I had a good time writing this piece for Bright Wall/Dark Room about the intersection of David Lynch and David Foster Wallace:
“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.
Trump is a xenophobic, misogynistic, lying, venom-spewing representation of cruelty run wild.
Hillary Clinton is a little stiff on camera.
Yep, those are definitely the same kind of problems, kudos to the baby boomers who wail about two equally bad choices, you are right, you are so right, I pray that you live long lives that we may have your insight in our lives for just that much longer, you shining beacons of the best of us.
Fathers of daughters, shed upon me the light of your wisdom that so praises a man who would grab your daughter’s groin by force.
Mothers of sons, impart to me the worldview that turns rape into equivocation and bigotry into differences of opinion.
You sad angry creatures, crawling in the dirt in fear of a God you’ve turned into a bully, you find yourselves cowering before a tyrant because separatism and destruction are what you believe we all deserve.
You fearful insecure wretches, crawling toward the dark heat of someone else’s anger, thrusting your hands into the black flames for warmth, praying to a God you’re scared of to make things OK.
You hypocrites, you who boast about not wanting to vote, you who wear your ignorance with pride, you who forfeit your chance to change the world and then bitch, bitch, bitch when the world does not conform to your dreams, what did you expect.
You scariest and most unknowable of all, you people who welcome hatred and separatism and discord, who conflate conflict with oppression, who want to burn the house down in order to save the field, you who wish destruction upon us all simply because you want a change of scenery—I do not know what to do; I am weighed down, struck dumb, by what’s roiling inside you.
I grew up in a denomination of fear and shame and self-loathing, of dogma fetishized at the expense of real people, of grace shouted down by subordination, so it’s not like I don’t understand the bone-deep appeal of listening to a hateful man tell you that you are right and The World is wrong and out to persecute you—swap in some top 10 verses for assertions about the sexual crimes of immigrants, and you’ve basically got every church camp I ever attended.
But in the paraphrased words of Dr. King, fuck that hateful shit right to the curb and back.
This is not a difference of opinion, or an instance where educated people of different political or spiritual worldviews might reasonably find themselves supporting different candidates for office.
This is a bayonet fight in the trenches of no man’s land, and there can be no quarter given to those who preach hate and intolerance and division.
You want the universe’s moral arc to bend toward justice, you better start pulling on that bar and bending it with every bone in your hands.
I am Eustace scraping these scales from my arms to bleed, and I feel blessedly farther every day from the shame and self-destruction I was taught, and I am nauseated by the silence of men and women who idolize exclusivity and control and imagine paradise’s doors to be very small.
When you tell yourself that only certain people will be saved, that only certain ones can ever deserve it, then of course you will find yourself taking succor in the words of a man who tells you you were right, that you are special and no one else is.
I feel lakes of pity for people who hold to him, as if he offers the certainty of salvation or freedom, who believe all manner of conspiracy theories about Clinton but ignore the factually documented sins of their own favorite son simply because they would rather be rigid than flexible, fundamentalist than nuanced.
The really sick fucking part of it is how much Trump reminds me of my youth: the certainty, the exclusion, the absolute surety that we had it right and everyone else had it wrong. The homophobia, the xenophobia, the misogyny. The way women got to work in the kitchen but never speak in front of a congregation. The way they could hold and pass a communion tray but not be trusted to walk around and help pass it from row to row, as if this was too much, an affront, a violation of God’s own rules. This background and history of fear and self-hatred, when the only way out seemed to be to hate the enemy more than you hated yourself. The loud declamations, the visceral language, the proclamations. Everything born of anger, which is born of fear. The fear of not being able to do enough. The feeling that mercy was weak and grace nonexistent, something you’d heard about but could never touch or feel. That you could never sit still and feel calm, so the only answer must be to go faster and stay distracted. To never ask the big questions, or any questions. To be cowed, to cower. He is the return of those evil things and divisions I have spent my life running from. And to see people clinging to him makes me wonder if anyone ever gets out alive.
Emma died this morning. She was 14 years old, hewn from steel and fueled by piss and vinegar. She’d beaten death twice already: once when she was 7 and accidentally overdosed on medicine for her early-onset arthritis, and again when she was 12 and had a neural sheath rumor removed from her left rear leg. Nothing stopped her. She experienced a rapid decline in the past few days, and tests showed advanced lymphoma, the treatment for which would be more torturous than she deserved in her state. Every living being has its time, though anyone who’s ever been in that room can tell you that knowing something and living in it are different things.
