Twin Peaks: The Return, initial reaction

Having watched the first three episodes of the Twin Peaks return late last night, I feel compelled to record my reaction before being exposed to anyone else’s thoughts.  I am saving the fourth episode for late tonight (the first four episodes are currently available on the showtime anytime app.  I guess that means I’ll have to wait two weeks for more?).  There are no major spoilers and I barely mention any details or particulars, but I personally wouldn’t want to read what follows before seeing at least the first two episodes for myself.

First, my expectations:

To borrow Alexander Nehamas’ metaphor, if the new Fast and Furious movie is the aesthetic equivalent of a one night stand, the recent work of Refn is casual dating, and Claire Denis is a long term relationship, then David Lynch is a marriage.  There are few artists whose work I’ve engaged with so extensively.  I remember well obsessing over Lost Highway with my brother Josh for pretty much the entirety of 1997.  Two of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life were attending an early viewing of Mulholland Drive at Cornell Cinema with all my friends in a theater totally packed with people who could not fucking  handle it and seeing Inland Empire on Christmas day sitting between the illustrious Jacob Collins and the even more illustrious Wallace Shawn.  I couldn’t count how many times I’ve revisited his major works.  And if there’s one thing I know about David Lynch, it’s that he wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t have totally new ways of combining image and sound locked and loaded.  He is not an artist who repeats himself.  We all thought he was done after Inland Empire.  My sense was that he always felt restrained by the limitations and expenses of film and the studio production system, and that once he was finally liberated by digital video, this freedom enabled him to price himself out of the market.  That is, he was finally able to put down a totally unadulterated, uncompromised rendering of his vision, and it left him with nowhere to go.  UNTIL NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS!

What I expect to be the most remarkable about the Twin Peaks return is the scope.  We’ve always heard how he wanted Dune and Fire Walk With Me to each be 4+ hours long but the studio interfered.  With Inland Empire we finally got to see what he could do with a long running time, and it’s staggering.  I can’t even conceive of what 18 hours is going to look like.

There are three basic Lynch tones: weird fun, blissful serenity, and visceral nightmare.  His aesthetic depends on the juxtaposition and intermingling of the three.   The original Twin Peaks series was like 80% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 10% visceral nightmare.   I expect an inversion to 10% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 80% visceral nightmare.  I expect that viewers who like the original Twin Peaks series and Mulholland Drive but can’t handle Fire Walk With Me and Inland Empire are going to struggle.  And by “struggle” I mean they are going to have the inside of their skulls rearranged and wake up with night terrors.  I expect hard surrealist horror.

AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I GOT.  It would be impossible to overstate how much I liked those first three episodes.  I arrived home from a conference in SLC having not gotten a decent night’s sleep in 5 days and totally strung out on strenuous mental activity and more socializing than I’ve done over the rest of my sabbatical combined (which was awesome, in case any of my aesthetic normativity peeps are reading this).  I saw my spacey, vaguely depressed mental state as more of an asset than a liability for approaching these episodes.  Lynch demands to be watched in the dark.  I decided to wait till the middle of the night, drink coffee, and pro-actively court delirium.  I wanted to experience these episodes like nightmares.  I wanted them to bleed into actual nightmares once I finally went to bed.  It was exactly the right thing to do.  I was up till 4am.  I got 5 hours of fitful sleep.  I had nightmares.  I kept waking up to vivid memories of some of the new images I had seen.  It was fantastic.

This is straight David Lynch black tar heroin.  I wasn’t in any way concerned that he’d let me down.  What would have been bad, and what I definitely didn’t think he’d do, is a nostalgia bomb.  I really, really, really did not want to see an easy lapse into the damn fine coffee/cherry pie routine.  I certainly did not want to hear about a fish in a percolator.  My confidence was rewarded when I heard the gloriously stilted Inland Empire-style dialogue between Andy and Lucy. And the fucking evolution of The Arm! Good god.

I am going to stop there and let this soak in further as I eagerly anticipate getting back into Lynch’s universe with the fourth episode late tonight.  I plan to blog about the Twin Peaks return throughout the season.  Stay tuned.

The Vampire Diaries and Billions

No spoilers.

The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries concluded on Friday with its 171st episode.   After bingeing the first season on Netflix I started watching the show regularly in 2010, and have kept up with it ever since.   I found it far, far, far superior to its sleazy HBO cousin, True Blood, which I also watched.   I don’t think there’s a single show out there that I’ve spent more time watching than The Vampire Diaries (I’d have to do some math on The Simpsons, but I doubt it).   With its 22 episode seasons, the show was on about half the year, and it’s been tremendously comforting to so often have a new VD episode waiting.

The Vampire Diaries has a large roster of endearing characters that anyone who makes it through all 8 seasons will surely think of as old friends.  That’s not what makes the show so special, though.  The Young Adult Serial Melodrama (YASM) is an afflicted genre.  YASMs frequently start out intriguing, with a mysterious new guy or girl moving to town to escape a dark past and two or more love triangles rapidly ensuing.  The problem, though, is that these shows almost invariably run into a brick wall once they’ve exhausted the available love triangle permutations.  First she’s with Dawson, then she’s with Pacey, and then what?  The initially wonderful Gossip Girl fell into repetition and became hard for me to take less than halfway through its run.  The O.C. may be the only pure instance of the genre that didn’t ever really suck.

