I only heard the storyteller once. It was a summer when I was in high school, maybe 1997 or 1998. I was at a week-long music camp for choir students throughout the south Texas region, to prep for that year’s All-State singing competition.1 The days were filled with rehearsals, and the evenings had different activities—a party, dinners—to pass the time. One night, we assembled in the main hall to hear the storyteller.
It was clear after a few words that something unusual was going to happen. He wasn’t doing theater, or preaching, or even really performing: he was telling a story, doing something we as people haven’t done in this manner in millennia. He was narrating in the first person, but we knew he wasn’t talking about himself. He was the vessel for something else coming through him.
The story he told was about being a young boy in middle America in the middle of the 20th century, tagging around with a couple of friends, when a new girl arrived in the neighborhood. The girl had a little dog, and either the dog or some small possession of the girl’s became lost or taken by bullies—it’s more than 20 years on now, and there’s only so much straining I can do to unearth the few fragments that haven’t been totally buried in my memory by age and forgetfulness. But it worked out that the boy and his two friends journeyed with the girl to help her reclaim what was hers. One friend had a baseball bat that he carried slung over his shoulder like an ax, another wore an old frayed length of rope for a belt that dragged behind him like a tail unless he picked it up and held it, and the main boy, our narrator, was noble but unsure of the world around him.
The boys helped rescue what was lost, but before long, the girl had to move away. On their last day together, she told them each how she felt, and when she got to the narrator, he said that she whispered to him: “I listen to Coastal Call.” That’s what it sounded like, anyway. He had no idea what this meant, but he was terrified it was a reference to something like a radio show or a popular entertainment, and he didn’t want to seem uncouth or out of touch, so he smiled and nodded, and maybe gave a knowing laugh. She looked at him for a long time, then left.
A year or so later, the boys were watching television when they saw something special: a broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, which they’d never seen. It was about a girl who found new friends in a strange place who helped her rescue what needed rescuing. One of them had an ax he carried over his shoulder like a baseball bat, one of them had a tail that dragged behind him like a piece of rope unless he picked it up and held it, and one of them was noble but unsure of the world around him.
When it came time for that girl to leave Oz, she said her goodbyes. When she got to her first and truest friend, who was still noble but now more aware of the world, she said to him: “I’ll miss you most of all.”
At this point, the storyteller stopped, and his daughter (who had to be in college, if not older) came out and began to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” No instruments or backing tracks of any kind accompanied her as she stood there and sang, bathed in a red light. No one spoke, or moved. We were all weeping—hot, gentle, completely unblocked tears, the kind you can’t access past a certain age. We were all still so young and uncertain ourselves, and to be presented with this tragedy, to walk through this story of fleeting affection, weighed on us so much.
Years later, after I’d graduated college, I emailed the camp and asked after the man. I couldn’t remember his name, or anything about him. That’s when I found out he was a local teacher, and that storytelling was something he was known for. He might have even entered competitions, or participated in guilds, or something. What continued to affect me about the experience, though—what still does—is the time and place and method with which it happened. There are no photos or videos of that event, nor could I find any of the storyteller online. I haven’t talked to any of the people who attended that camp with me in almost 20 years. I’m not even sure I could remember who all was there. I’ve forgotten the storyteller’s name again, too. But not the story.
I never did any better than making All-Region. I have an average voice but no solo presence.↩
I cared less about movies in 2017 than any year since I first fell in love with them. That feels weird to write, and even weirder to know is true, but there’s not much sense lying about it.
Since 2011, I’ve kept a running log of the movies I see throughout the year, both the ones that are new to me and those that I just felt like rewatching. My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
Last year, though, that number dropped by more than half: in 2017, I saw just 31 movies that were new to me.
Part of this can be easily explained: I used to write reviews of new releases almost every week, which meant that without even trying I’d wind up seeing north of 50 new movies in a year. Add to that the movies that I sought out on my own time, and you can see how the numbers can grow even more.1 But since I don’t cover new releases like I used to, I’m not automatically exposed to as many movies as I was just a few years ago.
The bigger part of it, though, is just personal evolution. I still love movies, but most of the ones that come out I either don’t care to see or don’t feel any urgency about seeing. Yes, the viewing experience of the modern theater is part of this—the days of people silencing their phones and/or not talking during the show are long gone, if they were ever here—but it’s more than that. I just don’t feel the pull for some of these things like I used to.
In 2015, Karina Longworth—former film critic and one-time Film Editor and chief critic at LA Weekly—said the following about her shift away from film criticism and into the research and storytelling that would animate her podcast, You Must Remember This:
I don’t think I’m cut out to be the type of film critic—and, really, I don’t know how you’d be any other type of film critic—who sees every movie and has an opinion about them. I was seeing on average seven movies a week. As a person who is very interested in contemporary film, there are probably 25 to 30 movies in a year that I am legitimately, personally interested in. And so I was obviously seeing quite a few more films than that.
I found it very overwhelming. And I just wasn’t satisfied. I felt like there had to be different ways to talk about movies—there had to be different ways to get audiences engaged.
I think about that all the time. I still love the power of fiction, and I’ve written pieces about movies in the past year that I’m proud of, like this one on David Lynch and this one on the intersection of movies and video games. But I don’t think that the traditional mode of what we collectively recognize as “film criticism” is satisfying for me anymore, and that’s informed my movie-going habits accordingly. I’m not upset about any of this, either. I just think it’s worth thinking about.
Boogie Nights (1999): A perfect movie. Mark Wahlberg will never in a million years recapture the mix of innocence, arrogance, and doom that he brings to Dirk Diggler.
A Serious Man (2009): I rewatch the goy’s teeth every few weeks.
Sing Street (2016): What a fantastic, wonderful, uplifting movie. Killer soundtrack, too.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016): Brazenly, inventively awful. The first movie in the series was a fun action-thriller, but this ponderous sequel felt like punishment.
Cold in July (2014): Slick, twisty neo-noir.
It Follows (2014): Brutally effective horror precisely because it relies upon the suspension of disbelief we bring to movies. Objectively, we know we’re just watching someone running from nothing, but in the world of the fiction, we know they’re fleeing from something only they can see. It’s like watching a perfect magic trick.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008): Still one of the most entertaining romantic comedies of the modern era.
Mulholland Drive (2001): I love everything about this movie.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016): No.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Guy Pearce is, predictably, amazing. They should do a real-time sequel in 2019.
Blade Runner (1982): When I first saw this, sometime in high school, Roy Batty came across as a legit villain. Now, though, he’s just boundlessly sad. He has just enough awareness to know he will die very soon, and the movie is about him doing everything he can to save himself before dying anyway.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004): This plays a little stronger now than it did when it arrived, thanks to the way Wes Anderson’s filmography has become more nuanced and affecting in its portrayal of prickly characters who don’t know how to process their grief. Still, it’s a bitter film, and not that pleasant.
All the President’s Men (1976): Writing is incredibly boring to watch. It’s just research, drafting, editing, rewriting, voices swirling silently in someone’s head. Hence, Alan Pakula’s amazing direction on All the President’s Men (shot by the inestimable Gordon Willis) is all the more stunning because it makes phone calls look thrilling. It’s still the best journalism movie ever made.
Begin Again (2013): A romantic drama that actually ends in a surprising way, and gives each of its characters agency.
Akira (1988): Stunning to watch, deeply fucked up, and unforgettable.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): Ricky Baker for life.
Affliction (1998): Nick Nolte is a powerhouse here. It’s such a stunning, wrenching movie, with such a seemingly small story (small-town cop wrestles with personal issues) that becomes this universal look at how we’re all fighting to escape the shadows cast by our parents.
Midnight Special (2016): This was … not good.
Phoenix (2015): I love the high-concept premise—a woman who survives a concentration camp undergoes life-saving reconstructive surgery, such that her husband doesn’t recognize her when she returns to him—and the directions the story takes are outstanding. It’s also got one of the best endings I’ve ever seen.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017): Joss Whedon was a talented but by no means household name when he directed The Avengers. That film’s massive success seemed to sever something in him, and he spoke openly about the pressure he faced and felt while helming the second Avengers movie. He even quit social media for a while after the second one came out. It’s understandable. You make a hit, and suddenly the pressure is on to make it happen again but even bigger, and so you ramp up the scale and tone, and you wind up forgetting to tell an interesting story. Anyway, that’s James Gunn and Guardians Vol. 2.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): Absolutely mesmerizing.
Crimson Tide (1995): Such a weird mess, but quintessentially ’90s.
The Mighty Ducks (1992): Ditto.
Doctor Strange (2016): I liked this more than I thought I would, though it suffers from the same thing all Marvel movies do: it hits you with effects and insanity full-force right away, so there’s nowhere to go after that.
Kill List (2012): Incredibly well made, and the elliptical approach to storytelling makes the core conceit (two hitmen working various jobs) feel more real. But it’s not fun to watch, and the hard turns into different genres don’t totally work.
Wonder Woman (2017): Great.
Baby Driver (2017): Also great.
Dunkirk (2017): Christopher Nolan’s patriotism is beautifully rendered, and of course he finds a way to tell the story of Dunkirk evacuation in his own way, shuffling between three overlapping stories intersecting at different times.
Dune (1984): An amazing mess of a movie. David Lynch never should have agreed to this, and they never should have tried to squeeze so much of the book into the final product.
The Yards (2000): A wonderful crime drama from James Gray, who makes outstanding movies every few years that people sadly seem to overlook.
Score: A Film Music Documentary (2017): A huge disappointment. No through-line, no insight, no knowledge. If anything, it’s just an excuse to trot out John Williams’s greatest hits. (He only appears in archival footage, too.)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017): It’s not just that it’s overlong, though that’s definitely a problem. It’s that, for me, there’s no real thrill or magic in seeing an unrequested sequel done entirely in the style of a much earlier film. Blade Runner was a mash-up of cyberpunk and noir that became its own thing, but 2049 feels like an ice-cold copy.
Spielberg (2017): Solid documentary.
Get Out (2017): There’s a reason everyone says this is one of the best movies of the year.
Free Fire (2017): I finally found a Ben Wheatley film that I liked.
Downsizing (2017): There are three movies here: a satire of modern technology; a dark political comedy about immigration; and a dramedy about the end of the world. Any one of the three would be fine. Together, though, they smother each other.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005): Sadly, not nearly as fun as I’d remembered it being. It feels very much like a clumsy adaptation, i.e., it only seems to make sense if you know the story already.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Holds up beautifully.
I, Tonya (2017): Look, you can watch Goodfellas all you want, but you’ll never be able to make your own version.
The Post (2017): Great story, direction, cast, all that. Spielberg is a machine for stuff like this.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017): A fantastic movie. It’s refreshing, zippy, different, and rock-solid in its determination not to re-create the rhythms and characters of the original series. We already had a hotshot pilot; now we get one learning the value of retreat. We already had a beneficent old teacher and an eager pupil; now we get a conflicted apostate and a confused young student. We already had someone born to a family of legacy; now we have someone who came from nowhere to find themselves in the middle of everything. The jokes work, the characters work, and it moves like a freight train. Just wonderful.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Not even bad enough to be entertaining. Just boring.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Searing, raw, excellent. It’s a movie about people who don’t know how to process their grief, so they turn to vengeance, anger, and self-harm. The Oscar should have its name changed to the Frances McDormand.
By the Numbers
Total films seen (new to me): 31
Foreign (non-English-language2) films: 2
Movies released in 2017: 15
Movies released before 2017: 16
Movies released before 2000: 2
Movies released before 1950: 0
Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Favorites (in alphabetical order):
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss (2011)
Although the book runs more than a thousand pages, I read it in two weeks, which has got to be a personal best. I even found myself taking coffee breaks at work to get in a few more minutes of reading time.1 It’s a sprawling, epic sequel to The Name of the Wind, and while Rothfuss’s influences are apparent, the book never feels derivative. It’s wholly its own creation. Like the first book, this one traffics in stories about stories, riding up and down layers of narration and flashback to show how myth and ambition reshape history as it’s happening. It’s also funnier and sharper than the first book. I feel spoiled getting to read the first two back to back, knowing they came out in 2007 and 2011, respectively, and that other fans have been waiting for years for the third and final volume in the series. I’m now happily among their number.
Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle (2014)
There’s something hypnotic in the way Darnielle weaves together his fragmented narrative. Reading the book without knowing much about it makes for a pleasing kind of disorientation, as if you’re floating in the ocean and struggling to make out the shape of something below you. The narrator’s physical disfigurement, his role in the death of a stranger, his piecemeal revelation of his internal emptiness: it all comes together in a grim but shaking way. Some of the sentences are awkward, and there are some grammatical and typographical quirks, but it’s a compelling, haunting book about guilt, shame, and suffering.
The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle (2016)
My first Boyle. A believable examination of how people would likely behave living in a bio-dome and sealed off from the world; that is to say, everybody’s kind of paranoid and bitchy and irritable, and cliques form as fast as they did in high school.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
I remember trying to read this in middle school, but I could never make it more than a few pages. I made it through the whole thing this time, and I enjoyed it, but it’s also a stylistically bizarre book. Herbert’s total lack of subtext, and his habit of having his characters think their deepest thoughts in bursts of melodrama, makes it feel like a cross between 1950s sci-fi and knock-off Russian literature from a century earlier.2 I’m on the fence about getting into the sequels, but this was worth the time.
Slow Horses, Mick Carron (2010)
A decent mix of secret agents and black comedy, though it feels a little overwritten and too delighted with its habit of misdirecting the reader. Whole characters come and go, and the book feels assembled from ideas instead of attached to one of them. Still, I enjoyed the way it avoided most plot cliches.
Redshirts, John Scalzi (2012)
My first Scalzi. I wanted something fun and light after a pair of grimmer books, and this delivered. I used to avoid jokier books like this, until I realized it was that kind of snobbery I wouldn’t bring to movies—that is, I wouldn’t ignore a movie simply because it was a comedy. I gave this a shot, and I’m glad I did. It’s a brisk and goofy read, but the postscripts really bring it home.
The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016)
I love the hook here: what if the apocalypse happened and you didn’t know it? The main character is a contestant on a Survivor-inspired reality show that sends its competitors trekking through the woods; while she’s out on her own, a disease sweeps through society and ushers in destruction and decay. She has no idea this has happened, though, so she views her journey through scattered woods and fragmented towns as a game, even thinking that a survivor she comes across is a cameraman planted by producers. The narrative cuts quickly (if sometimes melodramatically) between the woman’s first-person account of her journey and an equally tense depiction of the filming of the show’s contest and challenges, both halves building toward moments of loss or revelation. I always stayed up later than planned on nights I was reading this. Couldn’t help myself.
Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (2011)
I’d been meaning to get around to this since coming across it in the library years ago and feeling a tug of wistful nostalgia at the cover art, which evokes those grand (if mediocre) space operas of sci-fi’s 20th-century heyday. It’s a fun and engaging read, too, shifting pretty nimbly between the perspectives of two central characters whose paths eventually cross. It feels real, too, or maybe a better word would be understandable: it’s set in the near-ish future, when people have set up colonies throughout the solar system, and geopolitical issues that used to be between nations are now between planets. In other words, people are still paranoid and self-serving and uncertain of how things will play out. Those realistic touches are what helps keep the story grounded when it makes a couple of leaps halfway through into something more fantastical. I’ll likely check out the rest of the series.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996) (reread)
Most people have a book, or movie, or song, or some other creative work that’s more special to them than the rest. (In fact, most people probably have more than one.) They’re the things that came to you at just the right time so that they didn’t just entertain you, or even move you, but actually shaped you.
Infinite Jest is one of those things for me. I bought it on a whim, daring myself with its length, toward the end of my senior year of college. I spent the summer alone in my college town, saving money for a move out west, my friends all having moved on, reading that book every night. It was sad and funny and big and weird, and it changed my perspective on everything from storytelling to relationships. TV writer/producer Michael Schur (of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) had this reaction to reading it, which feels exactly right: “I didn’t so much read it as I almost ate it. It kind of rescrambled my brain.”
I reread about half of it a few years ago when I was in a funk and just needed to get away, but this year I reread the whole thing. Revisiting those works that wound up shaping us is like getting in your own personal time machine: in addition to rediscovering the story, you’re reliving the memories of who you were the first time you read it. I was struck again by Wallace’s humor and empathy, but I also found myself far more tuned into the book’s structural experimentation and narrative clues. Is it because I’d already read it? Or because in the 13 years since I first read it, pop culture storytelling has begun to adopt the fragmented, anti-confluential style explored in the book? Is the structure familiar for what it is, or what it’s inspired?
It is, of course, a different thing to read a book about addiction, recovery, and mental health battles after the author has committed suicide for reasons largely informed by those things. Infinite Jest was the one true novel of Wallace’s career—his first had started out as his graduate thesis, and his last was published posthumously and incomplete—and it’s the most revealing thing he ever did. Even years later, there’s nothing else like it. It’s still my favorite book.
Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane (2017)
My first Lehane. The first half is a literary investigation into emotional abuse, and the second half is a runaway thriller. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, and beautifully. A fantastic read.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting (2013)
In the days after I finished this, the closest I could come to describing it was “Imagine if American Psycho were well-written and interesting.” Alissa Nutting’s novel is narrated by a self-aware, sociopathic woman who becomes a middle-school teacher so she can sleep with young boys. The coldness and lack of remorse at some of the story’s darkest turns is, of course, juxtaposed with the fact that you’re reading about them to begin with, getting a prurient if sickening thrill. It’s one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in a long time in large part because of how good Nutting is at inhabiting this character, bringing the rest of them to life, and tacitly implicating the reader for their participation. It reads like a fever dream and gets lodged in your consciousness like a rock in your shoe.
Land of the Blind, Jess Walter (2003)
My first Jess Walter book was the outstanding Beautiful Ruins. There are some vaguely similar themes at work here—memory, regret, the attempt to communicate your view of the world to someone else—and I liked the story’s gentle oscillation between mystery and character study.
Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters (2016)
A literary mystery set in a dystopic parallel world in which slavery remained legal and the Civil War ended not with surrender but with economic compromise. That’s a great hook, but Winters takes it in even more interesting directions by making the protagonist/narrator a free black man who works for the government tracking down escaped slaves. It wrestles with guilt, identity, responsibility.
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon (2009)
Oddly, this was a page-turner that I read pretty quickly even though I never quite liked it. It’s a weird experience.
Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch (2009)
David Lynch should be on Mount Rushmore.
Against the Country, Ben Metcalf (2015)
Every sentence is masterful. It’s almost overwhelmingly good and piercing and controlled.
Virgin and Other Stories, April Ayers Lawson (2016)
I think back to reading this book, and all I can come up with are hunger metaphors: I devoured it, it sustained me, I swallowed it whole. Lawson’s stories deal with religion and emotional conflict in ways almost no other author is doing, and though they’ll probably pack an additional punch if you’ve got a background in abusive evangelicalism3 that’s not at all required.
Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Richard Chizmar (2017)
Why do I keep reading Stephen King? Habit, I guess. Nostalgia, too. And every now and then he surprises me with something honest and real, like Full Dark, No Stars. This was utterly forgettable, though, a middling short story blown out to novella length.
The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters (2012)
Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (2013)
World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters (2014)
I’m grouping these together, even though I read a couple other books between the first and second volumes. This is the best modern trilogy I’ve read in a long, long time, and I cannot recommend them enough. Interestingly, I didn’t make the connection until I was well into The Last Policeman that I was already familiar with Winters, since he also wrote Underground Airlines. When The Last Policeman was recommended to me, though, it was on the strength of its conceit: a rookie homicide detective is determined to solve his first murder, even though the world is months away from being struck and decimated by an asteroid. Post-apocalyptic fiction abounds, and the parts of those books that deal with life before their chosen armageddons are usually (and understandably) brief, but I’d never heard of such a detailed pre-apocalyptic story. That sense of worry and futility animates the actions of everyone involved. What would you do if you knew the world was ending in a few months? What if your job was to preserve law and order? What decisions would you make? How would you define justice?
The second and third books feel like one long volume, in part because the timeline grows shorter: the first book spans weeks, but by the third, the action is reduced to mere days. The first one is the most typical mystery story, but they’re all mysteries, really: in each one, the narrator is trying to solve a puzzle and help people around him, even while life is as we know it crumbles. They’re just outstanding books.
The Smack, Richard Lange (2017)
A rock-solid mystery-thriller about a con man looking for a second chance. Imagine a somewhat more maudlin Elmore Leonard, and you’re most of the way there. Great story.
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, Rob Sheffield (2017)
This isn’t a history of the Beatles, but rather a linked series of essays that roughly cover the band’s life while freely skipping back and forth in time, pausing for asides, and chasing interesting tangents. As a result, it’s so much more vibrant and captivating than a regular biography would be. The writing is smart, funny, and insightful (it’s some of the best critical writing I’ve read in ages), and Sheffield’s love for the band and its music is palpable.
Left By the Wayside
Sword of Destiny, Andrzej Sapkowski (1992, Polish; 2015, English)
I started reading the short stories set in the world of the Witcher after falling in love with the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.4 The thing I love about the stories is part of why I loved the game: the fantasy elements are treated as just another aspect of the fictional world, which mostly deals with petty or hopeful people trying to get by. I just read a few selections, though.
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson (2007)
I found this both intoxicating and slippery: the rhythms and slow pace are wonderful, and the explorations of the lives of the characters in and around the Vietnam war are fantastic, but I also started to lose a sense of momentum, or investment, or whatever you want to call the thing that makes you stick with a book through the slow parts. I’d like to dip back into this, if possible.
In alphabetical order:
Catching the Big Fish
Dreaming the Beatles
The Last Policeman series
Since We Fell
Virgin and Other Stories
The Wise Man’s Fear
I also think it helped that this was the first book I read on my new Kindle. Being able to cart around a hefty paperback in something as slim and light as a Kindle is a game-changer, and there’s something about the more frequent page turns (thanks to the formatting and type size of the screen) that seems to establish a momentum. Plus it’s just a good book.↩
It did, though, make the terrible voice-overs from David Lynch’s film version make more sense.↩
Easily a desert-island game for me, and probably in my top five of all time.↩
This list isn’t a comprehensive account of every single thing I played throughout the year, since some games I sampled briefly before deciding they just weren’t for me.1 If I stuck with a game longer than that, though, it’s here.
If I completed a game, I’ve marked it as such. Similarly, if I quit a game—whether from frustration, displeasure, or boredom—I’ve noted that, too. Everything else falls into a nebulous category of something I just plain played, neither finishing nor abandoning. Games are weird like that: you can dip in and out, take a few days (or weeks, or months) off between play sessions, and go with what moves you. No other form of entertainment media really lends itself to that kind of segmented, almost experimental consumption. For years, I played games back to back, one at a time. In most cases, I wouldn’t start a new one until I’d either finished my current one or decided I wasn’t going to complete it. This year, though, it hit me how arbitrary this was, and how much of an obstacle it can be to pleasure. If I liked a game, of course I’d dig into it, but why should that stop me from switching between titles? These are for fun, after all. Why not, you know, have fun? So I did. I completed fewer games, but I played more overall, and I loved it.
One final note. The games are listed here roughly in the order I acquired/started them, not when I finished them (if I did). For instance, I took a few months off in the middle of Wolfenstein: The New Order, which I got in April but resumed and finished in July. I’ve also noted whether the game was played on PS4 or the New 2DS XL.
OK, on with the show (click each title to expand):Watch Dogs 2 (2016) (PS4, completed)
Open-world games have their own conventions—typically marked by a sprawling design with minigames and collectibles sprinkled throughout, paired with story missions you can often complete in a flexible order—and Watch Dogs 2 is no different. There’s something about the brightness of the game world, though, that makes it fun. It’s goofy and loose, with a real sense of play and exploration. Because you play as a hacker and use your smartphone throughout, the map is stylized in the bright colors of Google Maps, and the hackers’ visual look is similarly neon-tinted.
The combat mechanics are average, though it’s weird to be shooting people anyway. If you’re a hacker bent on restoring social justice, shouldn’t all your weapons be stun guns or tranq darts or something? Why do I have a 3-D printer that spits out sniper rifles? The game never quote reconciles the disconnect between “activist for the people” and “someone with surprising proficiency in assault weapons.”
The game has some technological standouts, though, including the most gorgeous water animation I’ve ever seen in a game. Staring out at the ocean off San Francisco, the pattern of the waves is too complex to parse, and the crests have little bits of foam that rise and disappear. The water’s shade even changes as it blends with sand closer to shore. Games used to get by with weak peripheral details because you didn’t need to focus on them (and because they just didn’t have the graphical rendering power), but now it’s common for games to put an enormous amount of work and power into something you will only briefly see, if at all. This is what we mean when we talk about “immersion”: the sense that the movie exists outside the frame.
Video games are about all about getting from one point to another. In game design and criticism, this is usually referred to as “traversal.” Games are almost always looking for ways to make traversal engaging in its own right, since, no matter how compelling the core content might be, you don’t want to find yourself bored having to walk your character from one place to the next. It creates a lull in the action, a dip in the momentum, and a chance to mentally check out. A lot of games offer “fast travel”—transporting your character instantly between two locations—as a way to get around this.
What makes Titanfall 2 such a joy to play is its understanding of what makes traversal interesting: dynamism of movement. Your character is able to briefly run along walls, which means that the game world itself opens up in new ways as you leap from floor to wall as you crest buildings. More dazzlingly, you leap back and forth between two vertical walls with nothing beneath you, caroming through space, flipping switches in mid-air. It’s like being an acrobat, just inside a science-fiction action game.
When you step inside the giant mechanical Titan robot, traversal switches from a vertical focus to a horizontal one, with the emphasis on dashing rapidly between combat encounters. The action is slick and solid, and the game’s mechanics are incredibly well tuned. Responses are sharp, images are smooth, and the on-rails experience is frenetic and engaging.
The release of a new game is usually good time to pick up its predecessor at a major discount, which is why I bought this game a couple of weeks before the release of Sniper Elite 4. It took me a few hours to realize why, even though I was playing on a PlayStation 4, everything looked a little cheap and cartoonish: the game was released on two generations of consoles at once, meaning it needed to fit the specifications of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One more afterthoughts than anything else. Games that straddle console divides like this are relatively new to the medium, and while some managed to successfully serve two masters (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age: Inquisition), most games work best when they take advantage of a single console generation’s abilities (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt).
Despite its limitations, it’s a solid little game. I don’t mean “little” dismissively, either: each level is a modest size, with a handful of things to do. Your goal is to move through each one, picking off Nazis one at a time. The game’s challenging because it actually forces you to think in terms of space, logistics, and taking one shot at a time before moving on. Most combat simulation games that offer a sniper option are careful to still give you plenty of up-close firepower, so you’re never really at a disadvantage. This one, though, gives you almost no ammunition for anything other than your sniper rifle, and you’re too weak to last in any sustained firefight. The game’s scope is small, but it feels deep because of the way it forces you to think your way through each level. It suffers from some gameplay limitations—if enemies determine your location, you only have to move a certain distance away (displayed in a counter on screen) before they forget all about you, which leads to dull rinse-and-repeat feel to some of the levels—but still, enjoyable.
A ridiculously goofy free-to-play game that turned out to be perfect for short, low-brainpower gaming jaunts. Run around, beat up some bad guys, marvel at the bizarre world, move on. Death wears X-ray specs and rides a skateboard. The tone is somewhere between ironic and ironically ironic—it’s hard to explain, but it makes a kind of perverse sense when you play it.
I put about 40 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda before I quit, selling the game when I was only about halfway2 done with the main story. I did so with the feeling of disappointment and fatigue that comes from the tension between wanting to like something more than you actually do and realizing that you don’t like it as much as you wanted to.
Some of the visuals here are wonderful, and in the first couple of hours, there’s a hard and calculated narrative push away from the aggression that ended the original trilogy3 and toward a sense of exploration and wonder. However, this almost immediately turns out to be hollow and misleading. When you walk up to an alien for the first time, you can choose to go in firing or with your hands up to signal peace, but you’re attacked on sight either way. What’s more, in one of the most telling evolutions in the series, you cannot affect any of your characters’ traits related to intelligence, personality, or the way they interact with others; rather, when you increase your stats and are allowed to upgrade your abilities, the only things you can alter are your combat skills. This is in marked contrast to the earlier entries in the series, which let you upgrade things like charisma and persuasion to effect how you negotiated a given situation4 and in general drove home that success is about choices, not victories. The first three games had a rigid but understandable morality system, in which your actions would evolve you into a Paragon or a Renegade, and these personality styles eventually opened up new actions or dialogue options while also locking out others altogether. You couldn’t hedge your bets, either: if you tried to split your good/evil choices down the middle, you shut yourself out of both options eventually. You couldn’t have it all. The games were saying: look, while real life is obviously not this black and white, this game narrative is going to hinge on several clearly defined moments where you can choose who you want to be, and the other characters in the game will remember that and treat you accordingly.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, though, seems to be incredibly afraid of any such declarations of morality or intent. There are no dialogue options even simplistically labeled “good” or “bad,” nor are there moments that prompt you to act/refrain in a way that would similarly take you one step farther down a particular path. There is just an endless series of circular quests, journeys that go from A to B to C to A again, and innumerable enemies to shoot and kill indiscriminately. There’s not much effort made, narratively, to make your journey sensible from an emotional perspective, and big attempts to do so early on (by robbing your character of a family member) fall flat because you haven’t invested enough time in the story to care yet.