She was fiercely protective, loving to her family, the definition of loyal. She was stubborn and strong and happy and goofy. Her head was strong as a rock. She would fart in her sleep and wake up confused. She’d been abused as a puppy, before Tracy ever got her, and she didn’t like people touching her head or feet, the psychic wounds from her earlier life never quite disappearing. But she loved us and knew we loved her. If we accidentally bumped her foot, she’d yip out of habit, but then immediately wag her tail and kiss us, apologizing for her overreaction. She knew us and knew our life. She saved my wife’s life and taught me how to care for an animal. (She viewed my arrival seven years ago as a personal boon; she gained an employee, and never let me forget it. I loved it.) She growled at the cats and loved broccoli stalks. She hated the vacuum cleaner and loved to sit by our feet and work on a bone. She loved ear rubs and would groan and dig her head into my hand, then shake her head and pant and kiss my hand and bump her nose into me: again, again.
Emma, Emma Louise, Emmaline Emma Mine, Deedees, Deeds, a dozen more. All those names and songs you use for your pets that exist only within the walls of your home, that become the language that defines your particular life. Ems. No other dog like her. Never has been or will be. She was my pup.
I miss my dog. Most days I try not to think about it, or at any rate, I don’t go looking for ways to think about it. Her absence is most noticeable when I come home from work: instead of being greeted by her, tail wagging, barking for dinner or a treat, I open the door to silence. The first few days after she died, I kept thinking that the pillows on the couch were her head, and I realized I was so accustomed to knowing where she was that my brain was still trying to make the connection with whatever object was nearby. Mornings are probably when I think about her most. I used to get up and feed her before work, along with the cats, and I was accustomed to the routine: let her out to pee, feed her, let her out again to poop, pet her for a bit, hop in the shower, and start my day. On my way out the door, I’d pet her again and tell her: “You stay here, be a good dog, watch the house.” None of that happens now, and even though she’s been gone almost four weeks, my mornings still feel scattered and shortened in ways I can’t really process. I know we’ll eventually get another dog, and it’ll probably (hopefully) be another square-headed goofball with a strong personality. This is the first time I’ve had to do this, though — say goodbye to a pet like this — so I’m still feeling my way uncertainly down the path. I just miss my dog.
Nothing ever replaces a pet after they’re gone. This is something I might have been able to abstractly guess in a different life, but since I’m actually dealing with such losses firsthand, I’m able to appreciate what the idea really means. Specifically, that there’s both joy and sorrow in that recognition. Joy because you know that every animal has its own personality, and that no other pet will ever be quite like it; your memories with them can’t be duplicated. And sorrow because it’s only when you bring a new animal into your life that you realize that the new happiness you feel, the new love, doesn’t close the wound made by the loss of the one that came before. You might think it would, or that it would work as a kind of linear continuum — love a pet, mourn its loss, begin the cycle anew — but the truth is more complicated. Think of each pet’s time as a different story, all of them existing next to each other, like books on a shelf. The happy memories you have of one of them, or the sadness you feel after they’re gone, are separate from the new creature’s experience of you and your life together.
This isn’t a bad thing, either, this bloodied web of feelings we have for the lives we bring into our own. This is what life is. It’s a rich, weird, overwhelming thing. I will never stop loving Emma — my Deeds, my Goofus T. Rufus, my guard dog and alarm clock, my sweet girl — and, though I know the pain will dull with time, I’ll never stop missing her, either. How could I? How could any of us cut loose from ourselves the connections we’d made with a living being? I don’t have to give up that love to love something else. I don’t have to stop talking about her, or thinking of the good and bad times we went through, to care for a new animal. Any attempt to do so would be self-deceptive at best and self-destructive at worst. We are built for relationships, even after they’re over.
About a month after Emma died, Tracy learned about a dog living at the Humane Society. She was, of all things, the same mix of breeds as our Emma — part bull terrier, part blue heeler — but in different proportions. She was shorter, lighter, more squat. We went out to meet the dog one afternoon and were struck by the ghost of Emma. This new dog wasn’t the same of course — she had no compunctions about letting us touch her feet or tail, and her personality was less domineering — but she had a kindness and physical compatibility that reminded us of Ems. We also knew that her chances for adoption were low: she was four years old, where most people wanted puppies or younger dogs; she was heartworm-positive, where most people wanted a dog with a clean bill of health. Having heartworms isn’t a death sentence, but it’s a condition that the Humane Society isn’t equipped to treat: the medication requires the dog to keep a calmer schedule than a shelter, even one as caring and resourceful as the Humane Society, can reasonably provide. Without a home, she would continue living at the shelter, her veins pumping sickness invisibly through her body, until her options had run out. We decided to bring her home for a two-week trial run, which would let us see if she’d acclimate to our house (and cats) and would also let us start to treat her heartworms. And so, six days later, after buying toys and supplies, we went back to the shelter to get her.
