State of the Cinema 2021

Featured image from France.

Matt Strohl

We are changing the format a little this year. My first year on Twitter has cured me of any urge to be negative, so instead of summing up everything I watched from 2021, I’m just going to focus on what I liked. I did pretty well seeing everything that I really wanted to see, although I didn’t get a chance to see either of the Hong movies (the rips circulating online are beneath my standards!), so those will be pushed to next year. The Woman Who Ran and Tsai’s Days I included last year. Anything that was released internationally during the last few years that I had no reasonable way to watch until this year was eligible.

25) The Voyeurs (Michael Mohan)

A glorious return to both the spirit and substance of the 90’s direct-to-video erotic thriller. The plotting is delectably ridiculous, and (unlike Netflix’s attempts at the genre) it doesn’t pull its punches.

24) The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)

Confidently paced and very engaging. The cast is great and everyone is at their best. Damon playing against type is potent, but the tastiest bit is Ben Affleck doing Guy Pearce (circa The Count of Monte Cristo). In an era when most studio pictures are shot in front of green screens and weighed down with dramatic bloat and marketing for future franchise entries, it’s a pleasure to see a big budget movie with actual production design and brisk dramatic efficiency. This goes hard.

23) All Eyes Off Me (Hadas Ben Aroya)

An elusive tryptic, structured almost like a ronde, but instead of the pairings of lovers coming full circle, we return to the existential restlessness we began with. As Mike Thorn put it, this is “cinema of questioning rather than declaration.” It doesn’t leave us with a pat commentary on millennial relationships, but rather an unsettling collection of moments that are likely to resonate differently for each of us.

22) Kriya (Sidharth Srinivasan)

Dense and disorienting. Ancient magic, mysterious rituals, innovative sequencing of light and dark. It’s very refreshing to see a horror movie that both engages with the genre and does something challenging that I haven’t seen before. It’s the real deal.

21) New York Ninja (John Liu)

As a connoisseur of the ninja subgenre, I have to say bravo to Vinegar Syndrome for rescuing this. John Liu filmed it in 1984, but the production was abandoned and the film was not edited or released. Vinegar Syndrome saw the value of the materials and assembled it into a pretty darn coherent movie (the lingering incoherencies work just fine with the B movie trappings). All original audio was lost, so they had to record an entirely new audio track. This could have been a disaster, as it’s so easy for dubbing to come across as self-parody, but they did an *incredible* job casting beloved B movie actors. Don “The Dragon” Wilson is delightful in the lead, but it’s the great Michael Berryman who steals the show.

20) The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)

The further Wes Anderson pushes his idiosyncrasies, the more I like him. I don’t even really care about the subject matter here; this appeals to me plenty just taken as a gloriously uncompromised display of a singular point of view. My least favorite take is that only the first segment is good. It’s certainly the easiest to like, but it’s just an appetizer. The unapologetic density of the rest of the film is even more exciting.

19) The Swordsman (Jae-Hoon Choi)

One of two movies I loved this year that combine aspects of Zatoichi and Taken. This is an eminently satisfying Korean swordplay movie with superb action.

18) Don’t Breathe 2 (Rodo Sayagues)

The other Zatoichi-Taken movie on my list. This lacks the graceful martial arts of The Swordsman, but it delivers buckets of unflinching nastiness. I am very excited by (producer and writer) Fede Álvarez’s work in recent years. The way you can tell that he makes real exploitation movies is that they genuinely piss people off. I would especially highlight Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s character acting. She turns in one of my favorite performances of the year (it’s certainly my favorite that I have not seen a single other person mention).

17) Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

A riff on Rohmer’s Rendez-vous in Paris, this tryptic from Hamaguchi has an appealing balance between pointed oddness and searing poignancy. The three entries don’t neatly come together, and the tension between their affinity and incongruity makes the film more interesting than the sum of its parts.

16) Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

I have only seen it once, but I expect that future viewings (in tandem with a rereading of Uncle Vanya) will reveal further riches. I greatly admire the unflinching sincerity of this film, and also the way it lets so much depend on connections with Chekhov that require a patient literary sensibility to unravel. This is arguably the least hip movie to achieve widespread critical success in recent memory, and I’ll count that as a win for film culture.

15) French Exit (Azazel Jacobs)

What can I say, I love French Exit. It’s bone dry and morbid. It appeals *immensely* to my own sense of humor, but I can imagine that it’s not for everyone. Michelle Pfieffer is god-tier. No one else could come close to doing this as well as she can. She’s approaching late Joan Crawford status here.

14) Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar)

Finished this with tears on my face. Almodóvar riles up our emotions with highly engaging melodrama and then seamlessly escalates to national identity and historical memory. The melodrama prompts us to ask questions about why lineage matters, and lets us dwell with a deception for a long time before revealing the broader implications of what the film is doing. Almodóvar’s courage in letting the tremendous images at the end stand on their own is incredibly refreshing in 2022. Great acting, smart writing, terrific score.

13) Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

I don’t know if anyone else is capable of making something this elegant that slaps this hard. The way Kurosawa deploys horror tropes in far flung genres is fascinating as ever.

12) All Hands on Deck! (Guillaume Brac)

I saved this for the dead of Montana winter, and it was a delicious treat to be transported to summertime in France. This is such a readily lovable movie, with an endearing sense of romance and spontaneity. Truly a joy.

11) Annette (Leos Carax)

Leos Carax making an English-language movie for Amazon was a little concerning, but wow, what a result. It is certainly not artistically compromised. Indeed, what I most admire about this its sense of artistic liberty. The drama doesn’t quite grip me the way it grips many others, but I don’t even care about that, as I am just utterly exhilarated by its formal boldness and unfettered creativity.

10) Malignant (James Wan)

If you’ve heard grumpy horror fans like me complaining about the direction the genre has gone in the last 5-10 years and you’re wondering what we would prefer instead, this is the answer. I will probably watch this movie once a year for the next 20 years. Bravo!

9) France (Bruno Dumont)

This movie is widely referred to as a media satire, but I think that sells it far short. It’s doing something much more interesting than satirizing the media; it’s exploring the question of what “authenticity” even means at this stage of history, and examining the way that “real life” already involves elements of performance and performance is in turn a part of “real life.” Dumont’s absurdist humor is still here, albeit in a subtler form.

8) Hold Me Back (Akiko Ohku) 

I had not seen any of Ohku’s films before this one, so credit to Filipe Furtado for pointing me to it by putting it high on his 2021 list (which I recommend taking a look at if you enjoy year end lists). I realized as I watched this that there are very, very few films that address (let alone take as their primary subject matter) the anxiety that can be present at the beginning of a relationship even when things are going as well as could be hoped for. The core conflict here emerges from the Proustian idea that transformational life changes constitute a sort of death, and that often we head into them with profound dread even when they are changes that we do in fact want for ourselves. Superb acting.

7) Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)

First let me say that I fully understand disliking Guy Ritchie. I have mildly disliked Guy Ritchie for most of my life. But I have to say, this one turned it around for me, and a second viewing confirmed my impression: I really love this. Since I first saw it, I went back and rewatched his entire filmography, and liked most of it a lot better. This is one of my favorite moments in cinephilia: changing my mind!

What I realized about Ritchie is that his primary genre is not crime, it’s screwball comedy of masculine embarrassment. Wrath of Man comes full circle and stretches what could have been such a comedy out into a pitch black slow burn revenge movie. Some complain that the plotting is strained, but that doesn’t bother me a bit: the lineage here is not Heat so much as Den of Thieves, Armored, and Julien Leclercq, and I appreciate the way this wears its B movie heart on its sleeve. The real interest of the script is the way it captures the absolute garbage that men (and women) say to each other in unrestrained macho contexts. Tough guy posturing and inevitable humiliation, this time played as tragedy.

Two other highlights I would emphasize are Christopher Benstead’s score, which is easily my favorite of the year, and Scott Eastwood, who is remarkably well-deployed. Scott just looks so much like his dad in this, and his repeated stare-downs with Statham are extremely effective at evoking the Eastwood iconography.

6) Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara)

I highly doubt there will be a better movie about the pandemic (which is not to say that that’s all this is about). Let me be clear that this is a challenging film and I don’t think it’s something that most people would like (so proceed at your own risk and don’t blame me if you hate it!), but its dark, underexposed visual style and elliptical narrative are (for me at least) perfectly suited to the subject matter.

5) Old (M. Night Shyamalan)

So many things are happening at once in this movie. First, there is the sci-fi horror story that primarily functions as a critique of the-ends-justify-the-means ruthless utilitarianism. But, as is typical for Shyamalan, this blunt thematic framework is the beginning rather than the end of his ambitions. For most of the movie, we have no idea what’s really going on and the wild events of the narrative play as surrealism. Once all hell starts to break loose, he doesn’t narrowly orient the movie towards its thematic goalpost, but rather dives headfirst into the prismatic range of possibilities that the situation opens up. Shyamalan never wastes anything. He puts the full weight of life into every subplot and blasts every emotion at once at full volume. I watched this twice, and it excited me even more the second time.

I am trying to be careful about spoilers but see my letterboxd review for more thoughts on this fantastic movie.

4) Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

An extraordinary example of experiential cinema, inviting us to share not just in the sensory experiences of Swinton’s character, but also the liminal state of consciousness that she sinks into over the course of the film.

3) Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)

More similar to Memoria than anything else from 2021, this is another starkly unconventional study of a gringo in Latin America. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for lovers of late style in general and Clint Eastwood in particular, it’s hard to beat. It’s not so much a swan song as the epilogue to a series of swan songs. The narrative is largely tossed aside in favor of languid scenes of Clint caressing horses and slow dancing with a widow he meets along the way. The way this movie is so happy to be imperfect only adds to its shaggy beauty.