Technically, the game is also incredibly flawed: animations are stiff and wooden, facial expressions somehow don’t seem to have improved at all since the series’ launch in 2010, and the interactions are plagued with visual and auditory bugs that leave the whole thing feeling slightly glitched. In an era when major games are pouring serious resources into character animation, it feels like a setback to play a game this splintered at the edges.
Who knows. I might wind up revisiting the game in the future and having a better time, or at least revising my opinion. Maybe a series of patches will continue to improve the game’s stability. But for now, I don’t regret moving on.
Shooters aren’t dead; dumb shooters are. This revival of one of the foundational texts of first-person anarchy is incredibly good, thanks to its focus on level design, exploration, and tension. It is no accident that this and another formative game in the genre, Doom, were revived to critical praise around the same time. They’re both slick, energetic, and know exactly how seriously to take themselves. This re-energized Wolfenstein has a robust story, tactile mechanics, and real kineticism. It’s just a good game.
I say “essentially completed” because, in addition to its name and ethos, the game borrow something else from the 1990s: an inability to know when to stop. The later levels have you infiltrating a prison camp, piloting a mech, and even visiting a Nazi moon base before returning home to fight a giant spider-like machine. There’s a clear sense of escalation for a while, then a definite plateau as things start to get too repetitive. After clawing your way through one last compound, you’re tasked with fighting the game’s main villain, who is seated in a giant mech while you run frantically around a barren lot with a battery-dependent gun and try to figure out what to do. It’s the kind of “why not” final level from old shooters that just feels like the developers are throwing everything they can at you for no real reason. I wasn’t even sure what to do on that level until I looked it up, and when I realized it was the final battle, I felt fine stopping. I’d made it so far, and I didn’t want to dance around some arbitrary difficulty spikes. Still: a good game.
I hadn’t played any games in this series since Metal Gear Solid, which I owned on the original PlayStation and first played in high school.5 But I’d absorbed enough details over the years to know that series writer/director Hideo Kojima was still making bonkers games, and this one got good reviews, so I picked it up. This was a good decision: its mix of stealth and base-building offers a nice risk-reward loop, and the main story itself is almost delightfully batshit. For instance, the opening hours of the game see the player character awaken from a coma, escape from a hospital, encounter a levitating person in a straitjacket and gas mask who can apparate and also summon a giant being made of fire, and outrun a number of otherworldly bad guys who give chase on horseback. Also, your left arm is a metal prosthesis, and you have additional chunks of metal sticking out of your forehead.
Open-world games tend to succeed or fail to the degree that their world feels like it existed before you got there. One of the things Horizon Zero Dawn6 does so well with its sprawling map is populate it with animals and people who interact with each other wholly independent of you: it’s common to walk past a herd of beasts grazing or fighting, or to skirt a group of enemies who aren’t after you but are trying to take down a beast for themselves. These activities don’t involve the player at all, and the fact that you can see them and choose to get involved or not makes the game’s world feel like one you inhabit, not just one you visit.
It’s also a robust, slick game, the kind of epic production that acknowledges its creative influences—the stealth of Assassin’s Creed, the refined bow hunting of the new Tomb Raider series—without feeling like a knock-off. It also makes some smart decisions about its post-apocalyptic setting that make the trope feel fresh again: namely, you, the player, start to piece together what happened to the world before you, the character, does. Moss-covered street signs, decaying skyscrapers, “metal vessels” with “strange insignia” you recognize as drinking mugs, etc.: they all heighten the dramatic irony, so you feel like you’re constantly marching yourself into a deadly world you already, in some way, understand.
Some of the gameplay elements aren’t perfect: the inventory system is a little cluttered, and even when you upgrade your carrying capacity to its maximum, you’ll still be discarding items on a regular basis as you triage. Some of the side quests, while well-written, become mechanically repetitive, as you go through a rinse-and-repeat process of finding someone’s tracks, highlighting them, and tracing them to their origin. I also found the tripartite final battle—a confrontation with a human enemy, a section where you rain destruction down on waves of robots, and a battle against one last giant machine—to be a little underwhelming. The fight against the human enemy was the most challenging and interesting, requiring constant movement and navigation of a changing landscape. Blasting away at the oncoming robots was neat but too easy, and I leveled up twice just from the experience points gained there. Similarly, the final machine had the same scale and effect as ones from earlier in the game, and with allies to help knock down the supporting enemies, it was just a matter of shooting, ducking, and repeating.
Still, those are little things in the big picture, and rare is the sprawling, open-world game that manages to build to a final confrontation that feels both technically challenging and narratively appropriate.7 The game itself is fascinating and fun, and I completely enjoyed my time with it. I knew something was special when I found myself avoiding fast-travel options or even securing a mount and just wandered the waving plains, looking around, listening.
This was my first Final Fantasy game. I didn’t grow up with Nintendo systems, and I didn’t get into role-playing games until well after college, so I only knew the franchise by reputation. I’m so glad I decided to check this out, though. It’s wonderfully different from Western action/RPG titles, which just highlights the importance of playing different kinds of games. It’s the same as watching a movie from another country: you get to experience styles and emotions wholly different from what you’ve come to expect.
It’s a languid and floaty game, built on a world to get lost in and explore. Even the combat has a kind of dreaminess: instead of pressing multiple buttons to attack in different ways, you hold down a single button and press the directional pad to change weapons. As long you’re holding that button down, you attack. It winds up balancing intense combat with a sense of pleasant detachment.
The writing and voice acting for the four main characters is perfect. Their characters and relationships settle in so quickly that you don’t even need to glance down at the subtitles to know who’s talking, or how they’ll each respond to a certain situation. This humanizing aspect is so easy to lose in big games that place an emphasis on scale and spectacle, so it’s beautiful to see it done so well.
I didn’t grow up playing turn-based games, and it’s only in the past few years I’ve really come to enjoy and appreciate them. There’s a fantastic tension in knowing you can take all the time you want to decide your move, even when the enemy is right next to you. I also love the game’s insistence on permanently eliminating members of your party: if they die, they aren’t knocked out, only to return healthy when the skirmish is over. They’re gone, full stop. It’s not a new idea (cf. checkers, chess, etc.), but deploying it like this in a video game still feels fresh.
Prey is from Arkane Studios, who made the fantastic Dishonored and the slightly less good but still worthwhile Dishonored 2. It even shares some of the aesthetics, from similar character models to text and graphic interfaces. But, sadly, it doesn’t share those games’ sense of momentum, creativity, or fun. The conceit is decent—you’re trapped on a space station with an alien force that can replicate itself and mimic solid objects, and you work your way back and forth to solve the mystery of what happened—but the enemies are overpowered, the menus are clumsy to navigate, and it’s plagued with sluggish loading times. (When transitioning from one game area to another, I’d set my controller down and check email.)
It also features one of the worst kinds of item-management systems, one that’s built on items’ sizes, not total weight. E.g., your inventory isn’t a backpack (or whatever you want to imagine it as being), but a grid of squares on which items can be placed. You’re often prohibited from picking up an item not because you don’t have space for it, but because you don’t have enough consecutive grid squares for it, which means you have to stop and rearrange your gear almost every time. It’s a maddening puzzle that never goes away, and it’s reflective of the game’s basic user-unfriendliness. I quit after a few hours and didn’t miss it at all.
There is something perversely compelling about these games. They’re weird and dark and not remotely welcoming, even to people familiar with the series. They’re mechanically awkward—e.g., instead of just pressing a button to jump, you have to hold down a button, move your analog stick to run, then click the stick to jump, which is always as clunky as it sounds—and sometimes a little laggy, and the camera often gets stuck in weird angles. Yet the game worlds are also gorgeous and eerie, hinting at tragedy and horror on an epic scale, and the sense of exploring these worlds is both nerve-fraying and exhilarating.
Having completed Dark Souls II8 and dabbled in Dark Souls and Bloodborne9 a couple years ago, I opted to check out Dark Souls III. It’s the smoothest and best-looking entry in the series—the art design is stunning throughout—and it’s also slightly more approachable than, say, the first game, since here you can quickly teleport to new locations as you discover them.
It is, like its brethren, a game that requires and rewards patience, but what’s interesting is that “patience” often means as little as “ten seconds.” Most games, regardless of genre, are built to emphasize quick encounters: shooters have you dropping enemies in a couple of heartbeats, and even action games like The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt don’t really drag out encounters unless you’re dealing with a particularly tricky boss. Dark Souls III, though, asks you to take just a little more time, dispatching an enemy in a five-count instead of just one-two. That’s nothing, really, but it feels weighty given the way so many others games train you to play them. Put another way: once you tune into the rhythm, the game becomes much more approachable. Not easy—never easy—but a challenge you can grasp. That’s the real difficulty of the game: overcoming your own habits and learning something new.
Nioh is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most pleasing games I’ve ever played. The difficulty comes from its unforgiving play style: you play as a samurai fighting various human and supernatural enemies, every one of which can kill you if you aren’t careful. Every encounter requires focus, timing, awareness, and spontaneous thought. It’s actually mentally taxing.
Yet it’s pleasing because of how beautifully the mechanics come together. The sound design, from atmospheric effects to the clinks and pops of the menu screen, is engaging. Swinging a weapon carries with it a sense of momentum, and connecting a blow brings a satisfying crunch. When you lock onto a target, you can dodge and roll past them while still staying invisibly tethered to them, and you zip past them in a kind of spin move that almost escapes the camera’s gaze. It’s swift, fluid, and thoroughly enjoyable. And man, does it look good. I have rarely had this much fun losing this badly.
There’s a beauty to the simple rhythms of this game: scan the area, tag your enemies, eliminate them, move on. It’s a major technical upgrade from its predecessor, of course. Enemy characters are much “smarter” in that they’re programmed to have not only more aggressive A.I., but for that A.I. to become sharper as you progress through the game, so that alerting enemies to your presence in the final level has much more dire consequences than doing so in the opening mission.10
More than that, though, the game has perfected its sense of risk and reward, its nested loops of gameplay and exploration, and its ability to convey real thrills and accomplishment. You play as a sniper working your way through hordes of Nazis, and you aren’t penalized for breaking stealth or even being spotted, but for being spotted in the same place too many times in a row. The game, then, becomes a constant search for places to hide in and shoot from that you must then promptly vacate to find a new place, and so on. This structure is complemented by spectacular level design that emphasizes climbing, crawling, and all sorts of hidden ways to get around. There are only eight missions in the game, but each level is so dense that they take between two and three hours to complete.
Only the game’s final moments keep it from being truly perfect. After finishing your last mission, you have to chase the villain on foot and stop his plane from taking off by shooting its engines. While this isn’t an unusual situation for a game, it’s foreign to one like this, especially since the game has spent the previous 25 hours teaching/forcing you to move slow, plan your shots, and not risk exposure. To suddenly do something so different goes against muscle memory and the aesthetic of the entire game, so the final minutes feel tacked on, as if some developer or executive was afraid to opt for the more cinematic, calm, rounded ending you were heading into moments before. Still, that’s a minor setback. The game itself is still genuinely great.
A really nice demonstration of how Nintendo can introduce mechanics to a player slowly, then put them in situations that call for them to remember and combine those mechanics. It’s a slight game, but it manages to feel genuinely rewarding.
There’s something incredibly peaceful about this game. I got really into simulation games for the first this year—the ones where you build farms and cities and just goof around. This is a sweet-natured fantasy game with light action, fun exploration, and a really pleasant aesthetic. It’s basically like reading a fable book.
This is a decent open-world shooter, though the enemies are what’s known as bullet sponges: they take an inordinate amount of hits to incapacitate, which can make some battles feel sluggish. Still, the aesthetics and handling are solid.
I am like 95% done with this game. It’s surprisingly good: instead of adding more guns, this Far Cry spinoff has you playing as a prehistoric hunter armed with not much more than a spear, a bow, and the good sense to run when something big is chasing you. It handles as smoothly and wonderfully as the other modern games in the series, and I really enjoyed my time with it. I should really jump back in and complete it sometime.
I’m trying to get into farm sims. I don’t quite know why. I think they’d be relaxing, but I have yet to actually bring myself to do the work.
A great time. I could never get into the original Destiny, but this one is so finely tuned and perfectly pitched that I happily lost hours to its mayhem. The ability to roam the world and engage with missions, instead of choosing one from a menu and waiting around for it to load up, makes the experience much more immediate. It’s bright, shiny, fun, totally worth it. I have no idea how long I’ll continue to revisit it—as of this writing, I haven’t done any of the expansions—but I’m glad I played. I beat the campaign, took my character to level 298, and had a blast.
Maybe the most pleasant, gentle gaming experience I can remember. I have barely done anything in the game yet—a few in-game have days have passed—but I can already tell this is going to be a big, deep, welcoming experience.
If the original game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a proof of concept, then this is the real thing. It’s bigger, slicker, more creative, more engaging, and it offers a lot of great gameplay mechanics in its decision to let you recruit enemies into your army and send them against your targets. The Nemesis system returns, which means that major enemies grow stronger when they kill you and taunt you when you return. My only real complaint is the lack of narrative weight. The game just sort of starts, stumbling forward without much momentum, and as soon as it ends, it transitions immediately into what developers call “post-game content” and everyone else calls “random stuff to do for no reason.” I want a sense of victory, not just ending. Still, it’s a very strong game.
I never played city simulations growing up, so this is my first foray into the genre. It’s incredibly rewarding, though. It’s like actual playtime. There are modes that require you to build a model city and keep everything balanced and happy so you can keep earning money to grow your developments, but it’s just as fun (if not more) to just switch on the option for infinite funds and make and remake your dream city. It’s like playing in a sandbox. There are no rules or limits.
This is turning out to be just as slick (and challenging) a shooter as its predecessor. Gorgeous animation, great story, and the surprisingly timely thrill of punching Nazis.
This is not a perfect game—there are some occasional bugs, weird textures, etc.—but it’s exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to play as a special operative who drives around the jungle, sneaks up on bad guys, shoots them, and scampers away. That is exactly what I got, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Admittedly, “Elite Dangerous” is a bogus and somewhat nonsense name, but if they’d called it “Space Trucking,” no one would have signed up. I was drawn to the game after seeing some preview videos, reading a bit about it, and watching some brief tutorials online. It’s a space-exploration simulation that aims for a version of verisimilitude by loading up on details and processes: e.g., if you want to dock at a space station, you can’t just fly up to it, but instead have to request docking permission, receive said permission, and navigate to the appropriate docking pad while maneuvering yourself along three axes of rotation. If that sounds terrible or incomprehensible, skip this; if it sounds like your cup of anal-retentive tea, you will have a good time. I’m in the second camp.
