My dog is on death row today. I’m sitting here waiting for the 2:30 PM euthanasia appointment I made for her. She has a tumor in her bladder. I didn’t know about it until a week ago when she went out to go to the bathroom late at night and came back in obvious pain. The next day was a nightmare. It was impossible to get her in to see a vet that has an ultrasound on short notice. I had to wait until the emergency vet opened at 5pm. They said they couldn’t determine if there was a blood clot in her bladder or a tumor that had ruptured the night before. They said to try antibiotics and hope it’s not a tumor, but if this doesn’t work then there’s little they can do for a dog her age. I held out hope, but I was pretty sure right away that it was a tumor. I knew from a urine test she had done earlier in the day by a different vet that she didn’t have the level of white blood cells in her urine to indicate a severe UTI. She did seem a little better the next day (thanks to the painkillers she was on, no doubt), but then she started to deteriorate. The pain in her abdomen is so severe that she is having trouble walking and I have to pick her up to get her on the couch or to help her get down stairs.
Making the decision to euthanize her was extraordinarily difficult. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. It’s still difficult. I keep having to check in with people to reassure me that it’s the right thing to do. She does still seem to enjoy a plate of chicken livers or some good cuddles, but I know very well that dogs hide their pain from their owners. If she’s in enough pain that she’s struggling to walk on her own, it’s better for her to go peacefully than to continue to deteriorate.
I underestimated how hard this decision was going to be. I believe in euthanasia. I teach Intro to Ethics every year and I think about it a lot. I am not conflicted in theory. But when it comes to making decisions about my own animal–who has been my near constant companion for more than a quarter of my life–wow, did my confidence crumble. She can’t tell me what she wants. She can’t tell me how bad the pain is. She can’t tell me if it’s worth it to her to spend a few more nights in pain in order to eat more chicken livers and get more cuddles. I have to decide, and I have to decide on the basis of inconclusive evidence. If I waited for the evidence to become conclusive, that would guarantee putting her through extreme pain.
I did not have a bad year last year when so many others did. I have always harbored the fantasy of really and truly settling in to watch as many movies as I want to, and last year that fantasy came true. This year, on the other hand, is hot fucking garbage. My dad died, our evil university administrators are preparing to rain hellfire on the humanities, and now I’m losing my dog. I am managing to hover above the abyss of self-pity, but it takes a lot of effort. I don’t ever hesitate to cry. I call all the time. But this year is a new record for tears shed, and it’s not close. When Cry Macho comes out in October, I’m gonna be there for the first showing with my tissues ready and I’m gonna cry some fucking more.
I moved to Missoula in 2008 with nothing but a Subaru, some books and dvds, and six months of sobriety. It was an absolutely momentous time in my life. I had lived in Upstate NY for 21 years and Princeton NJ for 5 years and here I was, heading out west to make my own way in the world. I had one old friend in town and while it was nice to know SOMEONE, he and I didn’t really jive the way we used to when we were both drinking and it wasn’t enough of a friendship to fill up my whole social life, even for a little while. Before long I made a couple more friends on my own initiative, but there is no question that those first few years in Missoula were the loneliest time of my life. Adjusting to life without alcohol was not easy, and the combination of loneliness and no booze compounded the challenge, especially given how outrageously drunk Missoula’s social scene was back then (it’s still pretty drunk, but it’s gotten tamer as the town has been yuppified– you should have seen the Top Hat on a Wednesday before they made it all bougie). I made some efforts at online dating and that generally made things worse rather than better (though it was at least not boring!), and after about a year of that I was ready to become more emotionally self-contained and get a dog to keep me company. I went to the pound to scope out the scene and see if maybe there were some cool dogs. It was love at first sight.
Every dog in the place was barking wildly except Cleo, who was sitting politely, looking pretty and smiling. I took her for a short walk and she was so good right away! She didn’t pull on the leash or anything. When we got back to the shelter I let her off leash in the courtyard and sat down to see what she would do. She sniffed around a little then walked right over and started licking my face. I was like “okay, I’ll take you home, you win.” But I had a landlord at the time. I drove straight over and asked his permission. He was cool about it, and within an hour she was mine.
She was 1 year old and we had a solid 11 years together. The story is simple: we lived in Montana and she had a great time being a dog. Many of my friends got to know her well and everyone who’s not a monster completely loved her. She could be clingy and stubborn, but she was the most affectionate dog I’ve ever known. One time she cornered a bunny and I panicked. She licked the bunny gently. That’s how she was with cats as well. She absolutely loved little kids and was always so careful and gentle with them.
When my dad died, Cleo helped me more than I could possibly say. My wife Angela goes to bed a lot earlier than I do. While she goes to bed at like 8pm, I stay up till more like 1 or 2am. Those 5 or 6 hours alone in the night might have been unbearable if I didn’t have Cleo taking care of me– licking tears off my face and keeping me company.
I learned a lot about grief this year. I’ve lost plenty of people in my life, but no one anywhere near the level of my dad. I always imagined that the hardest part would be missing him and longing to see him and talk to him again. And it’s true that those things are huge. But they are not the main thing. The main thing is how incredibly easy it is to put out of my mind for a little while that he’s gone and how utterly crushing it is each and every time I am reminded. I get back into the flow of life– running with Cleo, getting some work done, cooking Thai food, rewatching Fast and Furious movies– and then suddenly I hear a Bob Dylan song on the radio and remember him playing his guitar and singing “Lay, Lady, Lay” and it just knocks me over. I become vividly aware yet again of this new reality where my dad is just gone. Every time I put the loss out of my mind, I am setting myself up to experience it anew.
I’m not looking forward to adding grief about Cleo to the mix. Grief fucking sucks. It is in the running for my least favorite emotion. There are moments when it’s beautiful and poignant and I feel the full weight of life in a way that puts everything that doesn’t really matter into perspective and reminds me to call my mom and tell her I love her. But it’s also just an extraordinarily brutal thing to mix into one’s daily life. I’ve gone for a run with Cleo nearly every morning for MANY YEARS. I will now be going for runs alone. I can tell you right now that I am going to have to avoid the busier sections of the trail because I’m just going to be sobbing and I won’t want to have to nod and smile at strangers. And what do you do with the spot on the floor where your dog’s bed has been sitting for the entire time you’ve owned the house? You don’t leave the dog’s bed there, that’s for sure. But do I put something else there? Do I leave it empty? Either way it is going to be a spot on the floor that causes me a huge amount of pain on a daily basis. If it’s empty, it will be palpably empty. If there’s something useful there, it will be a punch in the gut every time I use it. If there’s something not useful there…. I mean what’s not useful that I might have a reason to put there and that I wouldn’t worry about breaking? If I think of something, I’ll put it there.
I learned this year that grief is something you just have to take on the chin. The dilemma about what to do with the spot on the floor hits me so hard because I know in advance that I am going to have to go through a long series of emotionally difficult episodes relating to that spot on the floor. Distracting myself from it just sets me up for even more pain when it finally does intrude into my awareness, which it will. Many negative emotions involve a sense of hope that they will come to an end. When I’m afraid of something, for instance, I often have an impulse to “get it over with” so that I don’t have to be afraid anymore. Grief isn’t like that. Grief doesn’t promise shit except that it’s not going anywhere. It might slip into hiding for a little while, but for the rest of my life certain things will reliably remind me of my dad or sweet ol’ Cleo, and every time I will feel a renewed sense of loss. Fucking sucks. To my friends who loved Cleo: she loved you, too. Please don’t worry about me and please don’t take this post as a request for condolences. I’m all condolenced out, to be honest. I know y’all care, and it means a lot.
I’ve wanted to visit New Mexico for a long time. A few years ago, my dear friend Marianne and her husband John dropped out of the hustle and bustle of big city livin’ to open a brewery in Truth or Consequences. I knew basically nothing about the town except that it sounds like the best possible place to fight a duel to the death (which appeals to me). I was delighted to learn that it’s a soaking town and Marianne and John have a hotspring in their yard. Angela and I greatly enjoy soaking and it seemed like the obvious choice for a much-needed post-vaccination road trip. Here was the plan: 1) Stop at Thi and Melissa’s house in SLC and get an espresso at D’Bolla (these are the first items on my agenda for any trip south). 2) Stay at an inexpensive hotsprings resort in Truth or Consequences for a few days and explore the area. 3) Get an Airbnb in Santa Fe for a few days and explore a different area.
It was a good plan. Southern New Mexico is huge and empty and sublime and we found a lot of really good food both in tiny little towns and in El Paso and did a ton of peak soaking. We also got to hang out a lot with Marianne and John and their two-year old son Hank, who instantly became my BFF.
We stayed at the Pelican, which I highly recommend. The rooms are funky and big and very reasonably priced and you can use the private indoor soaking tubs 24/7. I soaked in the middle of the night after Angela crashed and played Jon Hopkins’ Meditations and had the whole place to myself.
We also soaked a couple times at Riverbend Hotsprings, which is a little more upscale and rents out picturesque private soaking pools overlooking the Rio Grande. It’s amazing. We especially liked soaking there after dark.
But what you really want to hear about is the food. My expectation was that Southern NM would be a bit rough for food, El Paso would have good standard Tex-Mex, and Santa Fe would be great. I had it totally wrong. By and large, the Santa Fe food scene sucks. There is good food to be had, but it takes some searching. Southern NM and El Paso, on the other hand, both held unexpected riches.
The first delight, though, was the fucking Breaking Bad hot dog place in Albuquerque. During the years the show was on the air, every time they showed that hot dog stand I thought, “I wonder if the food is good. I bet it is.” It turns out—I shit you not—they serve the single best chile dog I’ve ever had in my life. And I say that as a lover of chile dogs. The red chile is intensely aromatic and very hot, so they only need to use a little and the whole thing stays stuck together in the bun like the perfect little present it is. Not one bit of chile got on my shirt, which is borderline miraculous. The dog itself is locally made and extremely good. The frito pie is also superb. I overheard someone ordering green chile, which I hadn’t seen on the menu. It will haunt me that I didn’t try it. The next time I go to New Mexico, that green chile is the first thing on my agenda.
Truth or Consequences does not have the best food options. In fact, the only things we ate there were a couple ready-made salad bowls from Walmart and a cubano I got as a sample from a friend of Marianne’s who is opening a new sandwich shop called The Portly Pepper. He is from Miami and the sandwich is proper. I was delighted to be suddenly eating a surprise cubano.
Without question, the food treasure of the area is Hatch, the chile capitol of the world. I wasn’t sure if it would be a tourist trap or a chile Mecca, and it turns out to be the latter. I bought a fucking garbage bag of dried chilies from a guy on the side of the road. There are only a handful of restaurants in town and from what I could tell they are all great, with the exception of Sparky’s. Sparky’s is the famous roadside attraction and they sell a green chile burger that shitty magazines like Maxim or Food & Wine always pick for their “The Best Burger in Every State” listicles. The burger is fine but in no way special. They are stingy with the chiles and the chiles themselves are not as flavorful as the ones we found elsewhere in Hatch.
Our favorite food in Hatch was the Christmas-style chilaquiles at the Pepper Pot. Both their red and green chile are peak examples of the category. We regretted ordering machaca, not because it wasn’t good, but because it didn’t come with chile.
The quick stop burrito place was also great. I had bean, chicharron, and lightly roasted green chilies in a fresh flour tortilla and I am still fantasizing about it. The tortilla was perfect and the flavor was dominated by the chilies, with the beans providing substance and the chicharron adding a textural contrast. Angela had a chile verde burrito and it was equally good. Even the food in the gas station looked good in Hatch.
El Paso was a big excursion that we paired with White Sands. My strategy was to join the El Paso food discussion Facebook group a few months in advance and keep my ear to the ground. As with any public forum for food recommendations, one has to wade through a lot of garbage, but I did pick up some tidbits that helped make it a successful trip. We fasted for about 20 hours and then ate four consecutive lunches. This is my favorite way to do food tourism. First we ate at Elemi, which is a buzzy upscale place downtown that does regional Mexican food with a twist and a flourish. They clearly have not been able to restaff to adequate levels and it took forever, which I normally have no trouble forgiving but was non-ideal coming off a 20 hour fast.
The food was a little disappointing overall. The Brussels sprouts appetizer was delicious, though it’s hard to fuck up fried sprouts with a sweet, sour, and spicy glaze. The tortillas were fluffy. The fish taco was crunchy and very good even by California standards. But the other tacos we had—suadero with chorizo verde, carnitas with chicharron, and duck al pastor—were just ok. The problem in each case was that in order to achieve a refined presentation they cut all the garnishes up into a tiny little brunoise or thin little strips that lost all textural distinctness. Even the chicharron was crushed nearly to a dust. All three tacos were soft meat on a soft tortilla with no contrasting textural elements.
We also hit up Flautilocas for Juarez-style flautas and The Little Diner for gorditas. The flautas were great and the gorditas were worth trying.
But the real gem was Birria Chaparral. I caught wind of this place from a comment deep in a recommendation thread in the El Paso Facebook group. The comment just said “Search Google for Birria Chaparral,” but it sent my spider sense a’tingling. I googled it, and it turned out to be open only for short stretches three days a week, including RIGHT NOW. This was definitely a bit of a wild goose chase. Chaparral is a suburb in New Mexico and we drove about thirty minutes into a purely residential area before finding this sign:
Angela was HIGHLY skeptical. “Wait, this just looks like someone’s house. Where are you taking me?” “Just chill, the sign says Birria.” But yeah, it was totally someone’s house. They have a Birria restaurant in the garage.
They were extremely nice to me and when I told them it was my first time they immediately gave me a generous sample of the only thing they sell: birria tacos with consomé. “Holy fucking shit,” was my reaction to tasting it. “Um yeah we are going to want a whole bunch more of that.” She suggested adding cheese to the tacos. “If you’re recommending it, I’m saying yes. And two lemonades.”
It was transcendent—possibly the best Mexican food I’ve ever had north of the border. The homemade tortillas were crunchy and aromatic, the birria was tender without being mushy, the cheese was gooey, and the consomé was intense and complex. Oh, the dunking! I doubt I will go a month for the rest of my life without thinking about this meal. It was the culinary high point of the trip.
And so we pushed on to Santa Fe. It’s a beautiful town, but wow is it bougie. It’s like Aspen-level bougie. The main downtown area is just repellant, with an oxygen bar and a few dozen art galleries that will sell you a painting of a coyote for six thousand dollars. The safety theater of outdoor mask-wearing was in full effect and some dipshit pottery boutique wanted me to give them my personal information for contact tracing before they would let me walk around inside and make snarky comments. I politely declined, but felt my first glimpse of how a “Karen doesn’t want to wear a mask” public spectacle gets started. Y’all, if you don’t understand why people hate the liberal nanny mentality, you may need to work on expanding your imagination. I’m more or less a liberal. We are an annoying people.
I had a food agenda worked out from internet research and the Santa Fe food Facebook group, but after we ate our first meal at a highly regarded brunch spot called The Pantry, all bets were off. Especially coming from Hatch, where every drop of chile is precious ambrosia, the chile they served us at The Pantry was like a slap in the face, and they served it over greasy, salty hash browns. This was a sudden paradigm shift: shit, we can’t trust Santa Fe. If people think this is good (and they do—the place opened a couple additional branches and it comes up all the time in the Facebook group and other recommendation venues), then we can’t believe anything they say. Then we walked into a little shop downtown and found the exact same bracelet that Angela had bought at Rockin’ Rudy’s in Missoula for 35 bucks on sale for 175. “Uh oh, let’s just go trawl the strip malls.”