2) Siberia (Abel Ferrara)

I suspect that my own life history as a recovering alcoholic with more than 14 years of sobriety gives me a different vantage point on this one. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I find it helpful to think of Siberia as the psychic substrate of the more literal Tommaso. Both films are best understood as not merely being about recovery, but rather as part of Ferrara’s own recovery project. When one is sober for years on end, the threat of relapse slips into the background and the more immediate struggle becomes coping with the crushing weight of all the fears, desires, and urges that one used to suppress by drinking. What Ferrara is doing in these films is not merely portraying this subject matter, but actively working through his own struggles. I can say from experience that it is very common for people to get into stuff like Jung at this stage and try to use it to make sense of their own psychic landscape, and that’s exactly what we find Ferrara doing here. I could understand the complaint that the Jung material is too on the nose, but again from my particular vantage point it’s perfect. Making a movie about his own most fucked up dreams using an explicitly Jungian framework is EXACTLY what I would expect from Abel Ferrara as he eases into long-term sobriety. The images he finds along the way are simply spectacular. Thrilling, vital cinema.

1) Titane (Julia Ducournau)

Julia Ducournau said in an interview that she put everything into Raw, and that after finishing her festival tour with that film she had the very common experience of creative block in approaching her second major work. Eventually, she explained, she stopped struggling and wrote freely from a place of unfettered rage, and Titane is the result. Many have complained about a perceived lack of thematic coherence and legibility. I have seen countless people ask: what the hell is it about? Reductive answers to this question do the film a disservice. If there’s anything that’s true of Titane, it’s that it is pitched at a level of abstraction that cannot be readily translated into some kind of message or commentary. It’s understandable that this makes us uncomfortable, especially given the thorny terrain of violence, gender, and sexuality, but the more time I spend thinking about this film the more confident I am that the best way to approach it is not to try to reconstruct it as a totalizing allegory, but rather to think about the complex, evolving ways it reacts to its own vicissitudes, and to the conventions of the serial killer and melodrama genres. It asks us to imagine Alexia’s surreal way of being, where traditional objects of affection (first parents, then lovers) are replaced by metal, engines, and automobiles. It then asks us to inhabit her sense of overwhelming rage at a world that holds open some possibilities but closes off others. The status of Alexia’s sexuality as absurd is itself a fountain of rage in the movie. She isn’t interested in people, she’s into metal and this just isn’t a path the world allows. As she navigates the consequences of her revolt, she stumbles into a loving relationship that is so utterly unconditional as to be surreal, but even this turns out to be limiting in a way that enrages her: she has to be son or lover, male or female. Even if she gets to choose her role, it’s still a role, and every possibility that it opens closes off many others. And it’s this–the qualified nature of human freedom, built into the very structure of human agency–that is the primary target of the movie’s rage. I’m still planning to write a longer piece arguing that it has at least as much in common with All that Heaven Allows as the range of movies it is more often compared to.

Other stuff I liked:

Licorice Pizza, Red Rocket, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, No Sudden Move, Godzilla vs. Kong, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, The Many Saints of Newark, Shiva Baby, Benedetta, Wrong Turn, The Forever Purge, One Shot, Halloween Kills, In the Earth, Shock Wave 2, Me You Madness, Raging Fire, Hell Hath No Fury, Spencer, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Venom: Let there be Carnage, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City, Copshop, Rifkin’s Festival.

Special bargain bin awards:

Above Suspicion, Jolt, Voyagers, Chaos Walking, Ice Road, Karen, The Woman in the Window, Zone 414.

Angela Shope

10) Dune

I appreciate the way this version’s dramatic focus is the relationship between Jessica and Paul. That’s a riskier direction to take the movie than it gets credit for, and I like it. I also found it visually striking. Not many big blockbusters of recent years have captivated me like this.

9) The Green Knight

I love Arthurian lore and this scratched that itch for me. There’s a seriousness and a darkness to this movie that Matt totally rejected when we watched it together, but it really works for me.

8) House of Gucci

Loud, colorful, and super fun. No apologies, I love it.

7) Memoria

Mesmerizing and dreamlike. By the end I felt like I was sharing the state of mind of Swinton’s character.

6) Old

This has a fantastical quality to it, like a dark fairy tale, and I am drawn to that. It’s very moving, but it also has its wicked pleasures. The horror elements are exactly in the zone that I like: terrifying, but not disgusting.

5) Parallel Mothers

Extremely affecting. The way this movie combines melodrama and politics is something I’ve never seen done quite this way before. As usual for Almodóvar, the use of color is fantastic and wonderfully evocative of Spain.

4) Spencer

I found the depiction of anxiety and an eating disorder in the style of a horror movie to be haunting. Kristen Stewart is excellent.

3) Wrath of Man

I was gripped for every second of this. The way the plot and the musical score both build to a violent eruption is extremely satisfying. Great cast.

2) France

Léa Seydoux is one of my favorite actresses, and this is her best role. Her makeup and costuming is *so amazing*, but it’s not just for show, it’s closely connected with the themes of the movie. I’m thrilled to see such a complex and ambivalent female character take center stage. The score is incredible.

1) The Last Duel

There have been a lot of explicitly feminist movies in recent years that reinforce the rallying cry of #metoo. The Last Duel is the one that most fully captures my own sense of rage as a woman. I love period pieces, and I am extremely impressed that this movie manages to simultaneously satisfy my historical craving while also so perfectly capturing the present.

Honorable mention: The Power of the Dog, Lamb, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Josh Strohl

This year Josh and Isabel have been very busy moving to Rochester and starting new jobs, but they still managed to put lists together. They didn’t have time to write commentary, but will be happy to discuss their picks on Facebook.

  1. The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)
  2. France (Bruno Dumont)
  3. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  4. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)
  5. Siberia/Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara)
  6. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
  7. House of Gucci (Ridley Scott)
  8. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
  9. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  10. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  11. Old (M. Night Shyamalan)
  12. Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodovar)
  13. Zola (Janicza Bravo)
  14. The Beatles: Get Back (Peter Jackson)
  15. Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)
  16. Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
  17. Titane (Julia Ducournau)
  18. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  19. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Zack Snyder)
  20. Swan Song (Todd Stephens)
  21. In the Earth (Ben Wheatley)
  22. Red Rocket (Sean Baker)
  23. Malignant (James Wan)
  24. Don’t Breathe 2 (Rodo Sayagues)
  25. The Forever Purge (Eduardo Gout)

Acting performances

  1. Lea Seydoux – France
  2. Udo Kier- Swan Song
  3. Ben Affleck/Jodie Comer/Matt Damon/Adam Driver -The Last Duel
  4. Lady Gaga/Jared Leto/Al Pacino/Jeremy Irons- House of Gucci
  5. Simon Rex – Red Rocket
  6. Alana Haim/Cooper Hoffman- Licorice Pizza
  7. Vincent Lindon – Titane
  8. Clint Eastwood – Cry Macho
  9. Charlotte Rampling – Benedetta
  10. Matt Damon – Stillwater

4K UHD Blu-ray releases

I continue to be an avid physical media collector, and these were my favorite UHD releases.

  1. The Ten Commandments
  2. The Red Shoes/Criterion 4K
  3. Argento on 4K
  4. Maniac Cop 2/Blue Underground 4K
  5. In the Line of Fire/Last Action Hero
  6. My Fair Lady
  7. Awaken
  8. Django
  9. Tremors
  10. Speed

Isabel Strohl

  1. The Last Duel
  2. France
  3. Titane
  4. Parallel Mothers
  5. West Side Story
  6. Malignant
  7. Old
  8. The Night House
  9. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
  10. Zola

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 22: The Spring of Our Discontent

Amazon Prime

Day of the Outlaw (André De Toth, 1959)

An exceptional western, stark and relentless, with an unforgettable Burl Ives performance. You’ll recognize it as the primary blueprint for The Hateful Eight.

Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1993)

It’s annoying that the Netflix western The Harder They Fall prompted so many articles about how finally a movie is straightening out the truth about the west and showing us that there were black cowboys. There are so many black westerns! This is not a new thing! Posse is a terrific example, and I greatly enjoyed revisiting it recently. Psychedelic style, Big Daddy Kane, and let’s not overlook the single best Stephen Baldwin performance.

Phantasm: Remastered (Don Coscarelli, 1979)

An all-time banger, restored for your viewing pleasure in all its oddball glory.

Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

What might have been a minor noir is juiced up by Lizabeth Scott’s incredible femme fatale performance opposite Dan Duryea. I really love this one.

The Brain (Ed Hunt, 1988)

Avoid the RiffTrax version like the plague (and let me take another opportunity to say: fuck RiffTrax). This is sort of a Videodrome/They Live/Bodysnatchers mashup with effects out of Invaders From Mars. So, it’s highly derivative, but of some terrific stuff.

The Butcher (Jesse V. Johnson, 2009)

Low budget crime movie, not for everyone. The question you’ve gotta ask yourself is, “how interested am I in watching Eric Roberts drive around LA doing errands?” Because that’s what most of this movie is. I’m a fan.

Alien Intruder (Ricardo Jacques Gale, 1993)

Also not for everyone. I’ve been very pleased to see on Twitter that the younger generation of cinephiles have found their way to PM Entertainment– some of the finest trash this country has ever produced. Don’t be deterred by the advertised PG-13 rating. Amazon has it wrong: this is definitely a hard R. Bargain basement Lifeforce meets Nightmare on Elm Street, starring Billy Dee Williams.

London (Hunter Richards, 2005)

Also not for everyone. This features one of the most outside-the-box Jason Statham performances. It’s in the highly unfashionable zone of probing the most pathetic depths of the injured male psyche, but it’s a very good version of this (the 14% tomato score shows you that it’s doing something right). Most of the movie is Statham and Chris Evans doing cocaine and talking about an involuntary breakup and other pathetic bro shit. Works for me.

Hulu

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

Just letting you know that Titane is on Hulu! It’s a highly divisive movie which you may very well hate, but I vote that you watch it. I am writing an essay on it still, I swear, though it’s slow going and I’ve had a lot of distractions. I absolutely vehemently reject the main criticisms that have been circulated and it’s one of my favorite movies in recent memory.

Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)

Superior neo noir with an outstanding cast. This is something everyone should see.

The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997)

I’ve seen this movie so many times. I like Lee Tamahori in general, and this was written by Mamet. It’s a terrifically fun and engaging “lost in the wilderness” story, with a killer bear, Anthony Hopkins as a survival manual expert with no practical experience, and Alec Baldwin as his sleazeball frenemy.

Love and Monsters (Michael Matthews, 2020)

Not exactly a masterpiece, but I recommend it because it stands out amidst contemporary mainstream cinema. It succeeds because it fully commits to being what it is and because the monsters are really cool and someone put loving attention into designing them. Infinitely better than something like A Quiet Place. 

HBO Max

My Brother’s Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1983)

Underseen Charles Burnett family drama, rough in certain ways (arguably more of a feature than a bug) but full of rich detail and withering observation of class dynamics.

News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1976)

Chantal Akerman reads her mother’s letters over long takes of mundane city scenes. One of the greatest NYC movies in the way it conveys so much about the immigrant’s experience without ever breaking away from its rigorous concept.

Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)

One of the more underseen titles among Cassavetes’ essential masterpieces. Absolutely see it if you haven’t.

Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990)

One of the key movies for my generation. I saw it so many times in the 90’s, and it absolutely holds up. Christian Slater gloriously conveys the ecstasy of transgressive performance.

Netflix

Netfix is still mostly bad (I’ve already recommended most of the good stuff several times over), so I’m lining up some safe favorites for anyone who may not have noticed them.

Michael Mann trifecta: Ali (2001), Public Enemies (2009), Blackhat (2015)

I rewatch most of Michael Mann’s movies regularly, and these are all just getting better and better with age. Ali is a rare attempt to do something creative and bold with a terrible genre (the biopic). The digital textures of Public Enemy are more bracing now than ever. Miami Vice gets more attention at this point, but while Public Enemies might not have quite the same level of shaggy evanescence, it is fascinating in its integration of aspects of classic Hollywood style. And, of course, you know how I feel about Blackhat.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola, 2001)

I’m blow away every time I watch it (and it’s my wife’s favorite movie, so I watch it a lot). One of the greatest modern examples of the Méliès/Cocteau lineage of cinema. Would take this opportunity to note that “Keanu Reeves is a detriment here” is one of my least favorite opinions.

Anaconda (Luis Llosa, 1997)

I’m well known for my enduring love of Anaconda. My siblings still tell the story about the time when they had a party in my parents’ cellar and I got stoned and passed out watching Anaconda in the other room. When the revelers emerged and woke me up, I saw the credits rolling on the TV and lamented, “Aw, man, Anaconda’s over?!!!” Seriously though, what a cast: Jon Voight (the MVP), J-Lo, Owen Wilson, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Danny Trejo.

Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998)

I remember finding this unremarkable when it was released, but that was a different time. We were absolutely glutted with erotic thrillers and it was easy to take them for granted. Now, in the new era of cultural puritanism, this looks a lot better. Fun and trashy, with a great Matt Dillon performance. It looks like there are some even trashier sequels (three of them!), which I intend to check out.

An aesthetic defense of vegan alerts, from an omnivore

I’m writing out of a lingering sense of dismay over a recent cyberbullying episode on Film Twitter. I am relatively new to Twitter (I joined last April), but I’ve already seen a lot of highs and lows. It is a great way to connect with people and get the word out about one’s own writings, but it’s also a cesspool of fragile egos emboldened by their relative anonymity. My favorite type of Film Twitter user is the person with unconventional taste who just wants to interact with other people who like weird stuff. In my day-to-day life, my film taste stands out as eccentric. A lot of the people I interact with STILL consider it controversial to love Tony Scott. I have been defending Tony Scott against unfair comments from skeptical acquaintances for more than 20 years! But within the first year of joining Twitter I have already constructed a fairly expansive bubble where it’s just taken for granted that Tony Scott is one of the great auteurs. This makes me feel so much less alienated in my aesthetic life!

My least favorite type of Film Twitter user is the person who likes to constantly reinforce their sense of superiority with a running stream of snide comments and lazy takedowns. This person feels an unjustified sense of pride because they dislike lots of things that their perceived inferiors are fond of. The thing is, it’s extremely easy to tear down literally any movie. Just give me a movie and I will compose a condescending tweet about it in less than a minute. Often, this category of Twitter user is just talking complete bullshit and at the same time feeling embarrassingly smug about it, but they have also likely surrounded themselves with lots of people who will shower them with enough back-pats and gold stars to give them the validation they crave.

This is all pretty sad, but mostly innocuous– except when it isn’t. This sort of circle jerk really crosses the line when it starts singling out particular people for ridicule on the basis of their taste. Recently, this happened to one of the most prominent users of the Letterboxd app: Allison M., of vegan alerts fame. Allison was one of the first people to follow me when I joined Letterboxd, and her enormous log (more than 21,000 movies) is one of the most expansive on the site.

Letterboxd is a terrific app. As someone who watches a lot of movies and then writes about them, it would be hard to overstate how convenient is to have an easy way to keep searchable, sortable, exportable records of my viewing activities. But even more importantly, it gives me access to the writings of a huge number of non-professional and semi-professional critics, who (surprise, surprise) are often far more interesting to read than the people trying to make a living off the enterprise. The majority of professional criticism (of new releases) is written in a rush after only seeing a movie once. Letterboxd removes the market demand for timeliness and gives people a venue to share more considered perspectives at their own pace. When people ask me who my favorite critics are on a given movie, the answer is almost certainly not the people who work at the New York Times or Indiewire. It’s more like “well, there’s this guy in Brazil who’s really interesting, and this college student from Vermont, oh, and that one Swedish woman who works at a guitar store– her take is really good.”

A well-curated Letterboxd feed is, in my experience, far more useful than something like Rotten Tomatoes, which I really only pay attention to in order to make sure I see anything that scores below 10%. It’s easy to introduce a division of labor: there are people I follow for their eccentric horror views, people I follow for their expertise in Hong Kong cinema, people I follow because they have seen more precode films than I have, and so on. Some people I follow not because I share their views, but rather because I consistently disagree with them and find their perspective engaging and challenging. Others I follow because their sensibility is so radically different from my own that I find it aesthetically interesting, and Allison is in this category.

She is best known for the “vegan alerts” and (sometimes) “vegan points” that she adds to the end of her reviews. Vegan alerts might include “cheese is shown,” or “Isabelle Huppert wears a leather jacket,” while vegan points might include “Julia Roberts eats a salad” or “Tim Roth pets a goat.” She is also known for her outlying opinions. She has assigned conspicuously low ratings to a large number of well-reviewed films, including a great many titles beloved by film bros. The combination of her unusual approach, outlying views, and abiding sincerity has made her a consistent target for dipshit responses. I always hate to see people leaving mean comments on her reviews, not just because I hate mean people, but also because she is one of the shining lights of the website, and the people attacking her are doing everything they can to pollute the well.

Recently, this was taken to a really unfortunate extreme when some asshole screenshotted her account (in particular highlighting a number of popular movies that she gave low ratings to), and turned it into a mean tweet, which then went viral. I am sorry to say that hundreds of people jumped on this pile, saying stupid, mean, ignorant things about this woman who didn’t do anything but log her honest views about Apocalypse Now and My Neighbor Totoro. Some people who I otherwise respect joined the fray. I hope they manage to summon some remorse about this.

Step back and think for a minute about why someone would respond with this level of contempt and cruelty to someone else’s taste. I wrote a two-part blog post about this sort of phenomenon with Brandon Polite, available here, but I have some more specific thoughts about this incident. Let’s start by thinking about how weird it is to be mean to someone because of which movies they do or don’t like. Do we do this with food? Are people out there posting “this bozo doesn’t even like nacho fries”?

No, because our liking for nacho fries doesn’t characteristically involve the same level of personal investment and identification as the film tastes of people who are interested enough in the medium to participate in Film Twitter. When someone else dislikes nacho fries and we like them, we don’t make that about us. We don’t feel insulted. But when your identity is heavily wrapped up in cinephilia, it’s easy to take others’ judgments of the films you love as judgments of you. But this is projection! Allison isn’t stewing over the fact that you like Blade Runner 2049 better than Last Night in Soho, she’s just out there attending film festivals and writing dope vegan alerts and totally ignoring you. You are easy to ignore, because there are a lot of you and it’s hard to tell you apart. But there’s only one Allison M., and there’s no mistaking her.

I’m an omnivore. I was a vegetarian at one point in the distant past, but I would never even consider going back. I don’t want to argue about it, especially not with ardent vegans! But, the thing is, I still LOVE Allison’s vegan alerts, and not in a mocking way. They are great, and I always look forward to reading them. Sometimes I finish a movie and the first thing I think is “ooooh cannot wait to check out the vegan alerts on that one.”

First of all, her vegan alerts are outstandingly witty. Some of the stuff she notices is hilarious in a really satisfying way– satisfying because it gives us a glimpse into a way of seeing the world that is both idiosyncratic and internally coherent. One of my favorite recent vegan alerts, for instance, is that Sandie plays a milkmaid Last Night in Soho. There’s no milk, there’s no milking, there’s not even an actual milkmaid in the film’s diegetic universe! It’s just that the character as a sexy performance persona dresses up as a milkmaid. This is not the observation of someone who is playing around. This is something you could only possibly think of if you are watching the movie through an extremely refined lens. It’s an achievement to develop this level of vegan goggles, and I admire it as such.

Secondly, Allison’s body of work is particularly thought-provoking with respect to the interaction between moral and aesthetic value. This is a complex topic that philosophers have written a great deal about. I regularly teach it in my upper division aesthetics courses. There are a range of views out there, but most of us agree that artworks with moral faults *can* be aesthetically flawed on this account. For instance, if the suspense of a film depends on us seeing nonwhite people as inherently threatening, that can certainly ruin the film, because it should be very hard for morally well-developed people to even entertain this point of view. But few of us think that *all* moral faults are aesthetic flaws. There’s probably something morally faulty about the way Sniper gets us to sympathize with characters carrying out paramilitary operations in Latin America, but who seriously cares? I know full well that the American government’s interventions in Latin America have been moral atrocities, and I can easily bracket this background stance when I watch Sniper.

