV+, which I don’t have and dammit, how many streaming services do I need to subscribe to? This one alone might not get me to subscribe… but then…
Greyhound – Another Apple TV+ exclusive. It’s a Tom Hanks led WWII naval battle movie that seems like it’d be right up my alley, even if it has no real chance of channeling the C.S. Forester source material.
Let Them All Talk – Steven Soderbergh is always worth a watch. Even if he doesn’t seem to be working in the genre or mode that I tend to love from him. HBO Max exclusive.
The Devil All the Time – Netflix thriller that seems like it could be a step above the usual Netflix mediocrity, maybe?
My Octopus Teacher – Netflix documentary about a filmmaker’s relationship… with an octopus? Sounds like my preferred mode of documentary filmmaking.
Anything for Jackson – Shudder is one of the more underrated streaming service. So I’ll definitely make time for some of their exclusives, including this Satanist jam.
Independent and Art House
Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg is following in his father’s footsteps? This sounds great and for some reason, I just haven’t caught up with it yet. This will be rectified in the near future!
She Dies Tomorrow – Amy Seimetz’s tale of a contagious feeling that you’re going to die tomorrow sounds interesting enough.
First Cow – I guess I should watch this, as it’s at the top of nearly every critic’s list. Director Kelly Reichardt doesn’t usually work for me, but who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.
Small Axe – Is it a movie? Is it a TV show? Is it a TV show that consists of episodes that are actually movies? Does it matter? Another critical darling from Steve McQueen, I guess I should watch at least a couple of these.
Another Round – Four teachers launch an experiment to see how their lives will be improved by a constant, low-level alcohol consumption. The perfect 2020 movie concept?
Miscellaneous, Genre, &c.
Alone – Sounds like a rock solid thriller about a woman escaping from her kidnapper. Looking forward to this one.
Archive – Small science fiction flick that sounds interesting enough. This has been on my radar for a while, not sure why I never got to it.
Ava – This Jessica Chastain action vehicle has been getting mixed reviews, but it sounds great on paper at least.
Save Yourselves! – Some Brooklyn hipsters go on vacation to escape their phones, only to realize that they missed an alien invasion or something. Sounds like fun…
The Pale Door – A horror western with train robbers and witches, what’s not to like?
Time to Hunt – Korean flick about a dystopian world and a heist or something, sounds interesting…
The Call – Another Korean movie, this one has a high concept serial killer thing going on that sounds like it could be good.
Bulbbul – Indian horror flick about a town plagued by mysterious deaths…
News of the World – Tom Hanks teams up with Paul Greengrass for a western? Sure, why not?
So there you have it, 25 movies that I am going to try and catch up with before doing the traditional year end movie traditions.
Two years ago, I watched all of the films in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. This post was started at that time, but for reasons beyond remembrance, I never posted about this absolutely insane series of movies. I probably missed the Christmas window and who wants to read about killer Santas in February? I mean, sure, I do and I’m betting a significant portion of the people reading this do, but there’s only about five of you, so that’s not saying much. Anyway, when I upgraded the blog earlier this year, the draft of this post is surfaced every time I bring up the WordPress dashboard, and this is the perfect time to cover the lunacy of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series. Buckle up, it’s gonna get weird.
Silent Night, Deadly Night – I covered the original during the Six Weeks of Halloween a little over a decade ago. I wasn’t particularly impressed back then, but I liked the Christmas setting and loved the grizzled old man that tells young Billy that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!” After a decade of exploring other Santa slashers and some repeat viewings, I have to say that this movie has grown on me. I still can’t really claim it’s good, but as these movies go, it actually has some things on its mind. It’s not just controversy and sex and gore; it genuinely tries to explore things like repression and guilt. Lilyan Chauvin’s performance as Mother Superior drives the point home with a straight-faced intensity that contrasts the silly material in a way that can be offputting at first, but which I have come around to.
Indeed, the whole film is a study in contrasts. The joyous nature of Christmas versus the nudity and violence of a slasher? It’s mean spirited but somehow also feels good-natured? Again, I can’t claim it’s great at that and the filmmakers were certainly well aware that they were working within an exploitation framework, but they were at least trying something. Also of note: an infamous Linnea Quigley performance. Small, but memorable. Look, if you’re still reading this, you’ve already seen this and know that the really weird stuff happens later in the series.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 – I first watched this around the same time as the original, and was severely disappointed. It turns out that approximately 50% of this movie is just clips from the first film. Low-budget 80s sequels did stuff like this all the time, but this is excessive even by those standards. As the story goes, the producers actually wanted to stitch the entire sequel together with old footage. Director Lee Harry claims he was able to convince them to pony up some cash for new scenes. And that stuff is bonkers.
