My 100 Favorite Movies – 24 Years of Canon

About four years ago, in this blog’s previous home, I made an earlier list of my 100 favorite movies I had seen ’til that point. It was immediately outdated and many of my selections on that previous incarnation are embarrassing enough for me to refuse to show you guys what was on that previous version of that list.

It’s no less embarrassing than the fact that I’m remaking and putting effort into something so arbitrary and disposable yet confident it can illustrate my feelings for the artform. The frank fact is that I could probably make a list of 250 favorite movies. Maybe 500 if so inclined. But I want to take the time to actually lay out why these 100 movies are special to me. I want you to know what these movies mean to me. It’s already painful to go beyond 100 – the percent centennial – but I do it simply because it’s not enough. I want this to go back upon Pauline Kael’s insistence that she used film criticism as her own memoirs, I want these films to map out how I think my life went so far. And so be it.

Still given a bit between how this is between representing my own personal opinion and essentially me being just “yo, go see this moviefilm”, I decided I’d like to place a few principles onto this list:

– No more than three films per filmmaker (it could apply to director or producer, depending on whose influence I find most present). It’s all too easy to turn this into a list of nothing more than Spielberg, Murnau, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Disney, Coen brothers, Kieslowski, Hitchcock, etc. (in fact, plenty of times they kept popping in over that like tribbles) and I can’t do that in good faith. I wanna seem versatile, even if it’s artificial.

– You may group films together as is appropriate based on series, as long as they do not override the “three films” rule. That last segment bitchslaps poor Double Life of Veronique out of the running, which never had a chance alongside a filmmaker that has a ten-episode series and an unforgettable trilogy. Though, I can’t in good faith also allow myself to sneak Decalogue when the episodes count as films themselves and it reaches 7 over, so down that goes too. In addition, enough franchises expand that I’m happily crippled from using this as a cheat. This also removes the Quay brothers’ Stille Nacht five-film series or Chuck Jones’ Hunting trilogy (even shorts shall be bound by this).

– ‘Cause y’know, the test of time matters, I must refrain from using movies from the last ten years 2007-2016, even if they’re movies I think people need to get off their ass and experience in a theater – Goodbye to LanguageThe Act of KillingGrindhouse – even if I adore them – RatatouilleCoraline, etc. I want to wait until ten years gives them a solid foundation of love in me. Also because I need to shut the fuck up about Mad Max: Fury Road already.

– This one is most important to me and the hardest to shake: I am not making a list of the “Best Movies I’ve Ever Seen”. I know opinion is subjective enough and the line is thin between what I love and what I know is good to make it hard to split hairs like that, but I have to keep in mind moreso my personal reaction to a movie above its spot in my idea of an objective canon. Knowing many of these movies to be flawed and knowing many that are virtually flawless in my eyes, I have no hesitance in believing this list to represent my tastes.

In any case, I’m done talking about the list and just on to showing you myself and let’s start with the bottom of the barrel of movies I love:

iamthor2100. Rock n’ Roll Nightmare (1987/prod. Jon Mikl Thor/Canada) – Literally, I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d have some trash in my favorites but Rock n’ Roll Nightmare features one of my favorite batshit twists I’ve ever seen in a movie, terribly cliche 80s metal numbers, and it’s all a vanity project to its star/writer/producer/composer the Metal Legend Thor, whose hair alone has enough personality to spice up the extremely incompetent filmmaking. And I won’t dare explain the context behind this picture, you need to reach it with the same “what am I watching?” shock as I did. There’s plenty Thor to go around.

the-little-shop-of-horrors-feed99. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960/dir. Roger Corman/USA) – It’s perhaps the first time I actually watched a movie by myself just out of curiosity – I was a child, man – and found myself in wonder at what a perversity a film could be, of genre, of artifice – a movie that tries to be a sci-fi horror with a romantic side and a screwball edge with the limits of a super low budget picture will do that – and still be fun with the right attitude behind it. Thus is the case with any and many a Roger Corman film. Which led to a life of looking for weird and sometimes bad pictures alongside all the beloved classics.

flash2bgordon2b398. Flash Gordon (1980/prod. Dino de Laurentiis/UK) – Brian Blessed has a great big fucking grin on his face in every damn shot – he looks like aholsniffsglue found himself in an opera dress rehearsal – and I don’t see a single reason why I can’t match that. Everybody here is just a grand old time making the trashiest pulpiest space opera they can put together and succeeding in making it feel like a comic book come to life. Also, I had to put a movie with Queen scoring it on here. It was between this and Highlander and Gordon won out.

barbarella-1968-_143800-fli_137796618697. Barbarella (1968/dir. Roger Vadim/France and Italy) – When in doubt, just use sex. Though I find it fascinating how artistically “European” Barbarella feels despite just a shallow reason to have a sexy woman in space. And we could do worse than have said woman played by Jane Fonda – both because she is jawdroppingly attractive in this movie, and I swear some of the costume work is to blame for that because m’God; and because she has a fantastic sense of humor for the whole absurdity of this flippant fantasy.

17496759-mmmain96. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958/prod. Charles H. Schneer/USA) – My first Harryhausen picture, which means my first encounter with his brilliant stop-motion work and while Cyclops is nothing against the likes of Medusa or the Skeleton Army, it’s still a meaning living fleshy entity that alone makes this adventure tale constantly stand-out in my mind as a childhood favorite. Just look at that muthafucka be like “Fuck these kids doing in my yard.” Harryhausen’s work had weight, felt like characters, had tactility to them based on how they were made and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is definitely the movie that brought that to my eyes.

house-on-haunted-hill20195920f95. House on Haunted Hill (1959/dir. William Castle/USA) – I only hope that one day a theater in my vicinity replays it pulling off the dumb skeleton trick so I can experience this movie exactly how I should have. In the meantime, it’s a-OK to simply enjoy the biting irony of Vincent Price’s performance, like he was always well-suited to bring to any camp matinee horror film. Price makes this party a real party and a constant Halloween watch, especially interacting with his wife in scenes that totally illustrate a toxic marriage.

ravenous194. Ravenous (1999/dir. Antonia Bird/Czech Republic and USA) – I’ve never had a better way to put it that this movie is the best episode of Tales from the Crypt that never was. And that’s absolutely true of it – the shocking gushes of blood to punctuate the moments of tension, at times simply to disgust viewers. The black humor especially brought out of a frenzied performance by Robert Carlyle. The limited setting that brings claustrophobia between predator and prey. Especially the war surroundings lending to a commentary on masculinity and bravery, from a female director no less. Ravenous is a barely seen gem that I have no trouble forcing onto even the squemish. Just make sure you weren’t a steak dinner like I was when I first saw it.

the-trouble-with-harry93. The Trouble with Harry (1958/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA)– Everything that makes a Hitchcock thriller work so damn well like clockwork is still working around the clock in this one, only instead of a gasp, it’s a laugh we let out and nobody’s any the wiser. Plus the air of Vermont that pervades from the screen – aided by real character performances from Edmund Gwenn and a never-more-attractive-because-she’s-totally-just-waxing-casual-over-death Shirley MacLaine – is strangely welcoming and comforting, so of course I’ll find this compulsively rewatchable.

yojimboex192. Yojimbo (1961/dir. Kurosawa Akira/Japan) – I can’t even front about this. I wake up in the morning sometimes asking myself how would the mysterious yet aloof hero Kuwabatake Sanjuro go about the perils of the day? That lens depth alone is fire, but the dude is swimply swag.

thinmanrifle191. The Thin Man (1934/dir. W.S. Van Dyke/USA) – When people ask me who my ideal woman is, I’m so lazy I say “female” and leave it at that, but I can’t help thinking it’s got to be someone whose Nora brings out the Nick in me – trading barbs and talking casual drinks and casework. Besides I already have the background for it and the dog to boot – though not a wire terrier, Bruno is better than that. Myrna Loy and William Powell gave me unrealistic expectations.

somewheregreen290. Little Shop of Horrors (1986/dir. Frank Oz/USA) – Well, I’ll be damned, a Frank Oz production where the outstanding puppet work and Ashman/Menken music is in the bottom rung of why I love this movie, but mostly it’s a movie that reveals its heart on its sleeve as a love letter to sci-fi B Movies while not actually compromising the lavish Broadway esque production value of the spectacle of it – Skid Row is a wonder of skeevish set design with bright moods – WHILE not letting that enslave itself from feeling like a movie. This heart on its sleeve is also why I find myself loving the characters – especially Seymour – so much that I watch the happy ending over the original ending, anyday. They earn that.

tumblr_l8yujigggh1qaseldo1_128089. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005/dir. Shane Black/USA) – Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are at the best sarcastic mode to treat all the most problematic elements of Shane Black’s sort of writing and make it go down smoother than expected. I especially just love it when the film turns against RDJ blatantly for his more misogynistic elements and yet he still has the sympathies as the punchline of gags like losing his finger to a door and then to a dog. And it still all works as spicy neo-noir.

gun88. Gun Crazy (1950/dir. Joseph H. Lewis/USA) – All the mean-spirited nasty expressionist blackness of film noir within its construction to make it harsh as all hell, but with all the fleshy humanity and emotional heights of its lead couple John Dall and Peggy Cummins to make it a striking and unbeatable tale of love on the road and behind the barrel. A couple to root for despite their flaws as humans. Now THIS is true romance.

death87. Death Race 2000 (1975/prod. Roger Corman/USA) – I can’t be the only one who actually thinks this movie functions very well as satire (as well as the mindless entertainment it superficially attempts to be), can I? I mean, it’s cheap like all Corman movies. And trashy like all Corman movies. It’s about a continental race where you score points for vehicular manslaughter. But it’s also kind of smart.

strike86. Strike (1925/dir. Sergei Eisenstein/USSR) – Wanna know a secret? Anything Potemkin could do, Strike could do better. Not least of all in its propulsive editing or usage of the cut to instill the metaphor into the story of the riots. Plus it’s structured better towards a hell of a climax.

still-from-twitch-of-the-death-nerve85. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1972/dir. Mario Bava/Italy) – Ah yes, my kind of trashy bloody giallo cinema, especially one that tries to make sense of itself between being a tale of a whodunnit and just a little “ten little indians” proto-slasher but just having a chaotic and left-wing enough script that I couldn’t tell who was the central character until the end. And then the end pulled rug out from under me in the most ridiculously bullshit way.