It appears that we all have different thresholds that reflect our divergent moral and aesthetic sensibilities and distinctive ways of engaging with art. I am really bothered by the way that Gone, Baby, Gone presents a dichotomy between middle class/attractive/clean/morally restorative and poor/ugly/dirty/morally degenerate. On the other hand, I highly value Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Many commentators who are just fine with Gone, Baby, Gone have found Craven’s films repugnant. Often, we think the worst of people when we find out they like something that we abhor for moral reasons. But here’s the thing: the people who abhor Craven and love Gone, Baby, Gone should not assume that I am experiencing the movies the same way they are and I should not assume they are experiencing them the same way I am. I am sure that for these people, watching Last House on the Left is a real bummer. I get it; it’s not for everyone. But it’s not like I had the same miserable experience they did and then pronounced, “that was great!” As a Craven fan and exploitation connoisseur, I approach the movie with a very different context. I think about what’s onscreen in different ways than they do, and I find it valuable in ways that they don’t.

And that’s okay! Aesthetic diversity is a good thing. I sure as hell would not want to live in a world where every single person likes Last House on the Left. Who would there be left to shock? And it would be just unbearably smug of me to assume that every person who likes Gone, Baby, Gone is in the grips of unreflective class ideology. Surely some people are, but I have no doubt that there are many others who approached the movie differently than I did–attending to different elements, asking different questions, and arriving at different answers–and that these peoples’ takes are in many cases compelling on their own terms.

Allison’s body of criticism is so fascinating in part because it is such a vast exploration of the interplay between her moral convictions and her taste in film. The two are certainly interrelated (as they should be!) but it’s not at all straightforward how. Clearly, she does not evaluate movies primarily based on their vegan bona fides. Most of the time, the vegan alerts and the review function separately. She likes plenty of movies with bad vegan score cards and dislikes plenty that are more vegan friendly. Sometimes, however, vegan considerations DO enter into her evaluation, and she is often explicit about this. And so it is extremely interesting from the reader’s point of view to think about what the difference-makers are. What sort of vegan merits actually make the movie better according to her? What sort of vegan demerits make it worse? Why this movie and not that one? No one on the internet who I know of has published a comparable volume of criticism hovering around a particular moral concern, and virtually no one on Letterboxd has seen as many movies as Allison has. Her account is a gift to us all.

What’s the point of reading film criticism in the first place? To help us budget our time? Maybe for some of us, but not for me. I will never skip a movie I want to see because someone else didn’t like it. I read criticism primarily because it gives me a chance to try on someone else’s goggles. Trying to understand someone else’s point of view helps me expand my own. It shows me what I might be missing, and even when I’m not convinced by it, it helps me empathize with people who see things differently than I do. Sometimes it informs my own engagement directly; other times it does so indirectly, by prompting me to articulate my reasons for disagreeing. Some people I like to read because I relate to them so strongly that I feel a sense of kinship and camaraderie. Others I like to read because it is comforting to know there are people out there who are utterly different from me and that the world still has plenty of surprises in store for me.

The worst way to abuse criticism is to treat it as a zero sum game where one side has to win and the other side has to lose. Film Twitter is overrun with this form of abuse. This is no surprise, because of course the platform is prone to attract people whose egos are heavily invested in their film taste. Compare the sort of pathetic bullying that happens when a few critics dissent from the tomato consensus on some fan favorite with a 99% score. It’s so weird to me that people get angry about this. 99% of tomato shills like your dorky movie, and yet you feel the need to harass and abuse the three people who had a different take? What would it add to your life if 100% of tomato critics assented to your view? Would you finally be sure that you are worthy of love? The people who bullied Allison on Twitter are no better. Grow up. Everyone who joined that pile-on needs to do some serious soul-searching. In the meantime, I’ll be reading reading vegan alerts and having a great time doing it.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 21: Another New Year, Still the Same Plague

Featured image from Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch.

Amazon Prime

Trouble in Mind

Trouble in Mind - Parallax View

Weird and wonderful Alan Rudolph neo-noir, with a sublime cast: Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Geneviève Bujold, Lori Singer, and Divine. One of my favorite American movies of the 80’s.

Cutter’s Way

Cutter's Way

If you haven’t seen this movie, there’s a level of John Heard you don’t even know about. Terrific paranoid thriller from Ivan Passer.

Call of Heroes

Call of Heroes (2016) - Kung-fu Kingdom

A gripping and extremely fun wuxia from Benny Chan with Sammo Hung choreography. Louis Koo‘s character is visiting from a Miike movie.

Let the Bullets Fly

Jiang Wen's "Let the Bullets Fly" on Notebook | MUBI

Madcap Chinese western set in the 1920’s. Sharp, well-imagined, and wildly entertaining.

Smiley Face Killers

Crispin Glover is Unrecognizable as the 'Smiley Face Killers' Slasher in  These Photos from Makeup FX Artist - Bloody Disgusting

I came to this as a Bret Easton Ellis skeptic and Tim Hunter true believer, and I liked it far better than I expected to. What interests me most about it is the way that it transposes tropes from the haunting genre (particularly the ambiguity between haunting phenomena and mental illness) to the serial killer genre. The crescendo of tension is well-executed and the final act is a scorcher.

Howling II: Stirba– Werewolf Bitch

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf | Forgotten Films

It’s not the best werewolf movie, but it’s certainly in the running for the kinkiest. Exploitation queen Sybil Danning presides as Stirba, werewolf bitch.

A Rage in Harlem

Robin Givens Feet (24 photos) - celebrity-feet.com

Bill Duke’s directorial debut, this is an undersung 90’s neo-noir with a phenomenal cast: Forest Whittaker, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, Robin Givens, and Gregory Hines

Dancin’: It’s On!

Dancin' - It's On! - davidwintersbook.com

You know I like to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and this is exactly why: sometimes you find treasure. Gary Daniels completism brought me here, to this bargain basement Step-Up ripoff with the alternate title East Side Story, but Daniels has only a small role (don’t get me wrong, he’s amazing). This is just pure madness and I was enraptured from start to finish.

Strike Commando

Strike Commando Blu Ray Review (Severin Films) - Today's Haul

This is the new Severin restoration of Bruno Mattei’s Namsploitation Rambo – First Blood Part II ripoff. It’s a real treat if you have a taste for the Italian ripoff cycle. If I had discovered this as a kid, it would have been a whole phase of my life.

Ring of Fire

And it Burns, Burns, Burns, Don's Ring of Fire (1991) – The Schlock Pit

Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s kickboxing West Side Story. For the kickboxing movie connoisseur, it’s a delicacy. “I don’t want to fight you, Brad!”


Netflix

Heist

Recent Posts | The Workprint | Page 17

I have been quoting this movie several times a week for twenty years. I know Mamet has fallen out of favor with many, but sorry, no amount of regrettable politics can erase the vast delights of Heist.

Blood and Bone

Blood and Bone (2009)

Exemplary DTV fighting movie with Michael Jai White as Isiah Bone, an ex con who gets involved in an underground fighting circuit to fulfill a promise.

Divine Intervention

Divine Intervention' one of the best Arabic-language films ever made | Arab  News

It’s surprising to see this gem from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman show up on Netfix of all places. It’s a collection of connected sketches that vary in tone, but together add up to a work of absurdist black comedy.

Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen' Is the Best Teen Movie Since Whatever the Last Great  Teen Movie Was

I believe the word is out, but if by any chance you still haven’t seen Edge of Seventeen, I strongly urge you to. It stands tall among contemporary coming of age movies.

6 Bullets

6 Bullets |

This is on the sleazier side of the Van Damme filmography. It’s somewhere between Taken and Skin Trade, with Van Damme playing one of his depressed living ghosts, featuring some extra grimy violence. Will likely only appeal to genre fans, but I enjoyed it greatly.

Hudson Hawk

Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard

By no means a masterpiece, but a great example of a bonkers movie that in retrospect very obviously did not deserve its abysmal reception. It’s certainly the most imaginative “secret code from Leonardo Da Vinci” movie.

HBO Max

Lola Montès

Review: Lola Montès - Slant Magazine

Why not? Let’s swing for the fences on HBO. Ophüls final masterpiece is something everyone interested in movies should eventually see. Don’t even read the description, just dive right in.

The Music Room

The Music Room (1958) directed by Satyajit Ray • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

My favorite Ray film by an order of magnitude. The patriarch of a crumbling aristocratic family is gripped by love of beauty even as his world collapses around him. Pair it with Visconti’s Ludwig.

The River

Criterion Collection: The River | Blu-ray Review - IONCINEMA.com

Essential Renoir, featuring some of the greatest usage of color in all of cinema. I love Rivette on this one:

The River is one of the only examples of a film which reflects rigorously on itself, in which the narrative content, the sociological descriptions, and the metaphysical themes do not just respond to each other but are at every point interchangeable. ‘We are a part of the world.’ Three boats, three young girls simultaneously reach the central point where all contradictions cancel each other out, where death and birth, giving and refusing, possessing and taking away, have the same value and the same meaning.”

Hulu

The Hunted

The Hunted: Meet the Men Who Could Match John Rambo - Ultimate Action Movie  Club

Terrific 2003 William Friedkin jam. The Tommy Lee Jones solo tracking material is transfixing.

Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking' Review: Hey, Tom Holland, Your Thoughts Are Showing - Variety

Among my favorite recent trash. Totally batshit. One of the wonkiest YA premises I’ve ever encountered, played with total conviction amidst Nickelodeon-grade special effects. No one likes this now, but in a few years people are going to find it on Netflix and watch it stoned late at night and it’s going to blow their minds.