Eric Freeman gives an outlandish, truly unhinged performance, and the “Garbage Day!” sequence has rightly become a cult classic in its own right. As such, it has risen in my estimation over the years… but I’m still annoyed by the first half of the movie. Maybe it would work better if you hadn’t just watched the first movie? This is objectively bad in most respects, but it’s a sorta fascinating and wildly entertaining failure.
Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! – This movie should be so much better than it actually is. I’m going to describe a bunch of stuff about this movie, and it’s going to sound awesome… but it is emphatically not so. Unlike the first two movies, whose inadequacies are somehow endearing, this one just plods limply to the finish line without anything of real interest. So here goes: The infamous “killer Santa Claus” Ricky Caldwell has miraculously been kept alive in a coma for six years by a mad scientist/doctor experimenting with ESP. Inevitably, he awakes from his coma and sets off to kill a young woman who has some psychic connection to him, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
It’s directed by Monte Hellman! It stars Bill Moseley as Ricky! Both of those guys are great! Robert Culp shows up as a cop chasing Ricky! The character design of Ricky replaces the entire top of his head with a glass dome, revealing his brain! Hell, just writing this makes me want to revisit this. It can’t possibly be as bad as I remember, can it? And yet, I’m virtually certain it’s even worse than my memory of it. That I’ve, like, repressed how bad it is. The best thing I can say about it is that you might be able to watch this closely and analyze enough of it to figure out what NOT to do in a slasher movie.
Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 – At this point, the series basically abandons any pretense of being a sequel. This is one of those I can’t get this script made unless I pretend its a sequel to an existing franchise sorta jams. As such, there’s no connection whatsoever to the previous three movies. It’s about a reporter who stumbles upon a coven of witches that worship some sort of satanic bug larvae or somesuch. It does take place during Christmas, but it’s barely got any of that sort of atmosphere.
It’s actually all just an excuse to Screaming Mad George’s bizarre FX and concepts. As such, this movie gets really grody. Along the way, we’re treated to a quintessential Clint Howard performance as Ricky, the gross errand boy of the witches. So this isn’t really a sequel in anything but name, but it does bring the whole “interesting failure” component back to the franchise. It’s hard to recommend because it’s just so… grody (which I already said but it’s really the one word review of this movie), but if you’re into that sort of thing…
Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker – This is it, folks. The series culminates in one of the most bizarre takes on Christmas horror ever put to film. Like Initiation, this has no connection to the first three films and is basically a sequel in name only, but it has more Christmas atmosphere and yes, even some form of ambition. It’s a sorta mashup of Santa Slasher and… Pinocchio?
Mysterious killer toys are being delivered throughout the land, and a young boy who witnesses the death of his father becomes too traumatized to speak. His mother must try to get him past his trauma. Perhaps with the help of local toymaker, Joe Petto and his nefarious son, Pino. Oh, and Joe Petto is played by Mickey Rooney. Clint Howard kinda/sorta reprises his role as Ricky, though he’s not a grody servant of witches anymore (or yet? Is this a prequel to part 4? I mean, it doesn’t really matter, but still.)
And that’s just the beginning. This thing gets more and more bananapants as it goes, leading to a truly insane finale. I might be building this up a bit too much in my head right now, but this movie was the thing that convinced me that writing a post like this would be a worthwhile affair. Like, really, this is a terrible movie, but I love it. That’s kinda the story of the entire series, and this one is a prime example.
So there you have it, five truly awful movies… with lots to love if you’re a fan of bad movies, which I apparently am. If you want to put yourself through this, all of the sequels are available for free (with commercials) on Tubi (at least, as of this writing). As for me, I’m making preparations to watch the remake/reboot/whatever this year. I’m sure it will be terrible. I’ll probably enjoy it. I don’t know if I have the stomach for the fan-made Silent Night, Deadly Night 6: Santa’s Watching, but you never know. Merry Christmas!
After a spin through some of the more obscurehorror films of 1978, the 1978 Project resumes its normal, lumbering schedule. For the uninitiated, I’m doing a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth. At this point, I’ve seen 77 films that were released in 1978, which is a pretty respectable number. That being said, I keep finding new and intriguing pockets of films that I want to watch, so I’ve got at least 10 more movies to go.
At some point, we’ll do our traditional roundup of Movie Awards and a Top 10, but it might still be a while. Or maybe January? Instead of doing 2020 movies (since so many are on hold), maybe I’ll do 1978? Only time will tell. I’ve actually seen a fair amount of 2020 flicks, perhaps enough to justify the exercise. But I digress, let’s check out some 1978 movies (fair warning, I watched some of these before the Six Weeks of Halloween started, so my memory has faded a bit and thus my thoughts might not be as insanely insightful as usual).