Tomorrow marks two weeks since we rescued her, but we knew within a day of bringing her home that we had, indeed, brought her home. She’s ours, in every way. It feels like a restoration to have a dog in the house again, and this one is wonderful. She’s smart and strong, inquisitive and playful. (Probably — well, definitely — more playful than the cats would like.) I see in her the shadow of Emma, and I remember all those experiences even as we make new ones. I feel that fullness. Her first day at the house, she tentatively walked through our backyard, still uncertain of her surroundings. Now she prances from one end to the other, patrolling what has unmistakably become her territory. She’ll clock the mailman through the living room window when he’s still across the street, letting out a low growl and sniffing imperially.
She’s so loving and affectionate, happiest when she’s in physical contact with me or Tracy. Our first night with her, we tried to get her to sleep in her crate, but she didn’t like that at all. We dragged her pillow to the ground next to my side of the bed, and she curled up and went to sleep. In the mornings, when I leave for work, she hops up onto the bed and naps next to Tracy. We learned when we first visited her that she’d been kept outside by a previous owner, who returned her for being “destructive,” not realizing that the dog was lonely and bored. She never has to go through something like that again. She has so much love to give, and she just wants a place to call home. We love her already.
This is Sadie.
For Musings, I take a look at the trilogy of Jack Ryan movies from the early 1990s, and how they reflected the global politics and action aesthetics of the time. I can now happily check “Get paid to write about The Hunt for Red October” off my bucket list.
For Musings, I wrote about Tender Mercies and The Apostle, in an attempt to examine the intangibility of belief and the challenge of convincingly portraying on film something that looks and feels differently for everyone who experiences it.
I interviewed Justin Cronin for Houstonia magazine. Cronin is the author of The Passage and its sequels, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors, a trilogy of post-apocalyptic literary thrillers that follow a group of people fighting for survival after a deadly plague wipes out most of the world’s population and turns some of its victims into vampiric monsters. We talked for a couple of hours at his place about creativity, how to make a living as a writer, and what kinds of stories get him going. I’m really happy with the resulting feature, and the extended interview is filled with great observations about (among other things) culture, the industry, and how the Cold War shaped Cronin’s personality.
Extended interview: An Extended Conversation with Houston Novelist Justin Cronin
For Musings, I wrote about Samson Raphaelson, a playwright and screenwriter most notable for his nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. I discovered Raphaelson after watching the Criterion release of 1943’s Heaven Can Wait, which featured among its extras a thirty-minute PBS documentary about Raphaelson, who was then in his 80s. He came at the screen a man possessed, shaking his hands and extolling the virtue in screenplays of human characteristics above all else. To say I fell somewhat in love would not be inaccurate. He wrote a book called The Human Nature of Playwriting1, drawn from a course he taught in 1948, that’s just as illuminating.
• When we talk about this movie, we’re really talking about Heath Ledger. He died in January 2008, six months before The Dark Knight came out, and though he also appeared posthumously in 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it’s The Dark Knight that’s considered his true final role.1 His death at such a young age — he was 28 — gave the film’s nihilistic horror an unearthly sheen; it felt, in a sense, like it was his role as the Joker that had taken him away. He’s absolutely stunning in the part, too, in a way that makes everyone else look drab and stilted by comparison. As a character (often historically but especially, and more importantly, within the specific world of The Dark Knight), the Joker is effective because he’s willing to go farther than others to achieve his goals. He has no regard for human life or society’s structures. He murders with glee. Ledger is smart and strong enough to be able to play this insanity as straight as possible. He occasionally bursts into ugly, shrieking laughter, but more often than not he just smacks his lips and blinks a few times and gets on with it. His performance is anchored in a sense of commitment: this Joker, this unnamed and unnameable killer, believes wholeheartedly in the righteousness and purpose of his destructive causes. There’s a look in his eyes as he cavorts around town that says he can’t believe he’s getting away everything, and that he thinks his opponents are laughably dumb. It’s Ledger’s performance that makes the movie, and his acknowledged absence from today’s world that makes it so haunting.