In no real order after the first one:
Horizon Zero Dawn
Sniper Elite 4
Watch Dogs 2
Far Cry Primal
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
I spent a frantic hour with a free demo of Overwatch, marveling at the color and design while being killed every few seconds. That was the end of that.↩
The original Mass Effect games all involved fighting, of course, but the franchise evolved from a more tactical combat/role-playing hybrid to a more bombastic military-themed run-and-gunner.↩
In the first game, if you’ve played your cards right, you don’t even have to fight the main villain at the end, but can instead reason with him until he changes his plans and commits suicide when he reflects on what he’s done; this is, obviously, shocking and dark and weird, but also a really refreshing sign that the game wanted to reward you for putting so much stock in your ability to talk instead of shoot your way out of conflicts.↩
When I took my PS1 to college, my freshman-year roommate and I would sometimes play MGS on a loop, which you can blast through in about 10 hours if you know what you’re doing.↩
I feel like Horizon: Zero Dawn would be better, typographically, but there’s a certain military-operation vibe to the format that works OK with the story’s themes.↩
Offhand, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was really good at this. Then again, it was really good at everything.↩
My introduction to the series, and a lot better than some of its detractors make it out to be.↩
I actually made it all the way past Rom the Vacuous Spider before realizing I was not having any fun.↩
It also fixes the “move X meters away from where you’re standing and the bad guys will forget all about you” problem that made Sniper Elite III feel a little rote.↩
My latest for Oscilloscope Labs’ Musings: a look at movies based on video games, and why the pairing is destined to never work out.
The storm was a trauma. Not just in the appropriate emotional sense of the way the word is often used today, but in the classic, pathological one: “a serious wound or shock to the body.” People lost their homes and jobs and businesses. People drowned. People walked around for weeks afterward on edge, nervous and irritable, scared without realizing it. Entire blocks looked like war zones, sodden and moldy trash piled by the curb. Recycling pickup was suspended because the trucks were needed to haul debris; it’s still a couple weeks away from starting up again. Tens of thousands of people are still displaced, living in hotels or apartments or with friends and family.
Baseball is just a game. That’s all. It’s a game. You run around outside for a few hours. It’s for fun.
We like games, though, for the same reason we like good stories, or art, or the ability to travel. We are all constantly aware of the fleeting nature of our mortality: not that we will one day die, but that we will die and, in all likelihood, not be remembered. So we look down at these clumsy vessels and wonder how fast we can run, how high we can jump, how well we can take the thoughts and feelings that seem to exist for us alone and turn them into something that someone else can understand and, if only for a moment, embrace. We’re trying to make a mark, even if we can never define it more clearly than that.
When the rain let up and we could all get out again, we all asked each other the same question: “Did you make it?” It was how conversations started with coworkers, cashiers, strangers on the elevator. You didn’t need to explain what you meant. And they’d either nod and say yes, they did, or they’d shake their head and say no, we didn’t. In those gray and fragile days, there was a sense of joining, of collective sheltering and support, that’s only possible between survivors of something horrible and random. We’d come just a little closer than usual to realizing how quickly everything goes. It’s why we latched onto things like “Houston strong” and charity campaigns. We were reaching out to each other, still trying to make those marks.
Pop sports culture talks often about “bandwagon fans,” or “fair-weather fans.” This is usually done in a smug and condescending way, to differentiate those who have recently participated in the excitement that can sweep a city during a championship run from those who have been loudly suffering years of losses. This is, as you can probably tell, a really sad and small-minded way to live. If you’ve ever seen someone online brag about seeing a band live before you’d heard of them, you are familiar with the general vibe.
It’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of what can make games exciting for the people in town who only casually follow news about the local teams. Even non-fans have a general conception of what’s going on. When the team does well, we all know about it. It becomes part of the small talk that fills moments between citizens in public spaces. When the team does exceptionally well, and begins to approach making history, that conversation doubles and trebles in volume and intensity. Longtime residents reminisce about games from their childhood. Recent transplants learn about local history. It becomes the subtext of every conversation, a feeling in the air, a noticeable change in attitudes. People share.
That’s what all this has been about, in tragedy and triumph: coming together. Talking with your neighbors. Asking not just “Did you make it?” but “Did you see that?!” Forgetting for a moment the methods we use every day to keep ourselves within our walls, and taking a moment to look someone in the eye and know that you have a shared experience. You know what it means to lose, and you know how it feels to win. You did both together.
“It feels really good to be home.”
“ … I’m pretty high.”
“ … Yeah.”
We came to Crested Butte slowly: flying from Houston to Denver, driving from Denver to Gunnison in a 200-mile series of switchbacks and grades that take you over the Continental Divide and through the Gunnison National Forest, then north from the town of Gunnison in a gradual curve up to Crested Butte, nestled at the foot of the mountain the shares its name. The mountain makes itself known in glimpses and gradual turns, appearing and then disappearing behind closer peaks before ultimately reappearing in a view that swallows your front and right sides as you close in. This is maybe the best way to come to a mountain, which is a place to reflect not on permanence, but on a pace and scale of change we can’t comprehend. Days seem long to us, years enough to define our lives, but this mountain and its brothers and sisters were formed millions of years ago.
It seems appropriate that we left the mountain quickly, then. Something like that, something whose size and grandeur and prominence seem to fool your eye, something that recalibrates every notion you’ve ever had of history—maybe there’s no sense in lingering. A quick departure’s as good as any other to the mountain. At any rate, that’s how I’m starting to think of our 30 hours in its shadow: just one more coming and going.
After spending a wonderful Sunday morning in town, we rested throughout the afternoon, which would turn out to be one of the things that helped us survive the night ahead. Sometime around 6 p.m. that day (an hour behind our friends in Texas), we found out that that tentative arrangement our housesitter/niece had struck with our dog, Sadie, had been declared by the dog to be null and void. Maybe it was the scattered thunderstorms that added to Sadie’s sense of fear and panic, or just the fact that Tracy and I had already been gone for a day and she didn’t know when we were coming back. This is, after all, a dog that was abandoned multiple times by owners who kept returning her to the Humane Society (one of them adopted her with a clean bill of health and returned her with heartworms), and while her separation anxiety has mellowed considerably in the 10 months we’ve had her, she’s still not wild about our being gone for long periods of time.
Whatever it was, Sunday night—just 24 hours after we’d arrived at Crested Butte—our housesitter got in touch to let us know that Sadie had decided to go what could charitably be called ballistic and keep her (the housesitter) pretty well penned in the rear half of our house. This was not great news to get, and we didn’t like the idea of our niece, who is very sweet and wonderful, having to contend with an unstable blockhead of a dog getting bitey because she thinks her parents have disappeared. Tracy and I worked out what seemed like the best possible alternative: Sadie would stay the night at the house by herself, and in the morning, our niece’s moms would take her either to our vet for boarding or, if the vet didn’t have any openings, to their barn for the week, where she’d be safe but also removed from people.
The plan was for our niece’s moms to come over in an attempt to execute a kind of pincer move in which one would enter the front door while the other would come in through the back, distracting Sadie enough so that they could throw down some food and our niece could scram. However, Sadie, being just smart enough to cause herself serious harm, ran out the back door. The yard’s gate was shut, of course, but she ran around to the far side of the house and did something she’d never done there, something we didn’t even realize was possible: she squeezed through a narrow gap between the chain-link fence and the house’s brick, and she was gone.
She wasn’t wearing her collar or tags, because we never make her wear them around the house. (We didn’t make Emma wear hers, either.) So when Sadie ran away and fled deeper into our neighborhood, she did so without ID.
While this was happening, I’d gone to town to get pizza. Tracy and I were emotionally drained (we thought), and we just wanted to eat a pie and smoke the joints my sister- and brother-in-law had left behind for us. We were a couple slices in when we started getting text messages about what had happened. We had to communicate through text message because, at the time, we didn’t have cell service in Crested Butte: a recent lightning storm had taken out an AT&T tower that blacked out the entire area. So at this point—around 9 p.m.—we decided to move up our timetable and leave immediately. We were already planning every dark thing we’d have to do: make posters, put them up, send out local alerts, hope, pray. Flights out of Gunnison were prohibitively expensive, and besides, we’d rented the car in Denver anyway, so we found tickets for a flight leaving around 6:30 Monday morning and started to pack. My father-in-law insisted on buying our tickets home—“Dogs are family members,” he said—and he stood in the room with us while we received fragmented updates and collected our things. He just wanted to be there. We shook and worried and felt every imaginable thing: regret, sadness, anger, fear, instability. We got in the car and drove away around 10 p.m., the mountain behind us, already impossible to see.
After a brief stop in Gunnison to refuel at a combination gas station and bar, where we partook in a conversation among slightly inebriated bros about the acting prowess of Jonah Hill, we lit out. AT&T service had been restored by then, so our friends kept in touch with us as we drove and updated us on the search for Sadie: she’d been spotted, she got away again, on and on. I didn’t want to think about it. My father-in-law had asked what kind of caffeine I’d be drinking to make the nighttime drive, but I barely needed the soda we stopped and bought at the gas station. Adrenaline had the muscles in my face and arms pulled taut, my heart moving at a clip.
After a couple hours or so on the road—it’s hard to remember—our friends told us that Sadie had come home. They’d left the gate open as an invitation while they were out circling the neighborhood, and when they returned to check our house, they found her in our back yard. They shut the gate and were able to shoo her into the house like a bull going through a chute, after which they locked everything down again. Everything felt surreal. We hadn’t been there for any of this, so hearing about it through calls and texts only added to the feelings of impotence and fear. Knowing she was home again, I felt myself start to relax just a little. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” I said to Tracy as we drove, not wanting to define what “it” might entail. We held hands most of the drive.
We made it to Denver around 2:30 a.m., an hour that’s neither late night or early morning. We did the only thing we could think to do that would let us rest while also filling a little time before we went to the airport: we went to IHOP. An IHOP after midnight is a fascinating and occasionally horrible place, but since we were only a few hours away from the start of the work week, the customer base was limited to us and a nearby table of three very drunk women (two of whom turned out to be mother and daughter) whose subjects of discourse ranged from “drama” to “not having no beef with her.” Our server, Michael, was an angel who gave us refills in to-go cups, and I tipped him around 50 percent.
After a meal and some welcome downtime, we drove to the airport around 4 a.m., where we returned the car and started the day. At this point, we’d both been awake for about 20 hours, and aside from a short nap Tracy had taken Sunday afternoon, we hadn’t rested. (Besides, whatever benefits that nap had bestowed were eradicated in the stress of the ensuing evening.) I felt nauseous with exhaustion, and I entered a kind of fugue state at the gate while we waited for our flight to board. I entered a light sleep almost immediately upon seating; I didn’t even make it until takeoff. I slept for an hour or so, about half the length of the flight to Dallas.
We went to Dallas because we had a layover at DFW for a couple of hours before the final leg of the trip home. DFW is one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the worst places man has yet created, a kind of architectural and logistical defiance of the belief that anything in life can be good or worth experiencing. It is hot and crowded and low-ceilinged, ringed by a tram line and unforgivingly bright. Tracy and I made our way to a Pappasito’s for a 10:30 a.m. lunch that wasn’t bad but whose price was out of proportion with all sense of honesty and virtue.
Taking a tip from the flight attendant who’d sat next to us in the jump seat on our first ride of the day—Kelly, a cute nerd who bonded with Tracy over Doctor Who—I decided to double-check the gate information for our flight home. That’s when I noticed something that had escaped my and Tracy’s notice the night before (we were, again, under a fair amount of stress): the tickets were taking us to Hobby Airport, but we’d originally flown out of, and left our car at, George Bush/IAH. We were going to the wrong place.
This news created a kind of crack in our spirits. Fixing it wouldn’t be impossible—worst case, we’d take a cab from one airport to the other so we could get our car—but it just felt like one too many things to have happen. I realized why we’d been so confused by all the signage, too: we were flying American, and they had two flights headed to Houston leaving within five minutes of each other but going to different airports.
Tracy was able to get the gate agent to move us to the IAH-bound flight by explaining our situation with no small amount of emotion. The woman was the platonic ideal of an airport employee: at once both helpful and emotionally detached. She reminded us that our bags couldn’t be switched to the different flight, but we figured that was (relatively) a minor inconvenience. We’d just drive down to Hobby and get them, then head home. Out of the way, but not too bad.
The flight out of Dallas was awful, a kind of confirmation of our hatred of the airport and our experience there. We taxied for 18-20 minutes before leaving, and the AC never kicked on. We departed around 12:30 p.m., which meant I’d been wearing the same shirt for around 27 hours. I could smell my own sweat and funk rising in waves, feel the heat under my arm whenever I moved it. Tracy, seated between two people and acutely aware of how trapped she was/we were, had a panic attack and took 1mg of clonazepam and just shut her eyes and held on. She was glass-eyed for a couple hours.
We landed so hard my book fell out of my hands, and we taxied for another 10 minutes, but we were home. We were strung out, wrinkled, groaning, not able to totally stand up straight, but on the ground in Houston. We made our way to the shuttle to the parking lot, which is when Tracy got the text that our bags had been lost. (Dallas, it seems, had found one last way to make itself known.) My only reaction to this news was logistical: now we could drive straight home instead of going by the other airport first. I was tired past any kind of feeling or response.
We made it home around 3 p.m., or about 16 hours after I’d locked the car doors and started driving out of Crested Butte. We hadn’t gone to bed, or showered, or had anything resembling a balanced meal.
Sadie started barking angrily when she heard our car pull up, but when Tracy called out “Sadie Lou!” she stopped, then began scrabbling around, knowing we were home. We didn’t even bring our backpacks in with us at first. We just came in and got on the couch and hugged her, told her that we were home, that everything was OK. It’s easy for me to forget what being abandoned so many times as a puppy did to her. She’s always a little concerned that she’ll be left again.
Our house looked normal, with no sign of any of the chaos we’d heard about from the night before. It was dreamlike to be home. The rest of Monday was disorientingly quiet compared with what we’d just been through, and after one of the best showers of my life, I fell asleep a couple times sitting with the cats. (It should be noted that, throughout all this, the cats showed no investment in the situation or any of its possible outcomes.) Tracy volunteered to stay up until the delivery service came by with our luggage, which they finally did after midnight. I went to bed around 10 p.m., and when I lay down, it hit me: I hadn’t been to bed, in any bed, in two nights. The night before was just driving and waiting, driving and waiting. But we were home now. I was asleep in minutes.