So yeah, we rethought our agenda. Everything expensive was off the table. In a place like this, the more expensive something is, the more likely it is to be bad. I had a highly regarded upscale dosa place on my list but then I scrutinized the menu and found this:
Oh HELL no. That’s not food. I’m not eating at a place that sells that. Instead we ended up eating at an Afro-Caribbean place in a strip mall called Jambo and a nearby spot called Tibet Kitchen. Jambo had an amazing peanut stew and the rest of what we had was solid, but it wasn’t a remarkable meal. Similarly, Tibet Kitchen had really good momo but nothing remarkable. De Valle Panderia was great and so was The Paleta Bar. The latter applies the high-end frozen yogurt formula to the paleta and it was really delightful. I wonder what other cities this sort of paleta joint exists in? I got a taro paleta with dark chocolate, pine nuts, and pistachio and it was dank. They give you a huge mound of strawberries on the side drizzled in chocolate and I was feeling it.
After a day to cleanse our palettes after The Pantry, I convinced Angela to give Santa Fe chile another try and we ate at La Choza, which is always the first place that comes up for chile. I was not prepared to adopt a harsh stance towards Santa Fe without trying it.
Getting in was a whole ordeal. You pull in and a security guard tells you there’s no place to park and explains which streets in the neighborhood have spots where you won’t get towed. Then you drove around for a half hour till you find a spot. We got there at 6pm on a Tuesday and they gave us an hour and fifteen minute wait time. In for a penny, in for a pound. But it better be good.
And it was good! Not amazing, but solid. The most exciting part might have actually been the mocktails. I had a Tamarind Mule and it is a peak mocktail. Angela was equally excited about her salt and lemon thing. The enchiladas with pork adovada were good and the chile relleno was outstanding, but the red and green chile were both a little cooked out and mild for my taste. The tamale was not good.
We also tried Tia Sophia’s, the long-standing breakfast institution downtown. This is the first place that always comes up as a breakfast recommendation. It’s got a fun, divey vibe with paper towel napkins, terrible coffee, and the scent of mildew in the air. I’ve gotta say, though, it goes a little too far with the mildew and coffee. It’s almost hard to eat there and the coffee is not “so bad it’s good,” it’s tolerably gross. BUT the chile is on point. It’s fiery and fresh and not overcooked. Wish they didn’t give me a room temp store-bought flour tortilla on the side but otherwise I was happy.
As far as I can tell, though, the only truly extraordinary culinary opportunity in Santa Fe is the Kakawa Chocolate House. (My salivary glands exalted just now when I typed that.) We went twice and I wish we had gone again. It is esoteric, challenging chocolate and it is mind-blowing. They do have a lot of approachable, straightforwardly pleasant offerings but they also have a lot of stuff that is downright aggressive. In particular, their historically-informed Mesoamerican elixirs (served in three ounce portions) are *wild*. It’s not something everyone will enjoy, but I was so enthused that I mildly embarrassed Angela. The women who run the place, though, were delighted that I appreciated what they are doing and just kept giving me samples. Their offerings rotate daily, but they had some unsweetened drinking chocolate with nuts and flowers that made me yelp, and there’s this:
If you go there and they have this, GET IT. This is not your friendly neighborhood Mexican hot chocolate. This is like the chocolate equivalent of late Coltrane. Another woman ordered one at the same time as me and we bonded over it while her husband made faces and said things like “Oh god that is not for me. Oh god. Oh god what is that. Can I have a glass of water?”
Angela was obsessed with the ice cream, which had an absurd percentage of cacao. She got it twice. The truffles are also amazing. The prickly pear truffle is frickin’ weird, in a good way. The goat cheese and sage truffle is genius. The truffle itself is flavored with goat cheese and the sea salt on top is infused with sage. I directly told them, “no food that we have found in Santa Fe even begins to approach what you’re doing here.” They were like “yeah, that’s the idea.”
The other places I would recommend going out of your way to try are the Santarepa Cafe and Craft Donuts. The former is a Venezuelan joint dowtown and it’s hard to imagine you’re going to find a better lunch in that area. The woman who owns the place is fantastic. I made a boring order to try some representative classics and she refused to accept it. She was like, “no you don’t want that, you want sampler number 1. What do you want in the empanadas? No, you don’t want that. Just let me pick.” “Omakase.” I failed to take a picture but it was an excellent and fun plate of food. Craft Donuts is a food truck within walking distance of downtown that makes donuts to order and has a lot more topping options than a typical hot donut place. We went twice. The sweeter donuts were too sweet for me but the plainer ones and the ones with something salty or tart to cut the sweetness were great. It actually might be the best maple bacon donut I’ve ever had, with big proper chunks of bacon. I could not refrain from biting it long enough to snap a pic.
Let’s see, we also had an early morning pastry expedition where we found very good croissants at a place called Clafoutis but then I embarrassed Angela when we walked into this Slovak-Hungarian place called Dolina and I took one look at the pastry case and insisted that we leave without buying anything.
We intended to eat at Fiesta Oaxaca our last night. They have both a boring menu section and an interesting section with mole and a couple other regional dishes from other parts of Mexico (tbh the juxtaposition of radically different regional foods on the menu seemed a little jarring but it looked worth giving a chance). They changed their hours, however, and were closed Wednesday, so we went to the last place on my list: Taco Fundacion. And it was terrible. Reviews were good, so I’m glad I didn’t try it till last or I would have lost all faith in local opinion and skipped La Choza and Tia Sophia’s. The fried oyster and shrimp tacos were innocuous, though the tortillas were worrisome. But fried seafood is hard to mess up and everything else was bad. The lengua was straight up gross, and lengua is my favorite taco filling. Avoid!
Culturally, we were disappointed that the SITE art space was closed and the O’Keefe museum was sold out by the time I realized they were selling tickets a month out, but Meow Wolf was a blast. Definitely do it, and don’t read anything about it first. We were underwhelmed by the art galleries in general, which are full of cliched southwestern art and the occasional sideways Rothko, but the Russian art gallery is a gem. The woman who owns it has a large personal collection of Soviet propaganda she’s willing to haggle on.
We did take a couple scenic drives and we were especially impressed by the old Spanish church at Chimayo. There is a little hole in the wall you squeeze through and then there’s a pit of holy dirt where a priest found a miraculous cross buried a couple hundred years ago. And you are allowed to dig in the holy dirt!
So to my friends in the ASA who will visit Santa Fe in July, my recommendations are: go to the Kakawa Chocolate House more than once if you do anything, eat lunch at the Santarepa Cafe, do Meow Wolf, go to Chimayo if possible, avoid The Pantry and Taco Fundacion, and be very skeptical of all food that is expensive and/or near the city center. On Saturday and Sunday there’s a food truck next to Craft Donuts that does menudo. If I were around on the weekend, I would try that. There’s some Mexican and Guatemalan food out by the airport that I would try if I could do over again.
Overall it was a great trip. The soaking was exactly what we both needed. It was wonderful to see Marianne and John and meet their son. Main culinary takeaways: Birria Chaparral is a peak experience. Kakawa Chocolate House and The Doghouse Drive-In (aka the Breaking Bad hot dog place) are both exceptional. Hatch is the place to go for New Mexican chile, but you’ll be fine if you skip Sparky’s. Santa Fe is not my favorite town and I don’t need to go back (Kakawa sells drinking chocolate online, thank god). Next time I’m staying in Albuquerque and getting that damn green chile at the Doghouse.
Its a chaotic time but we managed to get lists together in time for a very late Oscar Sunday. The order this time is Matt-Angela-Josh-Isabel. Matt and Josh did full recaps of the year while Angela and Isabel turned in top ten lists with commentary.
In the past I’ve ranked and commented on every title on the list. Due to pandemic viewing conditions and the late Oscars, I watched a lot more this year than usual: 167 titles (which is considerably less than Josh watched). I have a clear idea of what’s at the top and bottom but everything else is a big mush. I’ve revised my format: the top 25 are ranked and everything else is sorted into categories. I chose one or two titles from each category to comment on. Rules for what counts as a 2020 film are loose, because it doesn’t really matter.
25. Shithouse (Cooper Raiff)
Shot on a budget of 15k, this is a really fantastic example of DIY independent filmmaking. It reminds me of Linklater, but cringecore. It is very sweet and sincere, and it does an incredible job conveying the social horror of freshman year.
24.Hubie Halloween(Steven Brill)
It’s not going to win a lot of awards, but there is no question that the 2020 movie I will watch the most times in my life is Hubie Halloween. It’s the movie I watched on election day when we were all freaking out waiting for the results to come in and it’s the movie I watched when my dad died and I couldn’t sleep and it’s the movie I watched every time I was feeling down and wanted something that would effortlessly cheer me up. Thanks for this, Happy Madison crew. It’s a gift. And thanks to Netflix for giving the people what they want. Namely, six Adam Sandler movies.
23. Greyhound(Aaron Schneider)
A very tight and focused naval procedural. Tom Hanks is a Christian, he values human life, he doesn’t have time to eat, and he loves Elisabeth Shue. Other than that, this is wall-to-wall sea battle. Schneider always keeps us oriented: we know where the u-boat is (or where it might be, in the suspense scenes), where the convoy is, where we are, and what we are trying to prevent or accomplish minute-by-minute. The most impressive thing about this is the way it reveals how military discipline plays out in the heat of battle. Nearly the entire movie is a tightly-coordinated dance of information and orders being relayed and carried out.
22. The Outpost(Rod Lurie)
Another immersive military procedural. This one sets itself apart with its vivid sense of the rhythms of life at the outpost of doom. It burrows deeply into the mindset of a deployed soldier. It feels extremely authentic (friends who have served in the military confirm this) and the big set piece at the end is the most incredible action sequence of the year.
21. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
Vigorous, creative horror that doesn’t pull its punches. I’ve been very bummed out by the direction that the genre has been going in general, but this was like a breath of fresh air.
20. The Golden Glove(Fatih Akin)
Supremely grimy portrait of a serial killer. It is one ugly movie. Impressively so. I still haven’t completely shaken the rancid emotional residue months later, nor have I gotten my mind around the fact that it is by the same director as Soul Kitchen.
19. Palm Springs(Max Barbakow)
I loved this the first time I watched it and thought, “Oh I am definitely going to teach Palm Springs along with Richard Taylor on the meaning of life.” I went ahead and did that and it helped me like the movie even more. I previously felt like it sort of petered out in the last act, but thinking about this part of movie in connection with the essay is very illuminating. When Sarah says, “A speech isn’t going to fix this,” I take that to be an explicit rejection of the Groundhog Day principle where one escapes a time loop by achieving moral perfection. She is rejecting the notion that there’s a point in life when we are “done” with self-overcoming. Understood as a response to Groundhog Day, the ending of Palm Springs is brilliant.
18. Undine(Christian Petzold)
A strange and alluring riff on the Undine myth in the context of industrial diving and urban planning and development. Gorgeous underwater imagery is woven through a contemplative Berlin city symphony.
17. Alone(John Hyams)
John Hyams is one of the strongest genre directors working today and this is a masterfully executed thriller. I’m really glad to see someone doing this sort of “back to basics” genre work at a high level.
16. Hunted(Vincent Paronnaud)
Hunted goes hard for 85 minutes and then gets out before you can catch your breath. I didn’t pause it. I didn’t look away. I am very amused that *both* directors of Persepolis went on to make bizarre horror movies (the other one is The Voices with Ryan Reynolds). This Little Red Riding Hood update has a slick visual style, but it is mean and nasty. It’s also laced with absurdist black humor and fantastical folk horror. I had never heard of the actor Arieh Worthalter before, but wow does he put himself out there in this. This is a man who is not afraid of getting typecast as a villain.
15. Guest of Honor(Atom Egoyan)
This grew on me steadily in the weeks after I watched it. It’s a deeply weird movie. I really admire the way Egoyan keeps doubling down on his most distinctive tropes and themes even as his movies have gotten less and less popular. You do you, Atom Egoyan. David Thewlis is immense in this.
14. Gretel & Hansel(Oz Perkins)
In a dark room with the volume cranked up, this is just a delicious experience. I am all about Perkins’ atmospheric, refined, sparse approach to horror.
13. The Salt of Tears(Philippe Garrel)
This is probably not going to appeal very much to people who are not already interested in Garrel. The material is roughly in the register of Pialat and at the stylistic level it forsakes the pleasant lyricism of Lover for a Day. It’s a gut punch.
12. Joan of Arc(Bruno Dumont)
Respect to Dumont for not repeating himself. This movie is just overflowing with ideas. Everything is creatively staged, and not in the same way as Jeanette. I’ve generally liked Dumont’s absurdist comedies more than his dramas and I was fascinated by the way the trial material (which Michael Sicinski points out is like the Madonna and Child for French Cinema) goes as far as it does in the direction of comedic absurdism without quite breaking through to become comedy. The gallery of inquisitors is brilliantly acted.
11. City Hall(Frederick Wiseman)
I appreciate the balance that this film achieves. It has a strong point of view about the successes and failures of big city government, but Wiseman allows it to wander off on humane, cinematically rich tangents when they present themselves.
10. The Kid Detective(Evan Morgan)
Adam Brody is perfectly cast as a kid detective of the Encyclopedia Brown variety grown up into a depressed 31-year old. When his first big case in ages lands on his desk, it becomes a quest for redemption and self-understanding. It’s a funny movie, but also disarmingly bleak and disturbing.
9. To the Ends of the Earth(Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa was invited by the Uzbek government to come make a movie in Uzbekistan to promote Japanese tourism. They told him he didn’t have to make an advertisement for the country or even depict it favorably, they just wanted him to make the best movie he could make set in their country. He agreed to do it and took the approach of just traveling to Uzbekistan with a crew and looking for inspiration. The film ends up effectively taking its own method as its subject matter. It’s about female travel show host (Yoko) and her crew who travel to Uzbekistan to film an episode of television. The narrative is loose and episodic. Much of the focus is on the anxiety Yoko feels as a foreigner exploring a strange country. There are a number of wonderful suspense scenes that Kurosawa based on his own experiences of getting irrationally freaked out while traveling and then later realizing that the situations were actually quite mundane and not objectively frightening. You can feel this personal perspective in the movie.
8. Capone(Josh Trank)
Best score of the year goes to El-P for this and it’s not even close– it’s straight nightmare fuel. This is an aggressively ugly movie that reeks of death. Tom Hardy goes all the way with his performance.
7. Liberté (Albert Serra)
Let me be clear that I am not recommending this. I love it, but if you choose to watch it, that is not my fault. You cannot blame me.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
I complain a lot about contemporary topical slam dunks that only exist because they have a built-in audience of people who want to see their worldview affirmed. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is proof that a topical drama can still be done well. It doesn’t go for big mic drops, but rather focuses on the subtleties of the way the characters experience sexist power structures. It’s all graceful nuance. Sidney Flanigan is just phenomenal. The way she lets emotions bubble to the surface in glimpses and then swallows them back down reminds me of Liv Ullmann. Hittman’s impressionistic visual style is gorgeous and well-suited to the material.
5. Days(Tsai Ming-liang)
Definitely not for everyone, and probably not the place to start with Tsai, but those who have acquired a taste for what he does should relish it. It’s a lot more legible than most of his films: it’s about the way sex interrupts the flow of life. But it complicates the subject matter by focusing as much on continuity between sex and the rhythms of the mundane as on discontinuity. That sounds depressing, but Tsai finds romance in the material.
One of the most striking and distinctive features of Tsai’s work is the omnipresent use of ambient noise. Fans, air conditioners, rain, dripping water– background sounds in the diegetic world become the foreground of the film’s audio. There’s a moment in this when the otherwise pervasive white noise drops out and the sudden silence just feels miraculous.
4. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
This might look like a lightweight 77 minute piece of hangout fluff, but it has an exceptionally dense structure along the lines of A Christmas Carol. Gam-hee visits three different women living lives that could be hers or could have been hers, all while having the space to reflect for the first time in ages on how she really feels about her marriage. There are many, many symmetries between the three segments and there are somewhere between 3 and 6 Hong Sang-soo stand-ins among the male characters. Also, this has the single greatest cat scene of all time.
3. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
It’s the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the first high-ranking member of the mafia to turn informant. This might sound like worn-out subject matter for a worn-out genre, but Bellocchio’s approach is pure old master bravado. This thing slaps. It is astonishing that he managed to film COURTROOM SCENES in a cinematically exhilarating way.
2. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
Tommaso is about the stage of recovery where the threat of relapse is well in the background and the primary challenge is navigating day-to-day life without the crutch of substance abuse. I think it’s the single best movie I’ve ever seen about long-term recovery (something I’m familiar with). Indeed, the movie itself can be understood as part of Ferrara’s own recovery project. It’s also a profound display of intimacy between actor and director. Dafoe and Ferrara have made six films together. In this one, Dafoe plays an obvious Ferrara stand-in, with a few bits of Dafoe’s own life and personality mixed in. This was shot in Ferrara’s apartment, with Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Ferrara said in an interview that he didn’t direct Dafoe at all. He trusted him to represent the truth of this utterly personal material. I find that very moving.
1. The Wild Goose Lake(Diao Yi’nan)
This is completely and totally my shit. It hits so many buttons for me: Wuhan as City on Fire (viewed in 2020!), Langian paranoid thriller, nocturnal death odyssey, men and women clinging to principle as the world burns down around them. I watched this late at night, stood up breathless when the credits rolled, announced ‘holy shit that was good!’, and then got up first thing in the morning and watched it again (and then wrote an enthusiastic review).
Cut Throat City (The RZA)
This is a big, ambitious hot mess of the best kind. It has many faults, but I love it. The character acting is out of control: Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke, and Wesley Snipes are highlights, but the MVP has to be T.I.. The soundtrack is what you’d hope it would be.
Let Him Go (Thomas Bezucha)
An excellent neo-western with a vivid Montana/Dakota setting. Lesley Manville (from all those Mike Leigh movies) is the villain and she devours this thing whole.
Also: Hunter Hunter, Synchronic, Straight Up, Unhinged, Monster Hunter, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Deerskin, Rogue City, Bad Boys for Life, The Witches, Run,The Dark and the Wicked
Other stuff I solidly liked:
The Croods: A New Age(Joel Crawford)
Believe it or not, this is the Nicolas Cage movie of the year.
Wolfwalkers(Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
This is the sort of thing Elizabeth Warren supporters force their kids to watch, but the animation is very good and it’s refreshing to see 2D druid werewolves as the heroes of a kids’ movie. The authoritarian theatrics material is sharp.
Also: The Mercenary, Black Bear, The Man in the Woods, Vitalina Varela, VFW, On the Rocks, The Truth, Kajillionaire, Antebellum, The Wolf House, Skylines, The Jesus Rolls, Psycho Goreman, Kindred Spirits, Sputnik, Beanpole, Swallow, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Beach House, Lovers Rock, Freaky, Tenet, Young Ahmed, La Llorona, Fatale, Love and Monsters, The Wrong Missy, Deep Blue Sea 3, The Empty Man, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Seized, Fatman, The Twentieth Century
Sure, why not:
Willy’s Wonderland(Kevin Lewis)
This will only appeal to the very smallest of niches: Cage diehards who value his quiet side. The action is totally worthless; the only scenes of value in this movie are the ones where a mute Cage is cleaning the kitchen and playing pinball. (That’s actually enough for me. I am certainly in the relevant niche.)
Bloodshot (David S.F. Wilson)
Vin Diesel has robot blood. That’s all I needed to hear.
Also: Saint Maud, First Cow, Sorry We Missed You, Greenland, Fourteen, The New Mutants, Ham on Rye, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Jiu Jitsu, Welcome to Sudden Death, The Grudge, Extraction, Debt Collectors. The King of Staten Island, Collective, The Invisible Man, Disappearance at Clifton Hill, Color Out of Space, Bacurau, Legacy of Lies, Zombi Child, Ladies in Black, Judas and the Black Messiah, Yes, God, Yes, Holidate, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, 1BR, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, Genus Pan, Bad Hair, Relic, Butt Boy, Blood Quantum, The Grand Bizarre, Guest House, Come to Daddy, Becky
I’m at least not mad at it:
Max Cloud (Martin Owen)
Everything outside the game is terrible. The kids are terrible. The video game nostalgia is terrible. BUT Scott Adkins’ physical acting as he legitimately kicks ass while maintaining a rigid retro game character posture and a set of moves pulled directly from retro games is worth the price of admission all by itself (at least for Adkins connoisseurs).
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)
A lifeless demonstration of technical proficiency. Really, it’s more of a job application then a standalone movie. But it does successfully demonstrate technical proficiency.
Also: She Dies Tomorrow, Iron Mask, Emma., Chained for Life, Anything for Jackson, The Babysitter: Killer Queen, Body Cam, On a Magical Night, Ammonite, Money Plane, Da 5 Bloods, Fast and Fierce: Death Race, Mangrove, Fantasy Island, His House, The Craft: Legacy, Honest Thief, The Wretched, Host, Wonder Woman 1984, Bit, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, Sonic the Hedgehog, Rogue, The Rental, Miss Juneteenth, The Whistlers
The product placement for The Avengers and neutral depiction of labor in an Amazon warehouse tell you everything you need to know about this. It’s a Prestige Picture– a romanticization of poverty packaged by a corporate juggernaut and sold to bourgeois consumers as Certified Authentic. It’s a two-for-one: you get to support the very same corporate capitalism you are softly bemoaning. The end result is that Disney gets to later advertise an Avengers movie as “From the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland….”
Also: After Midnight, Another Round, May the Devil Take You Too, Force of Nature, Violation, The Climb, Scare Me, The Hunt, Birds of Prey, Sound of Metal.
Promising Young Woman(Emerald Fennell)
I’m sure no one who knows me at all is the least bit surprised that I hate this, but WOW DO I HATE IT. It is the absolute peak example of a venerable exploitation subgenre drained of its lifeblood and rewritten by an artificial intelligence trying to remix feminist Twitter’s greatest hits but getting everything backwards. Clancy Brown has never been so dismally wasted. Carey Mulligan is in the running for least convincing depressed person of all time. I want to avoid spoilers but if I were more prone to take offense nearly everything about this movie would offend me. And it’s like two hours long!
Guns Akimbo(Jason Lei Howden)
I think this is actually worse than Promising Young Woman? I didn’t finish it. I didn’t even come close. Imagine the worst possible edgelord Harry Potter Neveldine and Taylor imitation. It’s that.
Also: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Tesla, Mank, The Assistant, Underwater,The Platform, The Lodge, The High Note, Beneath Us, Corona Zombies, Enola Holmes.
10. The Wild Goose Lake
This is an excellent thriller with a dark, urban visual style that I find appealing.
Continuous tension from start to finish. I was literally on the edge of my seat for the entire movie.
8. Joan of Arc
I actually like this a lot better than the first one. It takes itself more seriously, in a way I appreciate.
7. The Salt of Tears
It’s just a joy that we are still getting new Philippe Garrel movies.
A very unconventional, deglamorized gangster movie that focuses more on the mundane details of Capone’s last days than on his mythology. It’s raw and sad and gripping from start to finish. Tom Hardy is amazing.
5. Gretel & Hansel
Dark and beautiful. It’s the right kind of disturbing for me.
4. Folkore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (Taylor Swift)
This documentary brought the album to life in a new way. The personal context she provides for the songs makes them even more dear to me.
I appreciate the serious approach to the material from Moorhead and Benson. It’s a very creative movie. The production design is interesting and imaginative. I was blown away.
I’m the biggest Christopher Nolan fan in the Strohltopia family and I thought Tenet was absolutely thrilling.
I love Petzold. This fantastical romance moved me to tears. I loved fairytales throughout my childhood and Undine brought me back to that in a way that felt at once magical and melancholy.
Honorable mentions: Emma., Sputnik, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, The Traitor.
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
Abel Ferrara has been one of my favorite artists for most of my life. He started out in dark territory: addiction, self-loathing, debauchery, and grime. Films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York made deep impressions. It’s poignant now to see him navigating his life in recovery and finding grace notes for himself in his own films– making a personal movie with his wife and cute little daughter and his best buddy Dafoe about spiritual growth. It’s an essential film in his body of work and it fills me with hope to see Ferrara continue to face down his demons.
Capone (Josh Trank)
It’s about really ugly and unpleasant things: dementia, incontinence, death. I’ve been living with this stuff for a long time as my dad’s health deteriorated (we lived in the same house). This hit me harder than I could even convey. Tom Hardy is incredible in this; he is playing the long game. It’s performances like this that will be remembered when later generations look back over his career, even if they are ignored in the short term. I said last year that The Irishman closed the modern gangster movie cycle. Capone is the epilogue. It takes the lineage of anti-gangster movies that began with The Godfather III to its furthest extreme.
Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)
This is a movie I can really vibe on. I used to find Bruno Dumont unapproachable but after watching this I went back to his early works and found that I really love them. His oddball absurdist sensibility runs through all his films, and this one is perhaps the best balance of comedy and drama in his filmography. There were a number of high profile movies this year about women coping with male-dominated power structures and this one was wrongly left out of that conversation. It tells that story in striking images.
Guest of Honour (Atom Egoyan)
A dreamy labyrinth of misperceptions, false memories, health inspections, sexting and rabbits. Like many of Egoyan’s films, it’s about the way that small events can reshape our entire lives and impact others. It feels very true to me. When we ask ourselves how things really got to be the way they are, the chains of explanation tend to be as convoluted and bizarre as the ones in this movie. It’s at once rigorous and poetic and a powerful examination of the ripple effects of trauma. David Thewlis turns in one of the finest performances of the year.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You (Thom Zimny)
I’m biased. Bruce is my favorite recording artist. This moved me at a deep level. It’s a movie about death and loss in the year when I lost my dad. The Boss feels like a father figure handing down the wisdom of a lifetime. There are few people I look up to like Bruce Springsteen and I take his words to heart. Also, The E Street Band is a machine in this and seeing these guys create the album in the studio together at this stage in the game is a joy. An all-time great music film.
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
I’ve been shooting, editing, and directing local news for a decade, so I am very familiar with filming the sort of material that Wiseman is concerned with here. His approach is extremely unconventional. He approaches something like a budget meeting with uncommon patience, sticking with wide shots where another director would have zoomed or cut and letting people finish talking instead of editing down their statements to a soundbite. The cumulative result is a humane, observant tapestry that is appropriate to the massive subject matter.
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
I was surprised by how moved by this I was. It was jarring; it caught me off guard and made a deep impression. It’s a compassionate and transcendent film. The last scenes featuring a music box playing the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight are startlingly beautiful and melancholy.
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Another year, another Hong Sang-soo banger. He is often accused of repeating himself, but I don’t think that’s fair at all. Although his movies have some elements in common, they all have their own little mystery to unlock. They are treasure boxes and I love them all. Hong’s Hill of Freedom and Yourself and Yours were also released in North America this year and they are also some of the best films released this year.
The Traitor (Marco Bellochio)
The Traitor is the antidote to all these Trial of the Chicago 7 non-movies. It’s called mise-en-scène, Sorkin.
On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola deserves more credit as a comedic director. This appeals to the Bogdanovich/Ashby fan in me. It’s effervescent and playful and I fear that we’ve unfortunately gotten to a point where a lot of people think that’s not enough. Bill Murray hasn’t been this good in a long time.
Psycho Goreman (Steven Kostanski)
Not for everyone, but definitely for me. It hits me in my sweet spot. The effects are great and it is dead on for my sense of humor. I would have loved it as a kid and I love it as an old man. “I do not care for hunky boys! ….or do I?”
Hubie Halloween (Steve Brill)
Love the Sandman, love Hubie Halloween, no reservations.
Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins)
The Truth Hirokazu Kore-eda)
The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan)
Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg) Brandon Cronenberg does right by the family name with this freaky sci-fi movie.
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yi’nan)
The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
The Projectionist (Abel Ferrara)
Greyhound (Aaron Schneider)
The Whistlers (Cornelius Porumboiu)
Straight Up (James Sweeney)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Let Him Go
Monster Hunter Cinema lives! This is Hell in the Pacific with Milla Jovovich as Lee Marvin and Tony Jaa as Toshiro Mifune.
The Golden Glove I had no idea Fatih Akin had this in him. Unforgettable.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches
Bad Boys for Life
Let Them All Talk
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Liberté I watched this at like 7am, which was kind of perfect in a strange way.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Ladies in Black
Tenet This put me in the unfamiliar position of defending a Christopher Nolan movie.
Family Romance, LLC
The Wrong Missy
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds Just when I think I’ve seen everything from Herzog he starts waxing poetic about the CGI effects in 1997 disaster blockbuster Deep Impact.
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Da 5 Bloods Not one of Spike’s best joints but it still has a lot of interesting things going on, particularly his riffing on Sam Fuller.
Lovers Rock I thought all five of the Small Axe movies were interesting and had a striking sense of setting and strong production design.
Kindred Spirits Glad to see Lucky McKee doing something interesting again, this time in the form of a literal Lifetime movie.
David Byrne’s American Utopia I enjoyed this but it’s no Stop Making Sense.
Unhinged Trashy fun with a great villain turn from the Russell Crowe,
Red, White and Blue
The Empty Man
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
Love and Monsters
The Cordillera of Dreams
The Croods: A New Age I watch a lot of kids movies and animated movies and this is a cut above. It’s bright and imaginative animation and Cage does incredible voice work here.
The Father I was prepared to slam this movie if it didn’t come correct in it’s depiction of Alzheimer’s/dementia. It’s a bit heavy-handed in some ways but I found it to be very accurate and haunting and Hopkins puts on a tour de force performance. It’s the only movie that is up for best picture that I thought was solidly good.
The Dark and the Wicked Brutal and bleak movie. I respect it more than I like it.
The Jesus Rolls
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
American Murder: The Family Next Door
The Invisible Man
The Beach House
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Disappearance at Clifton Hill
We Can Be Heroes
The Wolf House
Yes, God, Yes
Deep Blue Sea 3
Malcolm & Marie
Anything for Jackson
The New Mutants
Color Out of Space
The Man in the Woods
The Twentieth Century
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Blood and Money
News of the World
Judas and the Black Messiah
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm I thought this was funny but overrated. Cohen did much better work recently with his Showtime series Who is America.
First Cow I’m generally a big Reichardt fan. I don’t think this is her best work, but it’s memorable.
Wonder Woman 1984
The King of Staten Island
Sonic the Hedgehog
Cut Throat City
Like a Boss
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
On a Magical Night
The Way Back
The Vast of Night
An American Pickle
12 Hour Shift
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
Come to Daddy
The Craft: Legacy
Tales from the Hood 3
The Tax Collector
You Should Have Left
The High Note
Ammonite Forbidden lesbian romance, fossil edition. I’m into the genre but Winslet overacts and takes the life out of the movie.
Trolls World Tour Starts like you just ate 50 pixie sticks and chugged a liter of Jolt cola but can’t keep up its mania and runs out of steam pretty early.
Scoob! I’ve seen this 300 times.
Underwater Starts interesting then starts ripping off Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea at every turn and finishes off with a terrible CGI monster.
The Prom This is so jaw-droppingly bad and cringey that I kind of got a charge out of watching it.
Force of Nature Not enough Mel Gibson.
The Little Things
Jiu Jitsu Cage bait and switch.
Sound of Metal
The Rhythm Section
The Personal History of David Copperfield
After Midnight Bad movie with a good ending.
Tesla I was into some of what was going on here but by the karaoke scene I was rolling my eyes.
The Photograph A movie I completely forgot the moment it ended.
The Call of the Wild CGI dogs are lame AF but this movie has a singular ability to make my daughter take a nap so it has that going for it.