• If Batman Begins spawned imitators who aped that film’s grim tone and heady self-seriousness, The Dark Knight was responsible for popularizing an even more frustrating trend: the villain’s ludicrously complicated plot. Partly this is because The Dark Knight, as a whole, has a much more sprawling plot than the first film. I am writing this the day after rewatching the movie, and honestly I’m still having trouble coming up with a tidy summary. Here’s what I came up with:
Gotham’s mobsters pool their money to avoid it being seized by Batman and the cops, and their accountant — a CEO of a Chinese company — absconds with a money to keep it secure. Batman captures the businessman and puts him in police custody, but the mob wants him, too, so they hire the Joker to get him and reclaim their money. Along the way, the gangsters realize that employing a sociopath of the Joker’s caliber was probably not the wisest course of action, and the Joker starts to consolidate power so that he can provide Gotham City with “a better class of criminal.” Essentially, Batman’s job is to help the cops and D.A. Harvey Dent preserve a semblance of law and order, while the Joker wreaks havoc to his own end.
I think it’s pretty accurate, though I feel like it’s still incorrect on some level I can’t identify. The movie is more of an experience than a story, like a pop version of Malick.
• Now, this is admittedly a little hairier than the plot to Batman Begins, and one far more reliant on the nebulous conflict between opposing points of view than on action motivated by belief. It also features a series of fantastically executed action set pieces that turn out to be part of a plan for the Joker to allow himself to be kidnapped so that he can then break out of the police station with the Chinese businessman he’s been hired to hunt, a plan that sails right past Rube Goldberg and into all-new realms of luck-fueled machinations. The story manages to hang together because of director Christopher Nolan’s energy and sense of pace, but many action movies that followed failed in their attempts to cook up similarly complex plots. Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness come to mind: both featured villains who acted out ridiculous, billion-piece plans that made almost no sense.
• The film’s convoluted plot does turn out to hold water, but it also works because it’s a structural reflection of the emotional chaos caused by the Joker. This is, after all, a villain whose m.o. is to destroy social order just to see if he can. Batman Begins took story pieces — a toxic hallucinogen, a conspiracy to poison the water supply, a stolen piece of military equipment — and threaded them together in a loose mystery. It was Batman’s job to solve the mystery and, then, to stop the villains from carrying out their plan. The Dark Knight inverts this: the Joker’s goal is clear from the start, and he even telegraphs his moves by leaving notes in which he names his successive victims. It’s anti-mystery. Batman’s job isn’t to solve the puzzle, but to realize he might not be able to stop it. Indeed, while the first film ends with the death of the villain2, this one ends with the Joker surviving after delivering a speech about how he and Batman are “destined to do this forever.”
• The Dark Knight is demonstrably bigger in scale than Batman Begins — tons of location shooting, multiple scenes filmed in IMAX, a larger plot — but it’s also, in its way, less organized and less believable. Part of what makes Batman Begins so strong is its sense of what it is and what story it wants to tell. The Dark Knight, though, is a moodier meditation on the nature of good and evil, and its a bit shaggier as a result. Still great in many ways, and good in many others. But not quite as finely tuned as its predecessor.
• The Dark Knight makes a big deal out of Batman’s “one rule,” which is that he refuses to kill. The screenplay hammers this pretty hard, in more than few lines of clumsy dialogue that make the subtext into just plain old text. Yet Batman Begins ends with Batman essentially murdering Ra’s al Ghul. They’re locked in a fistfight aboard a runaway elevated train when Ra’s al Ghul realizes that he’s been had and that the train is about to go flying off the track. Batman looks at him and says, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you,” then opens his cape and flies away. Boom, train careens into the ground, Ra’s al Ghul is presumably crushed to a thin paste. Pretending this somehow qualifies as not killing someone is a cheap move. One of the points of the movie was about Batman realizing the lengths he would need to go to win against a truly committed opponent. His finishing move here is like saying, “I’m gonna hand you this lit stick of dynamite and let you try to extinguish the fuse.” Maybe the guy has a chance to survive, but who are we kidding?
