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FILM REVIEW – GOAT

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Goat is not a movie about people. It’s a movie about shock value. “Shocking” sequences are shown of freshman getting physically, emotionally and even sexually abused in hazing practices. Since none of the characters, save from one, are developed or distinguished in any kind of way, these “shocking” sequences have absolutely no impact. It uses slick cinematography and a constantly brooding protagonist as some kind of cheap parlor trick to cover up the fact that it is an utterly hollow experience. This is the best example of “cinematic posturing” in recent memory.

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The movie opens with a pair of brothers, Brett (Ben Schnetzer) and Brad (Nick Jonas!!!!). Brad is a member of the fraternity that Brett will be rushing this upcoming fall semester, and Brad really wants him to be a brother. That’s about all the relationship building you get from these characters whose literal and collegiate brotherhood is supposed to anchor the entire picture. Brad is a handsome, confident and completely uninteresting guy who always seems to score with the three dozen Victoria’s Secret models that inexplicably attend this small Midwestern college. Brett is more sensitive and overly passive. He doesn’t know how to stand up for himself. This is lazily demonstrated by having him submit to a beating and robbery by two muggers in the first ten minutes of the film. I guess that’s why he needs to prove himself a “man” during this hazing ritual. Multiple times throughout the movie he sadly looks at a selfie he took the night of the mugging of his bruised up face trying to figure out who he is. How deep.

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When the hazing starts, we are introduced to a couple of frat brother clichés. One walks around the party eating a can of tuna fish. Only someone completely comfortable with themselves eats at a party, he must be the alpha. Another is the rich preppy guy who is always the first to yell in your face but lies on the ground crying when he gets lightly tapped. In the grand ironic tradition of frat hazing, it’s both completely homophobic and electrically homoerotic at the same time. The frat brothers stick bananas encased in condoms in the mouths of blind-folded pledges and instruct those “faggots” to “suck their dicks.” Maybe Goat would have worked better if it had been a satire on pledging. It would have at least been less disgusting than being pressured into shedding a tear for a couple of privileged white dudes who chose to be there.

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There’s a scene towards the middle of the hazing where Brett and the boys successfully drain a keg of beer after being covered in chocolate pudding and urinated on. After ringing a cowbell to signal a success, the brothers celebrate with the pledges at a bon fire. Covered in chocolate pudding and looking sinister, Brett slowly walks over to his brothers as the fire illuminates his face. The shot is a direct rip-off of Apocalypse Now. The fact they are comparing Brett’s mission to be in a frat to Martin Sheen’s mission to kill Colonel Kurtz is the only indication Goat might actually be a comedy.

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The only truly redeeming quality of Goat is the lead performance by Ben Schnetzer. As much as I loathed the character, I never loathed Schnetzer. He almost succeeds in selling his garbage character. Schnetzer is a magnetic and powerful talent that manages to impress even in the most hostile of conditions, like being in a piece of shit like Goat. In fact, the majority of the cast with the exception of Jonas are all pretty solid. As much as I want to bite my own foot off for saying this, James Franco has a good cameo. He plays a former frat bro who stops by the house from time to time to relive his “glory” days and escape from his wife and baby. In a completely unsubtle but effective way of displaying this character hates himself, the writers have Franco rip off his shirt and scream at a pledge to hit him.

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I think the real tragedy of Goat is the fact that it’s competently put together by someone who very clearly knows how to make a movie. It’s co-written by the wonderful David Gordon Green and the cinematography is gorgeous. It’s just lazy. It’s clear its main purpose is to shock audiences with ridiculously cruel hazing methods. It’s not interested in any kind of human element or mining any deep truths on why we put ourselves through hell in order to be popular or well liked. Goat isn’t a movie, it’s a compilation of outrageous YouTube videos in sheep’s clothing. Grade: D 

Available to Rent on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, go nuts! 

 

 

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My 100 Favorite Movies

I waste so much of my precious time on this Earth watching movies. Here are my 100 favorites that I strongly recommend you see and own and watch many more times.  Also, these are my favorite movies and not what I’m saying are the objectively best movies ever made. But, feel free to give me shit about it in the comment section.

 

100. Die Hard (1988/dir. John McTiernan/USA)

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The perfect action movie.

 

99. Bad Education (2004/dir. Pedro Almodovar/Spain)

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Pedro Almodovar is one of the only filmmakers able to walk the thin line between realism and soap, and Bad Education, while one of his most disturbing efforts, is no different. It’s a harrowing drama wrapped in a murder mystery about two sexual abuse victims trying to make a movie based on their experience.

 

98. Se7en (1995/dir. David Fincher/USA)

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Speaking of disturbing efforts, David Fincher’s breakthrough film about the week-long hunt for a sadistically pious serial killer is one of the darkest movies you’ll ever see. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt provide solid performances, but the MVP is Kevin Spacey.

 

97.Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father (2008/dir. Kurt Kuenne/USA)

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From a technical perspective, Dear Zachary is not a great documentary. However, the story at the heart of Dear Zachary is so heart-wrenching and unbelievable it makes for essential viewing. Given that it’s made by the subject’s childhood friend adds to its intimacy. This is one you’ll never forget. It’s impossible not be deeply affected by this film. Available to Stream on Netflix. 

 

96. The Wizard of Oz (1939/dir. Victor Miller/USA)

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I watched The Wizard of Oz so many times as a child I wore out the VHS copy and my mom had to buy another one. It’s fun, it’s vibrant, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s actually really fucking twisted now that I think about it. There’s something perverse and odd going on under the surface of this movie, and I’m not exactly sure what it is. The Cowardly Lion will forever remain one of my favorite movie characters.

 

95. Inglourious Basterds (2009/dir. Quentin Tarantino/USA/Germany)

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After being slightly disappointed with the Kill Bill movies, my mind was completely blown my sophomore year of college when I went with some comedy buddies to see Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. The best of Tarantino’s revisionist history epics, Basterds features one of the best written villains of all time, Colonel Hans Landa flawlessly embodied by the great Christoph Waltz. It also features a bar scene that is as good as an episode of Cheers.

 

 

 

94. The Piano (1993/dir. Jane Campion/New Zealand/Australia/France)

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Jane Campion’s gorgeous period piece The Piano had the misfortune of being released the same year as Schindler’s List, so it was almost forgotten. It features Holly Hunter’s finest performance, Harvey Keitel’s penis and Anna Paquin in a role that won her an Oscar at the age of twelve. Available to Stream on Amazon Prime. 

 

93. Requiem for a Dream (2000/dir. Darren Aronofsky/USA) 

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The scariest and saddest movie ever made about drug abuse and how it destroys human beings. Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto and most surprisingly Marlon Wayans impress with stunning work, but the real show-stopper is Ellen Burstyn. This is the film that established Darren Aronofsky as a major American filmmakers.

 

92. Boyz N the Hood (1991/dir. John Singleton/USA)

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“Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” One of the many pearls of wisdom spoken by Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), the tough-as-nails patriarch in John Singleton’s cautionary tale of life in the ghetto, Boyz n the Hood. One of the biggest criticisms I consistently hear of the film is that the characters all act as mouthpieces for the film’s message, and while I usually don’t like that lack of subtlety, it works in the context of this movie. Boyz n the Hood is like a ghetto opera, overly dramatic, a little surreal but extremely powerful. Increase the peace.

 

91. The Celebration (1998/dir. Thomas Vinterberg/Denmark/Sweden) 

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Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration is a Danish film I first saw in my independent film class in college. It’s a simple and intimate domestic drama about a family’s darkest secrets being exposed during a reunion. It’s a Dogme film, meaning it was filmed all on a hand held camera with only natural lighting and no audio added in post production. A bunch of filmmakers got together at Cannes one year (Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and a couple of others) and were upset that film was becoming too artificial or something, so they drafted this manifesto on what film should be. Sounds really pretentious and up it’s own ass, and it probably is, but The Celebration followed these rules and turned out incredible. Vinterberg would later go on to make The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen, another incredible, but simple film.

 

90. Magnolia (1999/dir. Paul Thomas Anderson/USA) 

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Powerful but bizarre series of interconnecting stories set in the San Fernando Valley. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson patterned much of Magnolia off of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Featuring one of the most impressive and effective ensemble casts ever assembled for a movie and one of the best opening sequences of all time. Tom Cruise got an Oscar nomination for his solid performance, but truth be told, he was one of the weaker parts of the cast.

 

89. Zero Dark Thirty (2012/dir. Kathryn Bigelow/USA)

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Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar for The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty, released three years later, was hands down the better film. Featuring fantastic performances from Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler and the late great James Gandolfini, this docudrama chronicles the hunt and eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden. The film was plagued with controversy claiming it celebrated and/or condoned torture, but I found the film to be pretty indifferent from a political standpoint. It seems far more interested in the psyche of the highly-stressed characters rather than making any kind of statement.

 

88. Sexy Beast (2000/dir. Jonathon Glazer/UK/Spain) 

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Everyone says Ben Kinglsey gave his best performance as Gandhi, but I call bullshit. His best performance was as the emotionally unstable vicious mad dog Don Logan in Jonathon Glazer’s surreal crime drama Sexy Beast. Ray Winstone is almost as good as a retired bank robber being stalked by Logan, as is Deadwood’s Ian McShane as a manipulative crime lord who loves orgies.

 

87. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007/dir. Cristian Mungiu/Romania/Belgium)

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Far and away, one of the most unsettling and hard to watch films on this list, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days chronicles the awful experience of a college student trying to get an illegal abortion in 1980s communist Romania. Over the course of 113 minutes, our pregnant protagonist is poked, prodded, harassed, abused and traumatized over something that should be every woman’s right. It’s a nauseating experience as a viewer since filmmaker Cristian Mungiu refuses to sugar coat anything.

 

86. Punch-Drunk Love (2002/dir. Paul Thomas Anderson/USA)

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When I first saw this movie in sixth grade I did not care for it. I found it to be long, boring and not quite as entertaining as Sandler’s other movies where he does stuff with poop. However, repeat viewing as an adult have made me realize what a unique and heartbreaking character study this is. Adam Sandler gives us his very best performance here, before he was sponsored by Bud Light. Available to Stream on Amazon Prime. 

 

85. Anomalisa (2015/dir. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman/USA) 

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Last year’s R-rated Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated feature from Charlie Kaufman was a bit of a bait and switch. The trailers led audience members to believe it was an optimistic and whimsical life-affirming journey of a marionette, but the film ended up really being about how unchecked narcissism can drive a person to levels of loneliness bordering on psychosis. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and especially Tom Noonan as every other character, deliver phenomenal voice-work, but the real magic comes from Kaufman’s cynical and frightfully accurate worldview.

 

84. The Empire Strikes Back (1980 / dir. Irvin Kershner / USA)

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Why didn’t I rank the most popular movie ever made higher? As much as I appreciate/love the Star Wars trilogy it never really played a huge role in my childhood. I feel 99.9% of people who are obsessed with Star Wars started at a single digit age. My VHS collection was a lot more fucked than Han and Lea’s sexual tension though, with Tarantino, Scorsese, Craven, and Kevin Smith playing a large role. The Empire Strikes Back is the finest installment and the snow battle, Boba Fett and that ending are definitely epic.

 

83. Drive (2011/dir. Nicolas Winding Refn/USA)

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Usually I see a movie on my birthday weekend and usually I end up being disappointed. I remember on September 18, 2011 I saw Drive with my roommate and best friend and was absolutely blown away. Drive is a non-stop thrill ride from beginning to end with rich, empathetic characters and brilliant film editing. Refn went on to direct two extremely disappointing films after Drive, the gorgeous but completely hollow The Neon Demon and the completely cold and detached Only God Forgives.

 

82. Zodiac (2007/dir. David Fincher/USA)

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Many people credit The Social Network as Fincher’s masterpiece, but I whole heartedly believe it is Zodiac. This cold and meticulously made crime drama tracks the long and arduous investigation of the Zodiac killer. Fincher perfectly captures the late 60s/early 70s and coaxes brilliantly understated performances out of his large ensemble cast. The music supervision is on-point featuring Donovan, Three Dog Night and Steely Dan.

 

81. House (1977/dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi/Japan)

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House is the most bat shit crazy movie I’ve ever seen. Is it even a movie? It’s like a music video dropped acid with a children’s book. Whatever it is, there is nothing like it. It will have you screaming BANANAS BANANAS BANANAS BANANAS all night long. Available for Streaming on HULU Plus 

 

80. Toy Story (1995/dir. John Lasseter/USA)

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My vote for the greatest animated feature ever made. Toy Story is the remarkably original and emotionally resonant story about growing up, seen through a collection of forgotten toys. Also, Tim Allen is in it.

 

79. The Departed (2006/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA)

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Relentlessly entertaining and unpredictable, Martin Scorsese’s return to form The Departed, already felt like a classic the year it was released. Featuring very well drawn characters brought to life by excellent performances including a terrifying Jack Nicholson and a never better Leonardo DiCaprio.

 

78. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013/dir. Abdellatif Kechiche/France/Belgium/Spain)

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An incredibly tense and incredibly frank French drama chronicling a decade long relationship between an artist in her twenties and a high school aged girl. Over the course of three hours, I became so emotionally invested in the characters I felt like I knew them my entire life. Blue is the Warmest Color marked the first and only time a filmmaker and his two leading actresses were awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

77. Alien (1979/dir. Ridley Scott/UK/USA)

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Most people credit Blade Runner as Ridley Scott’s best film, but I honestly find it to be pretty overrated. For me, Scott’s masterpiece is the simple and terrifying Alien. Expertly paced and better acted than any genre film has the right to be, Alien introduced us to one of the scariest monsters in movie history, the xenomorph.

 

76. The Pianist (2002/dir. Roman Polanski/France/Poland/Germany/UK)

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Most every non-fiction Holocaust film seems to just exist in the shadow of Schindler’s List, but Roman Polanski’s chilling survival story of a Polish pianist is one of the rare exceptions. Featuring a riveting Oscar-winning performance from Adrien Brody that should have sky rocketed his career. Instead, he did a couple of Diet Coke commercials.

 

75. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993/dir. Chris Columbus/USA)

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I guess I’m supposed to like Tootsie more, but I don’t. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant in it, but Mrs. Doubtfire makes me happier. Robin Williams plays such an incredibly likeable character you’re able to feel everything he feels as a viewer. And that scene where him, Harvey Fierstein and Aunt Jack are figuring out Mrs. Doubtfire’s look is a montage for the ages.