Ham on Rye
She Dies Tomorrow
Standing Up, Falling Down
Saint Frances This kind of movie is a dime a dozen and this one was particularly uninspired.
The War with Grandpa I thought this was gonna pick up when Christopher Walken showed up. It did, but nowhere near enough.
Onward One of the worst Pixar movies. I’m getting a little tired of their formula and “dead parent” kids movies in general.
Hamilton I know that this is beloved but it is not for me at all.
One Night in Miami… Is Civil Rights icon fan fiction a thing? This movie is so weird about it, especially the way it puts these awkward, excruciating platitudes in the mouths of people like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Maximum cringe. It also fails on a technical level with its bland production design.
Promising Young Woman I thought some of the casting was interesting, and it’s maybe a little entertaining as a bad movie, but it’s really silly and the script is ridiculous.
The Assistant It has one point to make and it just makes it over and over and over again. It doesn’t work as experiential cinema in the way that Never Rarely Sometimes Always or To the Ends of the Earth does because its imagination is so limited, and it doesn’t work as minimalism because it doesn’t go anywhere interesting with the rhythms it establishes. It’s dull and tedious.
Mulan First of all, there’s no Mushu. Also, it pretty much sucks.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 This a new low water mark for prestige pictures in terms of production design, cinematography, costume design (how they messed this up with this subject matter is beyond me) and period detail. It looks cheap and is poorly directed. The schmaltzy Sorkin dialogue is unbearable and wrong for the material.
Brahms: The Boy II The title was so appealing to me that I went back and watched The Boy in order to watch this. It turns out that The Boy is sort of a gem, but then this sequel wrecks its mythology more fully than I imagined possible. It really is an amazing title, though.
Guns Akimbo People who are really into this movie are probably people who I don’t want to know.
Sadistic Intentions The intentions are nowhere near sadistic enough.
How to Build a Girl I rented this for 99 cents against my better judgment and I had to pause it every five minutes to pace around and groan. Every now and then my wife walked in and asked “what is this annoying movie you’re watching?” Beanie Feldstein is baaaaaad.
Valley Girl I was curious to see how bad this would be and it is shockingly bad. It’s worse than a bad episode of Glee. This is an insult to Martha Coolidge’s original, and surprisingly regressive.
Mank A train wreck of a movie. It’s worse than I thought Fincher was capable of. Even aside from the anti-Wellesian garbage, it’s incredibly boring, it’s ugly, Gary Oldman is horribly miscast, and I hate it. I’m hard pressed to understand why anyone would have wanted to make this movie. The Bernie Sanders parallels are unbearably cloying.
Downhill Every now and then you come across a movie that you just despise deep in the core of your being. For me, Downhill is that movie. I don’t believe that there is a single person alive who likes it (a real person, not a critic). If there is, I wouldn’t judge, but I would be very curious to find out who this person is who likes Downhill.
We don’t see many animated movies that are this thoughtful and unique. It’s really magical and we loved watching it with Sky. It’s a very special mother-daughter movie.
9. Straight Up
Cerebral, thought-provoking neurotic asexual rom com that is delightful in its chaos.
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Powerhouse movie with an incredible performance from Sidney Flanigan.
A docu-thriller for journalists. I loved it.
6. Let Him Go
This movie completely worked its magic on me. Totally riveting.
5. Small Axe (in total)
It’s like a great album of movies. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. It veers off into subjects and stories that you don’t normally see depicted in historical movies.
4. Sorry We Missed You
Keeping your head above water as a working parent, coping with fear of the unknown, emotional exhaustion— this movie’s dignified depiction of the every day struggle is devastating.
3. Monster Hunter
Obsessed. Milla Jovovich has the credibility to play a grizzled female action star.
This is extremely true to my personal experiences with dementia and death. It’s comforting to see it depicted well, with humor and darkness and vivid sensory details. Josh and I felt seen.
Claire Denis’ L’Intrus was a foundational film in the development of my taste. It wasn’t the first of her films that I saw, but it was the one that really pulled me into an intense long-term relationship for her work. When I first saw it 15+ years ago, I thought it was one of the most stunning, enigmatic, alluring films I had ever seen. I recently watched Metrograph’s HD release and I felt the same way. It is my favorite Claire Denis film and in the running for my single favorite film of the last twenty years.
Most of Denis’ work has an elliptical quality; she forsakes the usual connective tissue of exposition and instead shows us evocative shards of narrative. L’Intrus pushes this tendency to its far extreme. At one point, we see the film’s unsympathetic protagonist, Louis Trebor, go to sleep in Geneva, Switzerland and then we see him wake up in Busan, South Korea. Further confounding the narrative, surreal waking events are juxtaposed with dreams in a way that unsettles the distinction between the two. But it would be a mistake to treat L’Intrus as an unsolvable riddle, as so many critics have. It’s not merely inscrutable phantasmagoria that we should let wash over us like a psychedelic lightshow. It’s presented as being inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “L’Intrus,” and we ought to take that connection seriously and think about the direction it points us in for engaging with the film. This is easier said than done, however, since Denis’ film is connected to the essay only in the most esoteric ways (Nancy himself said that he didn’t see the connection after his first viewing).
Nancy’s short essay relates the concept of the intruder to his own heart transplant years earlier. Denis’ film does involve a heart transplant and includes a number of intruders of various sorts, but extrapolates far beyond the content of the essay. At the beginning of the film, we meet Trebor, a mysterious old man living in the Jura mountains with two dogs. He is played by Michel Subor, the actor most famous for playing Bruno Forestier in Godard’s Le petit soldat. He has only appeared in a handful of films since 1990 and most of them are by Denis. Fascinatingly, this is one of two movies by her where his backstory is supplied by another movie that she did not direct. His character in Beau Travail is Bruno Forestier, the same character he played in Le petit soldat. In L’Intrus, our only glimpses into Trebor’s past are clips pulled from Paul Gégauff’s unfinished 1965 film Le Reflux, where he played a sailor in colonial Polynesia. In both Beau Travail and L’Intrus he is a lingering vestige of the colonial era. He also appears in Denis’ Bastards and White Material, in both cases a sort of dark apparition of the previous generation. White Material again has a colonial context while in Bastards Subor’s character is part of the aging generation of rapacious capitalists. Taking all this together, we can see that Subor’s place in Denis’ cinema is as an avatar of past sins living on in the present. In L’intrus, this avatar is the protagonist rather than a menacing peripheral character.
We never learn exactly what Trebor did for a living, but his vast illicit wealth and penchant for bloodshed suggests that he was some sort of mercenary (this is the standard interpretation, at least). We see him early in the film basking in a forest with his dogs in a sequence that resembles Straub-Huillet’s idyllic forest compositions (I’m not sure what to make of the connection but I point it out because it is an unusual point of reference for Denis):
We also see him struggling with chest pain while swimming in a mountain lake. We will later learn that he requires a heart transplant. After pulling himself ashore, clutching his heart and catching his breath, he finds a cigarette butt in the sand… evidence of an intruder in this idyllic space. He looks towards the forest. We are shown a woman slinking through the trees, out of sight.
This woman is listed in the credits as “La sauvageonne” (“The wild child”). She is one of three mysterious, unnamed female figures we encounter early in the film. The first is “la jeune femme russe” (“The young Russian woman”), who speaks the first words of the film: “Your worst enemies are hidden inside, in the shadow, in your heart.” The third is Trebor’s neighbor, played by the great BéatriceDalle. She is listed in the credits as “La reine de l’hémisphère nord” (“The queen of the northern hemisphere”). She lives alone with a whole brood of sled dogs but obviously hates Trebor and his dogs and considers him an intruder.
We also meet Trebor’s lover, “The pharmacist,” one of the few film roles of French model and singer Bambou (the longtime partner of Serge Gainsbourg). While basking in post-coital glow with her, he hears an intruder downstairs and gets up to investigate. We don’t see exactly what happens, but the intruder is La sauvageonne and Trebor apparently kills her with a knife before going back to bed. This is very possible a dream, but I think the film is ultimately unclear about this. We see him dispose of the body later, but we also see her alive later in the film (though that scene may very well have taken place earlier than the other events of the film, and there is some indication that it did– one can see why many consider L’Intrus an unsolvable riddle).
It’s becoming clear at this point that La sauvageonne is operating at a metaphorical level — we aren’t going to learn who she is or what she wants. We can find hints, however, in the text of Nancy’s essay. He writes, “My heart was becoming my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside. Yet this strangeness could only come from outside for having first emerged inside. A void suddenly opened in my chest or my soul—it’s the same thing—when it was said to me: “You must have a heart transplant. . . .”
The intruders appear for Trebor just as he has this realization– he must have a heart transplant. The flipside of accepting that one must have a heart transplant is accepting that someone else must lose their heart. The estrangement from one’s own heart is coupled with opening oneself to receive a strange heart. Strangers out in the world become possible donors– possible intruders. Later in the film, we learn that Trebor is particularly concerned that he not receive a woman’s heart, because he does not want to lose his character. At the same moment that Trebor experiences his own heart as an intruder, he apprehends himself as an open wound waiting to have his own intruding heart removed and then the cavity filled by the fresh intrusion of his future heart. The most apt way to understand La sauvageonne as Trebor’s projection of the unknown strangers who could provide his new heart. His killing of La sauvageonne can be understood as a ruthless step to prevent a woman’s heart from intruding into his body. She sneaks into the house in the dead of night to emasculate him while he lays naked with his lover. If this sequence is a dream, it’s a dream about his fear of receiving a woman’s heart.
When Trebor kills La sauvageonne, we also see the young Russian woman who delivered the opening lines of the film standing outside, watching and judging. Soon we see Trebor log on to an old computer and send an ominous message in Russian. He wants to take the “emergency option.” He is told he’ll need to bring money. We can infer that he is purchasing an illegal heart transplant on the black market. The person who responds to his message–we soon learn after Trebor travels to Geneva to retrieve cash from a safe deposit box–is the young Russian woman. He pays her a large wad of cash and also buys himself an expensive new watch. In a clear dream sequence (clear because we see him wake up from it), Trebor is dragged through the snow by the young Russian woman and another figure on horses. He protests “But I’ve already paid!” Her response is the apex of existential torment in the movie: “YOU’LL NEVER PAY ENOUGH.”
From here we see a post-transplant Trebor contracting with a South Korean shipyard for the construction of a large vessel. We don’t know exactly how large, but we know that the executives at the shipyard investigated Trebor’s finances and found that he has vast assets and the backing of a bank before they agreed to build the ship. He explains that it is a gift for his son, a sailor who loves the sea. They ink the deal and drink to celebrate. For the last section of the movie, we see Trebor in Tahiti, ostensibly searching for his lost son. This is the point of the movie where we see flashbacks to his youth pulled from Le Reflux. I haven’t mentioned this but earlier in the film we met another character who is evidently Trebor’s son, Sidney, played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin. Sidney is portrayed as an exceptionally empathetic and nurturing man– the polar opposite of Trebor. His wife is a border agent (someone who protects the border from intruders) and in a moving early scene we see him talk her through a sort of guided meditation after she returns home from work in obvious distress. In another earlier scene, we see Trebor meet Sidney’s wife on the street with her two young children. Trebor is surprised to see that they now have a girl in addition to the boy, but he is wrong. He’s told that not only is the younger child a boy, he’s even named after his grandfather: his name is Louis. Meanwhile the young Russian woman is seen looking on in judgment.
Does Trebor have two sons, one in France and one in Tahiti? Or does he only have one son, Sidney, and is his journey to Tahiti in search of his son a purely metaphorical element of the film? Perhaps Sidney was originally born to a Tahitian mother? The film provides no answer to these questions, though many critics assume that their are two sons. I do not think we are entitled to this assumption, especially in light of the ending, which I will not spoil here (but my point should be obvious for those who have seen it).
He explains that he wants to find his son in part because “everything I own is his.” But he cannot find his son anywhere, and islanders insist that he has become theirs, not Trebor’s. But Trebor finds his old hut and starts fixing it up to take up residence there (prompting the memorable image of he and a friend carrying a mattress through the shallow ocean waters).
What’s most striking to me through this section of the film is Trebor’s sense of entitlement to redemption. He is wealthy, therefore he is redeemed. Passing his wealth to his son– and gifting him a ship–redeems his actions. His previous words “but I’ve already paid!” gain a new resonance. “You’ll never pay enough.” Whether Sidney is his only son or not, his journey to Tahiti can be seen as a Gauguin-esque quest of selfishness. He has left behind a son who loves him. If Sidney is his only son, Denis’ surreal narrative gambit is doubly brutal. He brusquely passes on genuine redemption in order to pursue a grandiose romanticized version that serves only himself. It is he who is the sailor; it is he who loves the sea, not his son. It is he who is drawn to leave his family behind to despoil the southern hemisphere. His son waits faithfully in Europe, with a son of his own named after a grandfather who doesn’t care at all.
There is a large body of academic literature on L’Intrus and most of it focuses on the post-colonial dimension of the film. Trebor’s past in French Polynesian and his journey to Tahiti in the film must indeed be understood against France’s colonial history. This is a theme that pervades Denis’ work. But I think academic commentators make the mistake of downplaying the more personal dimension of L’Intrus in favor of its world-political dimension. The political dimension of the film is just one layer, and it is not a privileged layer. It is the macro-dimension of the personal story that the film is more closely concerned with. The ultimate intrusion is that of the northern hemisphere into the southern (which casts different light on the naming of Dalle’s character “the queeen of the northern hemisphere”). I will not discuss this dimension further here, but there is a large body of (not very exciting) scholarship on the topic waiting for anyone who cares. I prefer to take the colonial context as background rather than as foreground. It inflects the foreground, for sure, but it doesn’t supplant it.
To return to Nancy’s text:
“This was always, more or less, the life of the infirm and the aged: but, precisely, I am neither one nor the other. What cures me is what infects or affects me; what allows me to live causes me to age prematurely. My heart is twenty years younger than I am, and the rest of my body (at least) a dozen years older. So having at the same time become younger and older, I no longer have an age proper, just as, properly speaking, I am no longer my own age. Just as I no longer have an occupation, although I am not retired, so too I am nothing of what I am supposed to be (husband, father, grandfather, friend) unless I remain subsumed within the very general condition of the intrus, of diverse intrus that at any moment can appear in my place in my relations with, or in the representations of, others [autrui].
In a single movement, the most absolutely proper “I” withdraws to an infinite distance (where does it go?; into what vanishing point from which I could still claim that this is my body?) and subsides into an intimacy more profound than any interiority (the impregnable recess wherefrom I say “I,” but that I know to be as gaping [béant] as this chest opened upon emptiness, or as the slipping into the morphinic unconsciousness of suffering and fear, merged in abandonment). Corpus meum and interior intimo meo, the two together state very exactly, and in a complete configuration of the death of god, that the truth of the subject is its exteriority and excessivity: its infinite exposition. The intrus exposes me, excessively. It extrudes, it exports, it expropriates: I am the illness and the medical intervention, I am the cancerous cell and the grafted organ, I am the immuno-depressive agents and their palliatives, I am the bits of wire that hold together my sternum, and I am this injection site permanently stitched in below my clavicle, just as I was already these screws in my hip and this plate in my groin. I am becoming like a science-fiction android, or the living-dead, as my youngest son one day said to me…..
The intrus is no other than me, my self; none other than man himself. No other than the one, the same, always identical to itself and yet that is never done with altering itself. At the same time sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-equipped, intruding upon the world and upon itself: a disquieting upsurge of the strange, conatus of an infinite excrescence.”
Nancy isn’t the sort of writer who goes out of his way to make sense, but there is a relatively clear thought in this bit of the essay. His transplant represented a sort of intrusion of the other into himself, but at the same time the strain of going through it aged the rest of his body. He ends up with a younger heart than before but otherwise feels older. He is, at the end point of the process, composed entirely of parts that he experiences as intruders, and therefore is himself “the intruder.”