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar' Review: 'Bridesmaids' Followup |  IndieWire

A return to the Saturday Night Live style of comedy, where one questionable joke is stretched out to an entire movie. Certainly not for everyone (I would skip it if you are a staunch hater of this style of SNL comedy), but it’s great for what it is. It’s got retro flare and Jamie Dornan is very, very funny.

My year in life, death, and movies

Featured image from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

I cruised right through 2020, but 2021 decisively kicked my ass. As most people likely to be reading this know, my dad died in the spring. I wrote about his life here. Not long after, I had to euthanize my beloved dog. I wrote about the compounding grief I experienced here. At the same time, shit got stressful at work, due to the same sort of administrative marauding that campuses across the country have seen. This stress has mostly blown over for now, but I must say that I harbor abiding resentment that I had to worry about evil university administrators gutting the humanities the entire time I was trying to cope with the most profound grief of my life. I doubt I will ever again be able to truly say that I love the university where I work. I love my colleagues and students, but the constant reimagining and reorganizing and reprioritizing initiatives that have taken over the institution’s identity are fucking abusive and I am sick of it.

On the plus side, I finished writing my book, and it was published yesterday. I was fortunate in that I have been consistently able to focus on writing throughout the pandemic. This is no doubt because I was working on a book that is NOT written in a strangled academic style and where I did not have to cite a damn thing unless I wanted to. God, it felt so good to take off the sweaty rubber clown suit of professional norms and just write. I took genuine joy in writing, even while I was otherwise overtaken by grief.

I watched 1060 movies this year. That’s a lot, I know. But it’s 200 less than last year, so I have lived up to my vow to cut back. Here’s how I think of it: it’s like eating seasonally. Berries are really good in the spring, so I eat berries, and I don’t bemoan the fact that it’s not butternut squash time yet. Come October, out comes the squash. There have been years of my life where I’ve watched a mere few hundred movies and spent most of my time doing normal person shit. The pandemic is movie time. This shit is ripe. Honestly, I NEVER watch as many movies as I want to. I’ve watched 145 movies just in December (post-grading binge) and my watchlist has been growing *much* faster than I am chopping it down. There are a lot of movies! And the more interested I get in the art form, the more of them I want to see. It’s not a drag, it’s not boring, it’s not repetitive, it’s not depressing: I love it. There is a tipping point (after watching 8 in a row on Halloween I couldn’t look at a movie the next day), but for me it is very high. I don’t play video games and I barely watch sports. I love movies. That’s me. I am not trying to convince other people to adopt my way of life (probably don’t), but I have no interest in being talked out of it. I may rejoin society at a later date, pending certain variables.

This year, though, my film diet saw some noticeable shifts. I watched significantly fewer challenging bucket list titles. This is, no doubt, because my fucking dad died and I was really stressed out for long stretches and I couldn’t sit still and focus the way I have in recent years. In 2020 I watched stuff like Shoah and Dead Souls. In 2021, I watched 18 Adam Sandler movies. It was a different vibe.

I thought a lot about the idea of a “comfort movie.” What movies do people reach for when they are sad or hungover or depressed and they want a movie that works as medicine? I asked around, and the answers I got confirmed my suspicion that this is wildly subjective and idiosyncratic. What did I turn to the day my dad died, when I was in so much pain I could barely move? The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Then I watched Fast & Furious 6. Then Fast Five. At some point not long after I watched Furious 7 twice. Then I watched the early ones and part 8. I also watched MacGruber and Fifty Shades of Black. This is important data! I wasn’t putting on a performance for myself in these moments. I was in desperate need of something to quench the goddamn fire and this is what I reached for. This is what helped. This is what made me feel better when I was in the worst pain of my life. The Fast and Furious movies are about the way that family loyalty can be a super power. Just take the wheel, you know? And I really wanted Vin Diesel to take the wheel for me that week.

Over the months that followed, Adam Sandler made me feel better. Don “The Dragon” Wilson made me feel better. The American Pie Extended Universe made me feel better. Something like American Pie Presents: Band Camp is pure comfort, but instead of a mug of hot cocoa, it’s people getting caught masturbating in embarrassing contexts. Sometimes I drank hot cocoa while I watched, and it was good medicine.

Overall, I watched way more comedies this year than previous years. I watched 25 Lubitsch movies and a whole lot of trash. I also watched a shit ton of action movies and Old Hollywood fare, but that is not a new development. I watched less horror and arthouse titles (though still a lot), because this stuff just did not fall into the right zone of narcotic comfort that I needed to dwell in this year. There were certainly some cross-overs, though: Wishmaster, for instance, is one of my absolute top comfort movies. I fell asleep watching it many a night.

Out of my first-time viewings this year (bracketing the big chunk of Lubitsch, which was delectable), these were my top tier, in chronological order:

  • The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)
  • Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945)
  • Caught (Ophüls, 1949)
  • Artists and Models (Tashlin, 1955)
  • The Tarnished Angels (Sirk, 1957)
  • Sergeant Rutledge (Ford, 1960)
  • Marketa Lazarová (Vláčil, 1967)
  • Venus in Furs (Franco, 1969)
  • Querelle (Fassbinder, 1982)
  • Mélo (Resnais, 1986)
  • Center Stage (Kwan, 1991)
  • No Home Movie (Akerman, 2015)

And here were the rewatches that were most meaningful to me:

  • The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940)
  • How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)
  • To Have and Have Not (Hawks, 1944)
  • All that Heaven Allows (thee times) (Sirk, 1955)
  • Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956)
  • Party Girl (Ray, 1958)
  • Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)
  • The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)
  • Death in Venice (Visconti, 1971)
  • Lancelot du lac (Bresson, 1974)
  • Thief (Mann, 1981)
  • Three Crowns of the Sailor (Ruiz, 1983)
  • Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Mailer, 1987)
  • The Killer (Woo, 1989)
  • The Insider (Mann, 1999)
  • L’Intrus (Denis, 2004)
  • Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008)
  • Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) (in 3D, finally!!!!!)
  • Knight of Cups (three times) (Malick, 2015)
  • Song to Song (three times) (Malick, 2017)

Claire Denis’ L’Intrus was without a doubt the movie that gripped me the most this year. It was already a favorite, but I spent weeks obsessing about it after watching the restoration. I really needed to put it aside and write other things that I had actual deadlines for, but I did make some progress working through it. Here’s my piece on it. I spent a ton of time on Malick and wrote this piece on Knight of Cups and Song to Song. And here’s what I came up with on Sirk. Out of the other rewatches, Three Crowns of the Sailor and Death in Venice were especially revelatory. I feel like I made big leaps with both, and both are among the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

I don’t like to rush to come out with takes on new movies (which is part of the reason we do our year in review on Oscar Sunday), but my favorite movie of the year is Titane. Winning Cannes didn’t do it any favors with the highfalutin cinephile crowd, though, and it has suffered an unfortunate hype-backlash cycle. I really want to write a longer piece on it, because I have been disappointed to see most of the people whose opinions I take seriously dismiss it casually after one viewing while the main discourse about it is caught up with extremely shallow issues about whether it’s shocking, offensive, tamer than it thinks it is, etc. In the two weeks or so when people were talking about Titane, I don’t think the discourse really got anywhere. I have watched the movie twice and spent months thinking about it and I’m still very much in the process of working through it. Hopefully, you will see a piece from me about it sooner or later. I also really loved Ferrara’s Siberia and Zeros and Ones and Eastwood’s Cry Macho.

So what’s next for me? With god as my witness, I am going to confront my most humiliating blind spot in 2022: Chabrol. It’s getting more humiliating all the time how little Chabrol I’ve seen. I’ve gotten it in my head that I am going to do a complete chronological watch-through, and so I keep passing on opportunities to watch random titles from the middle of his filmography. This time I’m really going to do it. 2022 is the year when I will watch every Claude Chabrol movie. Hold me to that, please, and see you on the flip side.

Horror Movies in the Plague Era

The COVID-19 pandemic is by far the weirdest thing I’ve ever lived through. It’s been weird in so many ways, but for me the most acute was the sense early on that pretty much all of us—the entire world—was simultaneously gripped by the same fears: concrete fears about getting sick, profound uncertainty about the future, and a rushing undercurrent of existential angst as we were abruptly torn from our lives. One of the most surreal experiences of my life was navigating panic at the grocery story as we dodged strangers who appeared to be breathing a little too enthusiastically.

One of the very first things that happened on the day when Trump restricted travel from Europe and America went into panic mode was that someone asked me to put together a list of pandemic-themed horror movie recommendations. The most popular movie on iTunes immediately became Contagion. From the point of view of a philosopher immersed in the literature on the so-called “paradox of horror,” this might be surprising. It is a nearly universal assumption in this literature that part of the reason we are able to enjoy the negative emotions we experience in connection with horror fictions is that we in some manner distance ourselves from the content of these emotions. When we see the green slime onscreen and are frightened by it, we are aware at the same time that it’s fictional—that it’s not really going to hurt us—and the distance that this awareness creates is what clears the way for fear to function positively in our aesthetic engagement.

What we saw happening at the beginning of the pandemic was the opposite: we saw a mass urge to dive deeper into a very real fear in aesthetic contexts. Of course, not everyone shared this urge, but it was stunningly commonplace. The question of why people reacted this way is ultimately empirical, but I can think of two possibilities worth considering. The first is self-administered exposure therapy. When I’m genuinely scared of something, I rarely have much success ignoring it. It tears and claws at me until I confront it. I often find that a better coping strategy is to dwell on the fear and try to accept that whatever it is that I’m afraid of might indeed come to pass, but that if it does I will be able to endure it. Perhaps many of us dove straightaway into nightmarish pandemic fictions as a way to confront and process our fears.

The second possibility is that many of us experience the emotional impact of horror films as expressive potency. That is, we value these movies because they tap into our most intense personal fears in a way that is aesthetically exhilarating. Theories of horror that place too much emphasis on distance may underestimate what we are happy to put ourselves through in aesthetic contexts. Few things impress me more than artist who can make me feel something that I can barely stand to feel. Covid has been a time of big, outsized feelings—feelings that many of us have apparently had an urge to dive even deeper into in our aesthetic lives.