The next day, Tuesday, seemed to evaporate instead of pass. We didn’t get out of bed until 11 a.m., after which Tracy went back to bed for a few hours. I know I did things—watched videos, played a game, read—but I don’t remember much of it, or in what order it happened. It took us 24 hours just to recuperate to some kind of baseline, but we’re both still tired. The weekend was, it would be best to say, an instructive one. But I feel better now, or at least more whole. Driving that night, all I could think about was my dog in the dark, scared, alone, not knowing where I was. Come home, I told her. Come home. I’m coming home tomorrow to see you. You have to come home. She spent the day sleeping next to me, curled against my leg. As I write this, she’s sitting at my feet, chewing her bone, occasionally stopping to look around to make sure we’re all here, and we are.
• Most scenes in modern blockbusters—superhero movies, comic book stories, FX-driven tentpoles, etc.—feel both perfunctory and dead on arrival. They exist solely to pad out the time between action sequences, when audiences can be bludgeoned into forgetting they’re not having a good time. Something like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is a good example of this. The dialogue is flat and forgettable, and the scenes have no sense of drive, purpose, or narrative meaning. They just kind of sit there.
Every scene in a movie is, when done right, a microcosm of the arc of the whole thing. Just as a film is about someone overcoming an obstacle to achieve something, individual scenes do the same thing: e.g., someone has to get somewhere, so they figure out how. This is why scenes, when properly done, can’t be reordered: they each tell a series of small stories that add up to the bigger one, and each has a causal effect on the next.
Part of what makes Wonder Woman work so well—what makes it a good movie in the regular sense and a stellar one compared with the rest of the superhero genre—is its understanding of how scenes work. They’re allowed to breathe and flow, to reveal character, and, most importantly, to end naturally. There’s a wonderful scene about a third of the way through the film when Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve (Chris Pine) are sailing away from Themyscira, the island where Diana’s grown up with the rest of the Amazons. Steve prepares separate sleeping pallets for them on the deck of the small ship, which leads to a conversation about sexual norms and what it means to “sleep together.” Diana persuades Steve to lie down next to her in the more comfortable spot, which prompts him to attempt flirting, which Diana both deflates and negates by explaining her people’s 12-volume sexual study that determined that men are necessary for procreation but useless when it comes to providing pleasure. Their conversation also touches on Diana’s origin (she tells him she was created by Zeus, to which a nonplussed Steve replies, “Well, that’s neat”) before Diana rolls away to go to sleep.
Watching this play out, you can see where a lesser film would have stopped the action: after Steve agrees to sleep next to Diana, after his flirting falters, after a generic statement about how long it’ll take them to reach land. Those would have been bad but commonplace cuts, deployed just so the filmmaker could dump an expository scene on the viewer as a breather between battles. This scene isn’t even that visually appealing, pretty clearly taking place on a soundstage pool under digital moonlight. But we actually get to watch these two people interact and reveal things about themselves—Steve is flirtatious but insecure, Diana is somewhat naive but incredibly confident—and what’s more, the scene actually has a beginning (Diana and Steve set sail), middle (they determine their route and sleeping arrangements), and end (Diana puts Steve gently in his place). The film feels so good because it’s allowed to actually be a film, not merely a demonstration of its own technical prowess.
• Some critics and viewers have remarked that director Patty Jenkins doesn’t overtly sexualize Diana/Gadot. I think what they mean is that Gadot isn’t lasciviously photographed or turned into an object of pure masturbatory fantasy, which is usually what happens in movies like these. Because Gadot is totally, completely sexualized here, as is Pine. Part of Jenkins’ skill is acting on the knowledge that we go to the movies to see beautiful people, and that part of the art form is about the way those people’s forms are lit, sculpted, and choreographed. They circle each other emotionally and physically, building chemistry and romance. There’s the scene where Pine’s muscular form is highlighted in the blue reflections of a pool on Themyscira, or the one where he’s looking down and out of frame as the stubble along his jawline catches the fill light, his hair hanging down and playing against the angles of his brow and cheeks. This is a beautiful man, photographed with sensuality. Similarly, Gadot is never exploited for the viewer—e.g., a shot of her diving into the ocean to save Steve from drowning cuts judiciously before her skirt has a chance to ride up—but her stunning features anchor the film’s biggest emotional moments. The cock of her head as she reasons out the world around her; the width of her smile as she discovers new abilities and beings; the interplay of the light and lines of her lips and eyes as her hair frames her face. She at one point fixes Steve with the most powerful, focused look of erotic desire in mainstream American movies since the one Kelly McGillis destroyed Harrison Ford with in Witness more than 30 years ago. She is beautiful, strong, arresting, impossible to ignore.
What Jenkins has is an understanding and love for bodies as forms, as machines, as objects and engines of grace. Shoulders, necks, thighs, arms; men and women, young and old; the people here are given physical presence in a way almost totally missing from every other entry in the genre.
• In the same vein, Diana’s armor is form-fitting but also believably functional. (There’s even a sequence early on where she tries on a variety of contemporary dresses but winds up ripping or discarding them because they don’t allow her the maneuverability to fight.) She wears a chest piece, belt, boots, and skirt/shorts combination that feel both Amazonian and in line with the character’s history, yet never exploitative. Compare it with the purely ornamental costume worn by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show about the character—silk shorts, a low-cut top, cuffs made from what honestly could be aluminum foil—and you realize just how carefully and definitively Jenkins et al. have given Diana the ability to be physically overt without turning her into a fetish object. Where her cleavage would be, we have the imposing form of an eagle.
• That respect and love for the physical form is part of what makes Jenkins’ direction so powerful: namely, we’re allowed to see people’s emotions on their faces. The acting and decisions happen silently, not, as is so often the case in the genre, blurted out in hacky text by characters who aren’t allowed to have subtext. When Diana comes to a realization about the complicated nature and ceaseless cruelty of the human race, we actually see her working through it on camera. When another character makes a heroic decision, Jenkins gives the audience at least 7-10 extra seconds just of this one person having feelings, right in front of us. We are forced to reckon with the emotional weight of the story in a way that’s bracingly fresh for the genre, and as a result, the film hits harder than almost any other superhero movie in recent memory.
• There are still plenty of rough edges, though. Diana’s mother worries that “the more she learns, the sooner (Ares) will find her,” then says the same thing again a few minutes later in case you were in the bathroom or preoccupied fiddling with a candy wrapper or are just very slow. Yet for all Diana’s power and exploration in the world, Ares doesn’t seek her out or change his plans at all, so the women’s worries come off as a storytelling crutch, not a believable expression. Plus the motley crew that Diana and Steve assemble to help them on their mission are totally worthless and could be eradicated from the story without losing a drop of its potency. They don’t help or affect the story in any real way, and eliminating them would also get rid of the cringe-inducing, hammer-to-nose moment in which Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) is awkwardly made to explain his squadmate’s PTSD by saying that people don’t always get to do what they want1, and that Sameer wants to be an actor but is “the wrong color.” There are almost countless better ways to visually underscore Sameer’s class status a century ago than to have him blurt out dialogue like this, and the ungainly nature of the scene undercuts any possibilty of emotional merit. It has the plastic feel of inauthencity.
• Plus why does Diana age into a woman and then stop? Would she have kept aging if she’d stayed on Themyscira? Why did she stop aging in what looks like her early 30s while her mother and aunt appeared to stop aging in their early 50s? Why did her mother say Diana couldn’t return if she left Themyscira, right after a discussion of fielding an army of Amazons to enter the world and fight Ares? Would they have been allowed to return?
• Jenkins is an expert at pacing this thing, though. Most comic book movies feel like they’re just biding their time until the final 30ish minutes, when they can unleash CGI hell. Jenkins keeps that stuff at bay for as long as possible, though, and when it finally arrives, she breaks it into pieces. The climactic slugfest ebbs and flows, with pauses for dialogue, flashbacks, and actual emotional growth.
• The impact of Frank Miller on modern hero movies is impossible to escape. Miller, the comic artist who created 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, is the source point for these stories so often being grim, and dour, and relentlessly bleak and nihilistic. But The Dark Knight Returns was those things for very specific reasons: it was, among other things, a story about a hero worn down by time and fighting who remains committed to his mission even when he doesn’t believe in the likelihood of change or salvation. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) borrowed heavily from this aesthetic, but hero movies turned veered into popcorn territory again with Joel Schumacher’s cartoonish Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), not to mention the genre’s second- and third-tier 1990s outings like The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996). Of the comic book movies of that era, only The Rocketeer (1991) actually married drama with a sense of adventure and heroism that felt earnest without being gooey.
Miller’s darkness returned in Christopher Nolan’s trio of Batman blockbusters, though, and subsequently learned all the wrong lessons from them. Those movies were dark for a variety of reasons—not least because you need a certain amount of self-seriousness to make a man in a giant bat costume seem like the sane one in the gang—but so many other hero movies have erroneously equated darkness with depth. Marvel’s Iron Man (2008), so light and airy and full of pop, is one of the few exceptions to this rule; I submit that it is not an accident that it came out the same summer as Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which became one of the highest-grossing films of all time and had a kind of chilling effect on Hollywood’s creativity for a decade.
All of which is part of why Wonder Woman manages to stand out. It’s not that the film isn’t dark—its central plot revolves around supernaturally empowered Germans working to create an extreme form of mustard gas during World War I, an event not known for its chuckles—rather, it’s that the film manages to strike the right balance between darkness and light, and between drama and humor. The jokes here don’t feel shoehorned in by punch-up artists, but like actual reflections of the characters saying them. (When Diana catches a glimpse of Steve naked and asks if he’s a typical specimen, Pine sells Steve’s false humility and clear lie of “I’m … above average” perfectly.) There’s a sense of real heroism and adventure here, of risks being taken and friendships being made. You wind up caring about the characters, something movies are meant to do every time out but that’s become so rare in comic book movies that it feels like a foreign concept when you see it here.
Because these characters aren’t real. No movie characters are. But fiction’s job is to breathe life for a moment into words and gestures that become as real people to us, and to let us project ourselves into those lives and places and situations to feel things we didn’t expect. It makes you expand, and relate, and identify. It makes you wonder.
Even for comic book movies, this is a gloriously awkward and nonsensical segue.↩
One of the things I love about entertainment is the way it allows you to temporarily quiet those parts of your brain that deal with daily concerns and ignite those that gather strength from fiction and narrative. Stories let us experience new perspectives and develop empathy, while also creating real-seeming universes inside our own experience. Novels, books, films, television, and games can all do this. Additionally, one of the pleasures of playing a good game is the feeling of solving a problem.
Every game, at its roots, is the same: get from point A to B, given constraints X, Y, and Z. Even situations presented as “combat” within a game are problems to solve. If the player character is surrounded by a given number of enemies, with a set amount of resources, in a confined arena, how would you navigate the playing field to win? Games are things you do, whether it’s a crossword puzzle, an app, or a high-definition console-focused blockbuster. The great games are the ones that combine engaging puzzles like these with compelling, well-written, well-acted narratives. When they get it right, it feels like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book that’s coming to life a page at a time. It’s play.
Fallout 4 (2015)
I spent three months, off and on, playing through Fallout 4 and several of its downloadable content add-ons (DLC). That’s because it’s a massive game, and some of its most engrossing diversions are those that have nothing to do with the central quest, e.g., building and fortifying camps throughout the game’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. The story is a decent mix of sci-fi and Western revenge—you play as the survivor of a nuclear holocaust who rode out the destruction in cryogenic stasis, only to awaken and find your spouse dead and child missing—but it’s enhanced through compelling gameplay loops. So-called “open world” games like this are all about the thrill of exploring and the feeling of discovery, and Fallout 4 wasn’t short on either.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)
Probably one of the best games I’ve ever played, and the more I think about it, one of the best games of this or any generation. The first three games in the series1 are wonderful action-adventure titles that echo the Indiana Jones films in their blend of suspense and romance, but they’re still rooted in the kind of superhuman, supernatural fantasy that’s common in game stories. This isn’t bad, of course, just one way to do things. But two years after Uncharted 3, the studio released The Last of Us, a grim thriller that revolutionized narrative in gaming and brought new nuance to the human side of the story. As a result, Uncharted 4 benefits not just from the technical prowess they brought to the earlier games, but from the emotional experience that players were given in The Last of Us.2 While Uncharted 4 is visually stunning and mechanically pleasing, it features a remarkably mature story that revolves around the main character’s marriage, and the biggest stakes in the game deal with communication skills and the nature of relationships. The script and acting are wonderful, and the creators do a stunning job and investing their characters with life. I think about this game all the time.
Just Cause 3 (2015)
Sometimes you want to blow stuff up like you’re in a cartoon. Just Cause 3 is so hilariously over the top that you don’t even blink when you add a jetpack to your wingsuit and become a mercenary version of Iron Man. Gorgeous, goofy, incredibly fun gameplay.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (2016)
I’m counting this because, though it’s an expansion to a game I played and adored in 2015, it’s bigger than some stand-alone game. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best games of its generation and easily in the running with the all-time greats, and this wistful, elegiac sendoff is almost better than you could imagine. The subtext of the main game was the central character’s weariness with his role as a hero for hire, and this conclusion is a meditation on finding meaning in life. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time or ability to replay the entire game (it’s scope is staggering), but I’ll always love it.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (2014; originally 2012)
What a fantastic, fun game. It starts with a great idea—you’re an undercover cop in Hong Kong working to take down organized crime—and builds on it with strong writing, interesting story missions, and a pleasantly complicated combat system. It keeps you right on the cusp between challenge and mastery. The studio that made it closed down in 2016, making a sequel nothing but a dream, but at least we have this.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
I say “finished” because there’s no way to actually finish this game, so why not list it here. The concept is great: you’re an interstellar explorer, and you wake up on a barren planet and immediately have to find a way to survive, repair your ship, and solve the mysteries of the universe. However, there’s no narrative to drive you. It’s essentially Side Quests: The Game. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing, but after stopping for a week or two, I realized I had no need to go back.
Mafia III (2016)
I was obsessed with this game when I played it. It’s that fun and rewarding. The gameplay loop is simple but irresistible—set your target, plan your attack, rinse and repeat—and the story is strong, too. You play as a biracial Vietnam vet working your way through a corrupt New Orleans-style town to overthrow the mob that betrayed your family, and the story is rife with the open bigotry of the Civil Rights-era South. It boasts an amazing soundtrack, too, that really makes the fictional world feel textured.