ugetsu84. Ugetsu (1953/dir. Mizoguchi Kenji/Japan) – I mean, yeah, I guess it’s a “ghost story”, but the real horror film comes the humans around them – the historical society hasn’t destabilized but everybody has lost their principles and inequality runs through class and gender without anybody in a position of power caring. But then there’s also the ghosts and the ghosts themselves lead into a more stately discussion of loneliness and shame and lend themselves to an ending that is almost certainly in my top ten, a reserved acceptance of place but desire to still do more.

masculin-fecc81minin-dvd-review-criterion-pdvd_01283. Masculin Feminin (1966/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France) – I am legitimately surprised that this isn’t the movie people think of when they think of Godard. Philosophical asides, young culture both put under a lens and re-shaped into something that’s not an entirely accurate portrayal, scenes in the cinema and talking about music, complicated romances, sudden interruptions of editing or violence. It’s nothing profound out of his canon, but it’s most representative of the sort of things he was interested in doing with the artform and I like using it as a marker every time I watch any Godard.

y-tu-mama-tambien82. Y tu Mama Tambien (2001/dir. Alfonso Cuaron/Mexico) – My kind of hyper-literate sex-driven road comedy. The three leads anchoring all the personality behind it also lending themselves to remarkably intelligent sociopolitical commentary, the dreamteam of Cuaron and Lubezki using the long take as a manner of relaxed cruising akin to the car they drive while catching gorgeous landscapes. And that three-way hug shot is of course unforgettable.

sansho81. Sansho the Bailiff (1954/dir. Mizoguchi Kenji/Japan) – A movie would have to maintain a visual beauty like this in order for its central theme of hope vs. savagery – it almost reminds me of a Japanese Dickens except for its extreme moments – and Mizoguchi is precisely the sort of humanist filmmaker to refrain from making the whole film feel like miserablism – though it sort of gets there – and carry it all the way to being a triumph of the human spirit.

tumblr_my57hczueh1r3owlzo1_128080. Yi Yi (2000/dir. Edward Yang/Taiwan) – You will see over this list that I have a predilection to picking movies that have an apparently indulgent predilection towards blocking an entire shot with a single color, but Yi Yi is something special that particularly hews to using color coding in the most obvious way to map out the feelings of our central characters and that’s especially important in a story as minimalistically humanist as one centered on a family not going through any particularly unorthodox miseries, but still miseries nonetheless

balta179. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966/dir. Robert Bresson/France) – Ah, this is a movie that I almost completely thank its remarkable sound mixing work to bringing me into the world of its poor donkey character and live through its suffering. It’s also why I find such a cacophonical atmosphere during the final scenes to suggest maybe the opposite of the popular opinion that Balthazar found peace eventually. Also, I have to thank Tim Brayton at Antagony and Ecstasy for giving his review of it the perfect name: “Christ, what an ass.”

the-piano_jane-_campion_1993_www-lylybye-com_478. The Piano (1993/dir. Jane Campion/New Zealand) – I love mute acting – my love for silent cinema is probably not unrelated. But usually mute characters lend themselves to less natural performances and more to physical humor than any psychological depth. Not so with what Holly Hunter is up to here and she is single-handedly what floors me about The Piano even though everything else about the film – especially the framing by Campion and Hunter’s supporting cast – is nothing less than masterly.

umbrellas-of-cherbourg77. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964/dir. Jacques Demy/France) – Man, I thought musicals were supposed to be happy, but Demy was clearly some kind of sadist. His first musical is beautiful and lovely to look at in every frame, but halfway through makes good to ruin us emotionally by having the two central lovers become less and less opposed to growing away from each other and then finally makes good on its threat. What an operatic tragedy of innocence faded and romance lost.

screenshot2012-06-29at5-40-08pm76. Park Row (1952/dir. Samuel Fuller/USA) – “God bless the fucking press” is basically what Fuller is beating into our chest with this picture and with the lowest budget a picture like this could have, he made a fiery tribute to a profession he loved and saw a lot of dignity in. Would that anybody else had the passion Fuller had about anything.

children_of_men_explosion75. Children of Men (2006/dir. Alfonso Cuaron/UK) – A movie that uses continuity and sound – and I’m not just talking about the two FAMOUS long take scenes, but Cuaron/Lubezki always had a love affair with those kinds of shots – to provide an atmosphere of paranoia and danger so that we the audience feel like it’s just as necessary to jump and dodge and run away from the bullets like Clive Owen does in this relentless chase through a world broken down.

b53l0cyqzv4os2pwrqdrcktprlp74. The Fall (2006/dir. Tarsem Singh/India and USA) – A story about people telling stories – two strangers in a collective manner – to cope with pain, to introduce each other, to teach each other lessons, but then it’s also a movie about HOW FUCKING BIG CAN WE MAKE A MOVIE and the result is pure eye candy that the pretty multi-framed narrative and emotional context of our little girl’s imagination just seem like a bonus to how good this movie looks.

6970568355_59705e5aa873. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957/dir. Chuck Jones/USA) – Ahh… just another bit of entertainment mixing in artforms I’m already in love with – animation… more specifically Looney Tunes… with opera. It gets classic status with me already for playing like that. But then there’s the fact that it’s probably THE first Looney Tune, y’all think of and that… that’s especially impressive. When I saw this as a child, I definitely did not think I was “watching history”.

oceanseleven-fountain72. Ocean’s Eleven (2001/dir. Steven Soderbergh/USA) – I can’t think of many cooler than this. In attitude, in sleekness, in pacing, in looks, the whole damn nine yards of this movie seems like Soderbergh told himself that if he was gonna make a bit of fizzy entertainment for the studios, it was gonna be some really “wish I was classy as these guys” type of stuff. Hell, George Clooney and Brad Pitt alone give the movie a hell of a gloss in moviestar power.

gwtw_3lg71. Gone with the Wind (1974/dir. Victor Fleming and George Cukor/USA) – Here’s a really unorthodox reason for me to love Gone with the Wind: I’m on Scarlett O’Hara’s side. Like 100 percent. I know she’s pretty cruel to everyone around her, but the world is leaving her in a damn impossible spot and she’s not going to take it lying down. Even if she’s stepping on others to get to it, I find something electric in Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of that “fuck this world” attitude and it fits right into a movie that’s based 100 percent in being A MOTION PICTURE EVENT like we never had before or since. It’s just part of the overall ambition. Also, it helps that like, y’know, she’s fucking over slave owners. So I’m completely fine with that.

maxresdefault170. Chinatown (1974/dir. Roman Polanski/USA)- No other movie depressingly pulls me into the reality of an investigation. From the procedure to the cruel truth of the selfishness of people, how depraved people can go when they can get away with anything, and a bluntly nihilistic ending – given extra bite by Polanski’s grief for his wife – that hits all too close to home feeling like you do more harm than good. It’s only more disturbing to think of Noah Cross as Polanski getting away with his crime after the fact.

dumbo69. Dumbo (1941/prod. Walt Disney/USA) – Y’all do not even understand. I don’t think there’s very many characters I personally find more sympathetic than the silent child Dumbo, eager to maintain an upbeat mood despite a world that demeans and humiliates him. That he accomplishes all his heart’s desire gives me more joy than you can imagine.

2977f740-7f02-0131-ef04-42aab172632468. Brokeback Mountain (2005/dir. Ang Lee/USA) – I think my love to Brokeback Mountain is completely unfair as it’s not even close to the first homosexual love story, but it’s muted about making it all about that sexual identity while still allowing it to form the foundation of our characters’ tragedy – and especially allowing it to front against the heavy masculine underscore of Western iconography. And what’s especially unfair to it more than anything, may be how it chose to be this defiant during maybe one of the most homophobic periods in American culture – though recent events suggest we haven’t come very far.

picture-467. Fargo (1996/dir. the Coen brothers/USA) – I don’t think the Coen brothers would nearly be as nihilistic as they are accused of being if they weren’t so painfully aware of how human their characters are in this blackest of tales – even the antagonist himself is just a hopeless wreck of a man full of uncomfortable pathos rather than a force of evil like Anton Chigurh. It’d be a lot more depressing of a film if Frances McDormand’s career-defining performance wasn’t such a likewise humane light of hope, right down to her pregnancy.

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west66. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968/dir. Sergio Leone/Italy) – Be real: there’s some really shockingly devilish goings-on in portraying all-American hero actor Henry Fonda as Leone’s single cruelest villain in his entire filmography, sadistic, grinning, savage like Jack Palance’s worst nightmare.

2061826260_c895317ef8_z65. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922/dir. F.W. Murnau/Germany) – Y’all do not understand. We almost lost this movie. Not without legitimate reaction, but still. We nearly lost the best adaptation of Dracula ever put to celluloid from the mind of one of the true pioneers of the medium establishing one of the most freakish characters in horror that just looking at a picture gotta make you shiver – unless you were introduced to him via SpongeBob. Like yo, this movie is precious to me.

the-lady-eve-stanwyck-fonda-05564. The Lady Eve (1941/dir. Preston Sturges/USA) – Barbara Stanwyck is a hot mess I could watch in anything over and over as she plays men like fiddles without any need for shame – although sometimes her conscience makes her re-evaluate herself. And it honestly feels like she’s having her most fun in this film, acing poker and poker cheats, card tricks, snakes, and flipping through her identities like pages in a book.