But perhaps the most striking thing to me about watching horror movies during the lockdown was the way that so many movies that have nothing directly to do with viruses and pandemics suddenly felt like they were about COVID-19. I had a reciprocal germ-sharing arrangement with my pal Jesse, and even during the lonelier months he came around once a week or so to watch horror movies with me. We constantly found ourselves saying things like, “wow, this really feels like it’s about COVID,” or, “it’s so uncanny how relevant this feels.”

Consider, for instance, John Carpenter’s The Thing. The thing about the Thing is that it could be anyone. Like the T-1000, it can imitate any person it encounters. When someone leaves the room and then comes back again, for all you know they could now be the Thing. The extraordinarily tense middle section of the movie depicts the paranoia that this dynamic generates. As Jesse and I watched the movie together, I started giving him the side-eye. Eventually, I looked over at him and asked, “Bro, you been on Tinder lately? Bumble?” The movie made me vividly aware that every time he leaves my house and then comes back he could have been replaced with a COVID monster who looks and sounds like my friend Jesse.

The Thing (1982)

“Horror reflects society’s fears” is perhaps the most over-used platitude in horror criticism. Of course it does. These observations about what it has been like to watch horror movies during the pandemic give us an opportunity to move beyond the bluntest version of this thesis and consider the rich phenomenology of the many different ways in which horror can reflect the fears of society. The case of Soderbergh’s Contagion isn’t especially interesting: we are now very afraid of pandemics and it’s about a pandemic. It’s more interesting to think about how Soderbergh’s Unsane (which I much prefer), has gained new resonances. Taken literally and in terms of narrative subject matter, it has nothing at all to do with the pandemic. It’s about a woman who is committed to a mental health facility on a false basis and then tormented by a stalker. But the emotions that it explores—feelings of captivity and powerlessness, of being suddenly torn from one’s world—are all too vividly COVIDesque. Moreover, the digital textures of the movie, which was filmed on an iPhone, call to mind the way that our lives have become so pervasively mediated by digital cameras and microphones.

Unsane (2018)

Or, consider Joe Dante’s classic Gremlins. My brother Josh points out that it’s now a COVID movie. You had three rules: keep the mogwai away from bright light, don’t get it wet, and never, ever feed it after midnight. But you couldn’t follow the rules, could you? Gizmo got wet, then he multiplied, then the resulting flock of mogwai were given chicken after the appointed hour. And what is the result? Abject chaos. Gremlins literally swinging from the chandeliers. We had three rules: wear a mask, stand six feet apart, wash our hands. But we couldn’t follow the rules, could we? And what was the result? ABJECT CHAOS.

Gremlins (1984)

The horror movies with the most enduring appeal are often the ones that can be about almost anything—the ones that tap into our most fundamental and pervasive fears. I’m talking, for instance, about the place deep down in our collective gut where we don’t really trust society not to fall apart at the seams. Do I really trust my neighbors? They are friendly enough, but will they pillage my house if food shortages become critical? Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version), The Mist, The Happening, Time of the Wolf, and The Purge tap into this fundamental fear, and thus can feel like they are about anything from a war to a pandemic to a natural disaster.

As I write this, the smoke has begun to clear and the world has started to return to something resembling normal. It is a new landscape, where we can no longer assume that the store will have the thing we want to buy and where one’s six-foot personal bubble has taken on new significance, but it is more or less recognizable as the world we knew before the pandemic. Thinking back to the phenomenology of the first few months after the plague took hold is like trying to remember a nightmare the next afternoon. I can recall flashes, but I have trouble immersing myself imaginatively in what it was really like. I am waiting with baited breath to see the next wave of COVID-inspired movies. Sure, there will be highly literal depictions like Songbird, which is too on the nose for greatness (though it does have its trashy pleasures as a piece of COVIDsploitation). What I really look forward to are movies that burrow into the deep, dark undercurrents of the pandemic and immerse us once again in the elusive, nightmarish pall that was cast over the world during those early months. It’s definitely not for everyone, but Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones comes the closest of anything I’ve seen. It has some literal COVID markers (masks, group video chat, and so on), but that’s almost beside the point. It’s like a transmission from the end of the world—dark and muddy and hard to make out, possessed at once with feverish urgency and resigned desolation. And that’s kind of what it was like, wasn’t it?

Zeros and Ones (2021)

[These piece is cross-posted from the ASA newsletter. Thanks, Shelby!]

Gender and Agency in All that Heaven Allows

This is my piece for an upcoming author-meets-critics session on Pippin’s new book on Sirk. I think it stands reasonably well on its own and it’s a decent advertisement for the book, which I like very much, and so I wanted to post it here. I won’t be reading this out at the event. I’ll speak on the same material extemporaneously.

***

Robert B. Pippin’s new book, Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker and Philosopher, should be an immense pleasure for Sirk aficionados. He develops a robust overarching analysis of Sirk’s brand of satirical irony, along with nuanced interpretations of three of his great Universal melodramas: All that Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. My subject is All the Heaven Allows, which tells the story of bourgeois widow Cary (Jane Wyman) contending with the disapproval of her children and social circle when she begins a romance with her much younger gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson).

The film’s narrative is straightforward. Cary lives in the posh New England community of Stoningham. She has a daughter, Kay, and son, Ned, away at college. Her friends and children coax her towards a relationship with the respectable and sexless Harvey, while she is swept up in the more exciting possibility presented by handsome, virile Ron. Ron lives in a rural setting and keeps an eclectic set of friends. He is described by one of these friends as a paragon of Thoreauvian non-conformism. He goes his own way, and doesn’t care a lick for the restrictive expectations of polite society. He wants Cary to follow the same path, leaving her social world and lifestyle behind to take up with him. Their relationship is disrupted when the incommensurability of Ron’s rigid non-conformism and Cary’s embeddedness in her social world comes to a head. Eventually, the lovers are reunited. It is—at least at first blush—a happy ending. 

Pippin’s interpretation of All that Heaven Allows begins from an observation about the broader category of subversive melodrama. He points to the phenomenon that I’ll call the “double ending.” A double ending is one where an ostensible happy ending is subverted by some unsettling element, which might then prompt us to reflect on whether it was really such a happy ending after all and to reinterpret the film in this light. At the end of Max Ophüls’ Caught, for instance, we find the do-gooder doctor played by James Mason not only unfazed, but actively pleased that Barbara Bel Geddes’ character has had a miscarriage, an event which he sees as freeing her up to pursue a happy life with him. The film recently played on the Criterion Channel, and as many people watched it for the first time and logged their opinions on the film social media app Letterboxd, I was struck by the way that nearly every review highlighted the ending but was unsure of what to say about it. In an earlier review, Neil Bahadur wrote, “The ending is obviously a bit compromised but otherwise this is seriously next level, for my money the best of the American Ophüls pictures.” Reviews like this express a sense that there’s something off about the ending. It might seem as though the happy tone was something the studio forced upon Ophüls, who may have wanted to end on a bitterer note.

Caught

Pippin suggests a different way to understand this tension. He argues that the trope of the double ending is bound up with the thematic concerns of subversive melodrama. In particular, the double ending is an effective means of portraying the condition of self-blindness that characterizes bourgeois life. The unease of the viewer (“something is off about that ending….”) mirrors the blinkering self-awareness of the characters in the film. At the end of Caught, we can see that Barbara Bel Geddes is not pleased about her miscarriage, and we sense that something is very wrong. At the same time, the film’s score reassures us that this is indeed a happy ending. We walk out of the theater at one level content that Bel Geddes has been freed from Robert Ryan’s abuse and is able to move forward with James Mason, but also vaguely disturbed by what the closing moments of the film reflects about Mason’s character. We might brush this tension off by assuming that the ending must have been compromised, or we might dig deeper into what bothers us. Our unsettled condition is also, we might imagine, the condition that Bel Geddes’ character is in. She is happy to be freed from Ryan and she will move forward with Mason, but to what extent will she be haunted by her miscarriage and by Mason’s narcissistic reaction to it? If she imagines herself happy in this new life, to what extent must this imagined happiness depend on self-deception?

Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows also has an ostensibly happy ending, which Pippin claims has the same sort of dual character that we find in Caught. Cary is reunited with Ron, and the two will be together going forward. But, Pippin argues, several details should make us uneasy. At the end of the film, Cary sees a doctor who tells her that her symptoms do not appear to be caused by any underlying health problem, but rather by Ron’s absence, and that she should go to him. She drives to his house and he is out hunting, but she doesn’t even realize this because she doesn’t knock on the door. She walks up to it, has a second thought (presumably about the fact that she would have to give up nearly every element of her own life in order to be with Ron), and walks away without knocking. Ron sees her in the distance, and in his haste to get her attention tumbles over a cliff and injures himself. Cary doesn’t even learn of his injury till she is told over the phone later. Finally, we learn that his recovery will be slow and that he will need to be cared for, and that Cary will fulfill this role.

This is readily taken as a happy ending: Cary and Ron are reunited. But we should also feel uneasy; she didn’t knock, after all. She did not make the decision to enter into this relationship. Rather, she fell into it because of Ron’s newfound need for a caretaker. The primary obstacle that their relationship faced was the collision of the social expectation that a widow should be respectably sexless and the lascivious implications of her attachment to young and virile Ron. This obstacle has been removed not by a frontal confrontation with the injustice of the rigid social expectations Cary faces, but by Ron’s emasculation. Their relationship no longer has the same implications. Moreover, Ron’s cabin has been made over as a bourgeois fantasy of rustic living, suggesting that Cary’s world going forward will not be all that different from the world she’s leaving behind. In this connection, Pippin emphasizes that the Throeauvian romanticism of Ron’s world is built upon a form of self-blindness in much the same way that Cary’s world is. Ron is not some individualist ideal; he’s a Christmas tree farmer. He’s a cog in the same capitalist system that the residents of Stoningham are; he just has a nicer view.