 

74. L.A. Confidential (1997/dir. Curtis Hanson/USA)

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Beautifully written and powerfully acted 1950s detective story that was unfortunately overshadowed by James Cameron’s visually impressive but intellectually hollow love story Titanic. Kevin Spacey does some of his best screen work here.

 

73. Whiplash (2014/dir. Damien Chazelle/USA)

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There is never a dull or unneeded moment in Damien Chazelle’s explosively thrilling tortured artist film. J.K. Simmons rightfully won an Oscar for portraying the music teacher from hell and Miles Teller holds his own as an ambitious young drummer. The ending is a work of genius. Pure fucking genius.

 

72. About Schmidt (2002/dir. Alexander Payne/USA)

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Speaking of endings, the ending of About Schmidt always gets me. An against type Jack Nicholson plays Warren R. Schmidt, a retiree who takes a cross country road trip in his RV in a desperate attempt to find himself before his daughter gets married.

 

71. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992/dir. James Foley/USA)

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A phenomenal play, but an even better film in my opinion. David Mamet wisely adds an outside force played by Alec Baldwin to taunt and fuck with the six desperate real estate men. Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon deliver two of the best performances of their career, while Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and a very young Kevin Spacey add solid support. Always Be Closing, Coffee is for Closers, and a bunch of other quotable lines.

 

70. The War Zone (1999/dir. Tim Roth/UK) 

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Incest is a tricky subject to base a film around, but real life survivor Tim Roth has crafted a truly harrowing but remarkable motion picture that perfectly captures the emotional destruction it does to a family. Set in a Shining-esque isolated setting (the father’s job is to be the caretaker of an old castle in Ireland), The War Zone inflicts pain upon characters with nowhere to flee for help.

 

69. Mystic River (2003/dir. Clint Eastwood/USA)

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Many people will tell you Clint Eastwood’s best movie is Unforgiven or that pile of horsedicks Million Dollar Baby, but for my money it’s Mystic River. While not as graphic in it’s depiction of sexual abuse as The War Zone, it’s accurate in its depiction of how those wounds never really heal. Featuring an amazing ensemble cast including Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne and Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River is able to hit notes so subtle you’ll never guess The Empty Chair Guru thunk it up.

 

68. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999/dir. Errol Morris/UK/USA)

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Errol Morris might be the best documentarian working today and the peculiar Mr. Death is one of his best works in a sea of exceptional work. A bizarre story of a chain-smoking coffee-inhaling man who dedicated his life to modifying execution equiptment and later went on to become the “scientific” voice of Holocaust deniers.

 

67. The Conversation (1974/dir. Francis Ford Coppola/USA)

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The same year The Godfather Part II won Coppola Best Picture at the Oscars, The Conversation won him the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Feautring Gene Hackman’s finest performance as a surveillance man who becomes slowly obsessed with his subject, the great John Cazale (RIP) and a very young Harrison Ford.

 

66. Annie Hall (1977/dir. Woody Allen/USA)

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Widely regarded as Allen’s best film and one of the best romantic comedies ever written. While I think it’s only his second best film, I think it’s his funniest and most charming effort. Christopher Walken is in this.

 

65. In the Bedroom (2001/dir. Todd Field/USA) 

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If you want to see some of the best acting ever committed to screen, watch Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek duke it out over the grief of their dead son in one hit wonder Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. It’s a slow burn, but it builds to a devastating final shot. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime. 

 

64. Barton Fink (1991/dir. Joel & Ethan Coen/USA)

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The Coen Brothers have always done their own thing, and Barton Fink might be the best example of how different they are from other filmmakers. An eccentric hybrid of comedy and drama, Barton Fink follows a squirrely writer (a never better John Turturro) and his bumpy journey through the Hollywood film industry. A highlight is John Goodman firing a shotgun and screaming down a hallway engulfed in flames.

 

63. Gates of Heaven (1978/dir. Errol Morris/USA)

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The documentary that Roger Ebert calls one of the top ten films ever made, Gates of Heaven was Errol Morris’ breakthrough hit that set the tone for his exceptional body of work. This portrait of very unusual and desperate pet owners is unexpectedly touching and poignant.

 

62. The Long Goodbye (1973/dir. Robert Altman/USA)

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Initially trashed upon its release, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best goddamn detective movies ever made. Elliot Gould is magnetic as the infamous Philip Marlowe, and the hilarious opening sequence involving him buying cat food is one of the best stretches of film I’ve ever seen.

 

61. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986/dir. Woody Allen/USA)

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I haven’t seen every Woody Allen movie but out of the ones I’ve seen, Hannah and Her Sisters is the best. An ensemble piece about relationships, marriage and adultery featuring a half dozen incredibly well developed and realistic characters brought to life by magnificent performances. Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine are clearly the stand-outs and won Oscars for their work.

 

60. Animal Kingdom (2010/dir. David Michod/Australia) 

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A Greek tragedy disguised as an Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom is a powerful and disturbing examination of a criminal family falling apart. Most crime dramas use shocking and graphic violence to jolt viewers, but Animal Kingdom simply uses dialogue and tense confrontations between its characters. Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the deceptively sweet matriarch, but the real scene-stealer is Ben Mendolsohn as the sociopathic eldest son.

 

59. The Deer Hunter (1978/dir. Michael Cimino/UK/USA)

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Before Michael Cimino murdered United Artists with Heaven’s Gate, he directed one of the best war movies of all time. The Deer Hunter centers around small town Joes forever changed by the horrors of Vietnam. Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken deliver devastating performances especially in the almost unbearable Russian Roulette sequence.

 

58. Mean Streets (1973/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA)

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While not his first film, Mean Streets was the movie that established Martin Scorsese as one of the best working American filmmakers. Centering around Scorsese’s two favorite subjects – street crime and Catholic guilt – Mean Streets follows Charlie (Harvey Keital) and his struggle to keep his best friend Johnny Boy (an unhinged Robert DeNiro) alive and out of trouble.

 

57. The Usual Suspects (1995/dir. Bryan Singer/USA/Germany)

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While it has what is possibly the best twist ending in the history of cinema, it seems unfair to only remember Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects just for that. It’s a tightly paced and surprisingly funny crime thriller with fascinating characters including a sly but unintelligible criminal played hilariously by Benicio Del Toro. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

56. Apocalypse Now (1979/dir. Francis Ford Coppola/USA)

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“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” – Francis Ford Coppola. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime for both “Redux” and “Theatrical” versions. I prefer the Redux version. 

 

55. Talk to Her (2002/dir. Pedro Almodovar/Spain)

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Very few filmmakers understand the human condition as well as Almodovar, and while Talk to Her is certainly one of his most surreal and bizarre motion pictures, it features some of his most painfully realistic and relatable characters. The whole cast is excellent but the stand-out is far and away Javier Camara.

 

54. The Silence of the Lambs (1991/dir. Jonathon Demme/USA)

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The best acting you’ll ever find in a horror movie and possibly the greatest characters are in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. One is a brilliant and ambitious FBI trainee trying to move past her white trash past, and one is a brilliant and manipulative former psychiatrist holding the key to solving a series of murders. And so a great cat and mouse game is built around an already stellar mystery thriller. Available for Streaming on HULU Plus. 

 

53. The Shining (1980/dir. Stanley Kubrick/USA/UK)

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The Shining isn’t Stanley Kubrick’s best film, but it’s the best horror movie ever made. This isn’t because of the characters, the actors or the story. This is because of the atmosphere. Kubrick creates a terrifying atmosphere that automatically fills you with dread. Every time you ride down that hallway with Danny, your heart sinks.

 

52. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996/dir. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky/USA)

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Documentaries don’t get more disturbing and near impossible to watch than Paradise Lost. From the graphic images of ritualistically murdered children to the fact it’s about three teenagers being sentenced to life (and in one case death) merely for listening to Metallica. It’s an important watch though, because it perfectly illustrates how ludicrous our justice system is and how an ignorant small town mentality can condemn innocent people. If you were a fan of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, be sure to check this one out. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime. 

 

51. No Country For Old Men (2007/dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen/USA)

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Far and away, the Coen’s darkest film and probably the most non-Oscar-y Oscar winner of all time. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel almost word for word, No Country For Old Men is an extremely cynical view of the world seen through the eyes of the epitome of everything good and just (Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell), the epitome of everything evil and unjust (Javier Bardem’s Anton Chirguh) and the epitome of human stupidity (Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss). Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

50. Short Cuts (1993/dir. Robert Altman/USA)

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Robert Altman’s entire career seemed to be building towards Short Cuts, an incredibly compelling and fascinating ensemble drama about twenty-something troubled lives caged inside Los Angeles. Featuring one of the greatest casts ever assembled: Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Matthew Modine, Bruce Davison, Andie McDowell, Robert Downey, Jr., Lily Taylor, Chris Penn, Frances McDormand, Madeline Stowe, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Lyle Lovett and a heartbreaking Jack Lemmon.

 

49. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003/dir. Peter Jackson/New Zealand/USA)

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While I agree that Return of the King had seventeen too many endings, it doesn’t change that fact that Peter Jackson has crafted one of the finest and most visually impressive film trilogies of all time with J.R.R. Tolkein’s source material. Singling out the installments and ranking all three seems pointless since they are just separate parts of one gigantic story. I also wanted two extra spaces on my list.

 

48. Happiness (1998/dir. Todd Solondz/USA)

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Any film that almost succeeds in making you feel sympathy for a pedophile is incredibly well written. Todd Solondz’s ironically titled Happiness is an ensemble-driven epic about the crippling power of loneliness. Seen through the eyes of a narcissistic New Jersey family and the losers and monsters they encounter every day, the film strikes a brilliant balance between dark humor and devastating drama. It’s mean-spirited but incredibly honest, and features perfect performances from it’s cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz and especially, Dylan Baker. It’s hilarious.

 

47. Being John Malkovich (1999/dir. Spike Jonze/USA)

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Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s feature film debut, Being John Malkovich, is fucking ridiculous. A failed puppeteer (John Cusack), his animal-obsessed wife (Cameron Diaz) and a horribly manipulative asshole (Catherine Keener) find a portal into John Malkovich’s head behind an old filing cabinet. Extremely whimsical but very sad at its core, Being John Malkovich ends up being less about John Malkovich and more about how desperate desire can make human beings.

 

46. Trainspotting (1996/dir. Danny Boyle/UK)

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I was in third grade when my best friend at the time gave me a run down of the plot for Trainspotting. He explained to me it’s about these heroin addicts stuck on an island (Scotland) who hallucinate and steal shit and there’s this super graphic sex scene with this totally hot chick. This enthusiastic rundown didn’t even begin to prepare me for the unhinged visceral assault that is Trainspotting, a volatile ADHD-addled thrill-ride that grabs you by the throat for 90 minutes and doesn’t let you go. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

45. This Is Spinal Tap (1984/dir. Rob Reiner/USA)

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I think the mockumentary was more or less invented with 1984’s comedy classic. This Is Spinal Tap, a spot-on parody of 80s rock bands involving foil-wrapped cucumbers, birthing pods that don’t want to open and a beautiful love ballad titled “Lick my Love Pump.” One of the funniest movies ever made and completely timeless.

 

44. The Seven Samurai (1954/dir. Akira Kurosawa/Japan)

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Akira Kurosawa’s 3 hour –plus epic about a group of samurai who take the law into their own hands was re-made several times but never improved upon. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen four Kurosawa films (Rashomon, Dreams, Throne of Blood and this) or else more would most likely be on the list. Available for Streaming on HULU Plus. 

 

43. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975/dir. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones/UK)

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Although I think Monty Python’s absolutely best work was their sketch show Flying Circus, they made three near-perfect films. The first was The Holy Grail, a parody of the classic King Arthur story, featuring homicidal rabbits on crack and plenty of flesh wounds.

 

42. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979/dir. Terry Jones/UK)

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Monty Python’s second feature film was far and away their most controversial, parodying the Christ story. It pissed a lot of people off but it demonstrated Monty Python’s willingness to go anywhere.

 

41. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983/dir. Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam/UK)

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Although it’s an unpopular opinion, I think Monty Python’s best film was their third and final feature, The Meaning of Life. A series of alarmingly clever and hilarious vignettes that attempt and fail to explain the meaning of life. SPOILER ALERT – There is no meaning, we die, the end.

 

40. The Lives of Others (2006/dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck/Germany)

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The late Ulrich Muhle gives such an incredibly nuanced and touching performance in The Lives of Others that it’s an absolutely travesty he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Muhle plays a STASI agent tasked with running surveillance on a “suspicious” couple in 1984 East Berlin. Slowly but surely he gets to know the couple and empathizes with them. The film, which won the Oscar in 2006 for Foreign Language Film, matches the brilliance of his performance in every way.

 

39. Blazing Saddles (1974/dir. Mel Brooks/USA)

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It goes without saying that Mel Brooks is one of the greatest comedic minds of all time, and at least for me, Blazing Saddles is far and away his greatest achievement. A comedic western and an interesting commentary on race relations, the movie doesn’t pull any of it’s punches and features hilarious performances from the entire cast, especially Madeline Kahn.

 

38. Wet Hot American Summer (2001/dir. David Wain/USA)

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Every time I watch David Wain’s 1980s summer camp epic, it makes me laugh so hard I physically hurt myself. All of Wain, Showalter and Black’s films are fantastic, but this one clearly soars ahead of the pack. Featuring an impressive ensemble cast including David Hyde Pierce, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper and the criminally underrated Christopher Meloni as a disturbed camp chef plagued with thoughts of fondling sweaters and rubbing mud on his ass. Available for Streaming on Netflix.

 

37. Boogie Nights (1997/dir. Paul Thomas Anderson/USA)

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That opening shot. That beautiful two-minute, single take going into Luis Guzman’s club established filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the best working American filmmakers. He’s the heir to Kubrick’s genius as far as I’m concerned. His second feature, an epic ensemble piece about the porn industry of the 1970s seen through the eyes of a fresh-faced horse-dicked young man (Mark Wahlberg), is one of the most energetic and compelling period pieces ever made.

 

36. Do the Right Thing (1989/dir. Spike Lee/USA)

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In my mind, the most poignant film ever made about race relations, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is about a mixed race neighborhood at each other’s throats during the hottest day in Brooklyn. I’m generally not a fan of Lee’s work, but Do the Right Thing is a masterpiece of American cinema.