Gone Home (2016)
Wonderfully done. No other characters, one setting, and a story you put together by interacting with the environment. I love playing things that experiment with the form like this and do it so successfully.
Dishonored 2 (2016)
I loved the first Dishonored, and while the sequel has the same style and beauty, the gameplay’s a little lacking. I had fun sneaking around and solving puzzles, but the story was never convincing.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016)
Absolutely wonderful. The sequel to 2013’s Tomb Raider, which rebooted the 1990s and turned it into a less cartoonish adventure story, this game was a joy to play. It nimbly shifts between sections that are “on rails,” that is, that pull you forward from point to point on a predetermined path, and those that allow you to explore the open world. The story is good (all about dealing with family tragedy and coming of age), and the mechanics are finely tuned. I ate it up in a week of holiday-enabled playing time, and loved every bit of it.
Lords of the Fallen (2014)
I keep thinking I like Dark Souls, but I don’t.
Grow Home (2015)
A fun, sweet little game with a neat mechanic (you make a plant grow into the sky, opening up new places to explore), but a little forgettable.
Super slick, super fast, not for me. I get it, though.
Metro 2033 and Metro Redux (2014)
Decent-ish monster shooters with goofy stories. I’d probably be more tolerant if it was a bad movie.
Divinity: Original Sin (2015)
A nice injection of humor into the role-playing genre, but too much of the game winds up being about managing your items (collecting, selling, etc.). I had fun, but couldn’t lock in.
The Order: 1886 (2015)
Hyped as an early title for the PlayStation 4, and better than I’d heard, but ultimately not that good. The game regularly introduces new mechanics, ideas, or weapons, only to remove them the next moment. As a result, you feel more like the game is playing you.
Homefront: The Revolution (2016)
A mess of an open world. I didn’t mind the Red Dawn ripoff of a story, either (North Korea exploits a backdoor in all U.S. tech and promptly invades), which is saying something. It just wasn’t interesting.
(Note: All games played on PlayStation 4.)
In alphabetical order:
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
There are no “old” movies really—only movies you have already seen and ones you haven’t.
When he wrote that, Peter Bogdanovich was talking about the experience of screening a group of silent Lubitsch films for the first time, and the dawning realization he had that films have a kind of eternal life that’s based not in the year they were made but in the life of each individual viewer, whenever that person happens to see the movie. It’s a good reminder that no one has seen every movie, and that there’s always some new gem to discover. Additionally, there’s no point in feeling embarrassed at not yet having seen a movie that you’re “supposed” to have seen by now; rather, that just means you get to experience something new.
My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
Another benefit of assembling an annual list like this is it reminds me of what was happening in my life throughout the year. The period in February when I watched (or rewatched) so many movies was when I was sick in bed with an awful virus that was going around; the glut of rematches in June, when I was traveling on a family vacation to Italy and had a lot of time to kill on the plane; the fact that I didn’t watch any new movies in September because I was busy spending time with a new dog; impromptu rewatches on empty afternoons wound up inspiring lengthy essays. It’s like seeing the ripples and remembering the feel of the stone.
The Ties That Bind (2015): This documentary came packaged with the deluxe reissue of The River, Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 masterpiece. It’s a pleasant if superficial look at the making of the record, very much in the vein of marketing as opposed to insight. Still, the Boss is the Boss.
Seven Samurai (1954): My first Kurosawa. I waited until I had a free Sunday afternoon to spend with the movie, since it runs 3 hours 27 minutes (just a few past The Godfather: Part II), and I didn’t want my first experience of the film to be broken into fragmented screenings on successive days. It’s a beautiful, rich, sad film, and I was struck by so many things, not least of which is how its length never felt burdensome. Kurosawa is totally in command here.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990): I was born in 1982, which means adult-oriented movies that came out in my childhood were a part of the background of my growing up even if I never experienced them directly. Watching them is like being nostalgic for a time I never knew, in a way. I’ve seen every movie Tom Hanks made in the 1990s, but his 1980s output is just an inch or two on the other side of the fence, so I have yet to see most of it.1 Joe Versus the Volcano is a great example of a film “everyone” had seen but I had never gotten around to screening, and it was, as had been foretold, wonderful. It’s a storybook fable, built on larger-than-life art and light and ideas.
- The Godfather: Part II (1974): Sadder and more sweeping than its predecessor, and still brilliant. I go back and forth every couple of years on which is the better film. Right now I’m on the side of the original.
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003): I hadn’t seen it since its 2003 release, and I liked it much more than I remembered. Breezy, bittersweet farce, with an expert cast. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of the Coens’ most ambitious work, no, nor does it have the fizz of their best comedies. But it’s still witty and brisk and delightful, and it feels wrong to grade it on an unforgiving curve out of spite.
- Amadeus (1984): A perfect movie, or (if your philosophy doesn’t allow for such) as close to the idea of perfect as a movie can get. The grand damnation of Salieri’s longing is among the most potent things ever put on film.
Hail, Caesar! (2016): The Coens are arguably among the best American filmmakers of all time, and certainly of their generation. Nothing else looks or sounds like their work. What’s striking isn’t just their mastery of different style—drama, comedy, slapstick, absurdity, black humor—but that they always seem to find a way to use those different tones to ask the same question: What does it mean to be human? Their heroes are always reckoning with their place in a cold world, whether it’s Ulysses Everett McGill trying to get one over on the system or Llewyn Davis wondering why no one hears his music the way he does. Hail, Caesar! is a goofy, silly fantasia about 1950s Hollywood that asks existential questions through the actions of a studio producer as he spends a day putting out fires and wondering whether he’s still suited to the job. It manages to both regard movies with a wary eye (knowing they’re just products put together by an often uninterested team) while also revering them as mythical objects, dreams made manifest. Funny, smart, searching.
Deadpool (2016): Christopher Nolan’s success means that every successive superhero movie has aped his Batman films’ style (brooding, grim) without copying anything else (interesting stories, good casts, smart structure, sense of adventure). Deadpool is the antidote to all that: brash, snotty, gruesome, silly, and metatextual to the hilt. It’s fun, most of all, and it has the feeling of someone finally cracking a window and letting some fresh air into a house that’s grown dark and stale. I have no idea if it’ll hold up on repeat viewings, but not every movie is meant to. Watching it, I was finally able to relax and try to enjoy a superhero movie, something I hadn’t been able to do in years.
Chi-Raq (2015): Everything about it works: the sense of visual style, the dialogue in verse, the powerful soundtrack, the propulsive anger and sadness, the sense of a man and nation reeling. A perfect companion piece to Do the Right Thing.
The Witch (2016): Every shot is gorgeous in some way, and the film is a potent blend of supernatural horror (there really is something evil in the woods) and psychological breakdowns (the pressure of being stranded in an unexplored country, away from society, means that the family is already just one bad turn away from full internal revolt). The suspense and horror elements evoke other genre classics—I found myself more than once thinking of Alien, The Shining, The Thing—but it also feels completely like its own unsettling beast. The cast is fantastic, and the kids in particular are great; it’s so hard to find believable child actors, and the boy and girl who anchor the story are some of the best I’ve seen in a long while. It stands up to different readings, too, or at any rate it’s smart enough to know it can be cut many ways: an examination of fanaticism, the spiritual price of conquest, the bloody entrance into womanhood. And on top of that, it’s got some of the most genuinely unsettling and riveting horror moments you could want. Even in the bright light of the morning after, I found myself wanting to go back to those woods.
Dope (2015): There’s a lot to like here, and I liked a lot of it. It’s a little shaggy, and the two sidekicks could’ve been combined into one person without losing anything (even their names, Diggy and Jib, ran together in my head; I could never keep them straight). But young Malcolm’s awkward, criminal coming-of-age mostly plays like a hip-hop Risky Business, and when it works, it snaps with energy.
Win Win (2011): Some movies have what I think of as “Fake First Act Syndrome,” where the things we see and hear in the opening minutes turn out to be narratively pointless and tonally inconsistent with what follows in the “real” movie. Win Win has that problem in a major way: cutesy kid dialogue, a general aimlessness, a situation where Chekhov’s gun is loaded but will never be fired. Once it picks up, though, it’s a nice little family dramedy. The ending is bittersweet and nicely understated, though, which makes up for a lot.
What We Do in the Shadows (2015): It’s hard to do a mockumentary these days without feeling self-congratulatory or too cool for the room: the format has been done to death, especially through TV comedy, and it can be easy to simply assume the presence of humor. But What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious and weird and perfect because it wholly commits to a dopey premise—a group of vampires share a dingy apartment in New Zealand—and focuses on the minutiae of awkward roommate relationships. Bonus: Rhys Darby, as a werewolf, almost walks away with the whole thing.
Missing (1982): My first Costa-Gavras. Jack Lemmon is one of my favorite actors: subtle, sharp, able to move gracefully through emotionally nuanced moments. He is, as could be predicted, wonderful here as a father searching for his missing son, and he moves carefully and expertly through a defined emotional arc: he starts out cold and angry, untrusting and resentful of his daughter-in-law, only to emerge human and broken, united with her in sorrow as they learn the truth about what happened to his son. (Smart costume choices reinforce this: Lemmon starts off in suits and hats, eventually transitioning to an open-collar look with no tie.) It’s a powerful film, as well as a chance for someone like me to find an entry point into a chapter of history (in this case, the 1973 coup in Chile) with which he’s unfamiliar.
World of Tomorrow (2015): Don Hertzfeldt is Pixar for adults.
Calvary (2014): A grim, uncomfortable, mercurial movie—I almost stopped it halfway through because I felt worn down—but nevertheless a powerful one. It hums with raw anger at the sexual crimes of the Catholic church, even as it also argues for the need of a noble, honest clergy. I’m glad I watched it, and I never want to see it again.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014): At least ten times better than you’d guess from just hearing “Liam Neeson cop thriller.” It’s a solid, smart pulp story with great style, and I was so grateful that the narrative wasn’t as conventional as it could have been.
Bullitt (1968): The iconic car chase here is as good as reputed, and I found myself thinking of how much better that scene is than the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road because it’s got genuine narrative purpose and it involves a character we care about. It’s not just about the visual kineticism of the scene, but about the story that drives that scene. Anyway. The film itself is good, too, the kind of moody, what-am-I-doing cop drama that feels very much of a piece with late-1960s disillusionment. Bullitt gets the bad guy and isn’t even happy about it.
The Seven-Ups (1973): A decent little cops-and-robbers flick, in which Roy Scheider leads an NYPD task force that focuses on major crimes. Worth it for the rained-out, grimy, barren New York landscapes.
- Brick (2005): Brick holds up really well after more than a decade, though the speed with which Joseph Gordon-Levitt chews through Rian Johnson’s dialogue makes for a more than a few muddy scenes. I’m also more aware as I get older of just how incongruous and weird it is to cast twentysomethings as high schoolers. Gordon-Levitt was 24 the year Brick came out, and while I understand the casting—he’s not a huge guy, and he looks youngish—all you have to do is compare him here with how he looked in 10 Things I Hate About You, released when he was 18, to see how adult and angular he’d become.
- Waitress (2007): If I had a penny for everything I loved about this movie, I would have many pennies. It’s endearingly clunky in places—some odd editing and lighting, plus a mangled eyeline match-up in one scene that makes for a confusing shot-reverse-shot—but the writing and acting are so warm and wonderful that such small sins are easily forgiven. It’s direct and clear about the nature of regret, and it evokes life’s pain and pleasure in wonderful ways.
- Batman (1989): One of the weirdest aspects of the movie is the way Batman’s existence is just kind of assumed. Not that this should’ve been an origin story. Rather, the inherent weirdness of a guy dressing up and giving himself a superhero name, just to fight crime, is glossed over. It’s dealt with a little better in Batman Begins, but still. The whole premise is nuts when you think about it. Keaton’s good at brooding, though, and Nicholson’s Cesar-Romero-meets-Dahmer thing is definitely iconic. But all these years later, I think the score might be the best thing about it.
- Batman Begins (2005)
The Last Witch Hunter (2015): Blockbuster culture makes it feel like every movie is either a bank-breaking Marvel adventure, an award-bait drama, or an indie where the cast worked for whatever they could get. Movies like The Last Witch Hunter feel like a throwback to twenty years ago, when generic-feeling fantasy-action movies could come and go in theaters a little more freely. It’s not a great movie, but it is, in its own way, good: it’s slick, poppy, adventurous, wisely comic, and just the right amount of self-serious. The ending even leaves open the possibility for sequels that we know will never come.
Man Up (2015): “Romantic comedy” is a label that calls to mind a certain style of movie, but taken at face value—a romantic story built around humor—there’s a lot more leeway than we tend to remember. Man Up is a genuine romantic comedy: funny, swooning, charming, entertaining. It doesn’t feel designed to be timeless, but to give someone an hour and a half of simple pleasure. That’s a power movies have that too often gets overlooked.
High Society (1956): A cute if somewhat unnecessary musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Bing Crosby is entirely on autopilot, but he’s charming enough to make it work. Trivia: Grace Kelly’s final movie before becoming Princess of Monaco.
Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013): I already loved Inside Llewyn Davis and its soundtrack, but this concert also introduced me to new bands (like this one and this one). Perfect for watching or just having on in the background.
People Will Talk (1951): There’s a bizarre undercurrent of mysticism in this film that’s never addressed, and that makes it such a curiosity. The story itself is fragmented and odd: it follows a doctor played by Cary Grant as he defends himself from charges of professional misconduct by a colleague who suspects his certifications are fake, while Grant’s character also falls in love with an unmarried pregnant woman, lies to her about her pregnancy, then reveals after they wed that she’s been pregnant all along. (At no point does anything seem to make much sense.) But the weirdest bits involve Grant’s character’s involvement with his taciturn manservant, who turns out to be a former felon convicted to hang and who somehow survived the hanging and was being examined as a cadaver when he awoke. The subtext is also probably a jab at HUAC. Genuinely insane.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Burn After Reading (2008): My theory is that Coen dramas are heralded upon release, while their comedies grow in stature over time. Burn After Reading is a sharp, quick, pitch-black comedy that feels miles away from, say, No Country for Old Men, and its tonal fluctuations make it a tougher meal to digest. It’s better than you probably remember, though.
- Tropic Thunder (2008): One of the best Hollywood movies about Hollywood of the current era.
Creed (2015): I cheered aloud while watching. When’s the last time that happened?