77d2d447a4829f3413721e4b1b83cdf945d77b7b9beea674ed6a68e7cd53df1663. The Shining (1980/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK and USA) – Little girls are the absolute creepiest. Jack Nicholson is creepy but little girls are so much creepier. Like, stay away from me forever, K? And Kubrick and Garrett Brown, that Steadicam work doesn’t help, it just makes things look so much more inhuman, so please fucking stop. Patience is not a virtue, it’s torture.

north-by-northwest-5262. North by Northwest (1959/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA) – Basically Cary Grant having a bad day. That’s enough to make it a movie I’ll always relish, no matter how familiar I am with the ways in which his days get worse and worse and worse through absolutely no fault of his own – but sheer luck that he survives as long as he does to save the day. I also always had a dream project to remake this with Kanye West playing himself in the Cary Grant role. Because fucking hilarious.

f-for-fake61. F for Fake (1973/dir. Orson Welles/France, Iran, and West Germany) – I simply don’t trust that and can’t trust that. Welles is too tricky to let me trust what he’s saying, especially when the subject is a slippery one based in lies. You call this a documentary? Where’s the veracity? How am I to buy it? It’s not even that Welles uses cinematic tricks under his disposal, he simply distracts us with his theatrical manner of recitation and it’s so enjoyable.

the-battle-of-algiers-1966-criterion-bluray-1080p-flac1-0-x264-mkv_snapshot_00-09-58_2011-09-12_19-59-1560. The Battle of Algiers (1966/dir. Gillo Pontecorvo/Algeria and Italy) – Sentimental value that is very obvious when you realize I’m Algerian. More than my national identity, I knew friends of my family who had appeared in the film – including, awkwardly, the man we see tortured at the beginning of the movie… who lived upstairs to me. Still, the real love is for its depiction of one of the most celebrated moments in Algerian history as nevertheless a brutal and tiringly endless depiction of all the damage and blood that had to be made to get to Algerian independence. And it’s not glorious about it in the slightest – nor do I believe the movie favors one side over the other – I have not seen a movie more harrowing in its documentary depiction of violence.

city-lights-259. City Lights (1931/dir. Charles Chaplin/USA)  – That final shot of Chaplin’s face wrecks me. In give or take a minute, all the complex emotions one would have to face in discovering both your love’s salvation and her distance from you is communicated by Chaplin’s earnest sincerity and uncertainty and with no immediate payoff to seeing the Tramp this way as we fade to black. Fuck you, Chaplin, you kicker of nuts.

chernabog-walt-disney-characters-20689309-1280-76858. Fantasia (1940/prod. Walt Disney/USA) – It’s a mix of two of my favorite things: animation and classical music. So just the ambition behind Disney’s eagerness to expand on a showcase of both mediums means that even despite Fantasia‘s occasional failings by accident, this was almost unfairly going to reach its spot as one of my favorite movies. I admire it too much, it’s the sort of experimentation I wish there was more of in mainstream animation.

not-a-place-youd-want-to-spend-the-night57. The Haunting (1963/dir. Robert Wise/UK) – It’s the noises. It’s the noises and how on edge they make me within minutes of the impossibly constructed Hill House, I’m with Nell feeling entirely helpless and crazy around all these sounds and watching the architecture from different angles. It’d almost feel avant-garde if it weren’t so dedicated to its genre.

stagecoach356. Stagecoach (1939/dir. John Ford/USA) – My first John Wayne film was the best one to start with, not only as his first movie, but my got damn, do you see the way the cameraman can’t wait to show us his face. That’s an impulsive zoom put on him as he cocks his rifle, like “shit’s going down now that Wayne’s in the party”. He was the green one in a cast full of legends and yet he’s the complete standout in every angle.

moolaade255. Moolaade (2004/dir. Ousmane Sembene/Senegal, France, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Morocco, and Tunisia) – So here’s a real paradox: This movie is one of the most… lively pictures I can remember seeing for the first time within the past decade. Its characters and setting seem so much more calm and engrossing in a day in the life manner than even movies specifically made that way – the bright colors of Mercenaire’s shop probably helps – and yet this is all in aid to the fact that this is an incredibly angry movie coming from a director who wants to condemn certain practices while recognizing the humanity behind people who make the mistake of following them or enforcing them. That I haven’t seen anymore films by Ousmane Sembene is a fact I kick myself in the ass for ALL THE TIME.

et254. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – So if there’s any movie that more obviously points out Spielberg’s inexhaustible need to tell you exactly how to feel in every single beat of his movies – down right manipulative sentimentality – it’s definitely E.T. that serves as the perfect launchpad for that criticism. Which is when I respond “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK WHAT YOU THINK, BITCH”. It is exactly why Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers, his ability to be so obvious to us while still coming up with just slightly fresher ways to earn the emotions he pulls out of us. And it’s the one that feels closest to his heart – not even Close Encounters touches the sort of childhood nostalgia this emulates as well as evoking.

the_texas_chainsaw_massacre_03153. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974/dir. Tobe Hooper/USA) – The starkness brings out the true horror of this movie. This is entirely narrative in content, but the presentation is akin to a documentary – Not a dramatic reproduction, but instead a candid look at an atrocity that is a complete fiction, but treated like an atrocity that could happen where you are. In addition, holy shit if that Sawyer family doesn’t seem frightening largely because the actors themselves seem confused in every form. The night scenes are the worst when we rely largely on the breathing of Marilyn Burns’ performance of nightmares to get our footing on her distance from Leatherface.

image_b9660bcf52. My Neighbor Totoro (1988/dir. Miyazaki Hayao/Japan) – Miyazaki Hayao just has a way of touching our innocent side without feeling in any way condescending or insincere and no movie better shows that than one completely stripped of his mature themes and solely focused on feeling as cute as it can be. I mean, just look at Totoro himself, he’s just a great big ball of fur using a leaf as a rain shield. And everything about the movie just feels relaxed and amiable, especially its gorgeous flora focus. I can’t resist it.

in-the-mood-for-love51. In the Mood for Love (2000/dir. Wong Kar-wai/Hong Kong) – A completely insufferable showcase of romantic tension and chemistry between its two leads with nary an allowance for that romance to find catharsis, I really can’t find myself nearly forgiving towards Wong Kar-wai for his control of how little we get out of it. That plus the way Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play roles in pretending to confront their respective spouses at times STILL pulls the rug out from under me and I’ve seen this movie no less than five times by now. Overall, one of the most bittersweet realisms in the building of a relationship that can’t be consummated.

stop-making-sense50. Stop Making Sense (1984/dir. Jonathan Demme/USA) – This movie is all David Byrne. Yes, there’s more than just Talking Heads behind him – I know for a fact I am a Talking Heads fan because of this movie – but also the phenomenal members of Funkadelic, but Byrne himself gets my body moving just watching him on screen and just remembering his energy and spasms randomly in real-life makes me start grooving at times for no reason. When I was showing this to my unimpressed friends a few years ago, one of them said during Byrne’s stumbling breakdown in the opening “Psycho Killer” number “That’s that Salim swag” and I will never let that backhanded compliment go.

andrei-tarkovsky-1966-andrey-rublyov-d1-720p-bluray-x264-kg5b16-27-125d49. Andrei Rublev (1966/dir. Andrei Tarkovsky/USSR) – This is a movie that uses the initial concept of being a biopic for its central painter as a synecdoche for an observation of life in a much harder time in the nation and how that affects the time of the movie’s release. And Tarkovsky has oh so many things to say about life. And it’s really not a shock that these surprises are what we should be paying attention to, given how a movie about painter like this is almost entirely in black and white, saving for its breathtaking finale montage finally letting us see how a mind who sees the world like Rublev did visualizes into his work.

dkov72poa6udhvpalqqx48. House (1977/dir. Obayashi Nobuhiko/Japan) – From the mind of a child comes a wacky and maniacal yet still altogether unnerving horror film that bases its existence on the many camera tricks its commercial-based director could whip up. It’s like if Michel Gondry and Sam Raimi had a baby together and I’m so glad it finally came to America with its completely unorthodox semi-bedtime fairy tale approach to horror itself.

inlandempire247. Inland Empire (2006/dir. David Lynch/France, Poland, and USA) – If David Lynch never makes a film again – the Twin Peaks revival not counting – I won’t mind, because not only is this the culmination of his unnerving talent of building frightening nightmare imagery to put yourself in the role of the lead character, it also happens to be in my opinion the best possible answer to Lynch’s Eraserhead. Whereas Eraserhead was an asphyxiating display of male gender roles crashing down, Inland Empire is so for female gender roles – with a throw of the fragility of cinema as a truth as well.

byrne-millers-crossing46. Miller’s Crossing (1990/dir. The Coen brothers/USA) – Because it emulates all my favorite elements of my favorite Dashiell Hammett stories – Red Harvest and The Glass Key for y’all literary noir fiends – with a surprising amount more personality in it thanks to the Coen’s ability to make fast talk quick to catch and as empty a personality as Tom Reagan feel like an avenue for our own thoughts of this gangster world he lives and collects in. Plus it’s a Coen brothers movie, so it means even at their deepest – which I don’t think this movie is – they’re still fun.

45. Grave of the Fireflies (1988/dir. Takahata Isao/Japan) – A devastating tale of guilt and suffering that only the coldest folk could possibly refuse to respond to. It’s unforgettable in the most uncomfortable way and that it’s animated doesn’t lessen the pain behind its content. You will not walk away unaffected.

barry-lyndon-landscape44. Barry Lyndon (1975/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK) – All the sophistication of a period piece – one of the most lovely shot films I’ve ever seen to prove how much of a photographer Kubrick was – without any of the prestige behind it to cover up how much of a bastard its protagonist happens to be. I find it to be the only film that seems to back up the accusation of Kubrick being a cold filmmaker and hell, it’s detached sense of humor about Lyndon as a person keeps me from minding that.

100143. The Third Man (1949/dir. Carol Reed/UK) – You want to tell me why a movie so morally nihilistic and lived in post-war miseries and suffering can feel so light and enjoyable as a thriller? I’d like to pretend it comes from Harry Lime’s smiling dismissive laissez-faire attitude, but he’s not even in most of the film. No, maybe it’s simply how well the movie lays the tracks for Joseph Cotten to play pulp detective, with a bounce given to his step by Anton Karras’ score. It should be a miserable walk through Vienna’s ghost, but instead it’s an exciting chase.

evil-dead-ii-mirror42. Evil Dead II (1987/dir. Sam Raimi/USA) – Bruce Campbell is a clown. An unsophisticated one, certainly no match for the truly physical abilities of a properly trained one, not even in the same zip code as Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, but he’s nevertheless a clown here in Evil Dead II – mugging and taking abuse and getting smacked around gamely to carry the film as much as he must without it feeling tiring. On the contrary, his energy is what really makes Sam Raimi’s “YO, OMGZ WE ARE MAKING A REAL MOVIE” energy in the blood and monsters actually fit well into that gap between horror and comedy.

miami-connection-full-movie-youtube-10341. Miami Connection (1987/prod. Y.K. Kim/Can Orlando, FL count as it’s own country?) – We get the best of two awful awful worlds of cinema – 80s indie action cinema as per pseudo-Cannon and optimistic message movie – and the result is a damn lousy movie on an objective scale. But how can I possibly not love it the more and more I see it? Its sincerity is disarming, Y.K. Kim’s attitude is poorly expressed but nevertheless appealing, and its cheer is infectious to the point that I could credit it with getting me out of an embarrassing funk more times than once. But hell, maybe I’m just trying to intellectually grapple with loving a ninja rock and roll picture? If only it were made in Miami, then I could claim that the Heat are the not the only great things out of this city.