 

35. 12 Years a Slave (2013/dir. Steve McQueen/USA/UK)

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There hasn’t been many movies made about slavery, and the ones that were made prior to 12 Years a Slave always seemed to have a sappy and cheesy emotional slant. 12 Years a Slave succeeds because filmmaker Steve McQueen is as unsentimental as they come and is unwilling to sugarcoat anything. While the film does a vivid and horrifying job painting the physical tortures of slavery, it also, and I’d argue even more frighteningly so, portrays the blind acceptance of an institution that degraded an entire race of people.

 

34. City of God (2003/dir. Fernando Meirelles/Brazil)

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City of God succeeds in being both horrific and entertaining, sometimes at the same time. Perhaps Brazil’s best known contribution to celluloid, it chronicles the real life story of crime lords residing over Rio de Janiero from the late 60s to the mid 70s. Featuring a fascinatingly unconventional story structure that filters incredibly complex characters through shocking and at times, bizarre, situations. It also has some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen set to an amazing soundtrack featuring James Brown and Tower of Power.

 

33. Schindler’s List (1993/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA)

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Schindler’s List is commonly regarded as “the” movie about the holocaust and for good reason. It’s a relentlessly compelling three hours that manages to be both horrifying and emotionally rewarding. It manages to have optimistic and warm moments (though not many) without ever being ham-fisted or cheesy. Liam Neeson creates one of the most empathetic movie characters of all time with Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes creates one of the most terrifying, ruthless and ultimately sad film villains of all time. Available for Streaming on HULU Plus. 

 

32. Chinatown (1974/dir. Roman Polanski/USA)

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Painfully cynical yet beautifully crafted film noir set in the 1930s about a sleazy private investigator (Jack Nicholson) stumbling upon a gigantic conspiracy about LA’s water. The recent drought in California makes Chinatown particularly relevant today and for the most part Polanski’s quick pacing and storytelling is more similar to today’s cinema than it is with cinema of the early 1970s. Jack Nicholson delivers his finest film performance of all time and Faye Dunaway and the great John Huston provide outstanding supporting work.

 

31. Blue Velvet (1986/dir. David Lynch/USA)

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On the surface, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a kidnapping thriller. Below the surface, beneath the dirt and ravenous beetles, it’s a commentary on artificiality of the American Dream. Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper, creating perhaps the most frightening movie villain of all time, deliver career -best performances.

 

30. The Act of Killing (2013/dir. Joshua Oppenheimer/UK/Denmark/Norway)

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The most unique documentary I’ve ever seen, and certainly one of the most affecting. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer gives Indonesian death squad leaders the chance to re-enact their murders with a low budget action film. This forces them to come to terms with the atrocities they committed and meditate on the thin line between murder and patriotism. Available for Streaming on Netflix.

 

29. The Killing (1956/dir. Stanley Kubrick/USA)

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Stanley Kubrick apparently invented the tracking shot during the apartment scene in this perfect thriller. It’s a heist film with interesting, jaded characters and a plot that keeps you guessing all the way until the beautifully ironic ending. The fact a film like this was made in 1956 is a minor miracle.

 

28. The Godfather Part II (1974/dir. Francis Ford Coppola/USA)

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While I strongly believe the first Godfather is far and away a better film than the more critically acclaimed Part II, I still believe Part II is a masterpiece in it’s own right. The juxtaposition of Michael Corleone’s life with his father’s life at his age (played by a rarely better Robert DeNiro) is brilliant, and the ending sequence is one of the most quietly tragic stretches of film I’ve ever seen.

 

27.Full Metal Jacket (1987/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK/USA)

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When people think of the definitive Vietnam movie, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Oliver Stone’s annoyingly overrated Platoon usually come to mind. For me, the definitive Vietnam war movie is Stanley Kubrick’s aggressively angry dark comedy, Full Metal Jacket. It’s comprised of two equally impressive halves, one focusing on Private Joker being broken at boot camp and the other focusing on the psychological effects of Private Joker’s boot camp experience. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

26. The Thin Blue Line (1988/dir. Errol Morris/USA)

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Watching The Thin Blue Line again recently after four or five years, really cemented it for me as the best documentary ever made. Unfolding like a thriller, The Thin Blue Line explores a terrible miscarriage of justice through startling interviews heightened with one of the most effective music scores I’ve ever heard in a film. Filmmaker Errol Morris creates such an incredible sense of unease throughout you might be able to classify it as a horror movie. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

25. Saving Private Ryan (1998/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA)

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The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan has been written and talked about to enormous lengths, but I’ll talk about it anyway. It’s one of the most harrowing and impressive opening sequences ever committed to film, and the movie that follows it doesn’t let that stellar opening down. Tom Hanks’ line about how every man he kills he feels farther away from home still hits me hard to this day. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

24. Best in Show (2000/dir. Christopher Guest/USA)

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Laugh for laugh, Best in Show might be the funniest movie ever made. It’s certainly one of the most consistently funny movies ever made with multiple laughs per minute. Christopher Guest’s overwhelmingly talented improvisational ensemble from This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman returns to lampoon super intense dog owners. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime. 

 

23. Paths of Glory (1957/dir. Stanley Kubrick/USA)

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Stanley Kubrick is most often described as a filmmaker ahead of his time, so a WWI film made in 1957 that manages to bear a strong anti-war statement fits in perfectly with his oeuvre. Meticulously filmed in gorgeous black and white, Kubrick’s second of three war films is possibly his most underrated work.

 

22. All About My Mother (1999/dir. Pedro Almodovar/Spain)

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Your mileage may vary, but for me, Pedro Almodovar’s magnum opus is 1999’s All About My Mother. It’s a beautiful portrait of femininity seen through the eyes of different mothers, daughters, sisters, actresses and men who are transitioning into women. It’s a powerful, realistic and unpredictable ensemble piece with an early performance from Penelope Cruz as a nun dying of AIDS.

 

21. Rashomon (1950/dir. Akira Kurosawa/Japan)

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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon invented a sub-genre for thrillers where a crime occurs and the audience sees the incident from several different character perspectives. The genius of Rashomon is that the truth is never revealed. The film was released in Japan in 1950 and was light years ahead of American movies. I haven’t seen every Kurosawa film but this is my hands down favorite. Available for Streaming for HULU Plus. 

 

20. Oldboy (2003/dir. Chan-wook Park/South Korea) 

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One of the most strikingly original and entertaining films ever made is Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy. An intense character study wrapped inside of a thriller wrapped inside of a mystery seasoned with notes of bizarre humor. It’s the only movie I ever re-watched immediately after the first time I watched it. Available for Streaming for Netflix. 

 

19. The Big Lebowski (1998/dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen/USA)

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I’ll admit that the first time I saw The Big Lebowski I didn’t think it was all that great. I’ll even admit that the second time I saw it I didn’t think it was much better. But somewhere around the fourth or fifth time you watch it, you realize it’s one of the most ingenious comedies ever filmed. Oddly structured, it unfolds in very surprising ways but never comes across as pretentious or tedious. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman deliver some of their finest work and John Turturro’s Jesus is a minor miracle.

 

18. Raging Bull (1980/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA)

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Known for having the best film editing ever (thanks Thelma Schoonmaker), Raging Bull is one of the few modern movies filmed in black and white that completely justifies being filmed in black and white. It’s beautiful and pristine, the most gorgeous movie Scorsese has ever shot. DeNiro gives one of the all time best screen performances as Jake LaMotta, a deeply flawed human being with whom it’s incredibly difficult to empathize. It is almost unreal that Ordinary People beat this out for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

 

17. The Master (2012/dir. Paul Thomas Anderson/USA)

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I strongly believe that Paul Thomas Anderson is the most interesting and gifted filmmaker working in American movies today. The Master is his incredibly meticulous and unsettling post WWII drama about desperate men who need something, anything, to believe in. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give career best performances (and that is definitely saying something) as master and sensei, perfectly playing off each other with opposite approaches. Phoenix is a very extroverted and loud character while Hoffman is more introverted and subtle, quietly holding the power in the relationship. The first “processing” scene they share together might be my favorite two-person scene of all time.

 

16. The Godfather (1972/dir. Francis Ford Coppola/USA)

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There aren’t many three-hour movies that earn their runtime, but The Godfather manages to justify it with one of the tightest and most intense three-hour stretches ever recorded to film. The performances from Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Richard Castellano are amazing but the real standout is an understated Robert Duvall as Tom Hayden, the outsider.

 

15. Memento (2000/ dir. Christopher Nolan / USA)

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Christopher Nolan will never top Memento, which is interesting, seeing as though he had much less of a budget as he does now with blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Interstellar. Memento is one of the most unique and interesting films ever made, told in reverse about a man suffering short-term memory loss trying to solve the murder of his wife. The film’s ending is a startling revelation that sent chills down my spine.

 

14. Taxi Driver (1976/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA)

Robert De Niro Mimes a Shot to His Head in Taxi Driver

Travis Bickle could have easily been an over-the-top character, but Robert DeNiro wisely positions the character’s psychosis internally. It’s his very best performance and proves DeNiro can convey more menace with a simple shift of his eyes than most actors can convey with their entire bodies. One of Scorsese’s only slow burns, Taxi Driver is an incredibly disturbing experience that seeps into your skin.

 

13. Sideways (2004/dir. Alexander Payne/USA)

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I was recently asked what my favorite feel-good movie was and I responded with ‘Sideways’. It was met with a lot of controversy, but I stand by my decision. Alexander Payne’s masterpiece is about depression and failure, but it celebrates the humanity that lives in both of those things. It’s about deeply flawed human beings, Miles (a never better Paul Giamatti) in particular, getting a shot at redemption. It also has one of the best screenplays ever written.

 

12. There Will Be Blood (2007/dir. Paul Thomas Anderson/USA)

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A landmark in American cinema. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the most powerful screen performance I’ve ever seen in my life as an insatiable oilman who is more or less the personification of capitalism. In his quest for capital, he has a run in with a manipulative local preacher who is basically the personification of organized religion. When they clash there is a lot of blood, and capitalism reigns victorious. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

11. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK/USA)

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Stanley Kubrick’s visual orgasm/overwhelming mind-fuck is the greatest science-fiction film ever made. When you’re nine years old and see if for the first time it’s boring as shit, but as you grow older it slowly becomes one of the best films ever made. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

10. Waiting For Guffman (1996/dir. Christopher Guest/USA)

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Hands down, the funniest movie I’ve ever seen in my life. Having done community theatre for pretty much my entire life, all the little nuances and subtleties of this Christopher Guest outing really hit home hard for me. Every time you watch this movie, you find something new to laugh at.

 

9. A Clockwork Orange (1971/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK/USA)

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A Clockwork Orange has this amazing way of presenting the most horrifically violent and disturbing images as pure beauty. If there was ever a film that needed to be described as grotesque, this is it. Kubrick’s two hour-plus journey through the mind of a sociopath is a fun, energetic, yet painful ride that’s similar to chugging a two-liter bottle of soda in under a minute. Available for Streaming on Amazon Prime. 

 

8. Mulholland Drive (2001/dir. David Lynch/France/USA)

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The biggest cinematic mind-fuck of all time is David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive. One of the only films to actually get better with every viewing, I’ve seen it about eight times now. Naomi Watts delivers her best work as a struggling actress who fantasizes about a better life.

 

7. Fargo (1996/dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen/USA)

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There might not be a filmmaker out there better at seamlessly blending comedic and dramatic elements in movies than the Coen Brothers. Their formula is perfected in 1996’s thrilling, funny, sad, frightening and completely genuine Fargo about a small but ugly crime wave washing over a small town.

 

6. Pulp Fiction (1994/dir. Quentin Tarantino/USA)

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Quentin Tarantino was my favorite filmmaker growing up because he was so fucking loud. He was making movies in a way that nobody every really did before him, but he was doing it in such an extravagant and borderline-obnoxious way that even a nine-year-old Michael Margetis could pick up on all the “subtleties” of his style. Pulp Fiction and most all of Tarantino’s movies work based on the strength of his characters that are given so much detail as a viewer you feel like you personally know them. Available for Streaming on Netflix.

 

5. Network (1976/dir. Sidney Lumet/USA)

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Network was viewed as a piece of satire when it was released because the revolting nature of reality television hadn’t played out exactly like the film predicted yet. Featuring six of the best film performances of all time (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall and a menacing Ned Beatty) and in my personal opinion the number one greatest screenplay ever written, Network stands the test of time perhaps as more of a drama than initially intended.

 

4. GoodFellas (1990/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA)

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Martin Scorsese’s best film is also his most entertaining film. GoodFellas is relentlessly entertaining, a flawlessly edited adrenaline-fueled ride through the rise and fall of a mob associate that never once stops for air. Joe Pesci more ore less created the violently insane and unpredictable sociopath template that’s seen in most gangster movies today.

 

3. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 

(1963/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK/USA) 

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Not the funniest comedy ever made, but without a question the best. Stanley Kubrick’s crowning achievement is a brilliant satire on the cold war made during the height of the cold war. With five amazing comedic performances, three from Peter Sellers and one each from the uncharacteristically hilarious George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, a brilliantly sharp screenplay and possibly the most meticulous production design I’ve ever seen.

 

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992/dir. Quentin Tarantino/USA)

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I was nine years old the first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. I was hanging out in a hotel room in Amsterdam while my parents were at a dental convention. I realize it’s not objectively the best movie ever made (it’s still excellent though) but it’s the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker or at least involved in films. I still think its simplicity and incredibly well rounded characters make it Tarantino’s best work. Available for Streaming on Netflix

 

1. Amadeus (1984/dir. Milos Forman/USA/France)

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I’m an actor and every actor is insecure in one way or another. Having seen Milos Forman’s Amadeus at a young age it really stuck with me because on the outside it’s a biopic about Mozart, but on the inside it’s this painful character study of a brilliant musician who puts in so much work but is unfortunately upstaged by a once-in-a-century kind of talent that never had to work hard a day in his life. It’s a film about blood, sweat, tears and time artists pour into their craft and how sometimes tireless work and an abundance of talent just isn’t enough to cut the mustard. Available for Streaming on Netflix. 

 

 

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Lights Out

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The most disappointing element of Don’t Breathe isn’t just that it’s a great first half followed by an absolutely banal second half. The most disappointing thing about Don’t Breathe is that said second half reverts back to the same mindless gross-outs and logic leaps that lived in director/co-writer Fede Alvarez’s 2013 film Evil Dead, although in any case it also finds Alvarez working harder with much less elements than before and for the most part succeeding. It’s also clear producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert saw Alvarez doing something right to keep him hanging around and I mostly trust their judgment, but nevertheless Don’t Breathe feels like the… least of all the horror wide releases of this past summer. That’s still room for a decent movie.

Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ screenplay hastes no time on introducing us immediately to the Detroit-based burglary trio of Rocky (Jane Levy, returning from Evil Dead and just as well since she was the only good performance in it), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and the source of their marks, Alex (Dylan Minnette). The three of them together pick their marks based on the database of the security system run by Alex’s father and Money has a fence to sell all the goods to. Money finds a home with a potential score of $300,000 in cash and Rocky is absolutely eager to do the job, wanting to take her sister (Emma Bercovici) out of Detroit from the hands of their callous mother (Katia Bokor). Alex on the other hand, who always has the potential punishments in the back of his mind, is finding less and less incentive to do the job: starting with the idea of breaking their rule of stealing cash, followed by discovering that the old vet they are victimizing is in fact a blind man (Stephen Lang), and having the final straw be when Money actually brings a gun on the job.

Alex turns out to be right to be worried, for the moment Money uses the gun, the blind man wakes up and the three of them discover that he’s very capable of dispatching them swiftly, aided visually by the fact of Stephen Lang already being a scary looking sexagenarian of very ripped muscular quality and a rough voice. I’m sure Don’t Breathe was probably banking on everybody who saw this movie seeing Avatar at least once and being familiar with Lang as an ass-kicking oldtimer. Obviously, his lack of sight means that the trio have to be very careful to avoid him knowing of their presence, because if he gets his hands on them, they will almost certainly be dead within minutes.

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Keep in mind that Don’t Breathe is only 88 minutes including credits. I didn’t exactly keep myself a stopwatch myself but no time is wasted by the movie to establish all that information AND MORE very early on (I want to say it’s the 20 minute mark when the blind man wakes up in his home), it’s all very swift and speedy groundwork to make the home invasion thriller aspect the meat of the story. It breaks “show, don’t tell” a little bit in its dialogue, but it’s a movie that knows how to try to be efficient with its script and that’s a hell of a thing for a brisk August horror movie. It even takes care to some snappy caper-esque editing to establish their opening break-in and a smooth long take when the trio breaks into the Blind Man’s home to establish both the geometry of the house and where certain elements of interest are located at the time of their entry. It’s obviously nowhere near the level of Renoir, but I really couldn’t help thinking about The Rules of the Game when that shot was rolling.

Once the blind man is awake, the threat level steadily rises up and we get the characters doing some very interesting things to avoid being attacked by him or alerting him to their presence and that’s where Don’t Breathe becomes its most interesting. It’s essentially a deadly version of Marco Polo, the characters trying to cover their tracks and make up for Money’s mistakes. There’s a second long take that’s essentially a dance of movement avoiding each other in the narrowest of hallways between Minnette and Lang and it is the most “hold your breath” moment in the movie for me, as well as serving another narrative point (every room the Blind Man enters is being re-secured and they just happen to be the rooms Alex hides in from him each time). For the first 45 minutes Don’t Breathe is doing well to work as a simple home invasion with extra spatial awareness. It’s not exactly perfect – The Blind Man’s dog is wayyy too cuddly and tail-waggingly happy save for close-ups to be frightening (every time I saw him, I thought “who’s a good boy?”, I shit you not). Zovatto plays an insufferable prick with lines that I’m not sure are meant to be self-aware (“That’s my bitch in there. Of course I care.”) and I get the feeling that’s his character, but it’s not a good feeling to have for somebody you don’t want to die.

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Minnette is fine without being very impressionable as a performance, while Levy is just a little bit better since she has more moments to be freaked-out and scared but it’s nowhere near as demanding a performance as she had in Evil Dead. Lang is the clear stand-out, doing very well to play an angry man trying to get a sense of the world around him while letting his menacing and imposing physical stature establish him as the boogeyman of the film even when the Blind Man sounds desperate and confused. All around, the pieces of Don’t Breathe click as best as they can and make a fine and functional thriller.

And then it shoots itself in the foot.

Wait, that’s not true. It shot itself in the foot at the beginning with a very poor choice of spoilertastic opening shot, but besides there’s two things that make the second half of Don’t Breathe suddenly a tepid affair. The first is that the moment that the Blind Man absolutely knows everybody who is in the house, the script doesn’t know what to do except allow the Blind Man to be able to chase them relentlessly with a gun. It’s no longer as inventive as it was at the start, it’s just a home-invasion-turned-slasher. It even gives the Blind Man a hefty amount of plot leaps so he can escape handcuffs quickly, be aware of a character’s location constantly, and even walk around in the daylight knowing exactly where in the outdoors to catch his prey. It is a barrel of contrivances to turn its villain into an unstoppable superman.

The second are its twists. Oooh how I hate twists that ruin good horror movies (hello, High Tension). The first reveal of what the Blind Man has hidden in his basement is pretty much just an element to make him less sympathetic (which is probably ideal since I can see how it’s hard to root for burglars) and I can understand it’s existence if not really be happy with it, since the Blind Man is scary enough. But in the third act, where the Blind Man has a monologue explaining his motivations and intentions for Rocky, it’s all right back to the shock value grossness Alvarez fell into for Evil Dead and it’s really a damn shame. There’s also some very twisted attempts at moral commentary (amongst the Blind Man’s claims are him saying that he’s capable of anything because there is no god and that he’s not a rapist, despite the actions we see him preparing to do constituting rape… it’s a very strange rantful sequence).

Watching Don’t Breathe is essentially watching a great movie slowly devolve itself into something worse and worse than what we were promised. We don’t have much longer of the movie to go through after those reveals, but it doesn’t really try to elevate itself back and that’s an unfortunate shame. So much of it is well-made that I would probably like to give it a pass, but I feel resentful that Alvarez probably gave up halfway through this feature.

Jane Levy;Dylan Minnette;Daniel Zovatto

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The BBC’s Greatest 21st Century Films

About a month ago, I heard about the BBC polling 177 critics on their Top 10 Best Films of the Century thus far and putting all their results together to craft a 100 Best Movies of the 21st Century. The list has no been revealed on their site. And now I’m taking a lookseeatit and giving some of my remarks (though I won’t actually be copying and pasting the list here. You can check on that link).

The amount of movies on the list that I haven’t seen is pretty much two.

  • Toni Erdmann (obviously!) – no. 100
  • Son of Saul – no. 34

Which on one hand means I am almost entirely familiar with what they’ve selected to react upon, but on the other disappoints me because I really was hoping this list would introduce titles to me rather than tell how good so-and-so movie I already saw is. For the most part, that’s fine if somewhat a nuisance since I actually really like a good amount of the list, including the number one winner Mulholland Dr. which I’d call an essential watch. The unfortunate thing is that when it gets to movies I don’t care for (like no. 17 – The White Ribbon) or don’t like (no. 20 – Synecdoche, New York) and tries to sell me on their profundity it becomes quite exhausting. But that’ll always be the way you are when people are praising art you don’t care for, no matter how open we are to other perspectives.

I also find it extremely alarming that we have a dearth of animated films represented. There is a whopping total of… 5. Just five animated films. Four of which are Pixar films (no. 96 – Finding Nemo; no. 93 – Ratatouille; no. 41 – Inside Out; no. 29 – WALL-E) and the odd man out is a Ghibli film (no. 4 – Spirited Away). No Laika, no Chomet, no Hertzfeldt, no Kon, among other things (I’d lament the absence of Disney but nobody wants to be Frozen‘s champion except me). It both paints a disinterest in animation as an artform as well as a complete monopoly to the international animation market as well.

In the meantime, despite a hella lot of popular fare, especially Oscar nominees (The Film Experience marked down all the ones that were nominated for Picture, Director, Foreign-Language, Animated or Documentary. By the way, I co-sign on a lot of Nathaniel’s thoughts.), The Lord of the Rings is nowhere to be seen. Which doesn’t disappoint me (if anything it pleases me), but it’s a huge surprise nevertheless. Something that I could honestly have seen going either way is Oldboy (no. 30), The Dark Knight (no. 33), and A History of Violence (no. 55) being the only comic book movies featured on the list (and while we’re at it, Christopher Nolan tie-ing for most featured director – alongside Weerasethakul, the Coens, and Wes Anderson and above Malick, Kiarostami, Tarr, Linklater, and McQueen – it doesn’t bug me in the slightest but I can’t help feeling it is unearned. He is undoubtedly the most populist filmmaker on the list save for Spielberg, though Spielberg features possibly his least populist picture – A.I. Artificial Intelligence no. 83).

The absence of Gravity is flat-out jawdropping (the only Alfonso Cuaron film is Children of Men at 13 which, to be fair, is his best imo). Experiential cinema at its most potent and it’s completely abandoned. That and This Is Not a Film and Taxi (both also absent by Jafar Panahi) hit me as movies very much grounded in the attitude and feel of the century, maps of what can be done with film today. In addition, not a hint of Guy Maddin anywhere and that is very troubling to me.

There’s a much more reasonable number of Black and Female directors and Queer Cinema represented here (though they’re still in the extreme minority to say nothing of other non-white filmmakers or non-Western films). It’s overall a pretty varied list.

Spring Breakers (74) and Dogville (76) can fuck right off, though. And I’m very disappointed in seeing that of all the Scorsese pictures they could have picked, they went with The Wolf of Wall Street (78) in all its completely unfinished manner and not Hugo, which is completely gone. Save for Synecdoche, New York, those are the only ones I don’t like, though there is absolutely a lot I don’t care for to the point that I’d respond to the film’s addition with “… really?” Brooklyn (48), Memento (25), 25th Hour (26), and The Pianist (90) namely. But at least there’s no Whiplash.

Anyway, that’s enough bitching about other peoples’ opinions I will simply close out with this: a friend of mine – I won’t be that name-dropping guy who says who – was one of the critics who submit a list for this poll. Obviously, I’m not a big enough critic to be polled for this, but a lot of unpolled critics in the same circle as him and I began to make our own top ten ballot for the decade and I decided to craft my own as well. So here is mine enclosed so everybody can make fun of my tastes.

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1 – In the Mood for Love (2000/dir. Wong Kar-wai/Hong Kong) – Number 2 on the BBC list
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung make heartbreak look so hotness.

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2 – Moolaade (2004/dir. Ousmane Sembene/Senegal) – Number 58 on the BBC list
A movie portraying all the weaknesses of humanity and all of its strengths as well. I also think African cinema just needs to get more of its due, there’s a rich amount of African filmmakers that turn it up (Abderrahmane Sissako is another filmmaker I am so happy to see on the BBC list).

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3 – Inland Empire (2006/dir. David Lynch/USA) – Not on the BBC list
My resident Lynch choice instead of Mulholland Dr. – though I’m very happy to see it up there – because it feels like the Lynchiest Lynch film ever. Nightmares, women in peril, moviemaking broken down into an incoherent atmosphere, Laura Dern. It has all his ingredients in a 3-hour surrealist experiment.

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4 – The Eagleman Stag (2011/dir. Mickey Please/UK) – Not on the BBC list
Not a single short film on the BBC list either and I mean, that’s expected. Nevertheless the way this short portrays a perspective towards time passing that literally arrests me with fear… I can’t shake it off.

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5 – The Tree of Life (2011/dir. Terrence Malick/USA) – Number 7 on the BBC list
It’s gonna sound like the most pretentious thing to claim that this is the most experiential of all of Malick’s films. But as far as I’m concerned, it is.

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6 – Goodbye to Language (2014/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France and Switzerland) – Number 49 on the BBC list
Speaking of pretentious. But fuck you, it’s more fun than any other 3D movie you can ever name.

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7 – Yi Yi (2000/dir. Edward Yang/Taiwan) – Number 8 on the BBC list
Them colors and shapes tho.

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8 – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015/dir. George Miller/Australia and USA) – Number 19 on the BBC list
No. No, I think I’m done talking about Mad Max: Fury Road for the rest of my life. If somebody tries to even dispute that it’s one of the greatest things to ever happen to film, I’ll simply shoot him like the dog he is.

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9 – Moulin Rouge! (2001/dir. Baz Luhrmann/Australia and USA) – Number 53 on the BBC list
What’s so funny about a whole lotta spectacle and a whole lotta music?

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10 – The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence (2012-14/dir. Joshua Oppenheimer/Denmark, Norway, and UK)  Killing is number 14 on the BBC list, Silence is not on it.
The first uses cinema as a loaded weapon against history, injustice, and honestly movies themselves. It’s definitely a much more adequate indictment towards violence and the influence of cinema than anything Haneke made. The second simply does its due in recognizing that there’s real-life victims to what was portrayed in Killing and that it’s not just a fucking game. It’s practically Killing‘s antithesis.

And there we are. I also almost put Grindhouse in my ten and THAT’s definitely why BBC ain’t hitting me up.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot – It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes

I haven’t been keeping up with The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot for a mix of reasons – it’s been movies that I mostly haven’t seen except Throne of Blood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which normally wouldn’t stop me but I’ve been ungodly swamped in work and school to keep me from having time to watch those movies, I’m still using a computer that has so little memory in it that if I told you the amount you’d wonder how it can even run its CPU and I still have no clue how to do screencaps on it. As well as my hopes to leave enough material to jump back on to making it a YouTube series again when I have an editing computer again.

But I saw Nathaniel R. picked the pilot episode of the new Stephen Adly Guigus/Baz Luhrmann/Nas (yes, that Nas) Netflix series The Get Down (the most expensive Netflix pilot to date) and there was no way I was going to miss it. I didn’t buy into the Stranger Things hype very much. It probably doesn’t help that I’m immune to 80s nostalgia. But I’m very much not immune to the mythologizing of the 70s. I’m also not immune to the mythologizing of hip hop. Nor the mythologizing of New York City (I’m sure I may have slipped that it is my favorite city in this country and maybe one of my favorite places in the world). Especially not the mythologizing of East Coast hip hop birthed in pre-Giuliani New York at the end of the 70s, mixed in with motherfucking disco to a point that I can enjoy it as atmosphere without being suffocated by it like I’m watching a Cannon production.

Most importantly, I’m far from immune to Baz Luhrmann’s excessive style of design and direction where in this case he attempts to apply a more grounded form of his Moulin Rouge! for an era and place that could still be remembered by people who weren’t even there and channels it brilliantly into mixing period piece and bombastic celebration of music and progress and dreams. At the same time Luhrmann provided a much more tonally faithful adaptation of Romeo and Juliet than even his 1996 film based on the Shakespeare work (the only Luhrmann film I don’t care for). I’m especially not immune to Stephen Adly Guirgus who is, in my opinion, one of the most talented stage writers of the contemporary era.