Frantic (1988): The answer to a mystery is always disappointing because it blows away the pleasantly disorienting fog in which we’ve found ourselves, leaving behind nothing but the sharp edges of ordinary objects. Frantic, about a man looking for his wife after she abruptly goes missing from their Paris hotel, does not escape this fate. That’s not to say it’s bad—it’s quite good—but that it’s two movies in one. The first is a nauseating, gripping mystery rooted in paranoia and futility; the second is a conspiracy thriller. The transition is handled pretty well, but the film’s strongest section is its first third or so, when we’re left to walk with Harrison Ford as he searches for his wife, unable to even put into words what’s happening to him. (Related: the films of David Lynch are so haunting and unclassifiable in part because he never provides answers to his mysteries, or at least concrete or discernible ones.)
Brief Encounter (1945): “David Lean movie” is synonymous with “epic,” but he does an outstanding job directing this small-scale heartbreaker based on a Noel Coward play. Interestingly, Todd Haynes’ Carol copied the structure and several major scenes from Brief Encounter, right down to hand gestures. This makes Carol less impressive in retrospect.
- Wonder Boys (2000): The movie that introduced me to Michael Chabon, and still a smart, expertly cast ensemble dramedy.
- Network (1976): I propose that “Getting Networked” be adopted to mean “when a movie’s predictions about the future come true, esp. to a disturbing degree.”
- All the President’s Men (1976): I made an inadvertent double-bill of “fatigued reflections of Watergate-era life in 1976” by revisiting this and Network so close to each other.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): There’s almost nothing original here, though I’m not certain that’s bad. It’s an incredibly fun and entertaining film, and I have to imagine that at the top level, if/when faced with the ultimatum between making the new Star Wars movie enjoyable or totally fresh, those in charge opted to make it enjoyable. The prequel trilogy was so dour and odd—mired in goopy dialogue and nonsense plots, shot with a dull green-screen aesthetic that made everything look flat and blandly lit—that, more than prove its ingenuity, Star Wars needed to assert that it could be a good time for the first time in more than 30 years. It succeeded. The Force Awakens has almost a thankless task to accomplish: gently brush away memories and plots put forth in the prequel trilogy, move things back to characters and ideas people know and remember, set the stage for larger stories to come. That it does all this with a smile and genuine flash is a real feat.
High-Rise (2016): A genuinely unpleasant film. From the outset, there’s no attempt made to isolate the tenants of the titular high-rise from the outside world, whether through environmental circumstance or psychological dissociation, so it never makes sense that they’d all stay holed up in the building as the power goes out and residents begin to turn on each other in broad-strokes class warfare. If there’s no global apocalypse keeping them indoors, what drives them? What good can such broad allegory achieve? Where’s the story?
Bridge of Spies (2015): Spielberg (like Scorsese) is so good at his type of movie that it’s easy to overlook the skill on display. It’s the curse of greatness. There’s a lot to like here—the dependable performance by Tom Hanks, the stark lighting and exposures that have marked Spielberg’s work since the turn of the century—but it’s also notable for its muted and nuanced approach to international conflicts. Spielberg’s focus here isn’t the war that’s inspired so many of his movies, but its aftermath, and that sense of confusion and moral stumbling is mirrored in everything from Hanks’ battle as negotiator to the scaled-down, ugly look of the towns. There’s no grandeur here, not even the beauty of horror. Just mud and walls and people who don’t know what to do.
Dark Passage (1947): A little too reliant on coincidence even for a period noir, but still enjoyably dark.
The Guest (2014): Riffing on 1980s tropes does not a thriller make. The first third of the film—in which Dan Stevens’ troubled vet worms his way into the lives of a former combat buddy—is easily the best and most troubling. By the time the real plot is revealed (something about super soldiers), I’d checked out.
Gilda (1946): Overpowering in its sexuality and sadness. One of best I’ve seen in a long time.
To Catch a Thief (1955): Movie stars always play a variation of their basic screen persona—e.g., Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise—and Cary Grant is the absolute pinnacle of that idea. He never even changes his haircut. Why would anyone want him to? Trivia: Grace Kelly’s final film with Hitchcock.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): They should make a movie like this every year.
The Nice Guys (2016): They should make five movies like this every year. I completely understand why it bombed, though: twisty plot, frantic set-up, and a budget of $50 million when it should have been less than half that. Still, I love this movie and am glad that it, at least, saw the light of day.
A Room With a View (1986): Beautifully shot and incredibly pleasing romance, and doubled as research ahead of a two-week vacation to Italy. MVP: Daniel Day-Lewis as the baxter.
- Spy (2015): Melissa McCarthy’s comic persona, the identity that she basically reworks for each movie, is consistently endearing.
- John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997): I am fascinated by this movie. It’s so bad and dull, so plain weird, it feels like it’s from another universe.
- Groundhog Day (1993): A perfect movie.
Dressed to Kill (1980): Brian De Palma’s ambling Hitchcock riff is very much of its time re: gender identity politics, but the suspense, sexuality, and filmmaking are still some of the best around. Trivia: De Palma was nominated for a Golden Raspberry, or “Razzie,” for Worst Director for Dressed to Kill, because the Razzies are idiotic.
They Look Like People (2016): A fantastically tense play on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, built around an unreliable narrator who may or may not be experiencing psychological problems. It’s got some fantastic suspense, but it’s also worth watching to see just how well a movie can be made for no money. A good example is the “hospital” scene, which conveys the boredom of three people sitting in a hospital waiting room without actually showing the hospital. Rather, the three actors sit next to each other in chairs against a wall, while audio cues of PA addresses merge into each other. So smartly done.
The Wood (1999): I have had the hook from the song in the trailer—Ahmad’s “Back in the Day”—stuck in my head since I was 17. I finally got a chance to sit down with this via Netflix, having already seen director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, and I loved it. One of the best portrayals of modern male friendship in the movies.
That Touch of Mink (1962): So light it almost floats away, but Cary Grant is, predictably, charming to the extreme. Took me half an hour to realize the female lead was worried about sleeping with someone before marriage.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): There’s a compelling grimness and sadness here that contrasts nicely with the stereotypically “grand” idea of the Western that director John Ford had himself helped to popularize. Jimmy Stewart is fair, but John Wayne is wonderful as the taciturn cowboy doomed to lose his love.
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999): I hadn’t revisited this in years, and it’s so much stronger and stranger than I remembered. I think I love it now.
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): One of the many films I had a chance to revisit thanks to long plane rides as I traveled to and from Italy for a vacation. Still one of my all-time favorites.
- There Will Be Blood (2007): Daniel Plainview’s heartbreak stood out so much this time. He was always a dark, driven man—he adopted H.W. just to have a living prop with which to engender sympathy from clients—but the betrayal of his false brother really starts to send him over the edge.
- MacGruber (2010): My wife will never understand my love for this movie. But that’s just KFBR392 KFBR392 KFBR392
- Zodiac (2007): The script here is so good. It resists every urge to streamline things or present a more familiar cops-and-killer plotline. I think it’s Fincher’s Americana masterpiece.
- The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): A noxious, unrelenting film that has totally grown on me since I saw it. It’s tough to watch because it’s Goodfellas where no one gets punished. Most movies actually show the bad guys suffering for their sins in some way, even Scorsese’s mob tales. 2 Jordan Bellfort is Scorsese’s most unsettling villain precisely because he’s still walking around free.
- Waiting for Guffman (1996): Guest’s best.
- The Usual Suspects (1995): The rare case where the villain gets away with it because the audience was duped all along. I grew up with this movie—I was 13 the year it came out, and I saw it at some point in high school and just absorbed it through my pores—and I can always turn to it as comfort food.
- Up (2009): Still some of the tightest, most emotional storytelling Pixar has ever done. The emotions and metaphors are so perfectly in sync—Carl is literally tethered to his old life—that it seems to have been sent to their studio from beyond.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011): Falls into that class of films like Syriana, where the plot is understandable at any given moment but becomes much harder to synthesize or summarize afterward. Pleasantly gloomy, in a 1970s-revival kind of way.
- Tender Mercies (1983)
The Program (2015): A by-the-book story about Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal that suffers from the problem that plagues many biopics: namely, it operates with the understanding that we already know the real story (or most of it), so it doesn’t work that hard to make the characters seem real or to make the emotional beats land with any sense. AKA the Foxcatcher Problem.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989): Going in, I was worried this would devolve into a love triangle—two brothers and the woman who comes between them—but, blessedly, it’s not that. It’s so much richer and sadder and more wonderful. The mercurial interplay between the Bridges brothers is fantastic, and script is outstanding. (The line “We were always small time, but we were never clowns” cuts clean and deep.)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): It’s known more than anything for its now-iconic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but there’s so much more here, including great comic performances from Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013): When a movie sits unreleased on the shelf for years, it’s usually for a good reason.
- The Sting (1973): My dad introduced me to this when I was in middle school, and watching it reminds me of childhood. It’s stunning that Redford and Newman only costarred twice.
- Jackie Brown (1997): My favorite Tarantino, and one of his best. It’s an example of his ability to bring his own style to a story without going overboard or getting in his own way.
- Interstellar (2014): I revisited this in hopes it might’ve gotten better since its release, but no dice. The visuals and score are still rousing, and there are some great ideas here about human adventure. But the actual drama is oddly handled, the emotional arguments feel written by someone who has never had emotions before (love bends gravity across wormholes, basically), and the dialogue is among the worst in any Christopher Nolan movie. The people here speak in aphorisms and lectures. No one actually talks to each other.
- The Hunt for Red October (1990)
- Ocean’s Eleven (2001): Smart, slick, and still entertaining.
- The American President (1995): It’s not just weird that Martin Sheen, who would play the president on The West Wing four years later, plays the president’s chief of staff here; it’s that he’s so strong that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do. I think it’s why The West Wing gave its own president and chief such different personalities.
- Wayne’s World (1993): You quote it more than you realize.
- Patriot Games (1992): The best of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan movies.
- Ocean’s Thirteen (2007): The weakest in the series, not least because the awkward dialogue never persuasively sells the absence of the female leads from the previous films. Moreover, it feels too much like a retread of the first one, and it lacks the twisty playfulness that made Ocean’s Twelve such a great sequel.
- The Aviator (2004): Staggeringly dull. It suffers the common biopic problem (the story doesn’t stand on its own), and the acting and plotting are loose and unengaging. Almost a textbook case of hollow award bait.
- Clear and Present Danger (1994): Nothing like an action movie that ends with congressional testimony.
- The Firm (1993): Amazon Prime is the new TNT.
- Good Night, and Good Luck (2005): How to do historical fiction right. Killer cast, and Clooney’s smart enough to get out of his own way.
- Mission: Impossible (1996): Absolutely holds up.
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952): Marilyn Monroe chews the walls a little, but you feel bad for her.
Teacher’s Pet (1958): Doris Day is a journalism teacher, Clark Gable is a chauvinist reporter, you get it.
After the Thin Man (1936): After rewatching The Thin Man (still brilliant), I decided to watch its five sequels, which I’d never seen before. This one’s cute and pleasant, and it features Jimmy Stewart in one of his first roles.
My Man Godfrey (1936): Absolutely wonderful. Hilarious, brisk, smart, warm-hearted. Makes me want to sit down and watch everything William Powell ever did.
I Married a Witch (1942): A nice little diversion, like catching a matinee.
Mr. Holmes (2015): It took me at least two sittings to power through this. I didn’t know it was possible to make Sherlock Holmes this boring, especially when he’s played by Ian McKellen, but there you go.
Another Thin Man (1939): The introduction of Nick and Nora’s son was perhaps inevitable, but the movies never knew what to do with him. This one’s fun mostly to see a young Sheldon Leonard.
Adam’s Rib (1949): Oddly bitter and intractable, especially given the presence of director George Cukor. Casting Hepburn and Tracy as married attorneys who face off in court is a fine idea, they’re just never sold as a realistic couple. (I know.)
Love & Friendship (2016): Pitch perfect. Kate Beckinsale is exactly right for the beautiful, conniving, ultimately undone heroine.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941): Another so-so outing, though worth seeing for the completionist.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016): The Lonely Island guys seem destined to make weird comedies that vanish on release but are regarded as cult brilliance down the line. MacGruber fit the bill, as did Hot Rod before it.3 Popstar is hilarious and weird and often insane, and it’s amazing it even got made.
- Ronin (1998): Some of the best dialogue in any action movie.
- The Thin Man (1934)
- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2003): Way too much style over substance.
- Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015): Still a great popcorn action movie.
- The Insider (1999): Not as sexy as Heat or other Michael Mann movies, but every bit as brilliant. Might be his best work.
- Insomnia (2002): Christopher Nolan’s style is already forming here. It’s a solid cop thriller.
- Michael Clayton (2007): This screenplay is music. I could listen to just the audio track and be moved. An absolutely amazing movie that just grows more on me over time.
- Inception (2010): Hyped to the moon and back when it came out, since it was Nolan’s first original, non-remake, non-adaptation. And it’s still good.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945): The Nick and Nora series rebounds.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years (2016): Somewhat toothless and bland, but worth it just for the footage of the band’s live performances.
Repo Man (1984): Easily one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in awhile. Favorite touch: the post-apocalyptic “food” cans.
The Gambler (1974): James Caan is so good he makes you feel sympathy for a guy who extorts his own mother to finance his gambling addiction. Very 1970s (no clear transitions or establishing shots, a sense of general dread and defeat in the air) in the best way.
- Quiz Show (1994): I saw this when it came out, though I was only 12 at the time, making it one of the rare “adult” dramas I saw at that age. It’s stayed with me ever since, and I go back often. It feels sadly overlooked these days.
- The Witch (2016): Just as unsettling the second time.
Song of the Thin Man (1947): One of the great things about the Nick and Nora series is how it charted developments in pop culture during a key era in American history. The series ran from 1934 to 1947, and you see the changes in music, clothes, hair, attitudes, etc. This is a fitting send-off, since it’s in large part about Nick and Nora getting older and no longer being the cool kids.
Double Wedding (1937): One of the 14 movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together, and fantastic. Twist I didn’t see coming: no one actually gets married.
Hell or High Water (2016): Some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but it’s a strong movie. Kind of like No Country for Old Men with the edges sanded down.
Don’t Think Twice (2016): A major leap for Mike Birbiglia as a director, since it was written for the screen and not adapted from his standup.
O.J.: Made in America (2016): One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It would’ve been so easy for the filmmakers to just spend a few minutes sketching out a backstory, but they go all the way back to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and progress from there. It becomes breathtaking look at race, class, and fame in America.
Manchester by the Sea (2016): Devastating and great.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- The Color of Money (1986)
Nocturnal Animals (2016): A very good movie wrapped in a very bad one. Almost weird to think they’re all one piece.
La La Land (2016): A staggering failure. 1) Why would you make a musical with people who can’t sing? 2) Why would you spend a movie working toward narrative completion only to crap out, as if afraid of commitment? 3) Why are you afraid of sincerity?