screenshot2012-08-08at6-48-56pm40. Sherlock Jr. (1924/dir. Buster Keaton/USA) – There are certainly movies that are much more radical about playing with the artform in my eyes, but none of those as accessible as a hilarious comedy with eye-popping stunts by our great Stone Face. So, I get the best of both worlds, a movie that makes me think about how movies make me feel and a movie that still functions as just a piece of entertainment in its own right.

pic124758439. Duck Soup (1933/dir. Leo McCarey/USA) – Two types of humans in the world:
> The ones that would be unable to breathe while watching the Marx brothers do their stuff, suffocating because the gags are packed all over each other. The three primary brothers know their way around any scene so that they get from A to B, but not without a squiggly line making up their path. The barbs sharp and recognizable, the caricatures cartoon-y and ungrounded, they were one of a kind.
> Not actual people. If you don’t laugh at Duck Soup, you ain’t real.

jeandielman-1600x900-c-default38. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975/dir. Chantal Akerman/Belgium) – No film to me is more rewarding to my patience than this lengthy yet structured show of our titular character’s slow break away from her housewife/motherly deeds. It is the most natural manner of giving even the smallest gestures shock – a huge show of the wavelength editor, director, and actor must have put themselves in – and the result is of course some feminist readings, but I don’t even think that has to be applied to recognize Jeanne Dielman as a filmmaking marvel of control few filmmakers have wielded this potently.

Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee37. The Apu Trilogy (1955-59/dir. Satyajit Ray/India) – I’m not sure I’m down with pretending that Satyajit Ray’s bildungsroman trilogy represents Indian cinema in its totality, despite bringing it on the map. I’ve seen too little of the culture and it feels more indebted to Italian neorealism than anything. It is nevertheless a brilliant portrait of how a gifted artist can develop himself slowly from a being of curiosity to somebody fully aware of how the world runs and completely engaged with his responsibilities and his craft. I’m not just talking about Apu, I’m talking about Ray, keep in mind.

theconformistbdcap2_original36. The Conformist (1970/dir. Bernardo Bertolucci/Italy, France, and West Germany) – If there is a single movie I really want to see Tony Zhou analyze – even when I disagree with his reading of some formalist techniques, Every Frame a Painting is an intellectual joy accessible to anyone at all – it’s this. Because, by God, I don’t think I can name another movie that dedicates every shot to establishing the empty lack of identity of our lead and commentating on it both on its own and in the context of its Fascist settings. And all this while being gorgeous designs too that feel like fractured beauty. But that it all has something to say is what makes this movie irreplacable to me.

imgres35. Duck Amuck (1953/dir. Satyajit Ray/USA) – The most creative and avant-garde of any Looney Tunes cartoon ever made – it dissects the identity of a character and plays around with his recognition to the audience in an experimental and self-indulgent manner, but damned if the laughs never stop coming thanks to Daffy’s exasperated attitude to his abuse.

4700941_l234. The General (1926/dir. Buster Keaton/USA) – Buster Keaton has no fucking chill. Like zero. He goes a hundred on his suicide attempts, you could run a train on him, and it still wouldn’t kill him. Chaplin is good and fine as a performer and storyteller, but Keaton is just obsessed and dedicated to putting himself in harm’s way for the gag and thank Keaton the gag is so worth it.

 

barton20fink20fire33. Barton Fink (1991/dir. The Coen brothers/USA) – Ahhhhh and here’s the really deep Coens I was thinking of. Written as a way to get over writer’s block during Miller’s Crossing, we ended up blessed with something really cerebral about writing and existing and how they coincide with each other, while dedicating everything it can to being a hard-to-categorize picture and eventually a nightmarish Inferno. I still don’t think I figured everything about this movie out, but I have a hell of a time sifting through it.

The notorious Last Supper sequence in Luis Buñuel's VIRIDIANA.  33. Viridiana (1961/dir. Luis Bunuel/Spain) – Man if there’s a filmmaker I would have loved to hang out with, it would be Luis Bunuel. Between his completely wonky and twisted sense of humor for all things sacred and his ballsy enough attitude to go “Ay fuck the Catholic Church and the Franco regime” right when he was finally let back in the nation to work, he’s my sort of guy. I mean, the movie is twisted enough to put off anybody who isn’t on the same wavelength – even though it’s also really funny – but the directness is impossible to miss. And I just prefer this classy and subtle sort of “fuck you” rather than Korine and von Trier.

0132. The Triplets of Belleville (2003/dir. Sylvain Chomet/France) – How does Chomet come up with such a novel story zooming around between gangsters and doo-wop girls and bicycling, plenty of which doesn’t really intersect on a literal level, I have no clue. But it, alongside the overexaggerated shapes of characters like the rectangular gunmen and the muscular cyclists, pulls it off into one of the zaniest and surprisingly human animated films I’ve enjoyed. AND THEY ALSO HAVE A DOG NAMED BRUNO.

singin-in-the-rain-di31. Singin’ in the Rain (1952/dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly/USA) – Three words: “No. No. No.” Three more words: “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Unsynchronized, a hilarious moment in one of the happiest Hollywood films I’ve ever seen to combat Jean Hagen’s whole performance. The rest of it is no less memorable, just on the smile on Gene’s face as he welcomes the rain in a gorgeous musical number. Oh and three more words: “Make ‘Em Laugh”.

three-colours-blue30. The Trois Couleurs trilogy (1993-94/dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski/France, Poland, and Switzerland) – How on earth do I dare to summarize one of the towering monoliths ever commit to film? Because there are so many levels to dissect Trois Couleurs as a singular beast – its geopolitical attitudes towards French ideals, its cutting insight on humanity, its challenge of identity – as well as in each individual film, as genre experiments, as character studies, as simply blocks of color. You’d think Kieslowski knew his day was about to come, given how much these movies say. And that density is far from the only thing that brings me back to these eminently watchable films.

vertigo-novak_against_green_light29. Vertigo (1958/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA) – Creepers Gonna Creep: The Movie and it earns itself that claim by me by being uncomfortably dizzying in its usage of color to attract and then repulse, slowly developing its protagonist’s sickening obsessions with Kim Novak, and how its just eager to spiral around as a story and as a visual landscape for Scottie Ferguson’s mental downfall – his weaknesses, his inability to save a life, his easily manipulated state, his sexual leering, it’s all drowning him and it’s unpleasant yet the most visceral hour of Hitchcock’s.

theredshoes228. The Red Shoes (1948/dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger/USA) – The central ballet in The Red Shoes is an unrivaled triumph of mixing in the artifice of both theater and film into a brand-new expressionist artform – one that wonderously paints bold shapes and colors against blackened shadow and blinding lights to both tell the original fable in a short enough manner AND to tell us about the psychological stakes of our lead Vicky’s struggle between her love and her passion. Powell and Pressburger pulled out all the stops for that ballet in the middle of the film, and the rest of the film never catches those heights, though it’s still lovely.

the-beyond-0227. The Beyond (1981/dir. Lucio Fulci/Italy) – This is the prettiest that gory, gushy, horrifying, nihilistic, cruel horror – as would be of the genre of “Gates of Hell” could ever hope to be. Leave it to the Italians to get crafty about the way people suffer with their eyes shoved into nails and quicklime searing their skin and spiders eating their flesh. Horrifying stuff, but eye catching because that’s how they do.

03a_rochefort26. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967/dir. Jacques Demy/France) – Because of course I’m gonna dig a movie so cheerful and bright that the discovery of a character being a serial killer late into it is happily tossed aside because it doesn’t mesh with this movie’s ode to dreams and chasing down what every single person looks for to complete his or her life. Also Gene Kelly in a French musical is something I’m so happy we have, even if everything about him is dubbed.

05-some-like-it-hot-screen25. Some Like It Hot (1959/dir. Billy Wilder/USA) – I’ve added enough “objectionable” content in this list that I get to be SJW for a bit: I owe my introduction to the fluidity of the concept of gender not to tumblr. – I owe tumblr. NOTHING – but to Jack Lemmon horndogging over sharing a train car with a bunch of ladies forgetting he’s supposed to be a woman… and then forgetting his male identity entirely as he enjoys his newfound engagement status. There was no better way for me to at least open my mind to the concept. Also, got damn, that dress Marilyn wears when she’s with Tony-Curtis-pretending-to-be-Cary-Grant ought to be against the law, it’s too murderous.

cary-in-his-girl-friday-cary-grant-4267374-1024-76824. His Girl Friday (1940/dir. Howard Hawks/USA) – CaryGrantLeftBehindByTheZippingDialogueOfCharlesLedererShootingOutTheLipsOfAnIrreplaceableRosalindRussellGotDamnHawksKnewHowToGetIntoTheThickOfASceneAndGetOutBeforeTheAudienceEvenRealizesWhatKindOfTroubleTheCharactersAreIn.

briefencounter_2543045b23. Brief Encounter (1945/dir. David Lean/UK) – David Lean is not all epics and grandiose photography, he’s British psychology put under its finest microscope and Brief Encounter edges out amongst all his chamber dramas – indeed all his works – because I honestly feel the self-loathing of the characters for loving and refusing to allow themselves that. Every other tragic romance – from In the Mood for Love to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain to Carol – is simply taking its leaf off of Lean, Noel Coward, Celia Johnson, and Trevor Howard’s playbook.

suspiria_bannion22. Suspiria (1977/dir. Dario Argento/Italy) – Listen, nothing makes a lick of sense with this movie. Nada, zilch, even applying the principle that it’s from the point of view of children or that it’s a witch’s film will not erase that. Still, do I really want to know what’s going on with a horror movie or do I want to be put in a constant state of uncertainty? Most especially doesn’t Argento’s indulgent usage of color and the instantly memorable score by Goblin promise that we’ll be gleefully distracted enough to not care about the witch creeping up on us.

moulin-rouge-lovers221. Moulin Rouge(2001/dir. Baz Luhrmann/Australia and USA) – Just the flurry and bombastic amount of editing put into the opening scene as it whiplashes you quickly into watching Christian enter his unexpected love affair with Satine, it’s dizzying in a way that’ll you’ll either be with the ride or get off early. I am so with this overexaggerated display of romance and music, though. I find it all ravishing in every way.

vampyr-angel20. Vampyr (1932/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer/Germany and France) – A chilled layer of nightmare flooding every image, the dreaminess adding to the supernatural mood of the whole thing. It is way too damn short for me to be happy with how quickly Allen Grey wakes up from it, but too unnerving to want to go back too soon, despite its shadowplay being childish and jovial.