I find this take on All that Heaven Allows largely compelling. By way of response, I want to focus first on a few relatively minor disagreements with Pippin’s interpretation of the film that lead me to think that its double ending is not as harsh as he takes it to be. But I then want to argue that its deep ambivalence—its dual character as happy ending and subversive social critique—is on this account even better suited to the theme of self-blindness. 

Pippin’s assessment is grim, “Nothing we have seen suggests that the town will change, or even that Cary will change very much. What looks like the reunion of two now independent, self-reliant souls is simply one more way of compromising with the specifics of bourgeois life…. Cary, we expect, will manage to find a way, most likely through self-deceit, to imagine that what they do together will be authentic and their own, even as it reproduces the norms that we have seen enforced throughout.” (59) While I do agree that there is a sense in which we should expect that the couple’s life going forward will reproduce that norms that we have seen enforced in the film, I have a different thought about which norms are most salient.

Sirk does, I think, intend for the audience to grasp a real difference between Ron’s world and the social world of Stoningham. I agree with Pippin that the Thoreau references have a sardonic touch, and that Sirk is critical of the narrative of rugged individualism and authenticity and its role in the American imaginary. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize there are concrete ways in which Ron and at least some of his friends are freer than the residents of Stoningham and better positioned to achieve some qualified form of self-actualization. This point could be developed in several ways, but the most striking for me is the contrast between the opening party at the Stoningham Country Club and the one at Mick and Alida’s house. The first party scene focuses on the mechanics through which rigid social expectations are enforced: cruel gossip, snide insinuation, and so on. Everyone is white and well-off. Over the course of this party and the later Stoningham event that Cary brings Ron to, we see that lecherous (and in some cases downright repugnant) behavior from men is casually accepted while even the slightest hint of female sexual agency is cause for scandal. Contrast this with Mick and Alida’s party. The first guests who arrive after Ron and Cary are Manuel, a lobster fisherman with a thick Italian accent, his wife Rozanne, and their daughter Marguerita, who Rozanne introduces in Spanish (suggesting either that she does not speak English or does not prefer to speak English). Next, Grandpa Adams shows up. He’s a beekeeper and artist. Finally, there’s Miss Pidway, famed birdwatcher. Ron plays the piano and sings while Rozanne accompanies him on accordion. This is—in a non-trivial way—a much, much better party than the one at the country club. Sirk gleefully emphasizes what a hodgepodge of people this is, and how much fun they’re having. Among this crowd, diversity is not just accepted, it is embraced. No one is worried about lowering their social status by associating with fishermen or tree farmers. Age is not a boundary; the young and old dance together with festive abandon. We see Miss Pidway cutting a rug with Grandpa Adams and no one thinks her overly sexual on this account.

Mick and Alita’s party
Stoningham Country Club

Pippin makes much of the shift in décor in the old mill at the end of the film. There is no question that it is a couple notches closer to Cary’s world than it might have been. I am not inclined, however, to think that it has simply collapsed into the same bourgeois world that we find in Stoningham. Moreover, to the extent that Ron has attempted to decorate the house in a way that would appeal to Cary, he has made a compromise for her sake, and in this way has softened the “my way or the highway” rigidity he expressed earlier in the film. But it is just a partial compromise, not a full assimilation to the Stoningham way. The décor we find in Cary’s house and other Stoningham locations is far posher and more opulent, with gaudy silver pieces on display and plush furniture. Ron’s decorating scheme reflects something of the bourgeois fantasy of rural living (a fantasy I know all too well, living as I do in a mountain state to which many remotely employed Californians have recently fled), and we do see a couple clear echoes of Cary’s décor (notably the silver pitcher that Cary’s coffee is served in) but it is missing most of the markers of affluence that we find in Stoningham. The curtains are shabby and the floor and walls are still unfinished wood—and I’m not talking about some fancy distressed finish; they look dirty. This is just to say that there are still clear visual markers at the end of the film that Ron’s world is not the bourgeois world of Stoningham.

Ron gussies up the mill later on, but the unfinished surfaces remain

The other detail I want to emphasize is the brief conversation between Cary and Alida at the end of the film, after Ron has been injured. Two earlier scenes set the stage. In one scene, Alida told Cary that she and Mick were once a part of Cary’s bourgeois world, and that what it took to leave that world behind was not just Thoreau’s influence and Ron’s leading by example, but also Mick’s being injured in the Korean War. This injury changed their perspective and enabled them to see that the things that once seemed so important—keeping up with the Joneses, managing one’s reputation with local gossips, and so on—are not important after all. Now they grow trees and hang out with Grandpa Adams and Miss Pidway and do all sorts of rural stuff that they seem to find quite satisfying. While Pippin’s point that they are all still part of the larger capitalist system is well-taken, I think it is crucially important that Sirk portrays these people as having real joy in their lives. Ron LOVES trees. When we see him slinging Douglas firs at the Christmas tree lot, he’s having a great time. Even at the beginning of the film, when he’s explaining his plan to leave gardening behind to focus on his own nursery, he’s brimming with excitement. It’s also crucially important that he does not care one bit that this pursuit guarantees a diminished social position and lower income than he might expect if he made a real effort to keep up with the Joneses.

The other scene that sets the stage for Cary’s final talk with Alida is the bit when Cary is worried about the gossip that will spread in Stoningham about her and Ron, and Ron urges her not to be afraid. Cary asks him if this is the lesson that Mick learned from him, and he tells her that this is something that one must learn for oneself, and that to do so is to “be a man.” He tells her that he wants her to be a man, but “only in this one respect.”

Both of these scenes reverberate in the final meeting between Alida and Cary. My understanding of this scene is close to Pippin’s, but not quite the same. Cary explicitly refers back to her first conversation with Alida, “You told me once that Ron was so secure within himself because he refused to give importance to unimportant things. Why did it take me so long to understand it?” Alida reassures her that it had also taken them a long time to come around to this realization. Cary goes on about how she was a coward for letting others—and herself—keep her from Ron. We can infer that Ron’s accident is playing the same role for her that Mick’s war injury played for him and Alida—it shifts her perspective and enabled her to see “what’s really important.”

But here’s the rub: who’s really “the man” in this situation? In other words: has Cary asserted her own desires in the face of pressure to conform, or has she rather conformed to a different set of gendered expectations? Ron’s refusal to conform is also a refusal to grow up and acknowledge the web of obligations that adults incur. As Pippin points out, we are signaled early in the film to be on the lookout for Oedipus complexes, and in this connection we should have noticed both the conspicuous absence of Ron’s mother and the implications of his comment “I’ve met plenty of girls” in reference to his special attraction to Cary. He doesn’t want a girl (and all the responsibilities that would come with committing to one); he wants a mommy. And at the end of the film—laid up with an injury and in need of constant care and attention—he gets one.

I find Pippin’s insight into the phenomenon of the double ending extremely illuminating on this point, but I would shift the emphasis slightly. What is unsettling at the end of the film, I argue, is not the sense that things will go on as before, but rather Cary’s self-blindness about her lack of agency in the situation. Pippin does make the point that Cary has essentially been forced into this new arrangement, but what I think he undersells is her illusory sense that she does have agency in this development—that she has finally been a man. When she asks, “why did it take me so long to see it?”, she implies that she has seen it—that she has decided for herself that she should be with Ron, and that she has stood up to Mona and her kids and everybody else who wanted to keep the two of them apart. That is, she implies that she has finally become an independent agent.

But, in fact, she has not. She didn’t stand up to her kids, they just stopped caring, and indeed Kay—who has previously been portrayed as valuing her own intellectual development and independence—is about to enter into a marriage where she will play a supporting role to a meathead husband. I point this out because it is another way in which Sirk emphasizes at the end of the film that there is no viable path to independent agency for the women in this world. Even Alida is portrayed as following her husband’s lead into their Thoreauvian fantasy. Cary has not confronted the obstacles that stood between her and Ron. These obstacles were removed by his injury. The prohibition against her sexuality has not been cancelled. It’s just that her relationship with Ron no longer implies transgressive sexual pleasure. She’s mommy and caregiver, and it’s going to be a tough road going forward.

Pippin is absolutely right to say that we should sense on the way out of the theater after seeing All that Heaven Allows that there’s something “off” about the ending. He’s also right that this should prompt us to reflect on the fact that Cary did not knock on the door and choose to be with Ron, but rather acquiesced when the new role of caretaker was placed on her. To the extent that the ending unsettles us in this way, we can begin to see what we were initially blind to—that Cary has not gotten over her fears and become a full-fledged agent, but rather has slid into a different socially-defined gendered role that she has not actively chosen. But the parties she attends will be better, I think we can safely say, and her life will be more joyous than it was at the beginning of the film. The primary locus of her self-blindness going forward—to deepen the irony—is her false sense of having freed herself from self-blindness. It is important that the ending is indeed happy: she will be happier in her new life, but she will falsely think that she has claimed this happiness through her own agency. She asks, “Why did it take me so long to see?” But she never did see it—at least not for herself.


Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 20: Month of Horror

Featured image from Bliss.

It is upon us! The best month! This year the streaming gruel is particularly thin, so I strongly recommend subscribing to Shudder (at least for the month). For the first time in 20 rounds of streaming recommendations, I’m not recommending a single thing from Netflix. Their horror slate right now is pathetic. They have nothing good that I haven’t already recommended more than once. Compare their piddling little horror section with HBO Max’s very fun Halloween feature, where you can click on mystery doors labeled “Not Scary at All,” “Scary,” or “Very Scary.” HBO also has a ton of children’s horror that is temptingly presented and that I’m sure will thrill my niece. I’m skipping Hulu as well. They have a better slate than Netflix, but they still have very little that I haven’t already recommended.

Shudder

The Untold Story

Whoa, Nelly!

This is one of my favorite horror films, but it comes with an emphatic warning: this is not something you should watch if you have limits. It’s one of Herman Yau’s notorious Category III films from the 90’s (Category III is like Hong Kong’s NC-17). Anthony Wong gives one of the greatest horror performances of all time.