It was absolutely the most I ever found myself excited for a Netflix series yet and I decided the moment my friend showed me the trailer in New York earlier this summer that I was gonna watch its pilot the moment it played (unfortunately, I didn’t. I was in the middle of helping out a local film festival and didn’t have time until later that weekend).

Luhrmann always knew how to take pre-existing stories with not an ounce of originality to them (to the point that you could pinpoint what is ripped-off from where) and twist them into bold and bright new looks into the versatility of storytelling and how you could shake things up without changing anything. In The Get Down, what really makes me crazy is how he does it for places and people now. Grandmaster Flash is a larger-than-life figure of fucking legend and we’re meant to look upon him like a Japanese Shogun (especially Shaolin Fantastic is talking about different territories belonging to Flash, Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on). The streets are a maze from which to evade the gangs – all dangerous, all out for themselves. The disco halls are both a crime den haven and a magical source of light, music, love, and magic. Even then the halls don’t have both the aggressiveness and freedom of an old school block party.

And keep in mind, it doesn’t feel extra. We’re not looking at a very grandiose piece of work, though it’s very ambitious. But it’s nevertheless exhilarating, even despite it being the most low-key thing Luhrmann has done since Strictly Ballroom and I’d dare to call it even more low-key than that. It works as an argument against the idea that Luhrmann needs garish spectacle to get away with broad emotions (though his editing hasn’t slowed down much, but I like his editing style so… jog on.)

So when Nathaniel asks for a best shot, my response to him has to be “Motherfucker, how about Best Shots in plural?!”. Because I know what my Best Shot is (and knew it even when I was first watching it – playing this game has often made me pick my best shot in movies without even thinking) but my fucking god, it’s too brilliant to not share moments I was digging so much.

Like this obviously superimposed shot yet potent shot in the middle of Shaolin Fantastic’s (Shameik Moore) chase from the Savage Warlords gang as both implying the heat of the moment (Shao’s gonna have to jump across to another building) and portraying the growing bankruptcy of New York as a city.

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Or the absolute lack of subtlety the show has in portraying a do-or-die moment our diehard romantic poet of a protagonist Zeke (Justice Smith) is given, once again by using the decay of the city, though there’s some obnoxiously obvious lighting going on towards the left side of the frame.

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The way Luhrmann can’t help himself from having at least one “part the seas” romantic moment between Zeke and his foil Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola, who unfortunately makes little impression as anything other than a love interest in this pilot. The second episode, though… one word: breakout. Do not hesitate to see it). Complete with colors and dancing and punctuated by a kiss.

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Or the fact that no matter what, the villainous disco gangster still has to be the sexiest motherfucker on the spot. Hence why Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is – by an unfairly large margin even over Moore – my favorite performance on the show as Cadillac, he’s way too much fun every time we see him, even in his despicability and his complete anger every time Shao happens to be in the same room as him.

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Or how even domestic scenes can be absolutely obvious in their imagery and themes because Luhrmann knows subtlety is for people who want to be more than just moved and that’s not what his work is about.

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Or how when a character is important, he has to frame everything and have it all feel like the energy of the moment is coming from him because ladies and gentleman, that Grandmaster Motherfucking Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and if you don’t know him, stop listening to hip hop (the shot is a lot more fun in motion).

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But hell, I said I had a best shot from square one, didn’t I? And I do. And it all revolves around a character I already introduced you to.

Shaolin Fantastic (once again I’m gonna specify he’s played by Shameik Moore) is charismatic as shit to the point that we love him before we even see his face. He’s the first name we hear in the rap concert frame narrative, he’s the most physical character around as he runs and flips and jumps and races, he’s considered a saint of graffiti art (Jaden Smith’s performance in this show is the first time his juvenile profundity is actual given a worthy cushion, largely in the form of his hero worship for Shao) but he wants to be a great DJ instead, and Moore just wants to steal the scene from any moment he can. And he does for the most part, he has tremendous chemistry with every single character he interacts with whether amiably (Zeke, Flash, Fat Annie) or antagonistically (Cadillac, Mylene, Boo-Boo). I tried to watch Moore’s theatrical film debut in Dope but couldn’t finish it. Thankfully, The Get Down covered me with just how much Moore was capable of as an actor and if this does not make him a star, I am going to be very very disappointed.

As characters, Zeke and Shao make a great team of one character’s vulnerable humanity and romanticism and the other’s pure spectacle and energy as the rapper and DJ eager to be the next hip hop lords (Justice Smith is kind of the weakest of the ensemble but he still has hella electricity when he shares scenes with Moore), and yet the show is aware of which character is more attractive to us. Despite establishing Zeke as the protagonist, Shao is the motherfucker we keep coming to see. That’s why Shao gets his first speaking scene with a hero shot:

BEST SHOT

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Backlit and all (the whole scene is gorgeously backlit and had me wondering if it was a studio shot or the sun truly was on their side), so all eyes are on his frame. Even while Flash is speaking to Shao (and is in the shot himself), we don’t care to look at him. The shot gives all its focus on the man standing in the middle ready to bust it. You don’t give a shot like that at the earliest moment we meet him without knowing that it’ll be the audience’s favorite dude.

And it’s even more fun when he leaves.

OK. I’m done gushing. Go watch The Get Down, please just go do it. I love it as much as I loved Sense8 and Jessica Jones. Get to it.

P.S. (and sort of a Pilot SPOILER if you want to watch the pilot before this)
I didn’t think the pilot could possibly make me love it more than I already did and then its penultimate shot reveals MOTHERFUCKING DAVEED DIGGS FROM HAMILTON IS PLAYING ZEKE in the future.

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LAFAYETTE!

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X Gonna Give It to Ya

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I’m sure we can claim that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War were always high-concept comic book premises that also had a large amount of fan insistence riding upon their development for a good long while (hell, the road to a Batman/Superman film is a long and interesting one almost as much as the road between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins). But by my count there are only two theatrically-released comic book films that can actually be claimed to be created from the ground up by the very will of the fans who promised by their souls to give all their money to said movie if it existed, because they’re indisputably the reason that movie got to be made by shouting enough. Both films are the absolute definition of Fan Service, top-to-bottom created to please the dollars out of fans’ pockets.

The most recent one is the DC animated feature Batman: The Killing Joke and frankly I found that to be a complete dunce of a picture that competes for the title of worst movie I saw this year. In addition to fast-tracked animation work that feels choppy and flat, a huge schism in its pacing (momentum has always been a problem with the recent DC Animation output because they literally have no idea how a “literature” pace and a “film” pace differ), and the first time Kevin Conroy truly felt too tired to play Batman (Mark Hamill is brilliant, though), the liberties the film takes with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original source graphic novel ends up putting a new perspective on material I already found objectionable enough to the point that it’s one of the few Moore works I didn’t like and made it into a nightmare between fan-fiction and a misfire of character motivations. It was a wreck of a movie in every sense.

Thankfully, the other project hoisted up by the will of its fans, Deadpool, is actually quite a success. Not a huge success to me personally, mind you. I grew out of having a love for the sarcastic indestructible “merc with a mouth” before I even graduated high school and I was probably the only person who didn’t give a shit what happened to the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (not that I approved of it – it was a contemptible decision on the filmmakers’ part. I just didn’t care, nor did I pretend that’s the reason it was a bad movie. I called Wolverine bad for other reasons). But when it comes to what the fans demanded out of Deadpool, it absolutely delivered on those things. It was made for a certain type of audience, does everything it can to satisfy that audience, and considering I enjoyed watching it myself, I’d say that earnestness actually gives it a lot of attraction to other viewers as well who might approach the character clean. Fan Service in the most direct sense, nothing less or more.

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“Nothing more” meaning Deadpool is not the “genre-breaking” superhero dissection that some people are eager to call it (and that I still do not believe the genre ever received adequately). A lot of that claim is given over by two elements of its script – that Deadpool as a character is aware of his status as a film character (much like in the comic) and thus addresses the fourth wall many times AND that the movie itself is aware of the superhero tropes that it is walking through like a stepladder, from a backstory involving tragedy to it becoming an origin story of the character with us very easily catching the source of his vigilante moniker to having a character appeal to the heart-of-gold established from the very beginning that he has. That it’s irreverent about its status as a superhero movie does not change the fact that it’s absolutely refusing to subvert any of the superhero formula it subscribes to (even as it swears it did by killing villains, it’s just recognizing that it has obvious casualties as opposed to The Dark Knight having Batman blow up cars in a Chicago parking lot or Daredevil angrily choking a biker with a chain only as a method of tossing him headfirst into a wall and down two flights of stairs, and then turning around and claiming “we’re heroes because we don’t kill”. Deadpool is the most open comic book movie about its protagonist’s willingness to kill since Iron Man had its hero casually shoot down three terrorists with complete confidence that he saved several lives on the spot or Iron Man 3 had the same character look an adversary in the eyes as he blows a hole through his chest telling him to “walk away from that”.)

The origin story in question belongs to Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, who spent practically the last half-decade trying to make this movie happen as a “passion project” to cover his complicity in Wolverine), a New York based urban mercenary, finding crude, vulgar but nevertheless endearingly sincere love in an escort named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). The two of them happen to be the same loose-wire sense of crazy for each other (thanks to Reynolds and Baccarin having jawdroppingly amazing chemistry both as romantic and comedic foils, they’re like the grungy version of screwballs; my personal favorite joke in the whole movie is a holiday-based sex montage) to the point that Wade finds himself proposing to her (sweetly with a Ring Pop of all things). Plans get set aside when the couple learn Wade is suffering from terminal cancer. Wade decides to get involved in a shady covert treatment program meant to force Wade via excruciating torture to develop regenerative abilities, but he’s also spitefully informed by his handler Ajax (Ed Skrein looking undeniably like Nicholas Hoult without his long hair from Game of Thrones) that he’s to become a weaponized slave to some undefined masters. It doesn’t matter either way because Wade escapes, but not before he is hideously scarred from the program and begins a personal vendetta hunting down Ajax under the name “Deadpool” and a full red bodysuit.

Still despite not being MORE than a superhero movie where its superhero gets to say “fuck” and “this is a movie” and essentially being fan service, Deadpool is nevertheless an enjoyable piece of breezy entertainment that gets by on simply being something “recognizably different”, if I may. The parts play the same role as every other superhero flick, but the energy is something scrappy and it’s clearly the product of people who wanted to have fun and see how much they could get out of a budget of less than 60 million dollars (relatively pocket change compared to modern superhero budgets). The results are an attempt to hide their limit in action setpieces by setting the first 3/4 of the money in a frame narrative of ADD flashbacks in the middle of a single highway battle (with the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick don’t really have a real rhythm behind their choice in where to re-enter the fight and when to flashback again, it’s all done through long hauls that make the shifts feel like rude awakenings. And it also happens to be an attempt to hide the movie’s inability to give us an immediate exciting action sequence. But, it is regardless an extremely admirable if not a daring concept) and – to my great joy – the most refreshingly small stakes in a superhero movie I’ve ever seen: Wade wants to go after Ajax because he made Wade ugly. That is THE ENTIRETY of Deadpool’s motivation until an extremely disappointing third act: he’s too scared to reunite with Vanessa because he’s hideous and he’s taking that out on Ajax.

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That almost every single cast member except Skrein – the reliable T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Karan Soni (including Gina Carano as Ajax’s henchwoman gets at least one comedic moment) – add a complete levity to the scenes they’re in without stealing the show from Reynolds makes Deadpool get away with weightlessness in its plot and lets it satisfy as a lazy-time watch. Stefan Kapičić voices a motion-captured version of Colossus from the X-Men series (which Deadpool belongs to) with a chewy Russian accent and uses to wax rhetoric about heroics to Wade and act boy scout in every manner he possibly can. There’s no way the movie wants to take itself too seriously. It’s too irreverent about itself to the point that it makes more than a few cracks at what little star persona Reynolds has and the general state of the X-Men franchise for 20th Century Fox (ahhhh my close second joke of the film: Wade remarking off-handedly on the correlation of the Xavier Mansion’s size and the presence of X-Men in the movie).

And just as well that Reynolds uses the spotlight on him to let loose, this is the only role other than Buried where I find him really worth watching and that he gets to embody all that juvenile humor fans wanted to see in him without also having Baccarin presence give him an anchor to give Wade humanity. Childish humanity based in smutty dialogue and actions, but humanity nonetheless, all underneath a wonderful mix of CGI and costume design that gives Deadpool a fluid range of cartoony potential without making him feel separate from the world around him (though I find its early dig at Green Lantern for also having a CGI costume – albeit a shitty one – very hypocritical). I say this after being so against his casting as Deadpool before AND after he made Wade Wilson sound like Abed from Community with every line of dialogue he monotonously said in Wolverine. That’ll show me.

That the movie loses steam within its final moments of Deadpool and Ajax’s inevitable showdown was going to be expected (although first-time director Tim Miller shows a lot of promise with the efficiency in which he facilitated Deadpool‘s creation) and that its still essentially one giant movie swearing that butt sex and the word “fuck” can never stop being funny makes it a bit exhausting to someone like me, but not enough that I found myself rolling my eyes or that I didn’t find more than a few moments to laugh heartily at. That Deadpool would have been the anti-superhero movie was too much to expect and never gonna happen, that it ends up a movie that cared enough about itself to make it fun (even if I’d prefer a better, more ambitious movie) is already endearing enough to me, and most of all, that it made the jaw-droppingly huge not-even-funny amount of money it made (surpassing The Matrix Reloaded as the highest-grossing R-rated movie worldwide) shows that sometimes when you give the fans at least the minimum of what they want, you’ll find yourself very much rewarded. That I don’t happen to be a huge fan of the movie and am absolutely not a fan of the character doesn’t make this any less pleasing to me.

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Pulvis et Umbra Sumus

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Under the Shadow will be playing on the 13 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

It’s a fucking miracle for Sundance. They must feel really good about getting to be the mayor of “I Told You, STinG” Town. Long reliable as a source for mostly indie films that I can’t stand or just don’t buy the hype for since I’ve been bothering to pay attention to movies, suddenly it has given the world three of the finest horror films of the decade for three years in a row: starting with 2014 (which was admittedly a rarity – a surprisingly strong year, I would dare to call Sundance’s strongest) bringing us Jennifer Kent’s Australian spook story about grief The Babadooklast year with Robert Eggers’ Puritan-era family-in-hell nightmare The Witch (although it only just received wide release this year), and now this year with our subject Babak Anvari’s Iranian-British wartime fear flick Under the Shadow.