I take this passage to be the lynchpin connecting the film and the essay. The film begins by chronicling a series of intrusions as experienced by Trebor, but it ends up with the realization that he’s been the intruder all along. You may find this a cryptic closing thought on my part, but it is appropriate to such a wonderfully cryptic film. L’Intrus doesn’t simply hand itself over to any viewer who stumbles in. On first viewing, it’s hard not to experience the film itself as a sort of intruder. Like most of Denis’ work, it takes more than one viewing to even begin to unearth its riches. My aim here is just to offer a sketchy map pointing towards a way of engaging with it that I’ve found fruitful.
At every party my dad ever attended, sooner or later he’d wind up surrounded by a group of people laughing hysterically while he told jokes. The jokes he told often weren’t very good. If you read them on paper, most of them would not make you laugh. The magic was in the way he told them. It was a full-blown performance: he did voices, he jumped up and down, he snarled and bared his teeth, he leaned into the dirty parts. He had extraordinary charisma and rejected ordinary social inhibitions and their attendant shames. Jon Strohl said what was on his mind, whether it was anywhere near appropriate or not. He was entirely willing to get into avoidable confrontations. When a school principal called to complain about me or my brother, he wouldgo directly on the attack, launching into legalistic complaints about the school’s failure to meet our needs and threatening to sue.
My dad didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of him and he raised us to not give a fuck what anyone thought of us. He swore profusely and instilled in us the aesthetic virtue of swearing. “A well-placed ‘fuck’ makes all the difference, Matthew.” He had a big heart and a ferocious hatred of bullies and he always stuck up for anyone he saw being mistreated. He was a passionate advocate for the mentally ill and his life’s work was in mental health services. He was extremely proud of the way that he was able to deploy his forceful personality over the course of his career to make positive changes in the lives of patients.
Jon Strohl was a brash character and he made a big impression. As my brother Josh put it, “he didn’t filter himself, and people liked that about him.” In what follows, I’ve assembled key events and important stories from his life in an effort to say something about who he was and what he meant to the people who loved him.
On his birth and upbringing:
Jonathan Peter Strohl was originally named Gary Lee Coleman. He didn’t like to talk about the fact that he was adopted, but he always told me that he was originally the product of an illicit affair between an older Italian man and a young German woman, both first generation immigrants from the WWII era. There are conflicting accounts, but we believe his birth mother was around 16 years old when he was born in 1948. She had other children, but he had no interest in ever seeking them out. “My parents are my parents, my family is my family, and that’s that.” There was a lot of pain behind that attitude, but it wasn’t a pain that he ever wanted to acknowledge.
He was adopted by Chester and Mary Strohl. He was their only child. Chester was a minister in the Lutheran church and a veteran of WWII, where he served as a chaplain and received a Purple Heart (“The Germans treated the cross on my back like a target,” he once told me). His mother Mary was very much a pastor’s wife. She worked alongside Chester in the series of churches they ran throughout my father’s childhood. They were both devoutly religious and very strict, and although my father loved them very much he did not inherit their religiosity. He was a defiant person who disdained all forms of authority and there’s no doubt that this aspect of his character had roots in his strict religious upbringing.
Chester specialized in rehabilitating churches in financial difficulty, and so my father spent much of his childhood moving from place to place. The two places he talked about the most were Lake Ronkonkoma (on Long Island) where he grew up and Burnt Hills (near Albany) where he went to high school. He fondly remembered the time he spent living near NYC and often talked of his love for Coney Island and its Cyclone roller coaster.
On his origin story:
My dad didn’t just tell jokes, he was also an extraordinary storyteller. There is absolutely no doubt about what his signature story was: The Ballad of Barry Franc(k). This is his origin story. I heard him tell it so many times. When I was in high school, sometimes when we were bored my friends would suggest we go over to my house and get my dad to tell that story again. It’s such a good story that we always assumed he was exaggerating at least a little bit, but when he started to get sick years back a couple of his old friends from high school who we had never met before came to visit and they confirmed that not only is the story entirely true, he had been underselling certain aspects of it. I could never tell it the way he does, but I can reconstruct the key events. When he told this story, though, it was more of a one-man play. It took him about a half an hour and he got so into it that it felt like he was going to break something. Here’s my best attempt. Actual lines from the way my dad told it are marked with quotes:
Barry Franc(k) was a bully. “He had greasy fucking slicked back hair and he walked around with two chickeypoos on his arms.” Barry demanded that his last name be pronounced franc, like the former French currency, and got angry when anyone called him Barry FRANK, like the hot dog. (Amazingly, my brother and I have opposite memories of this part of the story. He thinks Barry’s name was actually ‘Frank’ and didn’t like to be called ‘Franc‘. If anyone who heard him tell the story has a clear memory either way, please let us know).
My dad at the time was a short, pudgy high school freshman and Barry had taken to bullying him. My dad didn’t back down, but instead taunted him by mispronouncing his last name. Barry beat the crap out of him one day and capped it off flushing his head down the toilet and badly humiliating him in front of a large crowd.
So what did my dad do? He got a paper route. He got up at 5 every morning and delivered 120 papers and then he used the money he earned to buy a bench and a set of weights. He started obsessively weight training. During lunch breaks he biked home to lift, he skipped dances to stay home and lift. Over the course of two years he got frickin’ ripped. He was not a tall man at 5’6”, but his short stature and muscular build were perfect for wrestling and powerlifting, and he became very successful at these sports. He also played football, where his teammates called him “Sparkplug.” He set a northeastern states record for bench press in his weight class, benching 275 when he weighed 148 (as a high school student).
Having completed this transformation from vulnerable freshman to invincible beast, he confronted Barry Franc(k) yet again after the bully shoulder-checked him in the hallway. “Right up in front of his chickeypoos I said ‘Hey Barry FRANK, long time no see.’” “Didn’t I teach you a lesson already!”
They had another fight. One part of the story that he left out that we learned from his old highschool friends is that the fight was planned and even advertised with flyers made by other students. Teachers did nothing to stop the fight. The whole school wanted to see Sparkplug teach Barry the Bully a lesson. And teach him a lesson he did.
The story of the second fight cannot be captured on paper. My dad acted it out, and it would be impossible to overstate how into it he got. The gist of it, though, is that he beat the ever living shit out of Barry. “I grabbed him by his greasy fucking hair and I SMASHED his face into the urinal, and I SMASHED it again, and I flushed his greasy fucking face down the toilet, and I threw him into the fucking wall….” At the end, he dragged Barry half-conscious into the school hallway and held him aloft by his greasy fucking hair, declaring once and for all: “Here’s Barry FRANK for ya.”
Another part of the story that he always left out was that the entire school started chanting his name and they lifted him up and carried him out of the building as a hero.
On his adventures and misdeeds as a young man:
Not all of my dad’s high school antics were so glorious. He was a rebellious pastor’s son and he raised hell. Most notoriously, he found out that his German teacher had called the cops to report him for driving his convertible around the neighborhood too fast. My dad knocked on the teacher’s door and punched him squarely in the face when he opened it. He failed German that year.
As a wrestler, he often boasted that he was “meaner than a shithouse rat.” He once bit an opponent in the testicles during a match. My brother asked, “Dad, what did this guy say to you after you bit him in the nuts?” “He said ‘fuck you!” “And what did you say?” “I said’ ‘fuck YOU!!!!”
On his John Belushi years:
My dad attended Hartwick and joined a fraternity. He showed me Animal House as a kid and told me that everyone always compared him in college to John Belushi. He has two particularly famous stories from this era. He had one frat brother who he really didn’t like. That guy was shut in his room with a girl and my dad threw a full keg of beer through the wall. He also famously drove a riding lawnmower through the building and mowed the carpet.
He loved to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and smoke menthol cigarettes. He also enjoyed smoking weed and could roll a joint with one hand while driving (I saw him do it), but rarely touched hard drugs. He attended an Acid Test party in his youth without realizing it and drank a large amount of LSD spiked Kool-Aid that he mistook for a weak cocktail. I recently learned that no one else in my family had heard this story but he always told me that he woke up two weeks later in a different state with no desire to ever take LSD again. He had an epic amount of fun in his party days, but his drinking eventually became one of the saddest things about his life. I’m not going to focus on the sad parts in this remembrance, but suffice to say that his drinking was unhappy in his 50’s. For the last phase of his life he switched to non-alcoholic beer and e-cigarettes and had a pretty tame old age (much to his dismay)
On his military service:
My dad really, really did not want to go to Vietnam. He had been invited to train for the Olympics in power lifting but turned it down to go to college, and then after he finished college he promptly joined the Army reserves to avoid being drafted. He often talked about being stationed in Texas where he had a great time crossing the border to party in Mexico but was extremely bored on base. This was the era where he got interested in chess and learned all sorts of card tricks and also how to roll joints and cigarettes with one hand.
When he visited Montana for my wedding, I found him vaping in the hotel lobby and dragged him outside, where we ran into a couple biker guys with Vietnam veteran hats on. My dad walked right up to them and was like “You’re a Vietnam vet? Cool! I’m a draft dodger.”
On his career in mental health services and his moral convictions concerning the treatment of the mentally ill:
Jon was a psychology major and after he finished his military service he moved to Elmira, NY, where his parents lived, and got a job at the Elmira Psychiatric Center. This was the beginning of a 40 year career in mental health services. He said to me many times that the two things that he was the most proud of in life were his three kids and the concrete ways that his work improved the treatment of mentally ill people in western New York. He showed me One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a kid to illustrate the way that mentally ill people had historically been treated and saw it as his calling in life to work to provide the best possible care for patients and to enable them to move out of institutions and live productive lives in the community.
My dad loved his patients. He took calls any time, day or night. He loved just hanging out with them at the Psych Center (as it was called). He brought us with him as small kids and introduced us to them. He always adamantly reinforced the idea that mentally ill people are just people and we shouldn’t be afraid of them or treat them differently than we’d treat anyone else. Indeed, he taught us that people who are different tend to be really interesting and cool and they have a lot to offer if we give them the chance. We’d often run into patients and former patients when we were out doing errands and they were always so happy to see him. He’d greet them happily and introduce us to them and they’d often tell us how great a guy he was. I always had the sense that he’d much rather hang out with his patients than with people who society had dubbed “normal.”
He started out working directly with patients, including troubled teens and inmates in the Elmira State prison. He told me that going into the state prison had been extremely intimidating. This is a serious facility and he was working with people who had been convicted of the most serious crimes. His strategy? He brought potato chips and hot sauce with him. He loved this combination and he made friends with inmates by bringing plenty to share.
During this period, in his 20’s, he fostered a teen girl named Velvet for a period of time. She showed up at our house when I was a kid to tell him what a big difference he had made in her life. I didn’t remember this bit until my mom told me about it recently. I would be intensely curious to talk to Velvet if she ever stumbles upon this and wants to reach out.
While working in mental health services he also nearly completed a Master’s degree in psychology. He was, sadly, kicked out of the program after insulting a professor in class who he thought had no understanding of actual clinical practices, “those who can’t do, teach!” I looked through the paperwork that he saved from this event and it’s heart-breaking. They used his low GRE verbal score to kick him out while he protested that he had a verbal learning disability and should be granted an exception given his strong performance overall. He eventually went back to school at age 40 while raising three kids and working full time. He completed his Master’s in community service, which led to him moving up the career ladder. He spent much of his career working for the state as a program analyst. The way he explained it, his job was making sure that all of the programs receiving state funding for mental health services in Western NY were using that money in the way that would be most beneficial for patients. He was, as he put it, a “ball buster,” but he saw this as a duty. He didn’t fuck around when it came to standards of patient care.
A former colleague wrote on his memorial page this week, “Jon was a brilliant policy planner with boundless energy and exceptional creativity.” Another wrote, “I will always remember him entering our office with a burst of energy, along with his amazing smile and laugh. He never turned away clients or family members in need of services or guidance.”
On his wrestling of a fish:
To this day, there’s a large taxidermied king salmon hanging on the wall of my parents’ house. It’s like a 30 pound fish. He often told the story of its origin: he had gone up to Pulaski, NY to fish the first day of salmon season. It was a miserable affair. Men lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks of the Salmon River in the freezing dead of night and waited hours for sunrise when they could legally begin fishing. A lot of drinking was involved. He had endured this a couple times before without catching anything and was just overwhelmed with excitement when he hooked his first big salmon. When he finally got it to the shore, however, it shook off the hook and flipped back into the water.
What did Jon do? He dove into the fucking water in middle of winter and wrestled the fish. He wrapped his arms and legs around it and then just started pummeling it with his fist. When it was unconscious, he dragged it out of the water in triumph and decided to have it taxidermied.
This was another story where we thought he might be exaggerating, but one of my brother’s first jobs was working for a local hardware store that was owned by one of my dad’s old fishing buddies. When the owner realized who my brother was he was like, “You’re Jon Strohl’s son??? Did you know that he once dove into the Salmon River and punched a fish to death??? Wildest shit I’ve ever seen.”
On Strohly’s House for Unwed Boys:
My dad had an unhappy first marriage in his 20’s. I can say with great confidence that this was his least favorite topic and so I never asked too many questions about it, but it was a marriage in name only and he never let go of his anger about it (he actually even had another marriage that was quickly annulled when he was young, which none of us knew about until very recently). After his unhappy marriage ended he established Strohly’s House for Unwed Boys: an 120 year old farmhouse in Breesport, NY that he bought for next to nothing. It was a ramshackle building and the foundation was infested with snakes. He had a number of bachelor friends living with him and they partied hard and did lots of hunting and fishing.
On his whirlwind courtship and marriage to the love of his life:
My dad met my mom when he was 31 and she was 22. He saw her in a bar and begged a mutual friend to introduce him. The way he told it, “I was never faithful to a woman before your mother, but I’ve never looked at anyone else since I met her.” It turned out that they had both gone to Hartwick (though she had transferred to Cornell) and their parents knew each other. Her father was very involved in the local Lutheran church. She always said that he “swept her off her feet.” He was in extremely good shape and he was funny and charming and absolutely crazy about her. He proposed after three weeks and she accepted three weeks later. They were married seven months after they met. I was born ten months and ten days later. They remained married until his death 40 years later. Till his last day he often said that my mom was the best thing that ever happened to him.
On the early years of the Strohl family:
We were poor when I was born. We slept in the same room together huddled up under an electric blanket. The main source of heat for the house was a wood-burning stove, and then we also used a kerosene heater. The main oil heater was too expensive to run. Snakes would suddenly appear from cracks in the walls. I will never forget the day my dad and his friends tore out the old stone porch and revealed an Indiana Jones-worthy pit of snakes. Like, thousands of snakes. My brother was born in this house as well but we eventually moved into town after a freak accident where he slipped and cut the artery of his wrist on a piece of glass. We only had one car and my dad was at work, so I had to run to the neighbor’s house to get someone to drive him to the hospital.
We owned a property on Seneca lake that he bought for next to nothing. It had a small structure but no running water. We usually slept in a camper when we were up there. He loved “pulling copper” for huge lake trout and we spent countless weekends up there fishing and swimming. Those were some of the happiest times of my childhood.
On his bittersweet ascent to the middle class:
My dad did not like living in town. He always said that he wanted “autonomy,” which to him meant being able to do what you want on your own property and not be restricted by neighbors or cops. He liked to shoot guns out in the backyard and have loud parties.
Also at this time he started to become busier and busier at work. He mostly stopped hunting and didn’t go fishing as much. He took up golf, which he was terrible at but enjoyed. What I think he enjoyed about it most was getting day drunk and riding around in a golf cart with his buddies.
Sadly, these changes did not make him happier overall. He had obsessive compulsive disorder and didn’t cope very well with stress. There were still lots of good times, but he missed his old life, when he was poor and free and happy and his neighbors lived further away.