2001__a_space_odyssey_by_markascott-d6igj5619. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/dir. Stanley Kubrick/USA and UK) – If there’s a movie that taught me I was more a formalist and into movies for aesthetical quality than theme and storytelling, I have a feeling its this movie. Which is a fucking stupid movie to pick – 2001 is actually a pretty dense picture when you begin to unpack its content, making it like saying Great Expectations made you realize you love literature because of the words rather than what a book was saying. But I’m being honest when I say this about 2001 – I was probably 15 years old watching it for the first time in the middle of the night and not in the mood to think about what 2001 is “about”. I just admired the stateliness of it, how relaxed and patient it was – to the point of casual boredom, and most of all, I love the tactility of the effects by making them practical models. It felt like a world I lived-in almost immediately, simply because the artifice of it seemed so familiar.

citizenkane118. Citizen Kane (1941/dir. Orson Welles/USA) – What am I going to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said about it? Its masterful usage of depth of field, the mythic presentation of an character who feels like an American icon within 2 hours, the usage of fragmented structure to resemble something like a wholly unreliable bunch of perspectives on the memory of a man. I dunno, it’s just clear when you watch Kane that Welles already had film as storytelling in his hand and that this was the pinnacle of the artform in its release.

76b9593e0eaf8826950841343583a276209253fdb5d0d9749c9024797962674917. Jaws (1975/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – I have probably revisited this movie enough times to feel like a resident of Amity Island, a mainstay of recognizable celluloid communities that could give a good ol’ Twin Peaks a run for its money. Even the shark gets amiably by me, which is not bad for a movie that scared child me so much he went off to do his homework instead of watching the rest with his family. But maybe that’s because of how relentlessly thrilling its climactic showdown gets, no matter how many times I see it.

homme-a-la-camera-3-agr16. Man with a Movie Camera (1929/dir. Dziga Vertov/USSR) – I mean somebody was going to have to play around with the potentials of the medium without feeling obligated to serve any narrative – although one could claim that you could read your own personal narrative into anything; isn’t that essentially what I’m doing with this list? – and Vertov’s vision is absolutely limitless and a genuine marvel to enjoy.

playtime-restaurant15. Play Time (1967/dir. Jacques Tati/France) – Title is totally accurate. It’s sheer play for Jacques Tati as he constructs a world that finds itself easily predisposed to becoming one great giant physical gag with a brand new to collapse and break down everything – especially in the party climax – and it’s sheer play for the audience to be allowed to live in this sterile world at a time when it’s going right to the dogs.

raiders314. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – Nothing makes a superhumanly efficient hero like Indiana Jones feel more like a relatable everyman in the middle of a grand adventure than how he takes a punch. Because he’s grounded, this larger-than-life adventure seems a little bit more accessible without undermining the spectacle of this world-sprawling adventure.

seven_samurai_criterion_213. Seven Samurai (1954/dir. Kurosawa Akira/Japan) – I wish I had something to say about HOW it was made like I feel I do about many of these movies – like something profound about the cinematography or the acting, which are of course impressive – but sometimes it just pays to say a movie was so exciting and thrilling that it made 207 minutes simply fly away to nowhere. I can tell you that comes from a spotless cast, an exciting mode of filmmaking, but I don’t want to be here all day picking apart how perfect Seven Samurai is.

livingdeadbd6_original12. Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead (1968-78/dir. George Romero/USA) – The first is one of my most transformative periods in watching a film and that’s never ever going to change. It is a mainstay in my personal canon like nobody’s business as a movie that changed how I see horror films, cinematic violence, social commentary in film, and minimalism in filmmaking. But the sequel is undoubtedly quintessential zombie films, never yet surpassed as a portrayal of human relations degrading in the face of certain death outside of the walls. Together, they are among the few zombie movies to apply intelligence to the doomed scenario.

anniehall-0311. Annie Hall (1977/dir. Woody Allen/USA) – The maturity behind Allen’s stream-of-consciousness musings on relationships is not at all a hard pill to swallow, even as brutal truths that they are. Being a really funny movie gives it personality to make it that easy. Being such a free-for-all presentations of veritable memories on romance identified by anyone makes it impressive.

700full-band-of-outsiders-screenshot10. Band of Outsiders (1964/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France) – Fizzy as fuck proof that intellectualism can actually be a hell of a lot of fun when you’ve got the right amount of cool, which comes from the people you’re surrounded by. And the three people who front Band of Outsiders are the kinda kids I’d love to be around – but be ashamed to be – so that’s real furniture. Granted, I feel fizzy intellectual cool could apply to a lot of Godard.

tokyostory_49. Tokyo Story (1953/dir. Ozu Yasujiro/Japan) – OK, cool, a painfully heartbreaking reminder of how hard it is for me to talk to my relatives, finding absolutely nothing in common with them. I totally asked for it, Ozu, I had it coming. At least, it’s also constructed perfectly to slowly bring up this conflict. Not a single cut is misplaced, it’s patient ordered filmmaking at its most powerful to accentuate the difference between its characters in silence.

meshes_of_the_afternoon_maya_deren_19438. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/dir. Maya Deren/USA) – A true work of puzzle cinema, telling so much through so little action conveyed in so little time. Is it solely a nightmare eliciting the fears of eternal confusion and condemnation in the aftermath of death or merely a purgatorial response to the female’s seat in society? Whatever we read from it, the resulting action remains the same… a grievous regret by the end of our journey. Well, if you can give me a better example of short-form abstract storytelling without being completely formless and avant-garde, I’ll eat my shoe. This movie predates David Lynch’s work and puts him in his place and communicates it’s progression so clearly despite the lack of dialogue that its visual language is an important blueprint for any filmmaker who wants their film to mean even half of something. And am I the only person who thinks the Japanese score is funky?

vlcsnap-2012-07-03-00h46m44s977. Persona (1966/dir. Ingmar Bergman/Sweden) – Stream of consciousness work at its most potent. The style never diverges from the fact that there is a story, instead the style strengthens the story and the more personal artistic choices give the film a more subconscious aura. Even if you can’t admire the movie as a whole, you must admit to its power as a series of episodic experimental sequences – such as the provocative opening and the mimicry between Andersson and Ullman in the third act that deconstructs the idea of identity completely.

ek0ycp7iwd6tbf4s5de7zcqa8zm6. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927/dir. F.W. Murnau/USA)– I don’t think a single film is more indisposable to us than Sunrise. Maybe it’s the silent film bias in me, because of course I’m going to adore it for that, but that’d be dismissing how wonderful it is a portrait of the difference between sleepy rural town and bustling sparkling metropolis, the way each setting has a liveliness either in the town’s quiet humanity or the city’s frenzied bombast. It would also be dismissing how timeless and recognizable a love story it is, between lovers and between lives.

8-5_feature_current_video_still5. 8 1/2 (1963/dir. Federico Fellini/Italy) – Plenty of films capture the concept of dreams as per the filmmaker’s unique translation, but none of them hit me as much as Fellini’s own psychological surrealist touches towards director’s block. Probably because it’s a lot of dirty laundry that ends up reeking of Fellini’s personality, but freshly scented by the cool Marcello Mastroianni’s surrogate performance.

rules114. The Rules of the Game (1939/dir. Jean Renoir/France) – I usually don’t get comedies of manners. I really rarely do. I have to watch them more often than read them. But when a filmmaker as smart as Renoir takes the approach of utilizing long takes to provide a more physical atmosphere to Le Colinaire – predating Cuaron and Spielberg and even Welles – I don’t have any trouble at all feeling amongst the bourgeois folk and laughing with them, even with the screen’s divide also allowing I finally get the joke and laugh at them.

passion-of-joan-of-arc-213. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer/France) – Maria Falconetti
suffered unfairly under Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intensely claustrophobic lens but the result is the greatest performance ever put to celluloid and by God are we lucky to have it, maintaining an unforgettably ephemeral gaze stuck in the sweet spot between ecstasy and fear in religion. She is the greatest. God could tell me otherwise and still be wrong.

casablanca_3_bogart2. Casablanca (1942/dir. Michael Curtiz/USA) – Everybody goes to Rick’s and at Rick’s is the story of a tired cynic turned romantic right when the chips are down, so how am I not going to hope my signature looks like Rick’s and I see his face in the mirror every morning. It’s the man I feel like turning into the man I want to become (this is not the only Bogie performance I identify with, though I suppose I’m not nearly self-deprecating enough to put In a Lonely Place on this list). And that’s not even talking about how mechanically flawless the movie is as storytelling, since it’s one of the few times being a Hollywood studio picture actually didn’t throw a wrench in things, but made the small-scale just pack a lot more mythic wartime punch to it. Doesn’t that add tangible triumph to the personal?

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1. Blade Runner (1982/dir. Ridley Scott/USA) – The fact of when and how we saw certain movies almost certainly affects how feel about them, but that’s a can of worms with Blade Runner I won’t dare open with. No, as its own aesthetic without the emotional baggage I came to it with, it still just speaks to me to the point that I have a love for all its versions – even if the Final Cut is the obvious superior. I just really love looking at. I love the vision, I love the futurism. I love the little noir tropes mixed with the little sci fi tropes and I love the rain glistening in the neon lights, like a visual landscape to the Vangelis score. A mix of familiar elements I see from my life in that movie and foreign fantastical pieces I extract solely out of the imagination of Scott, Dick, Paull, and company lead me to meditate with my existential realm and in the end, I always have to admit: my best dreams are in this world that has been created in Blade Runner.

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And as a bit of a post-script to that… Blade Runner‘s release date in America happens to be my very birthday – June 25th. Today, 34 years to Blade Runner, 24 to me.