There’s honestly a lot of similarites I can see in all three films – they’re all outstanding feature debuts of very promising writing and directing talents, they’re all domestic-based dramas that use the tension between a broken family to punish their characters (Babadook and Under the Shadow share it being a mother-child relationship while The Witch has a whole nuclear family to destroy, although there is especially savage hatred between the leading eldest daughter and the matriarch), they feature excitable child characters who are essentially the harbingers of doom before any supernatural element enters (although The Witch promises its horrors are the real deal from the get-go, but those insufferable twins do not make things easy), their leads are frankly outsiders from their local community (The Babadook and Under the Shadow have them close to pariahs, The Witch just starts with them being literally kicked out of a settlement), and we enter their stories shortly after they lost a loved one and are in mourning. And yet aesthetically and even thematically, the three are still strongly distinguishable in their own manner that makes them indispensable genre fare and if I don’t think Under the Shadow is exactly the best of the trio, it’s because of how tight its competition is.

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That outsider central to Under the Shadow, by the way, is Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and she’s the matriarch of a family in post-Revolution Tehran (dialogue in the film implies that it takes place in 1988) that frankly lives like a lot of privately secular households in post-Revolution Tehran – they have a VCR (and a Jane Fonda exercise tape Shideh works out to to really tie in how radical this family is in this atmosphere), they’re not Muslim, and Shideh drives and doesn’t see the need to wear a hijab within her apartment building. That would be enough to put her and her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) at a difference between at least their religious superintendents the Ebrahimis (Ray Haratian and Aram Ghasemy). The fact that we open the film on Shideh being told she is banned from returning academia due to her political activism during the Revolution, preventing her from being a doctor herself, just gives us reason to know how separated she is from the rest of the city without even learning any of those other facts about them.

Shideh’s hopes on a medical career are apparently informed by the recent loss of her mother, but I may be reading a bit too much into Rashidi’s great performance – one that has a bitter annoyance with everyone who approaches her while she’s still steamed over her life and that can only bite her tongue too long before she becomes too wound up – to say that she has a particular resentment for the idea of being resigned to the gender roles of housewife and stay-at-home mother to their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), with whom Iraj has a much healthier relationship than Shideh. Unfortunately for them, Iraj has been drafted into the Iran-Iraq war that came as a result of the Islamic Revolution (Anvari’s family having gone through the same situation in his youth) and Shideh and Dorsa must live for the time being without him as the glue that keeps the family together. Even more unfortunately, the young and sensitive Dorsa is beginning to talk about seeing the Qur’an-based Djinn (I have trouble explaining them to anybody who isn’t Muslim so please bear with me… they’re beings of smokeless fire that function similar to demons without the “fallen angel” aspect of them) and while Shideh dismisses them as nightmares, Dorsa is taking them very seriously after losing Kimia, the doll Iraj gave her. Most unfortunate of all, I should reiterate THEY’RE LIVING IN TEHRAN DURING THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR while Dorsa’s Djinn encounters are occurring.

That last element is how Under the Shadow truly keeps itself working. Like all good horror films, it’s a slow burn (in this case to the halfway point) before the possibility of any monster assailing Shideh and Dorsa becomes considered a plausible situation and yet there’s a foreboding sense of danger from the very first few frames of the movie. An ominous portrait of the Shah looming over Shideh in an office like its judging her, smoke from an explosion billowing in the distant background seen through a window, tape on their apartment walls, a frequent visit to the building’s basement for the tenants if things get really scary, but it’s worse when you especially know your history – that Tehran was one of the most frequent targets of Iraq’s Scud missiles and expect everything to go to shit pretty soon. Under the Shadow is unfortunately a pure genre picture, so its screenplay doesn’t have room for much for commentary on post-Revolution Iran (which is a shame, Iranian pictures about the Revolution are hens’ teeth – a couple of Makhmalbafs and The Circle are all I know; Persepolis might count coming from an Iranian author but it is technically more a French production.). But Anvari uses that time period for more than just backdrop, it uses every possible chance it can to shoehorn this environment as threatening to Shideh and Dorsa in every sense of the word, compounded by Shideh’s refusal to leave the apartment (despite most of their neighbors vacating AND Iraj’s insistence) probably informed by that same resentment at her current life.

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Hell, Under the Shadow doesn’t even have to wait for monsters to show to become heart-pounding. there’s an early scene where Shideh is fighting to save a man’s life with what medical training she has after he’s had a heart attack from a Scud missile landing but not exploding right in his room and Shideh’s efforts occur in the same room. In a single agonizingly long shot, we have Shideh trying to do what she can but the missile is literally sitting there with more lighting and focus on it so our eyes are on it anyway and just peripherally aware of Shideh’s attempts. We’re just there watching the missile waiting for it to explode, no cuts, no camera movement or change in blocking. It’s a remarkably minimalist attempt at constructing tension on Anvari’s part.

The biggest aid to making this atmosphere of living in an oppressive war zone work to Anvari’s benefit is how absolutely tired the whole thing feels, from the bland and deadened browns and blacks of the family’s apartment that take up the film (courtesy of cinematographer Kit Fraser and production designer Nasser Zoubi) to the casual manner that characters regard their unfair living circumstances (including the death of a relative) to most of all Manshadi’s performance. Manshadi can play scared like all children, but her main demeanor throughout the movie is a kind of neutral melancholy at living with the more severe and grumpier parent of the two and once Dorsa starts suffering from a fever halfway through the film, Manshadi becomes a lot slower and takes more time to be expressive of herself and it’s so effective it made an 83-minute film feel stretched out in all the right ways.

If this review sounded like it was a lot more focused on the set-up part of the film, than the actual frightening pay-off, it’s because Anvari is patient enough to really backlog much of the scares (with some movements and jumps effectively staged by Christopher Barwell to enter shots right before something bad happens plus a hell of hollowed-out sonic tone to the building) to the latter part of Under the Shadow and efficient enough to know when the film should simply bow out (again, 83-minutes is not a lot of time). Some people may find that lopsided in structure, but I think the journey to that finale is too compelling a watch to hold that against Anvari in the slightest, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially when it lets us keep certain facts about the lore in our mind so that the ending shots are ambiguous in the most alarming manner.

I already had a feeling I was going to like this movie. I am simply a sucker for Iranian cinema (like, I’m literally going to see an Iranian film later today as I said in my instagram) and I’m a sucker for horror based in the psychological and immaterial. But those could still easily go wrong one way or the other and I call a spade a spade and a damn good horror film a damn good horror film. Under the Shadow is a really damn good horror film, one that I can’t wait to watch the rest of America slowly be exposed to, continuing to herald the surprising quality in modern horror films coming from the turn of the decade.

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The 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

The second annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival – held at the O Cinema Wynwood in Miami, FL – has come a long way from last year’s incarnation as the launching point of South Florida’s resident genre film festival. Whereas last year’s launching of the festival started off with only four features (though one of which was the outstanding cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk – the debut feature of Miami native S. Craig Zahler), this year has 16 features from all over the world (including the breezy Francesca, as I reviewed) to be played over the festival’s run – once again taking place at the O Cinema Wynwood between 12-18 August 2016. Tickets and badges are still selling here, hurry and get ’em and join us! You’ll definitely catch me there.

In the meantime, a hell of a lot of features means a hell of a lot of shorts to accompany those features and your resident horror glut is here to gauge most of them before the festival’s release – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – and so behold my capsule reviews:

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Portal to Hell!!! (dir. Vivieno Caldinelli, Canada)
to be played in front of Fear, Inc. on 12 August 7pm

And right at the very start, Popcorn Frights sucks by reminding me how much I miss Roddy Piper, I’m gonna go drink myself to sleep. kicks things off with an outrageous 80’s Lovecraftian homage starring the late and great Roddy Piper sitting in our “Ashley Williams”-esque role, a disgruntled and abused superintendant who discovers two of his tenants opening a gate to the city R’lyeh (from Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu” where the cosmic monster himself is imprisoned). And in terms of being that sort of Stuart Gordon-esque barrage of gore and violence (beginning shockingly with the death of the last character you’d think such a comedy would have the balls to gruesomely murder), it accomplishes that without much more than that sort “fuck the consequences, save the world” physical comedy with some really gooey cartoony blood-letting and mania ejected from all the supporting actors, all of them working on the same level of loud nuisance to Piper’s grizzled performance so none of them really come across as grating in a manner that makes the film exhausting. If there’s one point I have against it, it’s no different than what I have against Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, where the central book (because of course a Lovecraftian Gate of Hell story will have a book) and the basement where the majority of the short takes place are both transparently too clean and overlit to not come across as obvious props and sets. But that’s the filmmaker in me talking, the viewer in me is literally shirking the rest of my duties in reviewing the rest of the shorts to rewatch this again.

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The Pond (dir. Jeroen Dumoulein, Belgium)
to be played in front of The Blackcoat’s Daughter on 12 August 9 pm

A sophisticated domestic tale whose funereal atmosphere delicately handled by director Dumoulein already gets us ready for a ghost story, before the ghost even becomes a thing until halfway through the film. That atmosphere being the product of some lovely cold blue day photography (intercut with the interior nights of an expected but still tense black and orange) and makeup and costume on Kirsten Pieres, playing an apparently comatose mother of our protagonist Kris (Xenia Borremans) and given a gaunt and bleached-out fatigued look thanks to those elements. It’s enough, alongside Sara De Bosschere’s ominous and menacing presence as Kris’ aunt Jeanne, taking care of her mother, to promise something’s very wrong before the film gets to its full throttle climax where we discover just what lives inside the lake and how it got there. A satisfying, if not revelatory, ghost tale on all fronts.

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Hada (dir. Tony Morales, Spain)
to be played in front of Under the Shadow on 13 August 7 pm

A dark Spanish tooth fairy tale – at least, I’d assume by the presence that the titular monster (Eva Isanta) is essentially the tooth fairy as young Daniel (Fernando Boza) begins the tale by proclaiming his toothache to his kindly grandmother (Silvia Casanova) and the movie almost immediately jumps into his fear of Hada appearing in the dark, making great use of the darkness and having Daniel’s flashlight give abrupt cuts that make Hada’s blinking appearances having more shocking punctuation to them until the end. At 8 minutes (6 1/2 if we don’t count credits), Hada doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to develop itself as a tale so much as just promise something is gonna pop out and spook us in this one-bedroom short, but as it functions well enough as a brief tease before a feature film and a showcase of Morales knowledge on how to build up suspense before the jump-scares to fit snugly before Under the Shadow on the schedule.

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The Birch (dir. Ben Franklin & Anthony Melton, UK)
to be played in front of I Am Not a Serial Killer on 13 August 9 pm

At 5 minutes, The Birch is yet another short film that gets as much set-up as it needs to at the forefront simply to introduce the presence of the ghastly wooden creature itself (created and designed by Cliff Wallace; played by Dee Sherwood Wallace) and bow out after taking a deserving victim. That said, it does get a lot of that done in that compact time – in the form of flashbacks and montage cuts (arranged by Franklin and Melton) so that we actually have more of an idea what’s coming than we did in Hadaeven if the fact that the monster is there to avenge our bullied protagonist Shaun (Aaron Word) domesticates it way too much to let it be terrifying on its own terms. It doesn’t stop it from being a neat little skit (too damn neat at some points, once again we have an unholy book centered and once again it looks like it wasn’t even once opened in its life until Shaun receives it) that I could easily see as being the pitch to a future live-action film with this very same monster.

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Pigskin (dir. Jake Hammond, USA)
to be played in front of Antibirth on 13 August 11 pm

I know this is almost entirely unfair of me and probably the result of being in the middle of watching Stranger Things, but after so many 80s throwback films and tv shows all of which portraying a time period I’m not at all nostalgic about, it’s too easy for me to say I am now in the throws of 80s throwback fatigue. And given that Pigskin is a product of Florida State University’s Film Program, the very same program that produced David Robert Mitchell so recently – director of It Follows – I especially can’t help unfairly seeing so many similarities between the two beyond the 80s throwback aesthetic, in the timid shy performance of our high school girl lead (Isadora Leiva), the John Carpenter homage synth score by Charles Harvey Spears, and even the very premise establishing itself based on our lead seeing a deformed monster following her that no one else can see. The fortunate fact is that even an anti-80s cynic like me can find a lot of merit in this short, like the fact that the score is absolutely catchy, the film is shot with a light fading of color to mete out whites and blues so that it actually looks like a nostalgic old photograph against its high school setting surrounded by football players and cheerleaders, and not least of all how co-writers Hammond and Nicola Newton use this to provide a commentary on female body image and the unhealthy expectations placed upon it, while using that as a platform for some close-up finger-scratching skin-tearing madness that made yours truly look away from the screen. I may be tired of the way it does these things, but it nevertheless does these things well and I can’t imagine any modern audience not getting to eat this up in the wave of 80s throwback popularity.

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FUCKKKYOUUU (dir. Eddie Alcazar, USA)
to be played in front of Evolution on 14 August 7 pm
(it is also available for free on Vimeo and given the strong nature of its content – NSFW doesn’t even fucking cut it – I would recommend taking a peek at it if you’re having doubts but are still curious, but if you can take it, I implore you to watch it on the big screen during Popcorn Frights)

Absolutely the most popular of the short film batch we have here, FUCKKKYOUUU came riding on a murderer’s row of laurels, not least of all being its status as an Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. And even if it didn’t have these things behind it, the fact that hip hop producer and DJ Flying Lotus himself supplied the score and sound design for the film would be enough to make it stand out (full disclosure: I am a very rabid fan of Flying Lotus). That still didn’t prepare for a movie that tosses around time travel, body horror, and… monster coitus (?) for a wordless display of a being (Jesse Sullivan)’s struggle with identifying her gender, sexuality, and all the other things that make her a person. The film that carries all this density in its images and sound based presenation is impeccable as well, shot by cinematographer Danny Hiele in beautifully grisly black and white with enough contrast to the Panavision film used to catch the grain without obscuring the images and cut by director/writer Alcazar himself with a frenzy meant to disorientate us as much as the being itself (though Alcazar does also have a sense for serene rhythm in an embracing moment of white light smack dab in the middle of the short). That I’m meant to find more of this nauseating than transfixing is only brought back to me by the film’s aggressive closing title itself, but I can’t say it’s for everyone either. It’s certainly a provocative film, but one with something behind its provocation that I find unlimited merit in, so a cautious recommendation it is, but one for a film I’m deeply affected by.