On his parenting:
My dad’s resistance to authority carried through to his parenting style. He was adamant about letting us become our own people and not trying to mold us into any preconceived image. He supported us in whatever we were interested in and set few limits. As Strohltopia readers know, my brother Josh and I became avid movie buffs. From a very young age he exposed us to grown up movies and let us pick whatever we wanted from the video rental store. There was never a time when we weren’t allowed to watch R-rated movies. It was awesome. We were very well-developed cinephiles before we even got to high school.
On his favorite movies:
My dad liked to watch the same movies over and over and over again. He had a small set of perennial favorites and then there were two other categories he was interested in: “movies with T&A” (this was how her referred to the erotic thrillers that were popular in the 90’s), and “rock ‘em sock ‘em action.”
Throughout my childhood, he was obsessed with the movie Dirty Dancing. He had visited a similar resort in the Catskills as a kid in the 50’s and it was extremely nostalgic for him. We must have watched it 200 times. We kids would get super embarrassed when Jennifer Grey took her shirt off but then we would become animated and dance around the house during the big finale. “No one puts Baby in a corner.” God, he loved it.
But without a doubt the movie that he watched the most was My Cousin Vinny. I would make a hefty wager that no living person has seen the movie My Cousin Vinny more times than my dad. For years and years you’d find him watching it multiple times per week, always laughing hysterically. One of my fondest memories of him, as silly as it is, was the time that I came home to visit from college and found him STILL watching My Cousin Vinny. I was like “DAD, do you seriously still find this movie funny?” He didn’t answer my question directly, he just started doing an impression of Marisa Tomei and laughing hysterically: “You’re gonna shoot a deer?? A sweet, innocent, doe-eyed little deer?”
He also loved big historical epics (e.g., Spartacus, Ben Hur) and movies where the underdog makes good (e.g.,The Bad News Bears, Sister Act). Pretty much any time you’d ask him if he wants to watch a movie he would propose Ben Hur.
On his pool game:
My dad was a great pool player. I honestly have never seen a better one in person. I never once saw him lose a game of pool. He certainly never let me win. When he was in college his parents sent him 10 dollars a month to live on. He used that as a starting point for betting on games and essentially paid his way through college by hustling. “I had a misspent youth,” he always explained when people marvelled at how good he was. He preferred to play straight pool (like in The Hustler) and disliked 9 Ball (and partly for this reason didn’t like The Color of Money as much), but he typically settled on 8 Ball because the mechanics of straight pool led to everyone else sitting around watching while he ran the table. He often talked about how on one occasion some old timer had taught him a lesson and hustled him good, which made him so angry that he broke his beloved ivory pool cue over his knee and stopped playing for serious money.
In a favorite example of his off-color sense of humor, on one occasion he was teaching my brother and his friends how to handle a pool cue. He slowly demonstrated the motion and explained with evocative inflection, “It’s like stickin’ your dick in something smooth… it’s like stickin’ your dick in something smooth.” My sister Alexis interjected, “DAD!!!” Surprised that she was in the room, he immediately corrected himself, “Sorry, Alexis. It’s like buttering your corn… it’s like buttering your corn.”
On his evening ritual:
Once my dad settled into the trudge of middle class life, he had a very funny nightly ritual of changing out of his suit, putting on ripped jeans and an old flannel shirt, and standing around in the kitchen for a couple hours in his underwear, smoking, drinking, and watching cable news while he made these weird and meticulous little notes on pieces of ripped up paper that he kept in a neat little stack and carried around with him. These notes were an expression of his OCD and one of his only strict rules was that no one was ever allowed to disturb them or get them out of order.
Another strict rule was that no one else was allowed to touch his grapefruit soda. He switched from beer to a cocktail of grapefruit soda and cheap vodka, and he was infuriated by the notion that anyone else might drink any of his soda and he might run out in the middle of the night or something. We (of course) loved to mess with him and take swigs of soda when he wasn’t looking. He started drawing a line on the grapefruit soda bottle with a sharpie to make sure no one could get into it without him knowing. Since we actually did like grapefruit soda we tried buying our own, but he simply commandeered it and wouldn’t let us have any. The rule was very clear: no one but Jon Strohl gets any grapefruit soda in this house.
On his transplant and declining health
My dad’s years of hard drinking and an earlier bout with Hepatitis B caught up with him in his late 50’s and he was diagnosed with terminal liver problems. He had extremely good health insurance from New York State, however, and my mom fought hard and somehow got him a liver transplant. This is a difficult topic for me, because as a recovering alcoholic myself I am vividly aware of how many people die of alcoholism without ever having a chance for a transplant. Indeed, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of another example of someone who had liver problems due to alcohol use getting a transplant.
By all reasonable expectations he had no chance of surviving this first terminal illness, but survive it he did. I am profoundly grateful for the extra years he got as a result, but I also feel tremendous sorrow for all the people who have died without getting the same opportunity. The 13 years that my dad lived after his transplant were a gift.
Unfortunately, his health never fully rebounded. He had several years of complications from the transplant and we nearly lost him several times. Eventually his transplant stabilized but he started to develop other health problems: Alzheimer’s, congestive heart failure, a stroke. He had many, many brushes with death but proved to be incredibly resilient.
On his dementia:
Dementia is a heartbreaking thing and I know that it’s a brutal experience for many familes. However, I hope I can offer some comfort to those with loved ones in the early stages of dementia by reporting that in my dad’s case it really wasn’t all that bad and there were even some good things about it. My dad had become a pretty cantankerous person in his 50’s and he actually became much nicer and less angry as dementia set in. He turned into a silly old guy who smiled a lot and struggled with benign confusion about what the fuck year it was. He would come into the room with a bow tie and a t-shirt on and say he was getting ready for the high school dance. When he watched his The Godfather late in life he remarked “this is a fantastic movie, how have I never seen this before?” “Dad, you’ve seen The Godfather.” “No I haven’t. I’d remember.” It really didn’t seem too bad to me: I wouldn’t mind getting to see The Godfather for the first time again.
He was very funny during these years. He’d vape in inappropriate places and then when his vape pen ran out of batteries he’d try to light it like a cigarette. It was dangerous but it never stopped being funny (and all of his vape pens had melted ends).
One of the funniest stories from this stage of his life was the time he shaved his head. He was left alone at the house and decided to shave it himself. He didn’t do a great job. My mom walked in and found him with a few bloody spots on his scalp. He grinned, “Hey Patti, you want some strange?????”
On his love of dogs:
Late in life, my dad had our pit bull Roxie as his constant companion. She watched over him in his sickbed and slept beside him. She was one of many dogs he dearly loved in his life. There’s no question, though, that his greatest canine love was a German Shepherd named Cassandra (Cassie) who he had for 14 years. The first time I ever saw him cry was the day he had her put to sleep. He actually took her in twice. The first time he dropped her off and went out to the car because he couldn’t be there to watch it happen. He couldn’t do it and ran back inside to take her home for one last night, then brought her back the next day. God, he loved that dog so much. She was very smart and understood complex commands and he took her everywhere with him off leash. He’d walk into the bar with her and when the bartender said no dogs allowed he’d point to a barstool and she’d jump right up and sit there politely. He’d say “that’s not a dog, that’s a paying customer. I’ll have a beer and she’ll have a beer.” And the dog would drink an entire beer directly from the glass.
Today, my sister has a German Shepherd named Kassie. She doesn’t drink beer but she’s a very sweet dog.
In one particularly unpleasant ordeal, we had a Rottweiler named Zoe who was big and excitable but basically just a lovemonster. By that point we had moved out of the suburban wasteland and lived on top of a hill where we had a little more of the autonomy my dad valued so much. People liked to jog up the hill for exercise, and there was one woman in particular who jogged with some sort of club (or was it even a cattle prod?) that she brought to protect herself against dogs. We never knew for sure, but we always suspected that Zoe (who was restrained by an electric fence) had run near the end of the driveway and barked at her and she had attacked the dog with her weapon. For whatever reason, Zoe absolutely hated this one woman and would get very riled up whenever she ran by. On one occasion, she burst through the electric fence and bit her. Her husband came to the house to complain. My dad was never very responsive to complaints about his family or his animals and he basically said, “Oh, does your wife like to jog up here? Get her exercise? Stay in shape? Well FUCK you and FUCK her. She can jog somewhere else and leave my dog the hell alone.” “If you won’t agree to keep your dog restrained, I’m going to call animal control.” “Go ahead, you miserable prick.”
An agent from animal control did come, and Zoe jumped up on his lap and licked his face while he cooed “oh you are not a vicious dog are you? Oh you cutie you’re not a vicious dog!” He remarked that the woman was singularly unpleasant and that it seemed to him like the dog had her number. He concluded that she must have done something to provoke Zoe and we suffered no consequences.
On his happy last years and the birth of his grandchildren:
The greatest gifts of my dad’s extra years were that he got to see all three of his kids get married and he got to meet his three grandchildren. My wife Angela adored him and he adored her. He would always forget that we were married and then when we reminded him he would congratulate me on having married such a wonderful woman. My brother Josh and his wife Izzy have a three-year old girl named Sky and a baby boy named Charles Bronson. My sister Alexis and her husband Mickey have a baby boy (born one month after Charley) named Lachlan.
Given the health troubles he had, we all consider it a tremendous blessing that he got these last few happy years. Sky loved her Baba so much, and was always checking on him to make sure he was okay and bringing him blankets to make sure he was warm enough. She wrote a little “letter” to him after he died and I can’t think about that without tears flowing.
On a silly memory:
When I think about the happiest times with my dad, I remember something extremely silly, and that’s note I want to close on. One night, when I was around college age, he and I were hanging out alone watching Saturday Night Live. My mom didn’t allow pot smoking in the house but we freely ignored her (she just yelled and yelled about it and no one really paid any attention– sorry mom hahaha). We smoked a great big joint and laughed our asses off. There was one particular sketch with Norm Macdonald as Lou Gehrig that really wasn’t anything spectacular but that made my dad laugh just about the hardest I ever saw him laugh. Here it is:
I can still picture his face. We laughed for what felt like 15 minutes. We were rolling around in stitches. He just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually my mom came down and was like “what the hell is going on down here? IS THAT POT I SMELL?????” which made us laugh even harder. She didn’t understand what was so funny. “You had to be there, Patti.”
I remember that silly moment because it was maybe the purest happiness I ever felt in just being with him. I miss you, dad, and I always will.
A friend contacted me recently with an urgent query: “I’m out of stuff to watch and the only things my friends are recommending are bougie serials with good dialogue. Help!” Clearly, it’s time for a new round of streaming recommendations.
Paid rentals (these are on multiple platforms)
The Kid Detective (2020)
This Canadian noir is one of the best new releases from 2020. The setup is that Adam Brody was a kid detective à la Encyclopedia Brown who grew up to become a loser private eye. A young woman comes to him with his first big case in ages: her boyfriend’s murder. The big case doubles as a quest for self-knowledge and personal reckoning. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that while the movie is quite funny, it also achieves surprising gravitas. It is ultimately very heavy. Indeed, the emotional fallout from watching this stayed with me for several days.
Joan of Arc (aka Jeanne) (2020)
We loved Bruno Dumont’s 2017 headbanging musical Jeannette (aka The Childhood of Joan of Arc) and were dismayed when early reviews painted the follow up as more conventional and less inventive. We were delighted to discover that these early reviews were total bullshit. This movie is way out there. It *is* a musical, but the music is handled much differently than in the first movie. While it’s not a full-on absurdist comedy like much of Dumont’s other recent work, the trial material has absurdist elements. This is not for everyone, but if you like Jeannette, you should absolutely see this. (NB, we like the French titles Jeannette and Jeanne much better than the English titles!)
Prime still reigns supreme among the most popular services, with a really fantastic catalogue of genre movies. The main downside is that you have to be careful about aspect ratio and overall quality. The most time-consuming part of writing these recommendations is vetting the damn amazon selections for quality (it’s really annoying, there’s one title below where two different versions are on amazon and one is much better quality than the other).
Oh, baby! This is a real treat. It’s been on prime for ages in terrible quality and the wrong aspect ratio. Finally, the restored version! This is one of my favorite films by Italian genre maverick Lucio Fulci. It’s part of the 80’s wave of sword & sorcery flicks kicked off by the success of Conan the Barbarian. It is *wild*. The entire film is shot through a foggy lens filter, and then he pumped as much fog as he possibly could into every scene. The result is like a transmission from another dimension. Handsome young adventurer Illias is given a magic bow by the god Cronos, which it turns out is the only weapon that can kill the evil witch Ocron. Ocron sends her army of werewolves to retrieve the bow, promising that she will take away the sun for all time. Illias teams up with an older misanthropic loner played by Jorge Rivero, and their relationship simmers with delightful homoerotic subtext.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Note that there are two versions of this movie on Prime. The one labeled 2018 with the yellow thumbnail is poor quality. The one labeled 1964 with the orange and red thumbnail is good quality.
This is the film that popularized the giallo and established many of its most prominent conventions. Set in a fashion house, full of luscious production design, and filmed by Bava in a vibrant and exaggerated style, this is one of the greatest and most essential gialli. Beautiful murder, and lots of it.
The Sweeper (1996)
PM Entertainment was a production company founded by the owner of a chain of Las Vegas pizza restaurants that churned out cheap direct-to-video action jams in the 90’s. It’s not for everyone. I had to progress pretty far in my journey into the depths of low budget action cinema before I learned to appreciate PM Entertainment. Still, their very best titles will appeal broadly to fans of B-movies, and this is one of their best. It’s about a cop who won’t play by the rules and so is recruited by a secret society of vigilantes. If you like this kind of thing, this is a delicacy.
PM Entertainment Gary Daniels double feature: Rage (1995) and Recoil (1998)
Two parts of the PM Entertainment Gary Daniels “R” trilogy. Riot is missing. Recoil has mandatory commercials because it’s on the IMDB channel rather than Prime, but Rage plays without commercials. If you like Sweeper and/or you have a taste for British kickboxer-turned-actor Gary Daniels, don’t miss these. Rage is about a schoolteacher who gets caught up in a nefarious plot. Recoil is a revenge movie about a cop taking on the mob.
Blind Fury (1990)
If you’re around my age, this probably has immense nostalgia value for you. I watched it like 100 times as a kid. It’s an American riff on Zatoichi (the blind swordsman), starring Rutger Hauer.
Super weird Ringo Lam-Jean Claude Van Damme movie. This doesn’t have a ton of action but it does have an absolutely bonkers premise (which I won’t give away) and two especially wild Van Damme performances (this is one of the three movies where he plays two roles).
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Very good sword & sorcery schlock. Peak Jack Palance.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995) – Also on Hulu
This has aged extremely well. I remember how unpopular it was upon initial release, but in retrospect it’s mostly just amazing that such an uncompromised example of cyberpunk was sold for mass consumption. The cast is deep and awesome, but Dolph is without question the MVP.
Not my favorite Italian Star Wars knockoff (that would be The Humanoid), but certainly the craziest. This thing is way, way out there. It’s worth watching for the production design alone in my opinion, but your results may vary.
The Boss (1971)
In Italian exploitation movies from this era, actors usually spoke whatever language they were most comfortable with during filming and then multiple audio tracks were dubbed in post-production. The English track often fits at least as well as the Italian track does, but there are many exceptions. Sometimes the English track uses alternate voice actors where the Italian track uses the actual cast, or sometimes the Italian track is just much better than the English track. When available, I always compare both to see which I like better. As a rule of thumb, most Italian horror movies can be watched in English, Westerns are about 50-50, and most poliziotteschi should be watched in Italian. This is a poliziotteschi and part of a trilogy by Di Leo (who most Americans would know best from his collaborations with Sergio Leone). Caliber 9, part of the same trilogy, is also on prime but it’s in English and I would not recommend watching it that way (though I like it even better than this film and would recommend seeking it out). The problem with the English tracks for these movies is that the characters are usually supposed to be formidable badasses and the English dubbing makes them sound goofy. It takes off the hard, gritty edge that poliziotteschi are supposed to have. It works much better for horror because most Italian horror films from this period have a more outlandish tone.