The key, I think, is to combine the YASM with some other genre.  Veronica Mars knocked YASM/mystery fusion out of the park.  I don’t think there’s any question that the first two seasons of VM are the best young adult TV of all time.  The Vampire Diaries fused the YASM with supernatural fantasy and, while it didn’t burn as brightly as Veronica Mars, it was consistently great for 8 seasons.  I can’t recall as single bad episode.  There were certainly lulls, and it did get a tiny bit repetitive to be facing so many different versions of The Most Powerful Being in the Universe, but it always maintained its core appeal.  It benefited above all else from extremely clever writing by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.  Rather than repeat love triangle permutations to move the story forward, they dug ever deeper into the past for material.  It’s quite a resource for a writer to have 150 years of backstory available for the main characters along with thousands of years of background, and Williamson and Plec made effective use of it.  The distinctive merit of The Vampire Diaries is how expansively creative their writing has been.

Certainly, it gets ridiculous.  For one thing, death means nothing in The Vampire Diaries.  Characters die or are entrapped in prison dimensions only to be brought back a couple seasons later as a matter of routine.  There’s always an emotional goodbye featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding, and then an emotional welcome back featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding.   But the show knows how to be just cheeky enough about its own ridiculousness to make it fun rather than grating.  Enzo’s dead.  Don’t worry, he’ll be back, as soon as Bonnie can track down an ancient dagger made from the bones of one of his ancestors and then perform a summoning ritual during a lunar eclipse while a descendant of the city’s founder strikes a magical bell with a hammer enchanted by an ancient sorceress to open a portal to another dimension where Damon must free Enzo and then stab an evil warlock with the dagger and escape back through the portal before it closes.   Yes, another primary pleasure of the VD is its hilariously byzantine mythology.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of deus ex machina solutions that bypass these rules.  It’s all great fun.  I’ll miss it.  Usually I would watch new episodes first thing in the morning, by myself, with a cup of coffee.  I frequently cackled with delight.  I even went along as best as I could with the prescribed emotional responses to the many, many, many indie rock montages.  I doubt I’ll ever find another show quite so comforting.

Billions

Naomi Klein hates Billions.  She tweeted (I paraphrase), “Is there a shittier show than Billions?  I mean besides the RNC in Cleveland.”

There’s no question that if you think steadfast adherence to “correct” progressive attitudes is a precondition for aesthetic value, then you will hate Billions.  Billions revels in brash immoralism.  It introduces you to some of the worst people in the world, and then coaxes you to root for them by pitting them against even worse people.  In season 2, we finally meet a likable character.  Taylor, a non-binary, super-genius intern who announces upon initial greeting that their pronouns are “they, them, and their,” is subjected to a non-stop gauntlet of macho office harassment while showing superlative talent.  Taylor is motivated by sincere, academic interest in market analysis as opposed to greed and narcissism, and one of the primary arcs of season 2 features Axe (the show’s billionaire hedge fund manager protagonist, played by Brody from Homeland) feeding Taylor’s most competitive urges and seeking to undermine their integrity.  The pleasure of Billions depends in large part on the ability to bracket one’s moral sensibility and relish the sinister dastardliness of it all.

So how does the show manage to generate sympathy for its supervillain protagonist?  By pitting him against the one thing more repulsive than a corrupt hedge fund manager: a corrupt federal prosecutor, played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti.  I used to be a Giamatti detractor (Sideways-era), but he’s really grown on me, and his work in Billions as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes makes the show.  Rhodes is hell bent on bringing down Axe, not out of any concern for the greater good, but as part of a multi-generational vendetta spiced up by deep insecurity over his dominatrix wife’s personal connection with Axe, who employs her (!) as a workplace psychologist/performance coach.  Without giving anything away, I’ll say that Giamatti’s chess soliloquy late in season 1 is a high point of the show.

Billions approaches the world of the elite scumbag without irony or satire.  It certainly doesn’t attempt to valorize or defend its characters, but it also doesn’t judge them.  It doesn’t go in for the manic hysteria of The Wolf of Wall Street, but like Scorsese’s film, it wants to be caught up in the exhilaration of greed rather than to stand above it.  It has no interest in offering a trite critique of something we all already know is destroying human civilization.  Taken together these two works signal a reorientation of the gangster genre.  We’ve always enjoyed rooting for the bad guy in the right context.  Who didn’t root for Michael Corleone to get away clean after assassinating a crooked cop in an Italian restaurant?  The new gangsters are on Wall Street, and Billions gives us a chance to root for them against uncharismatic rivals and crooked prosecutors alike.  There’s backstabbing and out-maneuvering aplenty, and even a guest appearance by Metallica.  I can definitely understand where Naomi Klein is coming from, but I personally don’t plan on missing any episodes of Billions. 

OJ: Made in America

When I first heard of its existence, few things sounded less appealing to me than a nearly 8 hour long documentary about OJ Simpson.  I didn’t see the need for a rehash of a story that has already been done to death a hundred times over.  I was wrong.  This is an extremely important movie, and the story of OJ is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be deceived by the ESPN: Films label.  This is no shoddy sports biography, and it’s no true crime exploitation fodder, and it’s no mere rehash.  It is many things, but first and foremost it is an epic examination of the last 50 years of race relations in America, viewed through the lens of OJ’s life.  It is not bogged down with every tiresome detail of the murder trial.  Kato Kaelin is barely mentioned.  Much more time is spent on the Rodney King beating and LA riots.  The film strives to provide the OJ story with the fullest possible context for understanding its significance in American history.   It deals extensively in details, but these details are curated for relevance to the big picture.  I can’t think of a film that deals with race in contemporary America more insightfully.