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The Puppet Man (dir. Jacqueline Castel, USA)
to be played in front of The Mind’s Eye on 14 August 9 pm

This is more a glorified music video to John Carpenter’s first non-soundtrack music album Lost Themes (with even Carpenter himself making a big damn “hey kids it’s John Carpenter” cameo) than a homage to his style. Largely because Castel’s editing – which does something confusing with either its chronology or its sense of location – really misses how to have a real physical sense of the bar where the titular supernatural killer (Johnny Scuotto) takes its prey (it’s also extremely confusing as to the identity of the killer or its status… I feel this is a short that could have afforded to be just a few minutes longer to figure itself out). But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s FUCKING. GORGEOUS. with all of the visual designers – Art Director Eva Tusquets, Costume Jenni Hensler, Production Designer Zev Deans, and cinematographer Castel herself – in synchronized compliment to each other based on solid splashes of the primary colors (especially reds and blues) to give the whole thingy a dreamy quality that lets it get away with trivialities as little of it making much sense. Hell, look at that shot right there, perfectly backlit and foggy to give the Puppet Man such an out-of-this-world stature. When you look this good, who needs chronology?

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Blight (dir. Brian Deane, Ireland)
to be played in front of Devil’s Doll on 14 August 11 pm

I’m way too atheist to be remotely frightened by demon possession stories (I mean, never say never – those Conjuring films standout amongst recent entries in the genre as instant classics… but yeah…) and I’ve seen way too many demon horror films involving pregnant women to be remotely surprised by the final moments of this film. I’m not gonna lie and say I was very well impressed with Blight, especially when it devotes itself in the middle with shock content that doesn’t move me. What I can say is that it at least carries itself with an extremely enviable sophistication, at lot of which we are to thank George Blagden’s patient performance for. It’s irritating in its confidence without telegraphing anything really less than earnest in his character of Father Carey until the film tries to pull the rug out from under us. He is absolutely the best thing going on here and while it isn’t much, the movie around him isn’t exactly breaking down. It’s just there’s not much to remark upon except him.

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Disco Inferno (dir. Alice Waddington, Spain)
to be played in front of Francesca on 15 August 7 pm

I have a really good feeling that I would love Disco Inferno much more – and before I state this: I fucking loved Disco Inferno. I replayed it three times and it may be my favorite of all the shorts here – if it made two changes: one would be that all the spoken dialogue were overdubbed Spanish or Italian and the other being that its last scene simply didn’t exist as it dips its hand into a more obnoxious form of comedy than the more subtle humor the short was already indulging in. In the meantime, what we still have is absolute fun with classic silent horror films tropes – especially in our heroine (Ana Rujas) evoking the hell out of Irma Vep in her get-up and confident presence – and occult imagery in service to a film that feels like 1/2 caper and 1/2 Guy Maddin-esque ritual. And that’s without talking about how cliched yet nevertheless believable its setting and costumes are as we are introduced to the Satanic sacrifice to our character is to crash. And THAT’s without talking about when the movie turns everything it introduced to us on its head. It’s just a really fun piece of work and I’d love to see what Waddington does with a feature film sometime real soon.

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The Maiden (dir. Michael Chaves, USA)
to be played in front of Abattoir on 15 August 9 pm

This short film’s greatest strength is also its greatest Achilles Heel. The Beckett Mansion, which even plays itself in this film if we are to go by an annoyingly on-the-nose monologue by Lucy (Alia Raelynn) that goes on for no more than ten seconds but feels longer (though the movie seems aware of this by having the character she’s saying it to regard incredulously that I’m not sure it’s not a parody moment), is too damn famous as a landmark of Los Angeles to pass as a house to buy and sell on the market that happens to also be a huge fixer-upper. This is unfortunate because this short REALLY knows how to use its angles and cuts to bring out a hell of a lot of character in the place and make it obvious it’s the real star of the short. If you are willing to shake that off like I was for much of the film (it helps that most of it takes place INSIDE the mansion rather than outside), we still have a hell of an effective horror short that fights with Disco Inferno for the title of my favorite of the slate. One that completely uses ghost story cliches intelligently nevertheless as well as even giving into to indulging itself in a climax that totally homages Sam Raimi (right down to dynamic camera movements) and having Raelynn give a great everywoman performance bouncing between fatigue towards the supernatural around her and transparently fake but still desperate eager beaver Real Estate Agent attitude. Oh and Penny Orloff as The Maiden is frightening even when all she does it really stand there in scary old lady makeup (semi-relevant: I found out that she is 5’3″. The movie – especially in its penultimate shot – used its perspective to trick into thinking she was towering. Well done.)

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Gwilliam (dir. Brian Lonano, USA)
to be played in front of The Barn on 16 August 7 pm

Man, it’s not that Gwilliam doesn’t do what it wants to. I’m sure it’s usage of a cheap doll to portray its central creature is deliberate, right down to an extremely game William Tokarsky (of Too Many Cooks fame and I’m almost certain the same cult audience for that short is who this movie is aiming for – though I happen to be a fan of that short and look at me) having to move the doll around to make it look like it’s forcing itself on him (and that’s not close to the worst this short puts him through). I’m sure the completely gross-out humor down to sickening close-up shots as well as a really dangerous use of anatomy as warning is completely what the movie is absolutely proud to sink down to. I’m sure the completely rapey vibes of the whole thing is as deliberate as the eroticism of its central act (which to its credit… editor Kevin Lonano, the younger brother to Brian, does really well to set the tone of each moment in this short which is undoubtedly what makes its humor work insofar as for its target audience). I’m even sure it’s meant to provoke as much the annoyed attitude I have towards it as it is to get belly laughs from the people who enjoy this type of thing (I mean, using Gaspar Noe-esque credits like this short does pretty much is a dizzying “Fuck you” to anybody who isn’t on its wavelength.

But it ain’t my jam and I’m good, man. I’m fucking good, dawg.

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Mayday (dir. Sébastien Vaniček, France)
to be played in front of Daylight’s End on 17 August 7 pm

And yet I jump into yet another extremely unpleasant film to sit through, possibly moreso than Gwilliam as Mayday edges through from its bitter and smug cynicism to its complete lack of characters we can’t help but find repulsive (save for one woman whose only purpose in the film is to be fondled and die, not necessarily in that order. This is a very male-oriented picture, but then again its aware of that). One of those characters, whom we are meant to identify as the protagonist (though early on the movie makes the mistake of focusing briefly on another character) is Michel (Remi Paquot). Michel’s first act in the film is to masturbate in the lavatory of a plane and we are later to discover that he’s on that plane chaperoned by a US Federal Agent (Akil Wingate) on extradition from an unknown country (though given that Arabic and French are amongst the languages spoken on the plane, I’m assuming its a North African Maghrib country – Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco… oh fuck, they dragged my Algeria into this) for charges of rape. Very soon it is established that Michel and the rest of the inhabitants of this plane keep encountering a fatal dose of turbulence, though they keep reverting back a few minutes before the plane comes apart. Michel seems to be the only character aware of this happening and the film is gamely ambiguous about whether or not these repeated scenarios are his hallucination, an ability to foresee the future, him traveling back in time, or whatever. Either way, he is absolutely suffering in the middle of his punishment for being a rapist and I have the feeling the movie with its tone of paranoia and claustrophobia (both of which it does really well and it should really be no surprise coming from a French production that seems to takes it leaf off the old New French Extremity movement) that we’re meant to feel sorry for him being surrounded by such hard asses and assholes (the Agent himself is really eager to tear him one), but it’s just hard to enjoy a film like this that smiles at you while it feels superior for having a character give into his most vile inhibitions by the end of it (something spelled out by the very end credits song performed by Sexy).

Same as Gwilliam, I am fucking good, man.

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Manoman (dir. Simon Cartwright, UK)
to be played in front of Pet on 17 August 9 pm

A short that may actually give FUCKKKYOUUU a run for its money as most popular on the slate, Manoman has its own stack of laurels to display, the most impressive being its status as a 2015 BAFTA nominee for Best British Short Animation. It also gives The Maiden and Disco Inferno their own run for my favorite of the bunch and a lot of that is from how it’s able to do what Mayday wanted to do without being so… crude. Crude not to mean vulgar here because Manoman has plenty of vulgarity to spare, but in its ability to go about a sophisticated (if still on-the-nose) manner in communicating our protagonist Glen’s dilemma. See, he’s really not much of a man as far as he sees and the design of his puppetry adds to that by making him look like the most fucking pathetic thing in his shape of his head and the shrinking of his facial features, his eyes far away from each other, his nose sloping down… and then makes him far from special by giving every other person around him the same features. One of my favorite elements of this short – besides the detail of the dreary set design in its artifice – is its decision to let us see the rods controlling the puppets as thought their lives are literally out of their hands (and at one point Glen’s rods are completely in another characters’). He’s completely limp as a person until suddenly all his inhibitions come in the form of a small gremlin that looks like him if he gave his DNA to Danny De Vito and a version of him that… literally has balls. Ah yes, what big balls it has, especially in the dreamy final backlit shot involving a golden shower to a religious hum. Anyway, this gremlin lets Glen do all the things he’s ever wanted to do and together they set the world ablaze with their mania. It’s a flipping hilarious short of physical comedy that deals with the inner commentary and esteem issues a person puts himself through though it gives a heavy reminder of the consequences of such a toxic sense of masculinity. If I have a problem with it, it’s that I really wish we didn’t see the Gremlins’ rods as he’s obviously supposed to be the one out of control and I do think its ending (not the Golden Shower element, but the moment before) seems too moralistic as to feel safe in a manner Mayday dared to eschew. But so much of Manoman is working on a register I love, that it’s all over before I give my protests after laughing too hard.

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Iris (dir. Richard Karpala, USA)
to be played in front of Man Vs. on 18 August 7 pm

A BIG NOTE: The cut I witnessed had a still unfinished sound mix, it would only be fair to acknowledge that I had not seen the Final Cut by any means and to keep that in mind in my opinion towards the film (especially since it promised interesting ADR work with its title A.I. voiced with complete detachment by Michelle Strickland).

That said, the whole short itself didn’t strike me in its premise as much more than a low-grade Twilight Zone episode, taking the most technophobic possible target it can: a transparent Siri copy, especially in its amalgram name, to the point that it really didn’t need an opening Steve Jobs conference-esque moment announcing it to an audience that’s absolutely familiar with these sort of things in their smart phones now. Beyond that, it at least has some lovely naturally lit landscape photography of the Colorado Mountains going for it, as long as it’s not a close-up of Luke Sorge – the only physically present actor as a hitman who’s using his Iris phone to help him bury a body and arrange his payment – as Karpala and cinematographer Nikolai Galitzine prove unable to even adequately light Sorge’s face so that we can see some of his expressions and facial emotions. The poor guy is obstructed as all hell. That as well as how Iris quickly runs out of footage to use, using the same shot of the Iris phone sitting on a log as an insert. Iris can’t interest me with such a lacking ability to portray its human element or its craft against its cold Artificial Intelligence element, especially when it’s a story trying to tell us how much more sinister a computer can be than a murderer when it applies itself.

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Night Stalker (dir. Mike Anderson and Ryan Dickie, USA)
to be played in front of Beyond the Gates on 18 August 9 pm

Hey, The Puppet ManNight Stalker will see your gorgeous use of color and raise it not only by invoking shadow as an element (though it doesn’t have the same solid block of hues as The Puppet Man does) but also by indulging in stop-motion animation with gruesome elements that call back the work of the Quays and still match that heavy blue and red lighting while establishing gloomy modes rather than slasher dangers. All in service to an even more inscrutable narrative, though the gist I get is some sort of twisted romance between characters played by Maya Kazan (yeah, she’s from THAT Kazan clan) and Keenan Mitchell partly fueled by some sinisterly tainted Chinese food. Anyway, given the hallucinatory nature of this film, it only fits that so much of it seems wild and unable to fit together, but if I can’t connect with this film on a narrative or thematic level, I can still indulge in how impressive it is as eye candy and its quick and breezy energy towards itself. It’s an easily likable short, whether or not you can read much into it.

And there we have it, the majority of the short films to be played at the 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Thanks again to Igor and Marc and all the filmmakers who made these shorts and features and, once again, if any of you readers happen to be in Miami and any of these films sound like they tickle your fancy, you still have time to grab tickets for the festival’s run here and I hope to catch you all there soon at O Cinema Wynwood.

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Francesca Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Rome

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Francesca will be playing on the 15 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

There are two opening gestures within the first ten minutes of Italian/Argentine horror production Francesca (it should say the most promising things to the movie that I had a lot of troubling squaring that it wasn’t a purely Italian production, in a manner that will be obvious by the first frame of the film and the end of this review) that bring attention to themselves in the most obvious manner and make clear what director Luciano Onetti (who pulled multiple duties as cinematographer, composer, editor and co-wrote the film with his brother Nicolás) intends to do both in style and storytelling. The immediate first gesture (after a dedication “A Mama” that takes a particularly ironic tone after the fact) is to actually have the frame of the film open itself up slowly to reveal the source of a windy soundscape of a dark sky until it reaches an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 – the preferred frame for anamorphic 35mm film in the 1970s.

Which seems like something absolutely disposable and hardly noted by a casual viewer of movies except as a slimmer wide frame than the US standard, until you realize that it is a ratio that is favored in many works of giallo pictures (an exclusively Italian genre Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries with a particular flavor for bloody knife deaths that had its great run between the mid-1960s to the late 70s), particularly by giants to the genre as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. It’s a subtle stylistic move that clearly announces the intentions of the movie to sit comfortably alongside the greats of those artists from the very first frame – Don’t Torture a DucklingDeep RedThe Bird with a Crystal PlumageThe New York RipperOpera (it is also an aspect ratio shared with Suspiria, arguably Argento’s most famous feature, and while I personally am quite peeved by the idea of categorizing it as a giallo – it has supernatural story elements you will never find in any of the “grounded” giallo films – it is nonetheless considered one by enough people to at least receive a nod).