Anyways, this is a very representative and very good poliziotteschi with Henry Silva as a hit man who gets involved in a mob war, though it’s not in the highest tier of Di Leo’s output.
Easily my favorite of Spike Lee’s latter-day output, this is a formally ambitious adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, transposed to South Chicago.
Homefront (2013) and Redemption (2013)
Not one but TWO movies from 2013 where Jason Statham is a military veteran who needs to fight one last battle. Both are upper-tier Statham.
Soi Cheang is one of the best directors working in the post-handover Hong Kong film industry. This one is extra slick in the Milkyway house style. It’s a paranoid thriller (reminiscent of The Conversation) about a hitman who specializes in faking accidents.
Rogue City (2020)
Excellent French crime yarn (set in Marseille), full of dirty cops and drug traffickers of all stripes. It’s the sort of gritty, expansive, technically sound genre cinema we rarely see in the US anymore.
Between Worlds (2018)
I believe I’ve recommended this before, but if you want to get your Nicolas Cage on, this is absolutely hilarious and way out there.
Guest House (2020)
I dragged my feet on this at first, until my brother called me in disbelief: “Dude, this is the most exotic animal: a 2020 Pauly Shore movie! How have you not watched it?!” And that’s what it is, for better and for worse. Of course, this is not for everyone. OF COURSE. But you know who you are. It’s like Neighbors but instead of a fraternity across the street, it’s Pauly Shore refusing to move out of the guest house.
Legendary Weapons of China (1982)
Watch this in Cantonese with subtitles. This is one of Lau Kar-leung’s most significant 80’s films. It’s ridiculous and the narrative is sort of garbled and hard to follow, but the action choreography is great and it’s really fun to cycle through all the legendary weapons one by one (I think there are 18?).
Knock Knock (2015)
One of the best thrillers of the 10’s (really it’s right on the border between thriller and horror). This gives the Eli Roth treatment to the 10’s trend of flipping the script on gender roles. It’s far more subversive and complex than most titles of this ilk. Excellent Keanu performance
If you haven’t discovered this yet, we probably haven’t been talking very much. I feel like I discovered it way late (I heard of it well before I watched any of it), but I’ve been recommending it to everyone. It’s a Japanese serial about a late night diner in Shinjuku. There is also a reboot series, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories that I haven’t watched yet. I find this show to be the absolutely perfect late night vibe. It is *exactly* what I want to watch when I decide I want to go to bed soon but I’m not quite ready yet. It’s about a lot of things, but most episodes have one focal dish and one or more focal characters, and there is a (compassionate, complex) emphasis on sex work. The main focus, though, is really on the way that food can become invested with emotion. In most episodes, there is a big climactic scene where the focal character of the episode eats the focal dish and has an emotional catharsis.
Excellent functional thriller. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but (as one would expect from John Hyams) it is precise and stylish and it goes hard. The use of rack focus is especially impressive.
Jerry Lewis comedies directed by Frank Tashlin: The Bellboy (1960), The Patsy (1964), Cinderfella (1960)
I haven’t seen Cinderfella myself, but I can’t wait. These Tashlin-Lewis collaborations are pure joy for anyone who likes Jerry Lewis (and it seems a grave misfortune not to like Jerry Lewis, though I guess I understand how someone could feel that way).
Love, Simon (2018)
If you missed this one, it’s a very endearing gay highschool romance. It takes a few missteps, but it’s so charming that I have no trouble giving it a pass on its small faults.
Dog Eat Dog (2016)
Paul Schrader full-tilt madness. Cage is pretty tame in this; it’s Dafoe who lets loose. Content warnings, etc. but if you enjoy transgressive movies, it’s not to be missed.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Sam Raimi neo-western with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. It’s aged very well IMO.
The Mechanic (1972)
Laconic hitman thriller. Stoical early performance from Charles Bronson. Tight direction from Michael Winner. Highly recommended for genre fans.
Gretel & Hansel (2020)– also on Prime
I’m brought this up many times but yeah: this is my favorite 2020 horror movie. It seems to be divisive among horror fans, but I am a stalwart evangelist. Watch it in the dark and turn it up loud. Unlike a lot of the horror movies I recommend, it’s PG-13 and safe viewing for horror tourists.
Nic Cage 1997 Blockbusters Double Feature: Con Air and Face/Off
You know you want to. Everyone has always loved Face/Off, but few movies have aged better than Con Air. It was sort of a joke at the time, but now it’s plainly a masterpiece.
HBO Max is so stacked that I don’t think recommendations are as necessary, but still, here are a few:
Fassbinder’s last film and one of his best (not a popular opinion, but definitely my opinion), based on Jean Genet’s novel about a much-desired Beglian sailor’s homosexual experimentations. It’s stylistically delirious and extremely frank about its sexual content. Not for everyone, but I love it. NB, the arthouse crowd is less likely to appreciate one of this film’s main attractions: Italian genre icon Franco Nero as the Lieutenant! Django himself!
Police Story (1985)
Essential Jackie Chan actioner.
Biopics are terrible, but this is one of the good ones. It really changed my perspective to learn from a friend who grew up in Iran that kids were shown this at school to learn about the evils of the USA and the noble struggles of Muslims like Malcolm X. That tells you something about how hard Spike goes here.
10 to Midnight (1983)
Cannon Group sleaze, starring Charles Bronson. Traditional masculinity vs. the proto-incel. It’s a hoot.
One of the most important films from Senegal, directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty (the uncle of Mati Diop, who many know through her recent film Atlantics). It’s aggressive and not for everyone (skip it if you can’t watch unsimulated violence towards animals), but also vibrant and playful. Godard is the most obvious influence, but it’s notably original in the way it connects trends from European art cinema with post-colonial themes.
One of the more obscure titles from this phase of Bergman’s career. It wasn’t easy to access until just a couple years ago. It’s not one of his best, but if you’re interested in Bergman you should absolutely see it. It’s short, strange, and visually striking.
I used the last gasps of my grand 2020 movie binge to scrape up the rest of the horror new releases that were on my radar. I wanted to get as broad a view as possible of the state of the genre. I watched everything of note that’s currently available for home viewing and quite a few things not of note. I did skip a few titles that I expect are almost certainly a waste of time.
It’s not good news. The worst trends of 2010’s horror have taken over and things are getting worse rather than better. The horror genre is multifaceted and there are many different sorts of values that horror movies can achieve, but the most essential element is visceral emotional impact. This element is largely missing. The vast majority of horror releases are aimed at a crossover audience. It’s like a Buffalo Wild Wings where you can only order your wings mild.
Two formulas have taken over. The first and most prevalent is the mashing together of well-worn horror tropes with topics trending on Twitter. These movies typically have an overly literal context and dialogue that directly explains their thematic orientation. They are characteristically extremely safe and tame, so as to appeal to a broad audience of people who don’t necessarily like horror but do like having their worldview reflected back to them. The second is the horror family drama, where the real horror is trauma/loss/grief/secrets. These movies recycle the grammar of the haunting and possession subgenres but add an overly literal context and (usually) ugly CGI. There’s usually a black mold motif, and it’s usually a transparent metaphor for trauma/loss/grief/secrets. Category 2 is a little edgier than Category 1, but they’re both united in selling themselves as “not just a horror movie.” I don’t mean to say that all of these movies are bad. Some Category 1 movies are clever and inventive. Some Category 2 movies go far enough to work as horror.
There were no horror masterpieces. Nothing for the pantheon. That’s been par for the course in recent years, but it’s still disappointing. There were a handful of very good horror films, however, that deliver a visceral emotional experience while achieving something interesting with cinematic form. There were also a number of movies that I found enjoyable and/or interesting despite some shortcomings. Unfortunately, the largest cluster of the 2020 horror movies I saw were in the OK to Meh range (which is probably a generous appraisal because I have an easy time enjoying horror movies). And then there were a number that I actively disliked.
The list is divided into the above-mentioned categories and is very roughly ranked within each category (if I thought about it for a while I’d probably change my mind about some of the specific rankings). I’m not counting John Hyams’ Alone, because I consider it a thriller rather than a horror movie, but it would be in the “very good” category.
Gretel & Hansel: Moody and refined, with an appealing abstract visual style and immersive score.
The Dark and the Wicked: Family loss horror done right. Light on narrative, heavy on Bertino’s deliberate framing. The horror is driven by a slow accumulation of nightmarish moments that build an overwhelming sense of spiritual desolation, like there could be no hope or love or brightness ever again. A rare movie that feels genuinely evil.
Possessor: Brandon Cronenberg takes up his dad’s legacy with exhilarating boldness. It’s a real horror movie with original ideas and challenging content. This is the kind of thing I would like to see the genre moving towards.
The Golden Glove: How did Fatih Akin get from Soul Kitchen to here in so few moves?! It’s a grisly, grimy, nasty portrait of a serial killer with Jonas Dassler turning in the horror performance of the year. The setting is vivid; no punches are pulled.
Hunter Hunter: I recommend going in cold but if you must: it’s a variant on Leave No Trace where something actually happens. It’s about a family of three living on the outskirts of civilization and is thematically concerned with hunters as predators and the way going off the grid makes salient the animal nature of human beings.
Enjoyable and/or interesting
Sputnik: Russian Alien– style sci fi horror. Excellent monster.
Run: Well-crafted but formulaic genre exercise with terrific acting and well-imagined suspense sequences.
VFW: It’s too dark and it’s hard to see what’s going on in some scenes, but it still works as a fun throwback splatterfest with old guys vs mutant punks.
The Beach House: Of the several vacation property-themed movies that came out this year, this is the most Lovecraftian. Alternate title: When the Edibles Hit: The Movie. The early expository dialogue is clumsy and the movie doesn’t do a great job sustaining its crescendo of tension, but the high points are very high and this is overall a refreshing example of low budget horror done well.
Antebellum: Wokesploitation! Between this and Ma, we’re starting to see a transition out of the initial moralistic phase of woke horror into an exploitation phase where the woke themes serve as pretext for trashy spectacle. Jena Malone chews scenery like an absolute boss, casually addressing a hotel employee as “puddin’” and using the most condescending possible tone at all times. Janelle Monáe is totally up for carrying this thing and her big slo-mo Daniel Day Lewis from Last of the Mohicans horseback ride is glorious.
Freaky: a mashup of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th. It’s underrealized but a lot of fun and many of the jokes land.
La Llorona: Not to be confused with the Conjuring spinoff, this is a new release from Guatemala. I appreciate that it takes a different approach to the sprawling “haunting as transparent trauma metaphor” subgenre. This time it’s not the supernatural presence haunting the family that’s malevolent, but rather the family whose perspective we adopt. This pulls its punches, but it’s still one of the better recent examples of explicitly political horror.
The New Mutants: This is surprisingly out there. It’s sort of a Nightmare on Elm Street riff where Freddy is a teenage girl and the hero of the story. This has more of a slow burn horror vibe than a superhero origin story vibe. I always find Maisie Williams a little intolerable but Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful. Overall, I appreciate how unique this is. It’s not destined to be a crowd-pleaser, but there are enough crowd-pleasers already.
Deep Blue Sea 3: The production value is much, much higher than part 2 but the fun wonkiness is still there (“Water Blog!”). Frankly, it’s a lot better than a bargain basement smart sharks thriller needs to be. Bring on part 4.
The Grudge: The CGI is a bummer (are CGI maggots seriously easier than real maggots?) but every second of Lin Shaye is a treasure and I enjoy how old-fashioned this is. It’s fun to see Harold Lee married to Debbie Eagan.
The Invisible Man: This could have been much better if the villain weren’t so one-dimensional, but Whannell is great with high concept gimmicks and he finds plenty of inventive things to do with the premise. Elisabeth Moss is strong, as one would expect.
Zombi Child: Bonello’s films are always nice to look at. This has interesting moments scattered throughout and the boarding school material is mostly good. But it’s timid about its subject matter and wants to lead the viewer by the hand and as a result it has nowhere near the impact of previous attempts at zombie horror colonial reckoning (e.g., Tourneur, Fulci, Craven, Costa).
Ok to meh
Color Out of Space: This has a great list of ingredients, but they don’t really come together. I would have loved to see what Stuart Gordon could have done with it.
The Wolf of Snow Hallow: Deadpan black comedy/werewolf horror/police procedural/family melodrama. The family melodrama and about half of the black comedy falls flat for me but the werewolf horror and the other half of the black comedy are good.
Bad Hair: This is a frustrating movie, because it doesn’t play to its strengths. It’s a paradigm example of a perfectly good monster movie that is weighed down by an overly literal context and dialogue pulled directly from Twitter.
Relic: This is a very typical example of the contemporary wave of family horror dramas, complete with all the overdone tropes. It does have a few inspired passages, though, and it sticks the landing. It’s an ugly, unpleasant movie (in a good way) and it successfully leaves the viewer with a putrid emotional residue.
Blood Quantum: I would be surprised if there’s ever another great zombie movie, but this isn’t bad. I like the gritty representation of the rez.
Impetigore: Indonesian supernatural horror. There is some good material and the high points are high, but I question the decision to let this drag for the long middle section and then tell the entire story in an abrupt three-minute info dump.
Come to Daddy: Decidedly stupid, but it has a strong supporting cast and it goes far enough to be exciting.
Becky: Very derivative (Home Alone meets Green Room) but it has its pleasures. The score from Nima Fakhrara is absolutely lit. Honestly, the score is too good for the movie. I like the idea of Kevin James playing against type as a violent white supremacist, but it’s mostly a cowardly performance.
She Dies Tomorrow: This is basically 4:44 Last Day on Earth meets Pontypool, mumblecore edition, as imagined by a David Lynch fan. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie—it’s half baked—but I found it fun to watch. Right away you get the sense that it’s capable of anything, and that’s an exhilarating feeling. The sound design shook my house pretty well.
Anything for Jackson: It’s very derivative and peters out in the end but it hits some offbeat notes and I appreciate that it keeps throwing twists and turns at us instead of getting bogged down in the drama.
The Babysitter: Killer Queen: Junk food. Indefensible, but in a way I mildly enjoy.
Fantasy Island: It’s too long and I wish it were rated R, but I do not regret it.
The Craft: Legacy: Campy fun for the most part. Making the nemesis David Duchovny as Jordan Peterson is a great idea. But the plotting is terrible and the second half fizzles.
Bit: Queer hipster Lost Boys/Near Dark. Aside from the main character the acting is unfortunate, but the movie is sort of endearing and a little edgier than I expected.
Spree: High concept satire where an Uber driver live-streams a killing spree in the hope of going viral. Much of it is presented as a social media story, with comments scrolling up from the bottom of the frame. Influencer satires are nearly as unbearable as influencers, but this is sometimes appealing in its chaotic energy. The humor mostly falls flat, except that the comment streams are HILARIOUS.
The Rental: Not terrible but I really hope that there are no more Airbnb horror movies ever, because it’s instantly played out.
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find: Dumb and thoroughly inept, but odd and erratic enough to be occasionally fun.
Host: I admire the concept. There are a few inspired moments—it’s at its best when it exploits the novel mechanics of zoom and when it manages to capture the chaotic rhythms of zoom socializing. But it doesn’t have enough ideas even for its short running time and devolves into well-worn clichés.
That’s gonna be a no for me, dawg
His House: On the nose political horror. When I finished itI felt less like I had just watched a horror movie and more like I had just read an opinion piece in the Atlantic. It’s reasonably well-done for what it is, but I really did not like it.
After Midnight: It feels about 10 years late for this sort of generic mumblecore lite-horror, but the punchline is good. I might not have minded it if not for the soundtrack.