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Memento Mori

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If you’ll excuse this post, it’s not going to be very much related to film. In fact, I meant to have this done by the time of Hamilton‘s Tony Winning night – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, largely informed by Ron Chernow’s biography. Since I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton continuously for the past five months, there was a particular element of its story that resonates with me stronger than anything else. And I felt it necessary to at least write it down, even if I didn’t immediately intend to put this out, much less make it a Motorbreath post, given how I will be imbuing a bit of my own psychology and personal life into it. Hell, given that I have unfortunately not yet seen the actual production myself, I won’t even be talking about the musical so much as the album as a piece of radio play or concept album.

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In addition to Hamilton, I will also be throwing in another piece of pop culture, albeit not as phenomena effecting as Hamilton under my eye. Reading Scott McCloud’s recent graphic novel The Sculptor (my first narrative work by McCloud after reading both of his most popular works – literally THE books on comics) in the past month will do that, especially when it talks about the same sort of concept in my head that Hamilton brings out of me and circles around.

If you’re not in the mood to read something not film related, you are free to parse through the reviews.

You see, Hamilton is a very dense tale, scripted by Miranda. There’s a lot of inspiration in it, there’s a lot of commentary on diversity, on initiative, on relative intelligence, on what makes a belief so attractive, and so on. It’s not my favorite Broadway musical even running now – not when The Book of Mormon and Fun Home are still open – but it’s one I take a lot of obsessive to in dissecting its lyrics and musical structure. And I don’t mean to dismiss all of the things the play truly is about, because it’s very rewarding to dig into them. In any case, of all the things I discover in Hamilton, not one of them takes more precedence to being why I replay the album over and over than this:

Hamilton – in my eyes – is about two men, not just one, who live in perpetual states of memento mori. The Sculptor is not even slightly ambiguous about it: the very premise of the graphic novel is a man deciding what to do with his artistic powers while knowing he’ll die within the next year. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical by Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. respectively, are two men absolutely obsessed by how close death is to them – the play opens with regards to the tragedies in Hamilton’s early life, including the death of his mother and suicide of his cousin. Burr himself suffered through untimely death of his entire family (“When they died, they left no instructions/just a legacy to protect”… “If there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died”). David Smith, the titular sculptor, has almost nobody in his life – his mother, father, and sister all dying before his 26 and him being a bit too confrontational to make friends, save for his childhood friend Ollie. That very confrontational attitude is what ostracized him from the art community. Death literally approached him with his contract of unlimited artistic ability for an accelerated death in the form of his own dead uncle.

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How all three characters approach that certainty of death in the face of all the things they want must do is where the works and characters truly went scrambling in different corners of my brain.

I’ll get back to that however, for now, why does that affect me?

Back in 2008, I circled around a group of, shall we say, ‘peers’ rather than ‘friends’. The things we did together usually revolved around running around starting fights, hoodlum work, and basically spending nights getting into trouble that would affect my sleep and my attitude during the day. I had a lot of reasons: I was angry, I felt life was unfair, I didn’t like being just another anonymous face in life, work stressed me out, the future scared me, we could be here all day. And the only escape I found was taking it out on anyone whenever I could. And three of these folk, as I found out later, took my drive to jump into near-suicide so seriously that they did what any concerned individuals would do…

… They put out a pool on how and when I’d die.

I like to joke about how I’m more offended I was not allowed to buy into the pool than I am at the pool existing. In any case, the latest a bet was made was that I’d die before I turned 25.

Fast forward to today – I’ve almost immediately rushed to New York City (which also happens to be the setting of Hamilton and The Sculptor) on account of learning a friend of mine has passed and dealing with the shitshow surrounding her passing. It’s stressful, it’s complicated, it’s distracting enough to keep my mind off of my own troubles back in Miami, but it’s overwhelming enough that I have to spend every free second I have trying to put myself into something artistic or enjoying the city to unwind before I go back into the shit. It’s like five different caseloads at once. Excuse me if this post is my venting, but I’m going to at least wrap it around the main concept.

In the middle of all this, I’m thinking back to many times I’d sit and think about how many people I use to know and try to help and how many times I’d find out that they’re underground now and it starts with your mind when you could fill a good amount of a cemetery with your memories. It starts to make you feel like you’re nothing but damage, a living omen. It sucks.

And it reminds me that maybe eventually my day will be coming and my thoughts turn to the quickening perception of time speeding my death soon. And I’m remembering that pool one more time.

I am turning 24 within the next few days and it’s getting harder and harder for me not to be scared of how close that edge feels. Sure, I’ve taken things easy, but I haven’t really gotten myself to a point where being a modern-day goon feels out of the question. And it means I don’t feel out of harm’s way.

Cutting away from all that to return back to The Sculptor and Hamilton – Hamilton is a character who KNOWS he’s gonna die, he feels it in his bones, and he relishes it. He’s so transparent that within minutes of meeting him, George Washington (portrayed by Christopher Jackson) calls him out on having a “head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr.” Something we know to be true as Hamilton digs into “My Shot” with the acknowledgement “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”, a verse that sneaks in constantly including “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as he euphorically expresses his excitement at being on the battlefield and the possibility of finally getting the violent death “on the battlefield in glory” (from “Right Hand Man”) until he remembers “my Eliza’s expecting me/not only that, my Eliza’s expecting”, snapping him out of it as he recognizes that now he has started something he is obliged to finish. This is also something Washington calls Hamilton out on earlier in “Right Hand Man” – the music itself abruptly stopping to push in the line “Dying is easy young, man. Living is harder.”

He has to die later, if he can help it. His wife Eliza (portrayed by Phillipa Soo) continuously reminds him to “Stay Alive” in the number of the same name, “That Would Be Enough” (established in meta mode as “the first chapter where you decide to stay” – Hamilton realizes his imminent family demands he eschew his death wish), and “Non-Stop”, adding in that he needs to take a moment to recognize that he has something to appreciate in his life “Look at where we are, look at where we started, the fact that you’re alive is a miracle”. Hamilton fails to recognize this, distracted from Eliza by his self-imposed workload, his eventual adultery, and his kinship with Angelica Schuyler.

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This doesn’t stop Death from remaining on his mind, once again transparently enough that his peers note that he writes “like you’re running out of time” in “Non-Stop” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” and it still hangs around him like an atmosphere as his best friend John Laurens and son Phillip (both portrayed by Anthony Ramos to drive this home) both meet untimely deaths, both of them at the end of a gun, Phillip himself in the middle of a dispute that Hamilton feels he is responsible for (and which eventually mirrors Hamilton’s own death at the hands of an enraged Burr, feeling antagonized by Hamilton). It’s the sort of thing that resonates with the sort of life I lived, people getting hurt or killed around me that didn’t need to and feeling like I was the one who set off these dominoes, even while Washington tells Hamilton “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Such an acknowledgement of Death as a surrounding presence reminds me of a passage from David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders, Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It that captures my own thoughts when it occurs:

John sat down in the cornfield and tried to think of a dozen ways to talk himself out of it. The same rationalization—the exact same—that was running through the heads of dozens and dozens of people inside those army barriers up ahead. The families of those firemen, and the friends and coworkers of that reporter, and all of the other people who had died in an instant when everything went to shit: death was something that happened to other people. Strangers. Extras in the background. We don’t die. They die.

Smith in The Sculptor simply doesn’t recognize the gravity of his imminent fate until it’s too late. It’s all white noise for him, he’s surrounded by dead memories, he had nothing to look forward to, and nothing he has been proud of. He outright tells Death to its face, that it’s not a thing he fears approaching. It is only once he makes this contract that things start to fall in place for his life and it’s only when he’s getting closer to the end of his life that he recognizes his life has literally just began. But this is not the only thing hanging The Sculptor up about death, nor even Hamilton. See David Smith and Alexander Hamilton are more than just a pair of dead men walking…

“God help and forgive me/I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” Hamilton tells Burr in “The Room Where It Happens” and this is more or less the motivation behind David Smith, his frustration at not being recognized for his art due to feeling hindered and gagged out by the people he works with, hence by the time we meet him he is alone in every sense of the word. He has tossed away every potential relationship he could have gained and lost the rest as they were out of his hands. His artwork is more than just his way to deal with his memories and his pain – one particular sculpture based on a happy hopeful memory of his disabled sister; others I can’t really go into without spoiling the hell out of the story  – but it’s not enough for him to have that venting. When Hamilton mentions writing his “testament to his pain” – his early life – in the numbers “Alexander Hamilton” and “Hurricane”, it was literally to get him somewhere – to get him noted by his community and sent to America to move up. Smith’s art is meant to establish a legacy for himself to be remembered. This is further brought as an objective by the deliberate anonymity McCloud selects in naming the character – Smith shares his name with a real-life American abstract sculptor, a waitress’ cousin, and a police detective investigating him.

Hamilton runs towards the makings of his legacy (and obviously succeeds), Smith can only hope that he makes it before his numbered days run out. Burr, to return to him, is outright arrested by his own knowledge of death, covering it by stating that he’s “willing to wait for it”, until he recognizes in the number “The Room Where It Happens” that such indecision won’t cut it, starting a relentless attempt to drag Hamilton down in order to reach his spot (I’m sure I’m far from the first to note the Hamilton-Burr relationship incredibly similar to Mozart-Salieri, an envious recognition of talent in the form of a man found to be unsophisticated).

Anyway, like I said, Hamilton does what he set to do, even if he doesn’t feel it in the moment of his death in “The World Was Wide Enough”. He died with a nation built behind him, with so many things he created, standing by his words even at the cost of his own life. He may not have been satisfied, but he did what he came to do and more… “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is testament to that.

It is the weirdest most ridiculous feeling to be absolutely smothered by feeling like I’m going to die soon, but it can’t be something I’m not thinking of when I feel so deep in it and don’t know if I can or want to get out of it. In addition to this, my feeling like I haven’t done anything I’ve truly felt I was brought here to do – nor if I truly recognized my purpose – but I’ve run out of time to figure it out is absolutely arresting.

The Sculptor, in any case, responds to the concept of legacy in a much more shocking (albeit somewhat muddled) fashion and it involves most of its final chapter involving developments that seem frankly cruel on McCloud’s part and close to nihilism. I’ll avoid spoiling this. But, it begins with David literally gloating about the security of his legacy to Death’s face and suddenly dealing with the cards life hands right in that moment. And he simply strives to make every second count to stamping his place in history as well as the people he loved in his final days until it’s suddenly cut short…

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And its literally penultimate moment: The Sculptor suggests that nothing is forever. Nobody is going to remember anybody or anything until the end of time. Everything is consigned to oblivion.