If that is missed by anybody, the second gesture I allude to is a big enough deal that it literally stopped me in my tracks and made me decide to really strap myself in for the movie I was watching. After a chilling moment of sadistic child-on-infant violence with credits overlayed on top of it, the movie proper feels ready to begin with a completely giallo-esque presentation of the unknown killer in bright blood red attire including raincoat, gloves, and later in the film a wide-brimmed hat, prepares to murder its first victim with a ritualistic atmosphere provided by the cuts Onetti gives in rhythm to the worshipful dark recitation of Canto III from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a piece which is continuously reference directly throughout the film (I also get tickled by the direct quotation of “Gate of Hell”, bringing to mind the OTHER great Italian horror subgenre). It’s a hypnotizing scene that draws you in with absolutely no trip in its deep pace – even the screaming of the gagged victim matches up to the magnificent rhythmic soundscape – before being absolutely thrown off that trance with a savage stab to the mouth, blood dribbling from the tape that bounds our victim so messily that we suddenly remember that we’re watching a horror movie. But that’s not what pulls me back.

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What really did was the fact that the credits – which, maybe I do not speak Italian, I was meant to believe were concluded – actually commence only after this woman has been murdered and the killer is now preparing her body for the daylight discovery of a witness walking her dog (Antonieta Bonarea) and the subsequent involvement of our investigating Detectives Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Benito Succo (Gustavo Dalessanro). Our detectives will come to discover that the disappearance of a young girl named Francesca from 15 years ago may have something to do with these murders. In any case, Francesca‘s concern with willing to completely pause its credits to dole out a very well-crafted scene that kickstarts all the plot tells me three things:

The first is a more overt announcement of the film’s giallo intentions, forgiving me for reading into the aspect ratio now that it’s willing to really put some blood and garish color (especially in the killer’s costume, absolutely the brightest color element in the whole film). The second is an intention to announce that this movie is not going to bother slowing things down and will absolutely run through its mystery with the briskest efficiency, regardless of the layers it may introduce to the plot. This is a promise the 80-minute feature makes very well good on, running so fast into moments that it’s willing to introduce the Detectives’ investigation of crime scenes, cut into a flashback of a witness’s memory, and then cut straight from that flashback to the scene chronologically AFTER the witness is being questioned even while his or her narration continues. Editing gestures like these simply want to move on to the next big kill moment and only leave the Detective’s untangling of the convoluted pattern of kills for the function of the genre and it shows a very delicate ability on Onetti’s part to make sure the audience is not in the slightest bored while telling them “if you’re lost, it doesn’t matter! Here comes the really good stuff, anyway” on to a moment where somebody gets a knife through the throat or an iron press to the face.

Which leads to the third and most telling thing about this move – Onetti is willing to stop the movie from properly starting because he’s really damn proud of his craft and wants you to see it. It is in itself an attitude of the film that is well-deserved in my opinion. What Onetti has done is built up a time capsule of a film from the ground up, using whatever budgetary and lo-fi limitations he has to simply add to the 70’s Italian aesthetic while being mindful of more modern visual language as to allow the genre more accessible to people who simply aren’t as familiar with the movement (though I can’t imagine anybody walking into this film without an idea of what it is) and invite their interest, anyway. This twist on lo-fi filmmaking is especially prevalent in the soft focus and lighting give that grimy old picture feel, accented by a subtle blue color tone (most obviously in interior sequences) that add to the bloated dead feel of the picture, before the presence of the killer’s red dress cuts into that soft tone and another throat. The editing is easily the most modern part of the film, though it favors using canted angles that give the film a 60s hallucinatory vibe, by matching up to the rhythm of the moment like that opening kill promised. Neither of them are the perfect work of a master with either dodgy cuts (a one-second cut at the very beginning calls way too much attention to a fake baby, even if its blink or you’ll miss it), somewhat alienating effects that are so outside the realm of the sort of sophistication Onetti mostly displays that I think it’d be an injustice to call them deliberate goofs (an establishing shot of a church tower warps and distorts like a cartoon manner that you’ll never find elsewhere), and a few completely out-of-focus shots that don’t work outside of the hallucinated moments of the killer’s presence. Still, that Onetti can single-handedly construct a genre picture that works in all the places where it matters AND keep a swift pace is impressive enough.

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And that’s without mentioning how the sound design is easily the most enjoyable thing about the movie to me. Either simply because Onetti wants to match up with the historical habit of Italian productions during that era overdubbing EVERYTHING (giallo or otherwise) or because Onetti knows the true value of a good horror soundscape or maybe both, the point is that Onetti announces before any visual alarm an insistence that something is wrong by heralding a trapped claustrophobic interior tone (sort a muffled form of the opening exterior noise) before really utilizing all the Creepy Sound Effects 101 to great effect: canned baby sounds from a doll (especially with the phrase “Mommy wants to play with you”), piano, all the sort of perfect things to get under your skin and get you ready for when the killer comes out. That these moments are usually preceded by mundane investigation scenes only allows our ears to really pipe up once we hear it coming and that Onetti’s score – while not exactly original – plays well-enough into the time period the film consciously sets itself in pulls double-duty on recalling the dark audial violence of Fulci and Argento and letting it pulsate through the spine-chilling moments prior to a stab.

The plot is of such limited concern to even the film itself that once it ties itself up, it gives the viewer no room to square its final twists and moves right on to the crimson-backgrounded credits (and slowly closes off that aspect ratio in the very same manner). To its credit, though, I think it ties itself up a lot cleaner than pretty much most giallos (certainly Twitch of the Death Nerve and StageFright, amongst my favorites of the genre) and Rodriguez and Dalessandro doing a better job than you’d expect establishing the complete fatigue in their detective characters coming from their stressful line of cases previous to this doozie. And just as well, because what we truly have here is simply a lovingly sincere attempt to not just function as “homage or love letter to the giallo” but to outright insist upon itself as a new entry into the canon.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t see myself having a problem with giving it that. Nothing about Francesca is cynical or throws itself as a cunning wink to the genre as a parody, which might not make it more interesting than a great straightforward genre film, but sometimes that’s all you need and the giallo movement has been in such a drought (I mean, Dario Argento HAS NEVER MADE A MOVIE SINCE OPERA AND ANYBODY WHO TELLS ME THERE ARE ARGENTO MOVIES AFTER THAT IS LYING). All its flaws are to my mind honest mistakes, made by a pair of brothers on their sophomore feature with limited resources or a stifling in creative decisions who worked on this with the whole of their hearts, and all its successes are enviously impressive that leave me with more than just a feeling that anybody who comes across this movie is liable to enjoy it as a fan of good enthusiastic horror work. It also leaves me insisting that anybody who has as much an eagerness to consume giallo works like yours truly actively seek this out and leave me to seek out the Onetti brothers’ first feature Deep Sleep. And that’s not even talking about my excitement for what’s to come in the future for them. New blood was exactly what this genre needed and we got it.

(P.S. stay after the credits for one more special moment – besides the fact that the frame closes itself in the same fashion as it opens.)

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We Came. We Saw. We Kicked It’s Ass.

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I’m older as hell now. I’m not the same kid who first saw Ghostbusters loving the hell out of it in the 1990s. I’m wiser – I don’t generally care for Dan Aykroyd’s writing and rest in peace to Harold Ramis, but he eventually fell off as well (but not before giving us Caddyshack and Groundhog Day so he was a very talented individual). Their 1984 Ghostbusters – which they wrote and starred in – lives and breathes in the atmosphere of 1980s Hollywood comedies in that it’s blatantly a movie riding on it being a high concept – rather than the Bill Murray star vehicle it now gets retroactively read as – of a bunch of guys, y’know… busting ghosts. Paranormal exterminators, that’s it. That’s a logline summary of the film to be sold. Plus it came from the 1980s, pound for pound the worst decade in American filmmaking to me. In my mind, Ghostbusters had every possibility of being a lesser film than it is.

Instead, what we got was lightning in a bottle – a movie that is completely aware of the scale of itself (because if you have a movie about guys busting ghosts, you’re gonna need some great effects) but dismissive of that to the point of just feeling like a hangout comedy. Which in itself, shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the men who were involved CaddyshackThe Blues Brothers, and Stripes – all shaggy comedies based in just putting characters in a location and interacting that had some kind of aimlessness to them – not just Aykroyd and Ramis, but star Murray and director Ivan Reitman. I can’t think of many movies that are able to take these two blatantly unmixable masters – the big damn sci-fi/horror spectacle and the dudes just being dudes – and even attempts to please them both (the closest I can think of is This Is the End, but man, the high-concept is such a fucking garbagefire that it only works by being a hangout stoner comedy). Ghostbusters accomplishes both elements with flying colors, plus Aykroyd and Ramis somehow discipline their episodic style of writing early in their careers (probably meant to allow improvisation of the Second City and Saturday Night Live alums that show up in their movies – something which is certainly present in Ghostbusters as well) to actually craft a plot that’s nothing dense, god forbid, but one where the conflicts and relationships develop and events have consequences and we can actually see how the movie builds itself up to a climax that is absolutely delicious in its ambition.

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That plot being the startup of said Ghostbusters service after three professors in New York are ejected from their university as they regard their studies as useless with no application or ability to bring in sponsors. What were those professors studying? Parapsychology. Yep, I can’t really blame the university there, especially when our introduction to the most casual man in that trio, Peter Venkman (Murray), is of him using a ESP tests to court a girl and viciously torment another a guy. Fucking A, come to think of it, practically everything about Venkman as a person – this scene, the antagonistic attitude he gives to albeit a pretty huge jerk, the annoying relentlessness in which he pursues a client named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), the fact that he brought 300ccs of Thorazine to a date – is odious by all means, he should be an immediately dislikable person. But hell, Bill Murray in all his casual sarcasm and deadpan attitudes to even the most alarming of situations is such a fun and frankly cool bringdown from the severity of New York’s imminent destruction that we enjoy his presence. Plus if the movie were really intending for us to find Venkman to be such a complete creep, he probably shouldn’t be having such dynamite chemistry with Weaver as romantic foils, even when it involves Barrett showing Venkman the door. It’s essentially the Ferris Bueller effect – the character is a complete shit of a person, but the performance to bring that character to life has too much charisma to even consider hating him. And this meant to be a compliment – we want to love these characters and Ghostbusters lets us.

Murray is obviously the guy who’s taking over the show, but Ghostbusters can’t maintain its hangout feel without at least the illusion of a strong ensemble and the strength of the supporting cast is not at all an illusion. Calling Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler and Aykroyd as Dr. Ray Stantz as supporting characters is dismissive, since they are just as much involved in the particulars of the plot and they both pull off characteristics that make them pleasant presences – Aykroyd with his boy-ish naivete and enthusiasm behind each step they make in discovering paranormal activity (my favorite bit of acting here by him is his despondence at mortgaging his home by Venkman’s influence, followed one cut later by his excitement to use that money to buy a fire station) and Ramis, who was always limited in his acting (my god, ragging on the recently deceased fucking sucks, I wish this review existed pre-2014), using that wooden lack of expression to stress the completely deadpan focused nature of the character and especially illustrate his divide from humanity even in spite of his undisputed intelligence – but Murray’s feat-on-the-ground attitude is why we hover to that character and know him to be the real star of the show. Weaver is undoubtedly the most normal of the bunch and still brings inner life to Dana that makes her far from boring – ie. making it obvious she is somewhat charmed by Venkman is completely inner commentary, her lines are basically “get out”. Rick Moranis and Annie Potts are lovable caricatures, even in their limited screentime.

Ernie Hudson as later recruit Winston Zeddmore is the odd man out of the main cast and unfortunately it’s not through any fault of his own – as great as it is to have an everyman in the group (it actually adds to the low-key working class platform of the Ghostbusters’ existence – “if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say” he tells Potts’ character shortly before an exhausted Venkman and Stantz waltz in with cigarettes dangling from their mouths; his interactions are no different from watercooler or lunch break dialogue intermingling personal life with work), the character feels entirely like a fourth wheel to what’s actually going on. This is as a result of the apparent shrinking of the role since he received the role in lieu of the original choice, Eddie Murphy leaving for Beverly Hills CopIn all truth, the role just feels like it’s thankless and hanging there, something Hudson himself expressed dismay over. The poor guy was shafted here, but he still gamely exists in the film and makes himself known.

Anyway, the cast is not the only thing that lifts the movie to being such a classic standard of 1980s comedy that other 1980s comedies hardly came even close to, although they are singlehandedly the reason the movie is so compulsively rewatchable that I would dare to claim I am not the only person who has fresh as hell memories despite the last time I watched it being 2013. This is a movie about GHOSTS. We need GHOSTS. WE NEED THE SPOOKS, YO.

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And y’know, horror maybe. And Ghostbusters especially seems eager to at least promise the atmosphere of a horror film between Laszlo Kovacs’ darkened lighting for moments where the paranormal is up and Elmer Bernstein’s genre-based darkness in his score. The movie takes its concept seriously which is honestly something of a compliment to its audience that we rarely see in this day and age of post-modern sarcastic quips and tones in the face of death (fucking Joss Whedon). I know that’s weird to say just after I complimented Murray for his attitude, but that’s kind of the thing… Murray almost derails that for the movie, while Aykroyd and Ramis and company all cover for him and it’s enough to provide dignity to the threat but not enough to spook me. I don’t think anybody could really walk away from seeing Ghostbusters as very scary and even as a child I didn’t find myself very shaken by it.

But that doesn’t matter to me, what matters is do the ghosts have weight and by word they do. Not only because they are taken seriously, but because the effects used to bring them to life is outstanding. There’s some dodgy puppetwork, but mostly it’s a hell of a fantastic bunch of monstrous designs and movements. I can’t figure out which is my favorite ghost – the translucent and jiggly Slimer (joked as the ghost of John Belushi by the cast and crew, so y’know, look! They rag on the recently deceased too!) or the absolutely hilarious contradiction of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. I mean, I guess I’d lean to Stay-Puft as he is the root of my favorite scene in the whole movie: a monster B-movie homage of giants crushing buildings and threatening everyone (all with a big smile on its face that can’t help feeling genial due to the character’s nature as a marketing mascot) and an explosive climax that the movie totally earns.

Altogether, Ghostbusters is a movie that doesn’t float on charm, it’s the super gorilla glue that holds all of its great yet contradictory elements together to be the entertaining and rewarding watch it is. It’s easy to believe a whole generation has tied themselves irrevocably to this film. The movie is likable and admirable on every front and one of the finer studio comedies in the history of a genre that doesn’t really get much visual love from being made by studios. I’d recommend it if it weren’t obvious everybody who would bother reading this review has already seen it and knows how damn good it is.

And hell yeah. A whole review without once naming the elephant in the fucking room. Y’know the one. That remake. The really shitty one. Ghostbusters II

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