I refer to it as a film, but there has been some controversy about whether it is a film or a television miniseries.  This controversy seems based in confusion.  It needn’t be the case that it belongs determinately to either category.  It has features of both, and evaluating it as an instance of either is legitimate.  I definitely experienced it as more a film than a miniseries.  I think of a TV documentary miniseries as utilitarian in composition: we are being delivered information, and the style of delivery is less important than its efficiency for achieving that purpose.  This work is highly stylized and creates an immersive experience. Moreover, I think of a miniseries as divided into parts that are separated by some break in continuity.   OJ: Made in America flows.  Its five partitions are set at natural transition points in the story, but there are no breaks in continuity.  If the partition titles were removed, I never would think of the film as consisting of five discrete parts.  If my viewing companion hadn’t fallen asleep, I would have stayed up all night and watched the whole thing in one sitting.  I ended up watching it over two sittings.

The film does a remarkable job highlighting what a twisted coil of irony the whole shitshow has been.  OJ, the film argues, was the first black celebrity to fully adopt—and be adopted by—the myth of a colorblind, post-racial America.   White sports fans loved OJ, and they loved to say that OJ “transcended” race.   The movie presents a rich and insightful examination of what that bullshit is supposed to mean, and of OJ himself as a black man who bought the bootstrapping narrative hook, line and sinker, and did everything he could to disassociate his identity from blackness until he found himself in the clutches of the justice system.

The brilliant, brutal irony at the film’s core is the way in which OJ’s trial completely inverted the generic black American experience of the justice system, while at the same time being apprehended as standing in for the generic black experience.   By the time the trial reached its conclusion, what was really being litigated was the failure of the justice system for black people in America, while the man on trial didn’t for most of his life think of himself as black, didn’t live a life that was representative of the experience of the majority of black Americans, had millions of dollars to hire a dream team of lawyers, and had his case heard by an almost entirely black jury in a predominately black district.    But The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the ultimate layer of irony leaves OJ to finally to be treated like any old black man by the justice system as he ends up on trial in Santa Monica (i.e., before a white jury and white judge) for a bizarre sports memorabilia robbery years after being acquitted for murder.  He was sentenced to a vastly disproportionate 33 years that he is still serving today.

Towards the end of Part 3 of OJ: Made in America, there’s an extended examination of a particularly striking moment from the omnibus hearing.  Christopher Darden, a black attorney asked to join the prosecution team once it had been established that the jury would be mostly black, is seeking to disallow evidence relating to Mark Fuhrman’s use of the ‘n’ word.  He argues that black jurors will have a visceral reaction to the officer’s use of the word, and this visceral reaction will predispose them to believe that he framed Simpson.   Johnnie Cochran responds with personal indignation, acknowledging Darden as a friend and then taking him to task not as the prosecutor of the case, but rather as a brother who’s just sold out to The Man.   The presentation of this episode and the overlain analysis is impressively nuanced.  How can Cochran adopt such stark indignation when he is in fact doing everything he can to turn the case into a referendum on the LAPD’s race problems and this is exactly why he wants the officer’s use of slurs presented as evidence?  Because Darden’s argument imagines that black people are affected by the ‘n’ word in a way that white people are never affected by any word: they are rendered unable to reason objectively–unable to bring any considerations to bear except raw mistrust of law enforcement.

Another potent segment revolves around the way DNA evidence figured in the case.  The DNA evidence against Simpson was overwhelming. As I recall, and as the film presents, once this evidence was presented the media and the majority of white people in America believed he was guilty.  His blood was all over the crime scene, dispersed in a manner consistent with an injury on his hand, and the blood of the victims was all over his car and home.  There’s a fucked up moment during the jury selection when present-day Marcia Clark explains that part  of the reason the prosecution was unhappy about the case being heard in downtown LA was that more intelligent jurors tended to be more open to DNA evidence (i.e., black  people  don’t understand DNA).   Her remarks on this matter, as well as the remarks of most of the other talking heads from law enforcement, strongly imply that the black jurors must have been so irrationally distrustful of police that they were prone to gullibly favor the defense’s conspiracy theories over hard scientific proof.  The film brilliantly undermines this narrative by developing extensive context regarding the history of relations between the LAPD and black communities to help the viewer understand that it didn’t require gullibility in this context to believe that cops would frame a black man for murdering a white woman. The film here delves into impressive detail about the power of a skilled lawyer.  F. Lee Bailey’s evisceration of Mark Fuhrman makes for great cinema.  As Chris Darden had preemptively complained about in the above-mentioned omnibus hearing, Bailey made a deliberate effort to evoke a visceral reaction from black jurors.  Standing before them as a gray haired, upper class white guy, he really fucking leaned into the word “NI__ER” over and over again as he questioned Fuhrman.  “Have you ever said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you sure you haven’t said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you absolutely positive you’ve never once uttered the word ‘NI__ER’?” Fuhrman was absolutely confident he was a good man.  And he believed that a good man couldn’t be a racist.  And so he concluded that he couldn’t be racist.  But only a racist would say that word, and so he clearly hadn’t said it.  The only problem was that there were recordings of him saying it. Bailey knew that this line of questioning would coax him to lie.  He knew that Fuhrman’s self-conception wouldn’t allow him to admit to his use of the word.  And he knew that catching him in a lie would–QUITE JUSTIFIABLY—plant the strong suspicion in the jurors that Fuhrman had framed OJ and lied about it.