And that’s absolutely fine – it doesn’t make it any less futile to try to make a difference in the world and be remembered. But you shouldn’t take it as a failure as long as you left your mark on the people around you. And of course the final note of The Sculptor  ends up becoming suggesting that David will definitely be on everybody’s mind for a long time – followed by a jaw-dropping text afterword by McCloud that suddenly gave away the graphic novel and David’s identity as an extension of McCloud’s own heartbreak. In a graphic novel that had many moments that already nearly wrecked me because I saw so much of myself in it, that was the moment that got closest to breaking me.

In any case, Hamilton and The Sculptor had been on my mind since I first experienced them and they simply mixed into the whirlwind with my mind thinking back on how my life has gone to this point and if I think I’ll prove the same people who swore I was going to die young wrong and if I don’t, if I can be ok with how things went.

I think Hamilton and The Sculptor both help me put things in perspective enough that I could answer “yes” to both questions. Besides I promised someone who meant a lot to me that I’d at least make it to 30. But recognizing how Hamilton and The Sculptor comment on being stuck in memento mori helps me square it up in myself and that’s why both works matter as much as they do to me.

Raise a glass. Here’s to making it past 25 and beyond.

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I Don’t Need Those Eggs

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I like to think I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 Cannes Prix du Jury winner The Lobster at probably the most perfect time in my life to have seen it. Having spent the latter half of 2015 vehemently avoiding pirating the leaked copies from its release in its native Ireland (and I am sincerely disappointed in how many people I personally know who did so), I didn’t get to see the film until the Miami International Film Festival in March of 2016 – where I could only review it in capsule form at the time until its nationwide release, but that seemed way too insufficient for a movie like this.

By that point, I was literally reeling over a breakup that I probably gave more energy to worrying about than I should have. So I was in somewhat a state of mind where I was “feeling” single which isn’t usually something I feel so much as I just recognize myself as a single human being (even… hell, especially when I am in a relationship with someone). So I was in one of those funks where the empty space next to me was obviously attracting attention to itself and it was kind of nearly a herculean effort to get myself into the theater to watch Lanthimos’ film.

It was probably the perfect movie for me with that state of mind.

By the end of the film, I walked out thinking “whelp, definitely don’t need one of those”. I’d say the thought started entering my mind well before its unnervingly antagonistic ending, maybe even as early as its first scene.

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But I guess I’m getting ahead of what about The Lobster made me think this way. Lanthimos and Efthymis Fillipou’s story simply begins by dropping us into a world that superficially resembles ours but the things they’re talking about are absurdly irrational. Our man David (Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, is being checked into a resort where he is expected to find a mate within 45 days. If he is unable to find a match, the resort offers him a refund will facilitate his semi-consensual transformation into an animal (David’s choice is the titular lobster and he gives a hell of a lot of thought behind his decision). This concept is way too silly to take seriously and we’d need a moment to arrange ourselves to this scenario if it weren’t for how coldly deadpan David and the employees of the resort, including the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) discuss the terms of his stay. And plus, the dog David brings with him for the stay is immediately identified as his brother, having been an unlucky patron.

And so the movie goes off being painstakingly literal about the commentary it has towards not only the construct of relationships and how the pressures of society to get people paired together even if it means effectively stifling out any personal identity or being based on the most arbitrary and inconsequential traits (to drive both home, David is the only named character in the film and everyone else is identified by traits. We even get the name of Ben Whishaw’s character at one point, but David remarks he already forgot it at one point and so have I truth be told after seeing the movie twice) and most desperately on crafting a fraudulent persona. “A relationship cannot be based on a lie” one character utters (ironically one of the cruelest in the film), but it’s not hard to imagine most of the relationships we do witness in this film are based on a shroud in one way or another. The performance style of literally every character feels so painstakingly restrained and cold – even against the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) – all the nuance and cadence behind each line practically cut off, all facial expression negated, every character has a mask to them so that all we do recognize is their physical attributes. David and his eventual love interest, the Near-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the film) get some room for emotive performance, but even they have to succumb to a fussy lack of personality. These people were definitely already lying to earn their existence, let alone a mate.

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The direct result is a uniformity of these characters and an alienatingly suffocated atmosphere aided by the costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop’s choice of indistinguishable suits and dresses for the members of the resort and even the raincoats for the rebellious Loners, who prowl outside of the resort and are hunted by its tenants. Thimios Bakatakis makes things even more dreary and cold by visually sapping away color from what little was in Blenkinsop’s costumes (the dresses ideally, but they were all the same already to the point of being outright boring and far from stimulating) and making technically beautiful shots of the Irish coastline just feel depressing and empty. Bakatakis does this without any cost of the sharpness or focus on the shots, he just removes all the lively color within the composition and we have ourself a hell of an alienating movie simply by its choice of visuals.

The indirect result is how this forced matchmaking affects the actual world of the film at large. Nobody feels like a person as a result, individuality is probably punished, and even the Leader of the Loners (my screen crush Lea Seydoux once again) herself, for all her proclamations of the rules of the group, is no less an element of this environment in her harsh attitudes and her hypocritical (and cruel) practices. Even trying to go against the social norm doesn’t prevent you from being tyrannical about your ideals and, even when Farrell and Weisz’s characters meet and eventually become romantically involved, nothing ever stops feeling unsafe. Love doesn’t suddenly fix things or kill the demon. In fact, it brings more complications leading to an especially shocking and cruel third act development, but I can’t give that away. All I can say is what you have to ask by the end of the film is how far has David, possibly close enough to being aware of this social absurdity though his actions constantly imply he either isn’t or doesn’t care, come to at least being his own person? And is the spot he now in worth it? That’s as far as I can say and the movie aggressively shoves these questions in your face before it wraps just as abruptly as it opened. The Lobster is a thoroughly antagonistic and cold movie to the point of affronting the viewer for being willing to enter its world expecting comedy.

Of course, here’s the crazy thing about The Lobster – it is a comedy. A vicious and gleefully cruel movie it is, but also a hilarious one and certainly a more digestible one than Lanthimos’ 2009 Un Certain Regard winning breakout grotesquerie Dogtooth. It’s very alluring with its undoubtedly beautiful aesthetic – even if its inhuman – but also in its sense of humor about all of it (when a movie wastes no time introducing you to its absurd concept, it has to be such a comedy), it’s just not comforting by any means. It’s a diversion, John C. Reilly’s obnoxious lisp, the silly slap fight between Whishaw and Reilly, the tense yet farcical makeout session Weisz and Farrell have in front of Seydoux’s family, all of it doesn’t save you from how harsh the movie is. Hell, one of the most hardest bits is to decide how to react about a shocking and violent moment of animal cruelty and how a character deals with it. This is a very very black film that also happens to be very watchable. You can giggle.

And so we are back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this review, where I had just dropped out of a relationship, was in the insane post-breakup malaise and The Lobster proved to be the movie that made me walk out going “Nope. Nope nope nope. I really don’t need those eggs, sorry Woody.” A movie that makes relationships so unpalatable in what they demand and society so offensive as to feel like a goddamn horror movie. It’s kind of miraculous with how close the real world resembles The Lobster‘s world except in the obvious that we’re not already there.

Maybe when God Emperor Trump comes to power.

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Eye of the Panda

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Do you know who doesn’t get the amount of love that he deserves? James Hong. He’s just completely unthanked for being maybe the most recognizable Chinese-American character actor since the 50s. Even when he appeared in the first two Kung Fu Panda films as Mr. Ping, the adoptive goose father of our goofy Dragon Warrior panda hero Po (Jack Black), his high voice gave a hefty amount of living personality to a character who is essentially just a backdrop to Po’s arc rather than an actual element of it, yet he was one of the more lively performances of the two. Bit roles like this really feel like we take his effortless familiarity for granted and I can’t think of a single movie that uses him to his potential save for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.

At least until Kung Fu Panda 3 came along and, picking up right where Kung Fu Panda 2 left off with the sudden revelation that Po’s father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) is still alive. The movie quickly brings Li to the proximity of Po and almost immediately do the two of them recognize each other as obvious father-and-son. And suddenly this drives a wedge into Ping’s attitude and causes him to start a conflict in his own head with Li for suddenly showing up on their doorstep to dilute the relationship Ping has with Po. It, truth be told, a subplot that undoes the sort of resolution they already had in Kung Fu Panda 2 when Po declared himself Ping’s son (in fact, a lot of KFP3 resteps in the plot beats of the previous two – thematically, it is once against concerned with Po’s self-identity, this time faced with the idea of how pandas act when he returns to the secret valley where the surviving members of his race live – but without really feeling like a rehash. It just feels like another obstacle to Po’s personal arc than the storytelling itself), but it gives Hong more of an emotional anchor to act through and it results in my favorite voice performance of the movie. It is earnest family drama where everybody means the best, but somebody’s gonna get hurt.

Anyway, that was meant to be a segueway to the review proper, but seems like between Po and Li’s reunion and Po’s sudden discovery of a whole culture of pandas he is expected to be a part of without much early footing in, I seem to have covered the plot summary well enough. The only thing truly missing is the threat of Kai (J.K. Simmons), a chi-stealing yak warrior who swears to vanquish the late Master Oogway’s (Randall Duk Kim) memory from the Kung Fu world. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (Davis Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – hold Kai off to the best of their ability. It’s obviously not going to be good enough so that screenwriters Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Burger can lead us to yet another kung fu showdown between Po where he uses what he learned – and this time around they really hamfist the pseudo-Chinese philosophies (Slavoj Žižek was right to fear the franchise… for the first time in his life he was right), but still overall satisfying character arcs for the movie to run itself through. Even if it kind of sticks around well beyond its welcome by the third act.

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Still the point is that the Kung Fu Panda films overall have shown an impressive ability to continue a story from where they left off with only slight retread on the previous storylines. It’s hugely refreshing to get a film series that aware of its characters’ personal journey (it’s almost like the Before series, but I should probably shut my mouth before I dare continue to compare an animated kung fu animals film to a minimalist dialogue-driven character trilogy), even in spite of its flaws to make that journey pace out organically. I mean, again, that third act discussion between Oogway and Po (not a spoiler to note Oogway’s return, by the way… he is literally the first character we see) lasts longer than I’d like and works with that hokey faux-Buddhism, but it still means Aibel & Burger want to put Po in a comfortable position in case we get another movie to watch him grow, as doubtful as its existence may be (2016 has proven to be a financially disappointing year even for box office winners like this film).