Arrival (2016): Beautiful, brilliant, intelligent science fiction. One of my favorites of the year. A perfect movie.
Jackie (2016): I was never able to lock in and see Natalie Portman as the character. I just felt like I was watching someone do an odd impression for 100 minutes. Stylistically, she’s the closest of the cast to their real-life counterparts, but that winds up making it feel even more like a gimmick. Peter Sarsgaard is a bizarre choice for Bobby, and not even hair and makeup (including what looks like an oral prosthesis to give him more of an overbite) make him look like Bobby, but he winds up feeling like a real person simply because he doesn’t come across as somebody riffing on a known figure. Similarly, John Carroll Lynch plays LBJ, and he doesn’t look much like him at all (certainly not even as much as Bryan Cranston did in All the Way), but with just a few gestures and hints of an accent, he gets the job done. Perversely, although the film is designed to (in part) humanize Jackie, I wound up feeling bad for Natalie Portman. She just seemed trapped by the size and tone of the role. If she’d been herself just a bit more, she would have been Jackie through and through.
Moonlight (2016): One of the most beautiful, powerful movies I’ve seen. Gorgeous in every way. The kind of movie that makes you use words like “masterpiece.”
Rogue One (2016): Total shitshow. More here.
Moana (2016): Really cute and fun. A couple of the jokes veer into DreamWorks territory (“When you use a bird to write, it’s called tweeting”), a reminder that this is a Disney Animation Studios movie, not a Pixar one. But overall, it’s really enjoyable. Fantastic music, too.
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- White Christmas (1954): Becoming a Christmas Eve tradition for me.
- The Nice Guys (2016)
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 704
Animated films: 2
Foreign (non-English-language5) films: 1
Movies released in 2016: 206 Movies released before 2016: 507 Movies released before 2000: 328 Movies released before 1950: 129 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 2
Favorites (in alphabetical order):
The Fabulous Baker Boys
My Man Godfrey
The Nice Guys
O.J.: Made in America
What We Do in the Shadows
The exception being 1988’s Big, which I saw when I was probably around the same age as the child Tom Hanks plays. (You get it.) It remains the most lighthearted movie ever made about child abduction and possible slavery.↩
Maybe even especially these; his latent Catholicism is strong, plus in Hollywood, the villain usually has to pay.↩
I haven’t come around on Hot Rod, but I adore MacGruber.↩
To keep things easy, these numbers only cover films that were new to me, not rewatches.↩
As opposed to, say, a British film, which is technically foreign for U.S. viewers but not what comes to mind when you think “foreign film.”↩
29% of the total↩
71% of the total↩
46% of the total↩
17% of the total↩
As I did last year, I’ve broken the list into two sections, one for books I finished and the other for those I didn’t. I read some wonderful things this year, things that stayed with me and shaped my worldview, starting with the first book of the year.
The Human Nature of Playwriting, Samson Raphaelson (1949): Purchased for research while I was writing this piece. Raphaelson was a playwright and screenwriter most notable for a nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. In 1948, he taught a course at the University of Illinois about playwriting, and this book is an edited collection of the transcripts of his weekly lessons. The group discussions and the dissection of the students’ material are fantastic, and Raphaelson’s observations about life, art, and creativity are beautifully honest and devoid of false sentimentality. I think about this book often.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King (2015) (selections): King can still do a number of things well—suspense, pacing—but his dialogue and sense of character, which were never consistent to begin with, are only weakening with time. I slogged through a few stories here, but I couldn’t make it all the way. What’s fascinating is that each story is introduced by a brief (one- or two-page) note from King about the situation or thought process that inspired it, and in these notes he writes with clarity and honesty about the complicated drama of human life in ways that never seem to make it into his fiction.
The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010) (reread, selections)
The Twelve, Justin Cronin (2012) (reread, selections)
I dug back into Justin Cronin’s work to prepare for writing this feature (here’s a fuller version of the interview). The first book in Cronin’s Passage trilogy—continued in The Twelve and The City of Mirrors—is in many ways the strongest, in part because it hums with the energy of an author finally allowing himself to tackle the project he’s always dreamed of doing. The opening sequence, which sets up the sad home life of the soon-to-be-orphaned little girl named Amy, remains some of the most affecting work he’s done. The Twelve is strong, too, especially for the way Cronin avoids predictable outcomes and takes the story to interesting places.
The Summer Guest, Justin Cronin (2004) (selections): Again, the prologue could stand on its own as a great short story. What follows looks good, too; I only moved on because I was trying to cram in as much of Cronin’s bibliography as possible before interviewing him.
The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin (2016): A strong end to the trilogy, and a deft exploration of how rumors turn into stories on their way to becoming legends. The series is, in many ways, about the way we shape our communities and traditions through storytelling.
Mary and O’Neil, Justin Cronin (2001): Billed as a novel told in short stories, though if it’d come out a decade later, it would’ve just been called a novel (like A Visit From the Goon Squad). Even in straight literary fiction, though, Cronin’s humaneness comes through.
The Sportswriter, Richard Ford (1986): Beautiful, stunning, evocative. I picked up more Bascombe books before I was even finished.
Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2001): Absolutely wonderful. It all moves so effortlessly, and it’s so full of humor and sadness and connection.
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993): One of the (many) good things here is the way the story pushes beyond the initial amazement that its characters feel about being the first to colonize Mars and moves quickly into the tangled, internecine conflicts and relationships that mark the political struggle to tame a new frontier.
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996): Endearing and brisk, though I keep feeling that there’s something in Gaiman’s work his fans see that I do not.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1867): I spent more time in 2016 reading this than any other book. I read Notes From Underground a couple years ago, and I read bits and pieces of abridged treatments of the author’s work in school, but I felt a strong desire to tackle the real thing.1 The scenes depicting Raskolnikov’s crimes are as taut and breathless as anything ever written, and its investigation of guilt and duty is sublime. I’m glad I sat with this.
The Tenth Man, Graham Greene (1985): The ideal quick shot to chase a book as big as Crime and Punishment (and, appropriately, dealing with the same ideas).
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007): I tried and failed to stay hooked with this one a year or two earlier, but after snagging a well-loved mass-market paperback at Half Price Books, I jumped back in and devoured it. It’s got just the right amount of purple prose, balance with humor and a humming narrative.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders (1996): There is no David Foster Wallace without George Saunders. This collection deals a lot with capitalism taken to apocalyptic extremes, but it’s still warm-hearted, as expected.
Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut (1968) (selections): I say “selections” because I’m not finished as of this writing, though I will be soon.2 Going in, I was only familiar with “Harrison Bergeron,” having come to Vonnegut only in college when I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, and that on my own, not in the context of an assigned reading for class. The collection is wistful and dark and beautiful. Everything you could really want.
Left By the Wayside
On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005): I didn’t make it far. I remember liking White Teeth quite a bit, but I couldn’t stay interested in this one.
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (2016): Some neat ideas (magic is real, etc.), but the approach felt a little too broad. The best way I found to describe it would be to imagine a book created by the comments section of Boing Boing.
In alphabetical order:
Crime and Punishment
The Human Nature of Playwriting
The Name of the Wind
I am almost perversely fascinated by the Russian masters, to the point where I feel like I need to read the greatest hits of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others if I ever want to understand humanity. I do not know where this belief comes from, but I have it.↩
One of the great things about collections of short stories is being able to move around in them out of sequence, or coming back to the collection a month later to finish it off.↩
For Musings, I wrote about A Christmas Carol, and why the story constantly calls to us:
• If the thought-sucking monster was able to determine that Bodhi, the pilot, was telling the truth about defecting from the Empire, then why did Saw Gerrera still suspect that Jyn and others had been sent to kill him? Wouldn’t he have learned the truth from the monster? What exactly did the monster do to the pilot?
• Was that a giant statue of a Jedi collapsed into the sands outside Jedha? Was Jedha a home for Jedi? Is the name “Jedha” supposed to signify that? Are the Jedi viewed as legends? Rogue One takes place about 20 years after the events depicted in Revenge of the Sith. Have the Jedi been turned into mere rumors in that time? How could a force that served as “the guardians of peace and justice” for “over a thousand generations” become so forgotten so quickly?1
• What was the point of staging a prologue to set up Galen Erso’s flight from the Empire and Jyn’s subsequent abandonment if those events would just be repeated in visuals and dialogue later in the film?
• Why does Darth Vader live by himself in a tower above a river of lava on what’s apparently an otherwise barren planet? Isn’t he a pretty important figure to the Empire? What’s more, how could the film so drastically misjudge the tone and place of his character? At the outset of Star Wars, Vader is an imposing commander but essentially a lackey of Grand Moff Tarkin. Other Imperial commanders openly mock him and his belief in the Force, as well as his confidence in the Death Star. Tarkin’s able to command him with ease. Vader’s role as someone to fear and cower before wasn’t increased until The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as he took a greater role in overseeing the Imperial’s efforts against the rebels.
Darth Vader’s first appearance in Star Wars is a menacing one, and his strength is made clear when he lifts a man up by the throat with one hand. But his displays of what could be called “Force power” are limited: he chokes a disrespectful Imperial commander (only to be called off by Tarkin), he engages in a brief lightsaber duel with his old master, and he proves to be a decent pilot who senses the Force in Luke Skywalker. In Rogue One, though, Vader is cartoonishly powerful, smashing through things and throwing people with the Force in a way he never does again. How are we to reconcile this swift-moving, hotheaded villain with the one who will emerge minutes later into the opening of the first Star Wars? Did no one involved with making Rogue One stop to think that this kind of thing would be jarring? Or did they simply not care? Even when he uses the Force to choke someone here, it’s not to make a point (e.g., that the Force is real and should be respected), it’s just to be petty. And he caps it off with two puns in one sentence, growling, “Do not choke on your aspirations.” Who is this even supposed to be?
• Not a single thing here feels original or interesting. That’s not to say there wasn’t potential to tell an interesting story about a suicide mission during a war, and there’s plenty of cinematic precedent (The Dirty Dozen, etc.). But there hasn’t been a Star Wars film that pushes the narrative forward and is also creatively original since The Empire Strikes Back.
• Alan Tudyk’s role as the droid K-2SO is a sad bastardization of his role as Wash, the comedic pilot from the short-lived series Firefly and its follow-up film, Serenity. It stinks of desperation, with bad jokes shoved in at odd moments, as if the filmmakers are afraid of people sitting still for 60 consecutive seconds and having their own thoughts.
• What’s the importance or significance of the crystal Jen’s mother gives her as a child? This is, apparently, a kyber crystal, which Jyn expositionally tells another character are used to power2 lightsabers. Kyber crystals are also the fuel the Empire is harvesting for the Death Star’s laser. But what does any of that have to do with the necklace? Jyn’s mother tells her to trust the Force, and the blind aspiring Jedi seems to sense the necklace on Jyn’s person; does the necklace have some kind of, I don’t know, Force resonance or something? Why does Jyn have it? What does it add to the narrative? What would be missing from the narrative if the necklace didn’t exist?
• The blind aspiring Jedi is named Chirrut. His helper/friend is named Baze. I had to look both of those names up after the movie, because I had no idea what they were from the film. That’s a problem.
Why was no effort made to make any of the characters feel remotely real, even as stock archetypes? The names of all Rogue One characters mentioned in this post have been checked against IMDb because I remembered almost none of them, even before the credits rolled.
• The hologram message Galen leaves for Jyn is almost a hilariously rushed exposition dump. You can see Mads Mikkelsen working to spit out everything before his time is up. That’s a big problem with Rogue One: it relies more on people telling you something happened than on you being able to see it happen. Saw and Jyn’s discussion of their time together has the same false ring. Are we to understand that he abandoned her? They were in some army together? How did that abandonment play into Jyn’s father issues?
• There are so many desperate, cloying attempts to remind people of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that it feels as if some basic law of storytelling has been violated. The ugly, angry guy from the Mos Eisley cantina shows up here to bump into someone and threaten them. The hatch Jyn lifts herself through is copied from the Millennium Falcon, specifically a shot at the end of Empire.
• Genuinely interesting idea left thoroughly unexplored: Galen Erso’s decision to become a collaborator with the Empire so that he could build a weakness into the Death Star, and what it means to make a moral judgment to become an accomplice in the murder of millions in hopes of saving billions. Can you imagine that weight? More importantly, can you imagine an intelligent thriller that reckons with that weight?
• It’s tough to feel any of the suspense the movie clearly wants you to feel, since we already know the plans are going to be successfully stolen and transmitted to the rebels. The mounting number of complications (hook up that thing! now climb that thing! move that other thing!) are just kicking the can down the road in an attempt to draw out the sequences and make it feel more robust. When the ending isn’t in doubt, the story has to be about the people, and what they’re experiencing. That was almost nonexistent.
• Why on earth is Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, resurrected via CGI for this film? Could no one think of a story that didn’t involve his Tarkin character? Did no one stop to think about the oddness of having a CGI human walking around through the frame? The franchise is, obviously, no stranger to special effects, and its human actors have been talking to puppets, green screens, and CGI creations for 40 years now. But there’s a vast difference between an alien created by animation and that animation’s attempts to want us to believe that the human being standing before our eyes is a real one, not a ghastly cartoon. Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How on earth can disbelief be suspended this much? Similarly, why was that abominable treatment used to render a young Carrie Fisher? Did no one, at any point, understand how uncomfortable and weird and sad this would look?
• Was there, at some point, a better movie here? While movie trailers are never wholly representative of the movies themselves, and while it’s common for trailers to include things that don’t make the final cut, the discrepancy between the trailer’s description of the plot and characters and the film’s depiction of same is jarring. The trailer featured, among other things, the shot of Jyn in a stormtrooper outfit in a tunnel designed to evoke The Empire Strikes Back; the TIE fighter rising up to meet her as she walked across scaffolding; Saw’s lines about “what will you become”; the whole “I rebel” thing. Things seemed to be fundamentally different at some point. Director Gareth Edwards has also said that the film’s reshoots more than tripled the number of effects shots, which would track with a corporate desire to bludgeon people into acceptance of a franchise instead of offering them a potentially challenging but rewarding story.
• The film’s decision to end in the minutes before the beginning of the first Star Wars film—indeed, to essentially staple its plot onto that one—is another potentially interesting idea that feels cheap and manipulative. This is a film, after all, that relies heavily at every turn on reminding viewers about older movies. By grafting itself onto the film that started it all, it’s essentially trying to borrow that film’s iconography and staying power, instead of finding some for its own. It is not an accident that so many people enjoyed that sequence: it was a re-enactment of something they already liked.