At the same time, the film does not neglect to observe that only a lucky handful of black defendants could afford a defense like OJ’s, and so we are left with the suggestion that all of the abundant outrage that white America felt over OJ’s getting away with murder might better be directed at a justice system where the result frequently depends more on the defendant’s budget than the facts of the case.   If OJ were broke, F. Lee Bailey wouldn’t have given half a shit about his fate.

The Fuhrman tapes are quite something.  I had forgotten how vile they truly were.  Many of the talking heads in the film–and many people who I’ve heard remark on the case over the years—refer to OJ’s defense team as having played the “race card.”  These days this phrase is a social media bludgeon used to dismiss any explanatory relevance of race.   My sense is that this usage evolved from the way the term was deployed to deride Johnnie Cochran’s closing statement and the overall defense strategy.  I find this infuriating.  The race card wasn’t “played.”  Race was relevant!  The fucking detective is on tape espousing genocidal racism and bragging about wanton, racially motivated assault on the bodies and civil liberties of black people.  He bragged about framing black suspects!   The job of the defense attorney is to establish a reasonable doubt.  It would be grotesquely unethical NOT to argue that there is a plausible scenario where OJ was framed by a cop who bragged on tape about framing black people.  There’s a lot of disgust among the film’s pro-law enforcement talking heads about Cochran’s comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler.  I don’t think this was the best way to make the relevant point, but Cochran’s critics here misrepresent what he said.  He didn’t simply compare Fuhrman to Hitler.  He said that the threat of Hitler was underestimated.  No one did anything about it because they didn’t take it seriously enough.  Cochran suggested that the tendency to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt is analogous to early complacence about the threat of Hitler.  He argued that if we give cops like Fuhrman the benefit of the doubt, we are complicit in an atrocity that will continue to grow.  AND HE WAS RIGHT!   This is not to say that OJ was framed or even that he should have been found not guilty, but rather that Cochran’s general point—abstracting from the hyperbolic Godwinian invocation of Hitler—has turned out to be quite accurate.  Law enforcement has continued to receive the benefit of the doubt.  Overwhelming evidence of vast racial inequality in our justice system has been flatly ignored and we find ourselves in a position where we have by far the most extensive carceral state of any nation in the history of the world and black citizens suffer the brunt of it.   Today Mark Fuhrman is a paid commentator on Fox News, brought in by Megyn Kelly and others to preach to the choir about how if a dead black man had simply complied with a cop’s illegal order he would still be alive and it’s as simple as that.  Given that what Mark Fuhrman is famous for is being caught on tape saying horribly racist shit and bragging about being able to mistreat black citizens with impunity it’s worth thinking about why Fox puts him in this role.  White resentment towards OJ runs deep.  That motherfucker played the race card and he got away with murder because of it.  The race card was played against Mark Fuhrman in particular, and so spite towards OJ leads to sympathy with his antagonist.  A Fox viewer shakes his head and passes judgment on the Baltimore riot, “It’s just so tragic to burn down your own community, MLK Jr. must be rolling in his grave.”  Mark Fuhrman is a living symbol of police brutality.  Someone who believes there is no such thing as police brutality is given the opportunity to express this belief simply by sitting on the couch and nodding along with Fuhrman.  The politically correct thing to do is treat Fuhrman as a pariah.  Fox presents its viewers with an opportunity to rebel against political correctness. Treating someone who has been so aggressively demonized as a racist as though they are a valuable commentator on law enforcement and race in America is way of rejecting the public consciousness that branded him a racist.

Towards the end of the film’s portrayal of the trial, a remarkable statistic is presented.  By the end of the trial, about 75% of black Americans believed OJ was innocent, whereas about 75% of white Americans believe he was guilty.  As the film highlights, widespread belief in his innocence among black Americans was not explained by ignorance about DNA and gullibility as much as it was by a long, traumatic history of being mistreated by law enforcement and the justice system.  The film suggests that after he was acquitted, a lot of OJ’s black supporters were fine with the possibility that he was actually guilty, and were overjoyed that this time a black man was the one getting away with it.  It was cultural payback for the Rodney King verdict and the long history of injustice that it came to represent.  The film also reminds us of how intense the vitriol towards OJ from white America has been.  Lots of obviously guilty murderers are running around free, but usually no one takes time out of their day to go protest them while they play golf.  They did for OJ.  For years after the trial he couldn’t go anywhere without a horde of angry white ladies putting signs in his face about how he’s a murderer and wife-beater.   Why did OJ in particular hit such a nerve?  The film’s answer is that it’s because of the singular, central position his story occupies in the clusterfuck of American identity politics.

Listology: Josh edition

My brother Josh keeps nerdy records of which movies he liked best every year.  I always enjoy reading his lists.  Perhaps you’ll find some enticing leads.