That storytelling is aided by a cast that now knows how to play to its strengths. I’ve already pointed out Hong being my favorite of the bunch, taking care to make this movie now about his own side of Po’s struggles and Black himself has given Po a hell of a lot more confidence without losing his naive childishness that made the character so snug for the actor in the first place. He doesn’t share any fantastic back-and-forth with Jolie anymore like the last KFP film – in fact Tigress seems really downgraded this time around – but the rest of the Furious Five get their own moments to live like characters, even while the script is still juggling them. Oh the new cast, Simmons as Kai is the best of the bunch with his naturally burly voice letting him toe the line between weighty (but not threatening) villain and parody, I had more fun with Kate Hudson’s voice as a ribbon-dancing panda Mei Mei than I’d expect from any non-Almost Famous Kate Hudson performance, and Cranston is… he’s fine, I really don’t have words for his performance except that he did his job.

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In any case, absolutely none of this – even Hong – is touching on the best part of Kung Fu Panda 3 and what made it such a joy to watch which is that it is fucking GORGEOUS. It’s easily the best looking picture Dreamworks Animation has ever put out: after teasing a versatility with the medium in assorted scenes of the first two films, suddenly DWA went all out in trying to find a good-looking median between Western animation styles – especially cel-shaded work (I feel like so many shots could pass for that 3D as 2D style that Disney’s 2.0 Renaissance launchpad Tangled wonderfully embodied in 2010) – and Chinese art and he result is a dazzling series of graphics that kept distracting me from the admittedly more lumpier scenes. It doesn’t have the artificiality of color-coded scenes like Kung Fu Panda 2 did in its crimson and gray, Kung Fu Panda 3 is more relaxed and golden and blue and green even when the last of those colors means the arrival of Kai and certain peril. It’s more aware of how light moves in air and eager to show off those rays and… god, I don’t have words, it’s just so pretty. I wish I had seen it in 3D is how badly I feel about watching this movie. It’s a movie that happily visually embodies the idea of serenity.

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It has all the kinds of weaknesses of a child’s movie as you might expect – dopey humor, telling its story as a series of scenes rather than a smooth pace (again… that third act), and others – so it’s not nearly a perfect film, but it’s the strongest thing to have come from an animation company I’m not usually fond of and if they can keep their work at this level, I may finally begin to ease up on them. In any case, I can’t think of anybody passing on the chance to see this movie because “it’s a kid’s film” and that not turning into such a godawful mistake. Kung Fu Panda 3‘s too awesome, adorable, and unforgettable.

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The United States of X

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In the 14 years since the big-time success of Spider-Man opened up the superhero genre to completely overpower the American industry as we know it, I don’t think we’ve ever received a single superhero film as intelligent or human as X2: X-Men United. Yes, we have movies that lean towards one or the other – The Incredibles, Raimi’s Spider-Man films – but none of them felt as in the now and aware of the cultural and social climate as Bryan Singer’s second forte with the X-Men – a group of persecuted mutants under the leadership of wheelchair telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) dedicated to defending humanity as a whole. It is perhaps the first time in the genre that a superhero movie realized it could dedicate itself to substance rather than style and spectacle, with co-writers Michael Doughety (later directing two of my favorite holiday-themed horror movies), Dan Harris, Zak Penn, and (Solid Snake himself) David Hayter intertwining psychological exploration, message picture, and action thriller – with a fugitive subplot – all in one.

Which is not to say that X2 doesn’t have spectacle at its own helm as well. On the contrary, the film opens up with an arrestingly ambitious chase setpiece as a teleporting mutant we later will identify as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming in a physically huddled performance that makes me regret his later absence) infiltrates the White House and, despite the pursuit of the Secret Service, effortlessly makes his way to holding the President at his own desk, ready to assassinate him before being thwarted by a lucky bullet. This scene alone would probably make its own fantastic short film, being the best work in Singer’s career. Singer and editor/composer John Ottman – the fact that Ottman fills both roles explains so much about his rhythmic feel for action scenes – having a roving patience for the long takes of cinematographer’s camera movement laying out a physical maze for Cumming or his stuntman to play around in, while the effects keep in mind the spacing so that we’re both confused when Wagner disappears and shocked in realization when he reappears. That alongside the painful looking but so worth it makeup design on Cumming’s face and the special effects team working right there in tandem with the music, editing, and camera movement without taking the spotlight from any of them. It’s basically one brilliant concert overture and while the movie never matches that scene again… how the fuck was it going to?

Needless to say, this event is enough to light a fire under the President’s ass to force him to do something about the very out-in-the-open School for Gifted Youngsters that Xavier runs, giving Special Defense Operations director William Stryker (Brian Cox) an inch to question their potential involvement in the attempt on his life, which Stryker takes as a mile to arrange a full-on Black Ops assault on the school imprisoning nearly every single mutant within it. Recognizable face of the franchise Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), left in charge as the one adult in the school at the time, outsider power leech Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), and Pyro John Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford) are among the few that make it out of the assault, but not before making it clear that Logan and Stryker have some history.

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Meanwhile, Xavier himself is investigating into the assassination on his own terms, sending psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry) to intercept Wagner, as well as juggling that matter with his attempt to console Logan’s dismay at finding a dead-end in his attempt to unlock his old memories. The two matters probably leave Xavier distracted enough to have him and Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) kidnapped by Stryker during one of his regular prison visits of his old-friend-turned-bitter-rival master of magnetism Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellan).

I know that seems like a convoluted plot already (and that can almost be expected with so many cooks in the script kitchen), but the movie effortlessly just uses these events as set-ups to the real climactic payoff within the second half. And so, with all those pieces put in place within the first hour, the rest goes on to present the real ethical center of the franchise and it’s statement in bold terms – This movie is all about Gay Civil Rights. I mean, the X-Men have always had a basis in the Civil War Rights of all minorities (personally as an Arab-American, I saw a clear 9/11 parallel between the opening attack and the xenophobic hysteria that came from it), but Singer’s X-Men clearly have gay rights as its front and center, indisputable. Anything else is just reading more into it than is there. No way could you apply with the sort of self-loathing of characters like Rogue and John and Wagner (the latter especially tied to religious presence, holding himself accountable for sins), the paternal fear and shame Stryker shows when it’s revealed to us that he fathered a mutant Jason (Michael Reid McKay) (“my son is dead,” Stryker declares as he leaves Xavier to be mentally tortured by Jason), and most of all, the central “coming out” scene where Bobby confesses that he’s been a mutant – right down to the line “have you tried not being a mutant?”. While anybody could ideally relate to these things, you can’t apply moments like that to other minorities – black or female or any other stigmatized race or gender, the air of prejudice lies in something that is not visually apparent, exempting Nightcrawler and maybe Magneto’s shape-shifting henchwoman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn, back when a –Stamos was attached to her last name) hence why we see so many characters hating themselves simply for existing. Such would be the case when Singer, co-writer, and co-star Ian McKellan are all gay (Cumming himself is bisexual) suffering under the especially homophobic landscape in the early 00s.

McKellan – the most outspoken member of the production on Gay Civil Rights other than Cumming – especially relishes this opportunity (from what I’ve heard, he co-directed Bobby’s coming out scene) to portray Magneto with heightened flair akin to Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein. From his bored sarcasm towards his prison guards to the way he whispers maliciously with Mystique in that sort of bestie manner (“We love what you’ve done with your hair”, he giggles to Rogue, in one of my favorite line readings in a performance with so many line readings) and, most importantly for me, his “seduction” of John into accepting himself as a mutant is a work of gay coding that outdoes James Whale’s own work, the way McKellan gives John a like soul in his inner… fire (fuck me, man)… that nobody else in the movie can. McKellan is certainly the standout of a pretty well-done cast (Exceptions: Marsden is unfortunately worse in here than he was in X-Men even with little to do, while Berry is just a touch better after abandoning her chewy accent, though she’s not able to meet up to some of the character’s expectations during her one-on-ones with Wagner) and is single-handedly responsible for making X2 the (for lack of a better word) gayest superhero film since Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Except where that movie was a dumpster fire, this is top-notch filmmaking and storytelling in most accords.

During all of this, the script still has four different plots – Stryker, Nightcrawler, Wolverine’s history, and the evasion of the authorities – and instead it smartly goes ahead to organically mix into one plotline by the third act, in a manner that makes perfect sense. It also unfortunately is completely done with the commentary on homosexual identity by that third act, setting fully on being an action-thriller, but it’s a really strong action-thriller climax that leaves one satisfied, cross-cut between objectives (save the children; stop the evil plan; find out my past) and conflicts that makes everything feel bigger despite its relatively-to-the-genre small stakes and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ muted and rustic and worn-out design for Styker’s Alkali headquarters (they clearly new how to make Cerebro, an already cold and intimidating set, feel like a prison and nightmare in Stryker’s basatardization of it).

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The only exception to Ottman’s editing is the claw-handed Wolverine’s fight with the claw-nailed Deathstrike, a fight clearly trying to go out of its way to earn a PG-13 rating in avoiding what we can see and leading us to blatant insert shots because something shocking was about to happen. It’s still got a lot of comic book framing to it (even if some of them are repeated) and there’s even some real momentum behind shots, but the energy just isn’t there all the way and it’s probably the best support for the eye-rolling argument that the only good Wolverine movie is an R-rated one (thankfully, an earlier Wolverine central setpiece where he mindlessly rushes his way into slaughtering as many of the guards as he can in Xavier’s Mansion as a human ball of rage is a support that PG-13 Wolverine can still be violent and unnerving, even if it’s conspicuously bloodless – THIS was apparently the most “butchered” scene to avoid an R-rating, but damned if I can see it).

Things wrap up on an impressive note that leaves most things self-contained, but still promises a certain sequel hook that gets comic book fans reeling, so I don’t know why X2: X-Men United gets forgotten among the rest of the comic book hype, but them’s the breaks. People are missing out on a movie that brought the best out of nearly every single person involved (I actually am really trying hard to avoid calling it the career-best of everyone save for Stewart, for whom I’m too much of a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan… but I’ll imply it strongly) and it’d be a long time before another thinking man’s superhero movie came along. But it would never come back to the franchise. Here, Singer and co. made a stand that “this is what the X-Men movies are about, this is what we have to deal with – and while we’re at it, we know how to make some great action setpieces”. This was as good as it got.

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