The Star Wars Holiday Special – I’ve seen bits and pieces of this notorious abomination before, but I’ve never sat through the entire thing. I wish I could say that the experience was worthwhile. That it’s so bad it’s good. But really, it’s just plain bad. Maybe the tragically ironic hipsters could find a way to enjoy it, but I suspect even the most devoted would break down by the end.
It starts off kinda promising, with the Millenium Falcon being chased by some Star Destroyers, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re just using remaindered footage from the movie, and that nothing seems quite right. Then we’re introduced to Chewbacca’s family, which consists of a few Wookies grunting at each other (with no subtitles) for nigh-on 10 minutes. And, like, they’re not fighting the empire or anything. It’s just mundane domestic activities. From there, we get various musical numbers, psychadelic bits, more musical numbers, a four-armed space-Julia-Child cooking segment that goes on for about 5 minutes, and some terrible animation that is the only part of this thing that has any sort of plot (it is famously the first appearance of Boba Fett).
It’s mind-blowing that anyone thought this would be a good way to follow up on the massive success of Star Wars, even if it’s only a TV movie. *
Magnificent Bodyguards – Early Jackie Chan vehicle that stifles Chan’s natural charisma by forcing him to play it straight. Chan plays a bodyguard who is protecting a wealthy woman and her clan as they travel to find a doctor for her sick brother. What follows is a by-the-numbers kung-fu flick that is perfectly cromulent, but really pales in comparison to the rest of the thriving Hong Kong action scene at the time. This was apparently released in 3D at the time, but obviously that’s not what I was watching. The sound effects are particularly glaring here, though one scene works well enough I guess: a fight enters a building and the sound effects continue even though we can’t see it anymore. Ultimately, though, this won’t come anywhere close to the top of 1978, even when restricted to purely martial arts movies (of which there were a ton). There are far better Jackie Chan vehicles in 1978 alone. **
Flying Guillotine II: Palace Carnage – Speaking of better 1978 martial arts films, this is another in a long line of Flying Guillotine sequels (depending on how you count the unofficial entries, this could actually be the fourth installment?) The emperor has expanded his reign of terror, aided by his squad of Flying Guillotine carrying troops. A band of rebels has devised a novel defense against the undefeatable and deadly weapon, but they don’t know that the emperor has commissioned a new version of the Flying Guillotine that is deadlier and undefeatablier. Unlike a lot of these films, the plot here is actually pretty engaging. The pacing is action packed and the decapitations are plentiful. There’s an all-female guillotine squad dressed in pink, iron umbrellas, lots of well choreographed spear battles, a massive body count, and a climax that tops the first film. I can see why there are so many of these films, and this is a fantastic sequel. ***
Cleopatra Wong – Part of the Phillipino exploitation boom, this is grindhouse kung-fu mixed with Bond-esque globe trotting and action. Star Marrie Lee was given the surname of Lee because Bruce Lee was insanely popular at the time and apparently when fans would greet her, they’d tell her that they enjoyed both her movies and her brother’s too. Lee plays the titular Cleopatra Wong, Singapore’s top policewoman who is working with an Interpol task force to take down counterfeiters. The ring is traced to Manila where the counterfeiters have taken up residence in a monastery populated by gun-toting nuns.
Look, this isn’t exactly fine cinema. It’s the product of cheapo, guerrilla-style filmmaking and it shows. Once you get past that, it’s pretty damn fun. The martial arts are nowhere near its Hong Kong contemporaries, but they make up for it by having Cleopatra blow up a helicopter with exploding arrows or shooting a four-barreled shotgun. It’s silly, but kinda fun if you can get on its wavelength. **
Silver Saddle (aka They Died With Their Boots On) – A young boy sees his father gunned down, but manages to kill the assassin. Years later, he’s become a feared bounty hunter, but now he’s discovered some secrets from his past… One of the last major Spaghetti Westerns, it’s a good example of why the genre was dying. It’s not terrible or anything, but there’s absolutely nothing new or even particularly distinctive here. It doesn’t look bad, but it pales in comparison to other Spaghetti Westerns. Director Lucio Fulci must have been restrained in some way here, because there’s no over-the-top violence or gore (though I suppose both are present). There’s not even a Fulci-trademark eye gouging scene! So yeah, not a bad movie, but a mostly forgettable one that doesn’t really rank anywhere near the pantheon of Spaghetti Westerns… **
I do feel like I’m coming down the homestretch of the 1978 Project. I could probably cobble together a credible Top 10 right now, but there are definitely 2-3 contenders, and maybe 10 more films I’d like to watch before really trying. Alas, some of these are more difficult to track down (which is partly why this project is taking a while). If not January, the 1978 Movie Awards will probably happen in February or March. Stay tuned!