2009

1. Two Lovers (Gray)
2. 35 Shots of Rum (Denis)
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson)
4. Public Enemies (Mann)
5. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Herzog)
6. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Gervasi)
7. Revanche (Spielmann)
8. Julia (Zonca)
9. Coraline (Selick)
10. Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor)

A Serious Man (Coen Bros), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Herzog), Where the Wild Things Are (Jonze), The Box (Kelly), The Hurt Locker (Bigelow), Tyson (Toback), Lorna’s Silence (Dardenne Bros.), Goodbye Solo (Bahrani), Adventureland (Mottola), Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)

2010

1. Everyone Else (Ade)
2. Dogtooth (Lanthimos)
3. The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
4. Life During Wartime (Solondz)
5. October Country (Mosher, Palmieri)
6. Bluebeard (Breillat)
7. White Material (Denis)
8. Wild Grass (Resnais)
9. Ondine (Jordan)
10. Mother (Bong)

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Six), Winter’s Bone (Granik), True Grit (Coen Bros.), Easier With Practice (Alvarez), The Crazies (Eisner), Another Year (Leigh), Secret Sunshine (Lee), Micmacs (Jeunet), Piranha 3D (Aja), Prodigal Sons (Reed)

2011

1. The Tree of Life (Malick)
2. Margaret (Lonergan)
3. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
4. Midnight in Paris (Allen)
5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog)
6. The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Spielberg)
7. Coldfish (Sono)
8. Guilty of Romance (Sono)
9. Beginners (Mills)
10. Hugo (Scorsese)

Drive (Refn), Bellflower (Glodell), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Bird), The Skin I Live In (Almodovar), Melancholia (Von Trier), A Separation (Farhadi), War Horse (Spielberg), Take Shelter (Nichols), The Sitter (Green), You’re Next (Wingard)

2012

1. Killer Joe (Friedkin)
2. The Kid with a Bike (Dardennes)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson)
4. The Master (Anderson)
5. Flight (Zemeckis)
6. Dark Horse (Solondz)
7. Cloud Atlas (Wachowskis)
8. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
9. This is Not a Film (Panahi)
10. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Tim and Eric)

Silver Linings Playbook (O’Russell), Holy Motors (Carax), Queen of Versailles (Greenfield), Damsels in Distress (Stillman), The Raid: Redemption (Evans), Take This Waltz (Polley), Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow), Frankenweenie (Burton), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin), Django Unchained (Tarantino)

2013

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese)
2. To The Wonder (Malick)
3. Twixt (Coppola)
4. Bastards (Denis)
5. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami)
6. Stories We Tell (Polley)
7. Spring Breakers (Korine)
8. Blue Jasmine (Allen)
9. The Lords of Salem (Zombie)
10. Passion (De Palma)

Frances Ha (Baumbach), The Bling Ring (Coppola), Bullet to the Head (Hill), Nebraska (Payne), Computer Chess (Bujalski), Mud (Nichols), Prince Avalanche (Green), The Worlds End (Wright), The Grandmaster (Wong), Before Midnight (Linklater)

2014

1. Under the Skin (Glazer)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson)
3. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier)
4. The Zero Theorem (Gilliam)
5. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
6. Joe (Green)
7. Why Don’t You Play in Hell (Sono)
8. Boyhood (Linklater)
9. Gone Girl (Fincher),
10. Night Moves (Reichardt)

The Immigrant (Gray), John Wick (Stahleski, Leitch), Snowpiercer (Bong), Nightcrawler (Gilroy), Magic in the Moonlight (Allen), Cold In July (Mickle), Oculus (Flanagan), The Babadook (Kent), The Guest (Wingard), Blue Ruin (Saulnier)

2015

1. Blackhat (Mann)
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller)
3. Heart of a Dog (Anderson)
4. The Assassin (Hou)
5. Manglehorn (Green)
6. The Walk 3D (Zemeckis)
7. Anomalisa (Kaufman)
8. Sicario (Villenueve)
9. Tokyo Tribe (Sono)
10. Chi-Raq (Lee)

Predestination (Spherig Bros.), Creed (Coogler), Crimson Peak (Del Toro) Irrational Man (Allen), Knock Knock (Roth), The Green Inferno (Roth), Ricki and the Flash (Demme), Jupiter Ascending (Wachowskis), The Hateful 8 (Tarantino), Tangerine (Baker)

A James Bond Retrospective

Watching every James Bond movie in order was more revelatory than I expected it to be.  I had seen all the films before (some many times), but I always treated them as a loosely connected body of work and never as a proper series.  Watching them in order, I gained a stronger sense of what it is to be a Bond movie, of what is distinctive about the rendering of each of the actors who played Bond, and of how each movie relates to the series as a whole.  I revised many of my judgments about the relative quality of the films, sometimes drastically.  I took this seriously, probably to a fault.  I even went back for yet another viewing of any movie where my opinion was shaky or where I wasn’t in the best mood the first time around.  And so I can say with great confidence that these are my actual judgments, no mistakes have been made.  Everyone will strongly disagree with one or more of my opinions.  That’s how it should be.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we all have the same taste in Bond movies.  Bond rankings are about as subjective as aesthetic judgments get.  I read through dozens of other peoples’ Bond lists and every single one contained at least one ranking that I found absurd.   And that’s part of why this is so fun.

Without further ado, every Eon Productions Bond movie, ranked.  I put more effort into some reviews than others.  This was more work than I meant to undertake.

1) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Whether or not Lazenby lives up to Connery’s standard is the wrong question.  He is right for this movie.   This is the dramatic masterpiece of the series—the emotional core of Bond as a character—and it reverberates up till the Craig reboot.  Lazenby is perfect for this film precisely in virtue of being indistinct.  With Bond’s charm and personality scaled back, his vulnerability can be taken seriously.  I couldn’t imagine either Connery or Moore as the lead here.  This works best as a sui generis entry.