Messiah of Evil

This is another favorite of mine that has long been very difficult to see in decent quality. It’s finally been restored! It’s a slow burn 70’s oddball dread jam. This is the complete opposite side of the spectrum from The Untold Story.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Peak Sergio Martino giallo with the best title of any movie ever. Edwige Fenech and Anita Strindberg: you can’t beat it.

The Whip and the Body

Extraordinary gothic horror from Mario Bava, starring Christopher Lee. This is all trap doors and secret passages and twisted secrets. Watch this together with Lisa and the Devil (also on Shudder) and be amazed at Bava’s equally stunning facility with dark tones and opulent color.

Hunted

One of my favorite horror films from the last couple of years. It’s a breathlessly paced chase movie riffing on little red riding hood. It’s mean and nasty with a surprising fantastical touch.

Bliss

Another favorite from recent years. Don’t even think about watching this while the sun is out. You want to watch this late at night and as loudly as possible. It’s a drug-addled LA vampire fever dream in grimy 16mm. The sound design is out of control. The music is great across the board but the use of sludgy doom metal during the most intense scenes is especially inspired.  

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker

Hysterical and twisted 80’s psychosexual maternal horror bonanza with Susan Tyrell on full tilt.

Beyond the Door

Before this even starts to get weird we have a little girl who carries around 12 copies of Love Story and a little boy who constantly sips pea soup directly from the can through a straw. There’s a ridiculously long scene where a character is accosted by a trio of street musicians, one of whom is forcefully playing a nose flute. This is for real.

The Fifth Cord

Luigi Bazzoni giallo. This is a little bit of a deeper cut, but it’s one of the high points of the subgenre. It’s got cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist) and a score from Ennio Morricone. Franco Nero plays an alcoholic reporter.


Prime

Wishmaster and Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies

Funny, imaginative monkey’s paw djinn horror. I watch Wishmaster to fall asleep when I have insomnia. It is one of my favorite comfort movies.

Survival of the Dead

This late work from Romero deserves another look. It’s a zombie riff on William Wyler’s The Big Country and it anticipates the growth of tribalism in the US. It’s not his best work by any means, but it is still far better than nearly all of the zombie movies not made by Romero.

The Lords of Salem

I recommend this every year and I intend to continue doing so. It’s Rob Zombie’s masterpiece and far and away the best horror movie of the last decade.

I See You

Try to avoid finding anything out about this. It mashes up a couple subgenres in a surprising, creative way. It’s a hoot and the score is great. Helen Hunt!

The Loved Ones

Pleasantly twisted and effectively squirmy Australian horror.

HBO Max

Hammer Horror: The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy

This is the first wave of great Terence Fisher/Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing flicks. If you haven’t seen these, you absolutely should. Enthusiastically recommended for everyone.

Kwaidan

A quartet of Japanese ghost stories from Kobayashi, based on folklore. Absolutely gorgeous movie, not to be missed.

The Voices

Hunted, recommended above (on Shudder), is by Vincent Paronnaud, one of the directors of Persepolis. This is by the other director of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. This one is waaaaaay out there and I have deep affection for it. The Ryan Reynolds factor is extremely high, so it’s only for people who roll with RR.

Annabelle: Creation

This is a certified banger and one of the high points of the Conjuringverse. It’s tense and tightly constructed. Watched in the right setting, it’s properly terrifying. By the director of Lights Out, David F. Sandberg. The dude has chops.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s early art horror vampire erotica. Very unlike the rest of his filmography and decidedly not for everyone. Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon (aka the best possible sexy vampire cast).

Criterion Channel

Inside

One of my favorite horror films of the 00’s. Beatrice Dalle is a singular actress, and she is at her absolute peak here. It’s a dense, relentless movie, and only for people with more extreme taste.

The Black Cat

This is like an hour long and there is no excuse for not watching it. Peak 30’s horror from Ulmer with both Lugosi and Karloff. It contains multitudes.

Kuroneko

Another black cat. Shindo’s masterpiece, featuring some of the most exquisite B&W images in the horror genre.

Gran Torino, The Mule, and Cry Macho

When Clint Eastwood began his 50 year directorial career at age 41, he was already an icon. He was Rowdy Yates from Rawhide, then he was The Man With No Name, and in 1971 (the same year he directed his first feature), he became Dirty Harry Callahan. He set straight to work on dismantling and subverting his own iconography (High Plains Drifter, anyone?). His films reveal an obsession with dismantling his own status in the American imagination as the Man’s Man– the cop who won’t play by the rules, the tough guy badass hero who saves the day and spits on the ground, the ultimate cowboy. His Unforgiven is the ne plus ultra of the deromanticized Western. His war movies interrogate American mythologies of heroism and his crime movies find the cops lost in the same moral fog as the criminals.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a fan of Clint’s late work. I’m a fan of Late Style quite generally: I’m deeply fascinated by the final stages of a great artistic career, where an acknowledged master has nothing left to prove and no shits left to give and just follows their inspiration where it takes them. This year in Late Style we’ve got quite a haul already: Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter and Clint’s Cry Macho. I do like the former quite a bit, but the latter is truly great.

It’s the third film that Eastwood has collaborated on with Nick Schenk. I see these three films as a loose trilogy where Clint Eastwood the man lays Clint Eastwood the icon to rest. These are complex films with multiple thematic layers, and I couldn’t possibly begin to do justice to them here, but I do want to try to develop this thought a little further and briefly explain how I see the three fitting together.

Smug philistines are fond of a particularly simplistic Gran Torino critique: racial slurs play for laughs and then an Archie Bunker-esque character gets redeemed, with the result that Fox News audiences get to laugh at racist jokes then feel unwarranted gratification at their own anti-racism due to the redemptive ending. Did it work like this for some audiences? Yes, surely. But you can’t blame Clint for lobotomized Fox News fans liking his movie for the wrong reasons. The same thing happened with American Sniper and the same thing happens every Fourth of July when Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” gets played as though it were a patriotic anthem.

Clint’s character in Gran Torino (Walt) is ostensibly a retired auto worker, but really he is Dirty Harry. Watch the two movies together and you’ll see that it couldn’t be clearer. One of the main things the film is about is the way that swaggering tough guy machismo of the Dirty Harry variety is the surface manifestation of repressed pain and self-loathing. Walt has PTSD from the Korean War, and is particularly haunted by his own acts of violence towards Korean men. He sublimates his pain surrounding these memories into ongoing racial bitterness. When the movie begins, he’s the only white guy left in a Detroit neighborhood that has slowly transformed into a Hmong community and he’s not happy about it. He doesn’t even understand who the Hmong are, but he knows he hates them.

Movies where a cantankerous white person is won over to racial understanding are admittedly not the most sophisticated genre, but please don’t confuse this with the efforts of lesser filmmakers. Clint has a strong point of view here—it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s not some cheap and easy feel-good nonsense. What the film focuses on is the way that Walt and his Hmong neighbors ultimately bond over their shared class identification. Before he’s white and before he’s American, Walt is a working class Detroit guy. He has more in common with the Hmong immigrant community than he does with his own spoiled suburban family. The film’s insistent doubling down on its use of racial slurs is provocative, but it’s contextualized by the idea (plain as day for anyone open to seeing the movie as sophisticated and self-critical) that certain ways of using racial slurs express mutual affection and shared class identification. At a Detroit auto garage where Italian, black, and Hmong mechanics work side-by-side and become close friends, the use of slurs means something very different than it does in other contexts. Read Luvell Anderson’s excellent work on slurs for a robust philosophical analysis of their context-dependence and the way they can express intimacy.

Walt and his barber teaching young Thao working class banter

Clint’s character in the film begins as a bitter Dirty Harry-style racist and ends with a grand penitential gesture. Is he redeemed? In some sense, yes. But it’s important to highlight that the primary reward of his redemption is release from the pain of racial bitterness. That’s not a cheap and easy redemption of the sort that should bother us.

While Gran Torino is more about Clint the icon, The Mule is more about Clint the man. He casts his own daughter in the film as the daughter who hates him and explores his profound regret around the way he lost his family while he was out passing around meaningless trophies. I’ve written about The Mule quite a bit already so I’ll refrain from rehearsing my line here but I do think it’s important to see that just as he subverts the image of Dirty Harry in Gran Torino, he subverts his own celebrity in The Mule.

Cry Macho is the elegy. Some hack commentators complain about casting a 91 year old in the film’s lead role when the character in the novel is more like 40. This is such a bad take. The film is not simply an adaptation of the novel; it’s also about Clint’s iconography. Alongside John Wayne, he is the ultimate cowboy. But unlike John Wayne, he’s spent more than half his life purposefully subverting his own image. The film is blunt about the way archetypes are deployed: the boy who Mike is on a mission to rescue (Rafa) names his rooster Macho and very explicitly seeks to become a macho tough guy who can protect himself from the sort of abuse his mother has wantonly subjected him to. He agrees to go with Mike because Mike is a real cowboy. He embodies Rafa’s idea of what it is to be a man, just like Clint Eastwood does in the popular imagination. But Mike is old enough to have learned that his own macho image was hollow. For the first time ever (I believe), we see Clint shed a tear onscreen. But perhaps more importantly, we also see him express joy and bemused contentment in his old age. He smiles so much in the movie. It’s so warm (though he still finds a few minutes to spend cursing under his breath at the cops). This is important in part because Clint the icon does not smile. He’ll stare you down, but he won’t smile. Rafa hoped Mike would teach him how to be a tough guy who can handle anything, but Mike instead teaches him that this is a bullshit ideal. He teaches him that it’s okay to be emotional, both when this means crying openly and when it means earnestly expressing joy. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the film’s resolution conveys Clint’s own sense of peace and acceptance of the realities of aging. If Gran Torino reveals the pain behind Dirty Harry’s tough guy facade, Cry Macho reveals the joy of letting it all go. It’s a wonderful movie, and one that I’m grateful to have in my life.