May the Devil Take You Too: I liked the first one but this is basically generic CGI-heavy Sam Raimi pastiche minus the humor. And it needs the humor. The first one has a much tighter narrative and is more fun.
Scare Me: A waste of a great premise. I assumed from the description that this was going to be an anthology film about two writers settling in to tell each other scary stories. (Mild spoilers, stop reading if you want to go in cold). I was very surprised when we stuck with the chamber play format and the actors actually told scary stories in the range of 20-30 minutes. Cool. The problem is that the stories suck. And while Aya Cash and the actor who plays the pizza guy are very good, the male lead can’t stand up to them (I later learned that he’s the writer-director, which explains a lot).
The Platform: It’s trite, lacks for interesting images, and the ending is just godawful. I did appreciate some bits of nastiness, though.
The Lodge: Tortuously contrived to get someplace very uninteresting. The cold Austrian precision just magnifies how silly it is, and not in a good way.
Underwater: Awful, muddled action, everything looks the same, the monsters are garbage, and the acting is mostly generic. And then the public service announcement anti-drilling stuff infuses the whole mess with cringey moralism.
Beneath Us: Truly terrible topical immigration horror. I was bored out of my mind almost immediately. I was promised scenery chewing, but Lynn Collins is underwhelming in the Karen From Hell role that needs to carry the movie. She’s generically shrill and her sadism is uninspired. The thematic pronouncements at the end are beyond unbearable.
Corona Zombies: A re-edit and redub of parts of Hell of the Living Dead and a few other movies. It tries to spin a humorous zombie narrative about Covid-19. Complete and utter fail. It’s like the least funny possible undergrad improv team took one attempt at this and then just stuck with whatever they happened to end up with. I hated every minute of it.
There’s some enduring part of me that wants to live as a movie recluse and spend all of my free time curled up with my home entertainment system and stockpile of Chinese tea. This part of me gets indulged plenty, but normally I make a deliberate effort to keep my anti-social impulses in check and maintain a reasonably balanced life outside my lair.
Not this year. I reasoned: “There are plenty of years to go do shit. This is not one of them. There is some shit that it’s possible to go do but it’s terrible. Even the outdoor recreation in Montana is far worse than usual because trails that one would normally have to oneself are crowded with tourists escaping urban pandemic hell. This is the year to really and truly indulge my homebody tendencies. I’m going to allow myself to watch as many movies as I want to, and then when the smoke clears I’ll rejoin society.”
It turns out that “as many movies as I want to” is 1,200 movies. And indeed that’s how many I watched (it’ll probably end up being like 1,210). Some of these 1,200 were short films, but I also watched quite a few in the 8-14 hour range, so it balances out to about 1,200 feature-length movies. That’s about 40 hours a week in movie viewing. How does one watch fit in 40 hours a week of movies?
Well I can tell you. My typical schedule was to get up around 9, exercise, work on my book for a few hours, cook and do chores, have an early dinner, and then watch movies until I crashed at around 2am. Some days I had to teach and/or attend meetings and that typically meant not working on my book and watching one less movie. Some days I snuck in an extra movie first thing in the morning (usually something from the 1930’s– I crave that era with my coffee). I took some days “off” from work and did nothing but watch movies. I very rarely went anywhere. In the summer I went swimming a lot in my neighborhood swimming holes. There’s a farm stand around the corner. Otherwise we ordered supplies online and my wife Angela did errands on her way home from work. I avoided Zoom as much as possible. My buddy Jesse came over sometimes. I have not gotten a haircut since February.
It helped that my book was about movies and so I could think of a lot of my viewing activities as “research.” I’ll be the first to admit that my research was disproportionate to what was required. I wrote about a third of a chapter on direct-to-video action movies. To prepare, I watched something like 250 direct-to-video action movies. I found it especially important to maintain a balanced cinematic diet. One can’t watch 1,200 films that require maximum focus and attention in a single year. I watched plenty of demanding art films, but I also watched an enormous amount of trashy genre movies.
Overall I had a very good year. I don’t mean to gloat about that. I know that a lot of people struggled horribly and the fact that I was able to have a good year reflects many ways in which I am unusually fortunate in my material situation. But I do think it’s important to say that a lot of people whose disposition is better suited to a reclusive life would be better off if the world didn’t make us leave the house so much. We all realized this year how unnecessary a lot of face-to-face interaction really is. Zoom teaching is certainly crap compared to in-person teaching, but I really hope I never have to attend another in-person committee meeting again.
I came to terms this year with the fact that being a homebody is my true nature. I could do this indefinitely and I wouldn’t mind. But when the pandemic finally does end, I will resume forcing myself to do otherwise, and I will feel better about it for having had the chance to fully indulge my inner recluse for such a large swath of time. I doubt I’ll ever watch 1,200 movies in a single year again. But if there’s another pandemic? Absolutely.
So what did I watch?
I used letterboxd to keep records. I kept up with new releases, but because so many releases were postponed I only watched about 105 new releases from 2020 (keeping with tradition, we will put up our 2020 year in review on Oscar Sunday). Most of what I watched was older. The 80’s and 90’s were heavily represented but I watched a decent number of films from each decade beginning with the 20’s. My deepest dive was definitely in the action genre, where I watched about 375 films, including many childhood favorites that I hadn’t seen in ages. I watched about 270 horror films and 225 comedies. The majority of what I watched was in English, but there was quite a bit of diversity. Letterboxd includes movies that are only partially in a given language in these stats, but according to my records I watched 153 films in French, 99 in Italian, 88 in Mandarin or Cantonese, 83 in Spanish, 70 in German, 55 in Japanese, and 33 in Russian.
Here’s a list of the directors I watched the most films by along with the number of films I watched by them. There’s still a week left for Albert Pyun to take the lead, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened:
Fritz Lang- 21
Albert Pyun- 20
Chantal Akerman- 15
Jack Hill- 12
Roel Reiné- 12
Abel Ferrara- 11
Ringo Lam- 10
Kiyoshi Kurosawa- 10
Isaac Florentine- 9
Herman Yau- 9
And here’s a list of the actors who appeared in the most films I watched:
Dolph Lundgren- 48
Jean-Claude Van Damme- 44
Nicolas Cage- 24
Scott Adkins- 18
Danny Trejo- 15
Charles Bronson- 11
Randolph Scott- 11
Gary Cooper- 11
Joan Blondell- 11
Jean Arthur- 11
And what were my favorites out of all that?
Finally, here is my top 50 out of everything I watched this year, including both first time viewings and rewatches. All of these are peak personal canon for me and the list is a nice cross section of my all-time favorites. The list is in chronological order.
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950)
A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)
The Tall T (Bud Boetticher, 1957)
Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Vampyros Lesbos (Jess Franco, 1971)
India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, 1977)
Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Chantal Akerman, 1978)
The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 1978)
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Francisca (Manoel de Oliveira, 1981)
The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)
Mermaid Legend (Toshiharu Ikeda, 1984)
Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph, 1985)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991)
La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)
The Untold Story (Herman Yau, 1993)
Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)
The Blackout (Abel Ferrara, 1997)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
The Captive (Chantal Akerman, 2000)
Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz, 2004)
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, 2006)
Permissions roll over tomorrow, so I may have to update this if something changes, but I decided to post it today because if there’s something you really want to see, you’ll at least have definite access tonight. I looked at lists of what’s due to come and go tomorrow and I don’t think it will change anything, but I will double check for surprises.
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You (2012)
To quote Ethan Vestby, “The United States of America may be a rotting corpse, but this represents it at its best.” Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is a microbudget feature about a New England town with a Riverbeast problem. It’s not going to work for everyone; the production quality is very low and there are some problems with the sound design. But for those of us who are comfortable with bargain basement quality, this is an absolute delight. I could watch it every day. It gets funnier every time. The key is that everyone plays it straight. It does not make fun of itself or exaggerate its cheapness or wink at the audience. There are no shock tactics or gross out jokes. It’s actually quite wholesome. The humor is in the exceptionally clever writing and committed delivery. NB, this is the very tip of the Motern Media iceberg. It is a vast and strange universe once you start digging.
2020 has not been great for new releases. This is one of the only American films I’ve loved this year. It’s an ugly movie and it reeks of death. Tom Hardy, playing Capone at the end of his life with dementia, continues his run as the most interesting actor of his generation. El-P’s score is nightmare fuel.
The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Excellent satanic horror with Ernest Borgnine as a Satanic high priest! Also William Shatner and Ida Lupino.
Eccentric Gary Sherman thriller where a bored teenage girl calls the adult party line and ends up in a phone flirtation with an honest to goodness serial killer. This is not an original observation, but it’s like Harriet the Spy vs. American Psycho.
Valley Girl (1983)
In honor of the totally unwelcome remake, I’m recommending the original. This was the movie that launched Nicolas Cage’s career. He plays a rough Hollywood Romeo to a privileged San Fernando Juliet and it’s utterly delightful.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
One of Nicholas Ray’s peak masterpieces and something everyone should see. It’s about as good as movies get. Bogart sparks a hopeful romance with Gloria Grahame but his inner darkness immediately threatens it. The companion piece to this is Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, which is comparably great and available as a paid rental on various services.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
One of the greatest Hollywood melodramas and also one of the greatest movies about American class immobility. It’s in some respects the polar opposite of Sirk’s great melodramas, replacing color hysterics with straight-faced B&W, but it’s in the same echelon of achievement. Montgomery Clift is exquisite. Compare his performance in Wyler’s The Heiress (1949).
Amazon has a particularly good selection of direct-to-video (DTV) genre movies. DTV is not for everyone (I expect that people who mostly watch high-budget contemporary releases or who have highfalutin taste are less likely to enjoy it). In any case, I am very deeply into this category right now and here are some treasures I’ve found:
For connoisseurs of insane DTV sci-fi premises, this is a fine wine indeed. I couldn’t begin to explain it, but kickboxing champ-turned-actor Olivier Gruner gains atavistic superpowers after a shady tech corporation tries to murder him.
The Minion (1998)
Batshit DTV fantasy-horror with Dolph Lundgren as a member of the Knights Templar who comes to NYC to combat Satan’s minion.
Silent Trigger (1996)
One of my favorite Dolph Lundgren movies, directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, Razorback). The half-finished skyscraper setting is like an Expressionist nightmare and Mulcahy never runs out of inventive ways to exploit it. The combination of minimalist narrative and elaborate two timeline cross-cutting gives this a dreamy, abstract vibe. This is definitely for a very specific niche: people with an arthouse sensibility who like DTV action. But if (like me) you’re in that niche, *chef’s kiss*.
Close Range (2015)
This is a tightly constructed, very enjoyable DTV bordersploitation Scott Adkins action vehicle with characteristically fluid direction from Florentine. It’s the sort of movie that starts out with title cards explaining the meanings of ‘samurai’ and ‘ronin’.
The Hard Corps (2006)
Not for everyone, BUT if you love Jean-Claude Van Damme, you should give this a look. It’s one of his better latter day efforts. He’s a bodyguard with PTSD and he has a romantic subplot with Vivica A. Fox.
I actually really like retired pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin as an actor, and this is one of his best roles. He plays a vigilante on a rampage. It begins in medias res as Austin rolls in with incredible angry momentum. His physical acting is very impressive. Danny Trejo is the lead biker villain.
I’m shocked that a slasher this good was made as late as 2014. Thanks, Canada. It’s about a college student with financial difficulty who moves into an erotic webcam house. Things are going well enough until a disturbed fan of the website with computer expertise shows up. GirlHouse doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is very well-executed and does a great job fusing a classic slasher formula with a heady 2010’s cocktail of technology and voyeurism.
The Outpost (2020)
This is an immersive military procedural along the lines of 13 Hours, but it sets itself apart with its vivid sense of the rhythms of life at the outpost of doom. It’s no American Sniper, but it is comparable in the way that it burrows into the mindset of a deployed soldier. It’s not sanitized; it’s full of brash homophobia and it presents its ample violence in the desensitized way the characters experience it. These elements are probably going to turn off some viewers, but it’s important to recognize that while the movie does have an overarching reverential stance towards the military, it’s not uncritical of its particular subjects. The action climax is jaw-dropping.
War Horse (2011)
Throwing this out there as a holiday family viewing option. I’m sure a lot of people have seen it, but it does seem underappreciated. It’s upper-tier Spielberg and it combines superior craft with a pop Saturday matinee sensibility.
Yes, God, Yes(2020)
Very funny 78-minute sex comedy about a young Catholic woman’s sexual awakening.
Luc Besson-penned high concept sci-fi action. It’s like Escape from New York meets Fortress, with Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace doing an It Happened One Night rendition.
The Green Inferno (2013)
I’ve avoided recommending this for *years* because I thought the cut on Netfix was edited, but it turns out there is no edited cut. Eli Roth just labeled the blu-ray release as a director’s cut to highlight that it reflects his uncompromised vision. It’s the same as the version on Netflix.
This is an audacious pastiche of the much maligned Italian Cannibal cycle and an absolutely vicious satire of bourgeois progressive activism. It’s one of the only horror movies in recent memory that effectively combines extreme content and a high level of artistry. Definitely top ten horror of the 10’s for me and a breath of fresh air amidst all the defanged hipster shit.
American Pie Presents Girls’ Rules
Not for everyone, but you know who you are. It stays close to the formula; it’s modern in its outlook without pandering; the characters are vivid and it’s easy to believe they’re friends. It mostly goes for the obvious jokes, but it executes them effectively. I’d say it’s a notch below Blockers and three notches above Booksmart.
Beach Rats (2017)
You don’t hear me getting excited about a lot of contemporary American indie dramas, but I am a total stan for Eliza Hittman. Her Never Rarely Sometimes Always is my favorite American film this year, and I also highly recommend this 2017 effort. It’s in her trademark edgy, fleshy, impressionistic style, but unlike her other features it follows a male protagonist. He’s a good-looking young guy in Brighton Beach who hangs out with a crew of homophobic tough guys while secretly hooking up with older men he meets online. It has the same sort of crescendo of anxiety that I find so compelling in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Both resemble a gentler, more delicate Uncut Gems (other obvious points of comparison are Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat). NB, I think this is more thematically interesting than many critics give it credit for. It gets at something deep about the opacity between our public and private selves.
13 Assassins (2010)
This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve recommended this but to reiterate, this is one of the best modern chanbara and an immensely satisfying action picture. It has just a little of Miike’s perversion– enough to give it a Miike vibe, but not so much that it should deter most people. It’s about an impossible mission to kill the Shogun’s heavily protected brother with a crew of only 12 assassins (plus one surprise figure).
Disappearance on Clifton Hill (2020)
This sleazy little Niagra Falls potboiler is one of the more intriguing 2020 releases, with Tuppence Middleton as the noir protagonist and David Cronenberg as a conspiracy podcaster. It’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, but I want to call attention to it because it’s very under the radar and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Great score.
HBO Max has an embarrassment of riches with its Criterion section, so I won’t make extensive recommendations (just throw a dart at the Criterion offerings and press play), but here are a few:
Sudden Impact (1983)
This is the one Dirty Harry movie that Eastwood directed himself and it is by far the best and most artistically ambitious in the series. It was early in his directorial career but it has his trademark dark lighting and immaculate framing. Sondra Locke is superb. This is a very dark movie and it deals with difficult themes of sexual assault and trauma. Strong content warning.
As quirky oddball indies go, this is solid. Absurdist horror-comedy about a man bent on being the only person with a jacket.
Troll 2 (1992)
One of the best-worst movies ever made. Directed by Italian trashmaster Claudio Fragasso, written by his wife Rossella Drudi (as an anti-vegetarian parable), and starring a glorious cast of non-professional actors from the Salt Lake City area. There’s a long, loving discussion of this in my forthcoming book on good-bad movies (which I’ve recently submitted a draft of). It’s perfect for a social setting. Profoundly eccentric, very funny.