Bond’s marriage is the most notable pre-Daniel Craig case where an event in a Bond film leaves a lasting mark on the character.  Watching all of the films in order I was struck by how absolutely central On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to the series as a whole.  In The Spy Who Loved Me, for instance, Agent XXX is showing off her opposition research by rattling off biographical facts about Bond and mentions that he has had many lady friends but was married only once, and that his wife was killed.  He interrupts her the instant she mentions his marriage.  “You’re sensitive, Mr. Bond?” “About certain things.”  And then in License to Kill there is a devastating scene where Bond catches the garter belt after Felix Leiter’s wedding.  The bride notices the agonized expression on Bond’s face and Leiter explains, “He was married once before, but that was a long time ago.”  And then there is the brilliant little moment in The World is Not Enough when Elektra King asks Bond whether he’s ever lost a loved one and we can see his face twist for a split second before he changes the subject.  (There’s also the opening of For Your Eyes Only, but I hate that scene.)

Prior to his marriage to Teresa, one might say that Bond was free and easy in his relations with women.  A zealous bachelor, as it were.  If not for OHMSS, one might think that he held this attitude simply, unproblematically, and continuously.  But OHMSS flips the narrative:  Bond’s promiscuity is thereafter rooted in heartbreak.  Without OHMSS, Bond would be an oversexed frat boy.  With it, he is a tragic figure.

Aside from the dramatic weight of OHMSS, I would draw attention to how batshit and wonderful the hypnosis scenes are.  They stand as some of the most imaginative and ambitious bits of film-making in the entire series.  The climax is simply mind-blowing.

2) From Russia With Love

Perfect in every way.  From Russia With Love is the essence of Bond.  It is the only entry completely devoid of camp.  It is the touchstone that the rest of the series stands in relation to.

3) Octopussy

A glorious extravaganza of Cold War paranoia, it’s the story of a neo-Amazonian circus company of international jewel smugglers, led by the elusive Octopussy, who are enlisted by the Soviets to (unknowingly) transport a nuclear device from East to West Germany.  If this brief plot description does not delight you, then we are not going to see eye-to-eye on Octopussy.

4) The Living Daylights

The best in the series qua spy movie.  It has the best plot of any Bond movie, and arguably the best direction.   It’s full of formalist visual compositions and dynamic camera work.  It’s a sharply serious turn, but not in a bad way.  It’s a hard as fuck Bond, but it’s still Bond.  It still has a sense of fun about it.  I love Timothy Dalton.  He’s intense for sure, but not in a way I find incongruous with the character.

5) You Only Live Twice

A very fun, lively Bond, with a great plot and some of the best action scenes of the Connery era.  The Little Nellie helicopter battle has aged like fine wine.  What I most love about You Only Live Twice is the unveiling of Blofeld.  Donald Pleasence absolutely kills it!  He is far and away the best villain in the series.   Every other portrayal of Blofeld is disappointing compared to him.  There is, unfortunately, lots of Orientalism in this movie.  None of it is mean-spirited or anything, but it’s cringe-worthy.  Alas, some cringes are the price we have to pay to see Bond in a kimono.

6) Goldfinger

Some may see it as a slight to rank Goldfinger this low.  It is widely considered the best entry in the series.  But, watching it again, it does drag a little after the iconic scene where Jill Masterson is killed via gold paint.  More importantly, this is the first movie where the adversary is not Spectre, and when I watched the movies in order I found that this doesn’t work in the movie’s favor.  Goldfinger is a great villain, but he is motivated by mundane greed.  Spectre’s methods and purposes are shadowy and surreal.  Blofeld is at once sophisticated and deranged.  He aims at global anarchy not out of tawdry self-interest, but out of grandeur.  Look, Goldfinger is a masterpiece.  But I don’t think it’s the best Bond movie.

7) Dr. No

The first film in the series is iconic and thoroughly wonderful, though less fully realized than its immediate successor.

8) A View to a Kill

I could listen to the Duran Duran song all day on repeat.  Christopher Walken as villain Max Zorin is every bit as delightful as one would expect him to be.  Grace Jones’ non-binary May Day is at once henchman and Bond girl.  Leader of Zorin’s all-female paramilitary outfit, she can lift a man above her head with one hand, but she is also deployed on missions of seduction.  The plot involves causing a literal flood in Silicon Valley while stockpiling a vast supply of microchips.  It couldn’t be more 80’s, and I mean that entirely in a good way.

9) The World is Not Enough

A really solid, classic Bond movie.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle are sublime.  The scene where she demonstrates the seductive power she wields over him even despite his total sensory numbness is a high water mark for femme fatales in the series.  This movie flew under the radar when it came out, but it has aged very well, and now stands out as the best Bond movie of the last 25 years.

10) License to Kill

Dalton brings so much raw intensity to this movie.  Here we find Bond for the first time ever going totally rogue and seeking personal revenge, to hell with queen and country.  It’s a dark, violent Bond and I dig it.

11) The Spy Who Loved Me

I love the set design for Atlantis and the opening ski jump is awesome and Stromberg is a great villain (feeding a disloyal employee to the sharks to the soundtrack of “Air on the G String”!) and Jaws is a fantastic henchman but I find Barbara Bach to be totally flat as Agent XXX.  She always sounds as though she is reading out her lines in rehearsal.  She never gets around to acting.   I could easily forgive this if she were a peripheral character, but she is absolutely central.  Alas, the movie still rocks.