• The dialogue is often weak here. Characters tend to speak in the kind of aphoristic non sequiturs that litter modern action movies. It’s English, but it’s not dialogue, and rarely recognizable as a conversation. The scene in which the Joker visits a disfigured Harvey Dent and tells him to just go out there and start killing people makes almost zero sense on any level: narrative, emotional, linguistic, you name it. Rather, it feels like one of those things that had to happen to let Dent fully transform into Two-Face and go on a brief murder rampage before being subdued by Batman.3 Some of the actors are better at handling these lines than others. Michael Caine is king — Alfred’s story about the crazy bandit who just wanted “to watch the world burn” is perfect — and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good at it, too. But it’s much more a film of visuals and ideas than Batman Begins, which seemed to have a better handle on actual character.
• This is also when Bale’s voice, when in costume as Batman, was amplified with much more rumble and bass than was present in Batman Begins. In the first film, he speaks with a bit more of a growl, sometimes whispered, to disguise his voice and appear intimidating. Here, though, the postproduction manipulation of his voice is unmistakable, and often overdone. Watching the first and second films back to back really highlights the oddness of the change.
• Some of the visuals, though: damn. There are some fantastic compositions here, and they’re paired with smart soundtrack choices that highlight a few spare instruments or sometimes drop the music altogether. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are what feel like stolen moments — Ledger sticking his head out the window of a cop car as it careens down the street is one of those perfect bits of movie poetry.
• The sequences shot in IMAX are, as would be expected with a filmmaker as skilled as Nolan, stunning. He and d.p. Wally Pfister make expert use of the altered aspect ratio to emphasize the verticality of the frame, packing the images with tall buildings and steep drops. They’re the rare visual gimmick that live up to the hype.
• The opening sequence, in which the Joker and his (soon-to-be-executed) crew commit a bank heist, remains one of the most exciting things Nolan has ever done. It is relentless, energetic, captivating, terrifying, and the perfect way to set the tone of the film to follow. It’s also a clear indication that, whatever the film’s location shoots and visual attempts at reality might attest, we’re in a land of high fantasy. The Joker’s getaway vehicle is a school bus that drives through a bank wall and merges with a line of other buses going past, while cop cars speed in the opposite direction. It’s a great visual punch line, but it also requires ignoring the questions that such an event would raise. Why didn’t the guy driving the bus behind the Joker’s say anything when a bus drove out of a bank and joined their queue? Did he just not notice the hole in the side of the building? (And what kind of gas was in the grenade that the Joker shoved into the mouth of the bank manager?) Tonally, though, it is flawless. Ledger’s introduction when he removes his mask, coupled with the way his dialogue is amplified on lower registers over the film’s soundtrack, is staggering.
• One of the ways in which Batman Begins made its story feel somewhat more organic was the way it downplayed the use of character nicknames. Batman was often called “the Batman,” a reference to character history and a way to turn him into an object: the vigilante, the freak, the Batman. It was as much an identifier as a name. Ditto the way that “Scarecrow” was not used much, and certainly not as a way to address Dr. Crane, even when he donned his burlap mask. Yet The Dark Knight reaches a little harder for these names, notably with the way it makes Dent’s “Two-Face” a nickname referring to his battered reputation among cops he’d investigated for corruption. When he loses half the skin on his face, the name becomes a kind of sick joke. It just feels forced. The Dark Knight Rises backed off a little in this area: Selina Kyle was a cat burglar, and her goggles, when propped upon her head, looked like cat ears, but “Catwoman” wasn’t getting bandied about.
• The Dark Knight is a pitch-perfect continuation of the tone and style Nolan started refining in Batman Begins, and its effect on the superhero movies that followed is impossible to ignore. But many of those movies — your Marvel sequels, your YA adaptations — have imitated the film’s dark tone without being able to replicate any of the other elements that made it work. This is a grim film, but it’s also about redemption. It’s about heroes, but also about the inevitability of losing. It’s bulky, but it makes room for character development. It employs tragedy, but never falsely manipulates. And it has at its center one of the best and most vivid performances ever done in a superhero movie, one so good that it makes everyone else look poorer by comparison. The movie might not be perfect, but Ledger is perfect in it, and that’s ultimately what makes the film.
Ledger died during production of Parnassus, which resulted in a rewrite that saw Ledger’s character played by multiple actors, including Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.↩
Eleven-year-old spoiler alert, I guess, but if you’ve read this far into a blog post about Batman movies and didn’t know what happened in them, you have only yourself to blame.↩
Not just subdued, either: killed! Two-Face falls to his death as Batman saves Gordon’s kid. Batman can rig a variety of life-saving ropes and wires when facing off against the cops, and he can fall from a skyscraper and land on a taxi and survive, but he can’t toss a line around Two-Face? Come on.↩