12) Spectre

Ambitious Day of the Dead parade tracking shot to a fistfight aboard an unpiloted helicopter? Now that’s how you open a Bond movie.   More than any other Daniel Craig entry, Spectre has the structure of a proper Bond movie.  Bond’s strategy? Walk right into the middle of the criminal mastermind’s lair like he owns the place, get captured, then figure it out from there.  Classic!  Lea Seydoux is Bond girl par excellence.  SPOILER ALERT (I know some people still haven’t seen this one): The return of Blofeld, tying everything into the original Bond universe, is very satisfying, and makes some progress towards undoing the undue bastardizations of the Craig reboot.  Spectre is great.  But….worst opening song ever?

13) Moonraker

A companion piece to The Spy Who Loved Me.  Both feature classical music-loving megalomaniacs who dream of wiping out the human race and starting anew (except this time the survivor’s colony is meant to be in space instead of underwater) and both feature scenes where an amphibious vehicle exits the water in a crowded public place with the result that a European onlooker does a double take at the bottle of wine he is drinking as if to wonder whether it is making him hallucinate (except this time Bond is driving a gondola/hovercraft onto St. Mark’s Square instead of a Lotus Esprit/submarine onto the beach).  I love the scene where we meet Drax, who of course is in the middle of playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in D flat Major.  The pew-pew lazerfight finale is delightful.  Dr. Holly Goodhead is an excellent Bond girl.  For a minute I even thought I liked Moonraker better than The Spy Who Loved Me, but I watched both of them again and realized that it just doesn’t have the panache of the earlier entry.

14) Casino Royale

I have been a big fan of Casino Royale since its release, but watching it in the context of the whole series didn’t help it for me.  Why didn’t it begin with the amazing foot chase???  It instead begins with a very short black and white snippet, totally without context or relation to the rest of the film.  Then we go to the titles (which are weird in a bad way), then we have an establishing scene from the villain’s perspective, and THEN the chase scene.  That’s not how it’s supposed to go!  There was absolutely no reason to break with convention and it really stands out in a bad way when watched in the context of the series.  On the plus side: Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite contemporary actors and he is superb as Le Chiffre.  The action scenes are phenomenal.  They are among the best in the entire series.  But more on the negative side: Casino Royale is a reboot.  Bond is young, he’s just been made a double-0.  He hasn’t been previously married, and Felix Leiter (who died in License to Kill) is still alive.  The character is different in many ways from previous renderings.  It’s too much at once.  In The Living Daylights, I really appreciated the abrupt turn from silliness to intensity.  Here, though, the seriousness is excessive.   The movie loses a lot of the sense of fun that all previous Bond movies have.  Its only silliness is found in the poker scenes, which are absurd to the point of distraction if you know anything about poker.  Craig’s Bond is missing a sense of humor, and he drinks the wrong drink.  And Vesper Lynd is certainly no Teresa Bond.

15) The Man with the Golden Gun

The weirdest Bond movie.  Francisco Scaramanga, played by the great Christopher Lee, is a Western archetype: the last honorable man, who wants nothing more than to face his only worthy adversary in a duel for its own sake.  The movie takes the classic Western theme in a Lynchian direction, with Knick Knack’s taunts echoing over a surreal Lazer Tag course of a set.  On the negative side, there was no need to bring back Sheriff J.W. Pepper.

16) Live and Let Die

Mixed feelings here.  On one hand, the idea of a Blaxploitation entry in the Bond franchise is titillating, Mr. Big is an extremely impressive villain, and Solitaire is an exceptional Bond girl.  But there’s just no denying that the movie cheaply trades on racial anxieties about the Black Panthers, etc., and that the way the voodoo cult imagery is deployed is aggressively offensive.  Also, Sheriff J.W. Pepper is so overwrought that he’s impossible to take.  The chase with him alone keeps this out of the upper tier of Moore movies.

17) For Your Eyes Only

The inimitable Carol Bouquet as Melina Havelock is the best thing about For Your Eyes Only.  “I don’t expect you to understand, you’re English.  But I’m half Greek and Greek women, like Elektra, always avenge their loved ones.”

Overall, though, it’s not one of my favorites.  It’s more of a stripped down Moore entry, still campy, but not as imaginative. The opening with pseudo-Blofeld is awful, and there are plenty of other stupid moments spread throughout.  But it’s definitely not a bad movie.  The underwater scenes are far better than the ones in Thunderball.  The bobsled track ski race and (remarkably violent) coral reef boat dragging scene are high points.   I love the final scene where Margaret Thatcher calls to thank Bond and the lines get crossed and a parrot (as in a talking bird) starts flirting with her and she mistakes it for Bond.

18) Die Another Die

Unfairly maligned!  Die Another Day combines elements of License to Kill (Bond goes rogue for the first half of the movie to pursue a personal vendetta) with the campy fun of Moonraker.  The movie has significant flaws.  In particular the direction and editing of the action scenes is awkward, unclear, and generally sloppy.  The use of slow motion is bizarre and gives the action scenes a low-budget television feel.  But Die Another Day also has many merits.  It stands apart from the other post-Roger Moore Bond movies in its gleeful ridiculousness.  There is a glorious moment when Bond jerry-rigs a kitesurfing setup and narrowly escapes as a giant satellite focuses the energy of the sun into a powerful beam that is being used to sever the large chunk of ice that he is perched on over a cliff.   There is a car chase *inside* a rapidly melting ice palace.  This is the kind of imaginative camp that has characterized the series since the Connery days, and Die Another Day is a welcome retro moment.  Also, there’s a trans-racial villain and a fencing match that devolves into a duel with broadswords.

19) Goldeneye

I’m as surprised as you are that I’m ranking Goldeneye so low, but I swear: this is my sincere judgment, I’m not trying to be provocative.   For me, it’s the most nostalgic Bond movie.  I grew up with Goldeneye.  Unfortunately, revisiting it in the context of the series was disappointing.  It has many excellent qualities.  Famke Jansen’s Xenia Onnatop is one of the most memorable Bond femme fatales.   She brings herself to orgasm by squeezing her opponent to death between her thighs.   She almost reminds me of Beatrice Dalle in Trouble Every Day, which is high praise.  The gender problems in Bond are brought to the surface assuredly by Dame Judi Dench, who isn’t fucking having any of Bond’s misogynistic shit.  But, on the down side the other Bond girl (Natalya) is a dud and Alan Cummings is nails-on-a-chalkboard unbearable.

The most disappointing thing about Goldeneye is that it marks an unfortunate transition in the franchise.  From this point on, the series adopts a distinctly American sensibility.   Until this point, the series is British as hell.  Brosnan’s Bond is a British character in an American movie.  He calls himself the “uptight Brit.”  You can say a lot of things about previous manifestations of James Bond, but “uptight” isn’t one of them.  It’s as though in Goldeneye he’s uptight just in virtue of being British, because we are seeing him from an American perspective.  Moreover, by comparison with his predecessors, Brosnan’s performance is just flat.  He lacks his own equivalent to Connery’s charisma, Moore’s panache, and Dalton’s intensity.  He’s just a generic handsome British guy.  The movie does abide faithfully to most aspects of the Bond formula, which I appreciate, and the action scenes have a Moore-esque ridiculousness to them that is a lot of fun.

20) Thunderball

I’m sad to say I found it dated.  The problem is the endless underwater scuba scenes.  They are just so slow and so dull.  They ruin what might otherwise be a decent Connery effort.

21) Skyfall

Love the Adele song.  Bardem is fantastic.  But the movie is such a downer.   Skyfall often gets talked about as being somehow elevated by the fact that it was directed by Oscar Winner Sam Mendes.  Well, Mendes is one of *many* people who have won Academy Awards for profoundly shitty movies.  Mendes sucks.  I was worried about him as the director of Skyfall, but everyone promised me before I saw it that he didn’t Mendes it too badly.  I disagree.  His grubby little Mendes paw marks are all over this thing.  I will admit that the visual look of the movie is elegant.  But the hamfisted psychoanalytic crap is unmistakable Mendes shittiness.  I don’t mind Q as a young hacker, but why go out of your way to throw it in our face that there aren’t going to be any cool gadgets?  When he gives Bond a radio and a gun and says “what did you expect, an exploding pen?” I said out loud, “yeah, how about a fucking exploding pen?”  The mistake is corrected in Spectre, when Q supplies Bond with an exploding watch, but that doesn’t do anything to help Skyfall.  There seem to be a breed of Bond fans who look on anything silly or outlandish in Bond as a defect, and always prefer the more serious, realistic aspects of the films.  I say that these people just don’t like James Bond.  They like spy movies.   They like the James Bond movies that are less distinctly Bond-esque.   Also I hate Skyfall’s over-literal Freudian ending.  Hate, hate, hate it.  What’s up with only one Bond girl?  Trying to pawn Moneypenny off as the second Bond girl?  NFW.  And why is there sex slavery?  That’s like three straight Bond movies that are a little too icky-rapey.
But Bardem is great.  (And Mendes did redeem himself with Spectre.  He mostly kept his Mendes-ness to himself and made a real Bond movie.)

22) Diamonds Are Forever

This movie shouldn’t exist.  It’s a stain on Connery’s legacy.    He comes across like a shadow of his former self swinging by for an easy paycheck.  Everything is phoned in.

The Plenty O’Toole interlude (starring Natalie Wood’s younger sister!) is the single most annoying thing in the entire series.  The whole movie is lazy and sloppy.  The action scenes are stupid and dull (moon buggy chase?).  The scorpion-wielding duo of gay assassins is the most imaginative and interesting touch in the movie, but unfortunately that element is too often played for homophobic laughs.

23) Tomorrow Never Dies

The only high points are the always delightful Ricky Jay as a henchman and Vincent Schiavelli as a professor of forensic science/assassin.

Terri Hatcher is a totally flat bond girl.  Probably the single worst one.  The romantic storyline is contrived and not sold well.  Her dialogue is wretched, and her performance doesn’t even live up to it.  Michelle Yeoh is underutilized.

Elliot Carver, played by The High Sparrow, is the worst Bond Villain.  He’s sniveling and annoying.  The premise is supposed to be “a 21st century villain who wields not an enormous lazerbeam but rather the power of the press.”  But isn’t this exactly backwards?  Wasn’t this a major theme of Citizen Kane?  Isn’t the press the weapon of the 20th century and the lazerbeam the weapon of the 21st century?

24) Quantum of Solace

A travesty.  It’s a sequel to Casino Royale, which was a terrible idea to begin with.   At 1 hour, 45 minutes it is the shortest Bond movie.  This is a major fault: it feels as though the essence was cut out.  It’s barely a Bond movie.  It is a generic action movie directed by a hack (Marc Forster, of Monster’s Ball fame) in the style of a shitty Tony Scott imitation.  The action scenes are incomprehensible, and are punctuated with arrogant stylistic flourishes that persistently invite the question, “who does this asshole think he is, Tony Scott?”