TV Roundup

Featured image from Too Old to Die Young (also the next two images)

TV is pretty lit right now.  I was getting pessimistic about the state of the medium but this summer’s fare has changed my tune. I’m having trouble keeping up. I have not started Stranger Things season 3 yet but I’m excited for it. It seems like credible people love it and less credible people hate it.

First, let’s divide things up into three categories: Meh, Very Good, and Where Have You Been All My Life.  I will also comment on the Deadwood movie at the end. I can’t put it in any of these categories.

MehGood Omens, Legion S3, Chernobyl

Very GoodFleabag S2, Big Little Lies S2, Billions S4

Where Have You Been All My LifeEuphoriaToo Old to Die Young


First the good news: ambitious, transgressive TV is back on the menu. Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (Amazon Prime) is an absolute banger. Let me be clear: it is NOT for everyone. A list of the relevant content warnings would pretty much include every possible content warning. It is fucking dark. If you ever avoid things because of content warnings, this is probably something you should avoid. I was a little skeptical going in because Refn’s so full of himself that it’s kind of hard to self-identify as a fan, but I really, really loved both of his last two movies (Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon), so I guess I can say that I am a huge fan of post-Drive Refn (Drive is okay, but nowhere near the level of what’s come after).

I think it’s fruitful to compare Too Old to Die Young and Chernobyl.  Before starting Chernobyl I thought, “I really hope this isn’t too heavy handed with the Trump/Putin connections,” and then BAM! the opening narration spouts the dreaded cliche: “If you repeat a lie enough times…”

There are glimpses of something really interesting that could have made for a very special TV show. In particular, amidst all the olive-drab-so-you-know-it’s-the-USSR production design there are bits and pieces of expressionistic radioactive imagery that scream to be fleshed out further. Make like 50% of the show radiation horror and add a pulsing synth score in the style of John Carpenter and you could really have something. Instead, the show mostly goes for a “banality of evil” approach, where we see horrible consequences accrue from a bunch of bureaucrats making self-serving decisions and other bureaucrats following orders. There’s some very nice body horror, especially in episode 3, but I would have enjoyed a more hysterical and less sentimental approach to the hospital material. In any case, my overall opinion of the show as a work of horror is that it manages to take some of the most viscerally horrifying material imaginable and make it relatively mundane. It’s a black rain nightmare that wants to be a stodgy procedural.

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Too Old to Die Young is the exact opposite. It takes commonplace elements of the contemporary zeitgeist and filters them through a neon prism of hallucinatory existential panic. Sex trafficking, #metoo, drug cartels, border violence, hedge fund managers, police corruption, collapse of the gender binary, Trump, even cultural appropriation of the taco by white hipsters: it’s all in there, but in the manner of a nightmare. If you’ve seen Refn’s more recent films you might worry that the whole thing becomes too incomprehensible, but there’s no need to fear, his collaborator Ed Brubaker (of comics fame) moderates his more extreme experimental impulses. Brubaker pulls the show in the direction of an aggressively dark border noir with a tight narrative while Refn pulls it in the direction of a glacially-paced, neon pink Inland Empire. Add pulsing synth music from Cliff Martinez and the result is completely and utterly exhilarating. Best show since Twin Peaks: The Return and it’s not close. To reemphasize, though, this is definitely not for everyone. It is very hostile to audience expectations. I find this quality thrilling. But if you don’t like being messed with, this is probably not the show for you.

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It doesn’t compare to Too Old to Die Young, but the other show that’s really impressing me is HBO’s Euphoria. It’s been stealing Big Little Lies’ thunder on Sundays. Euphoria is at its core a new entry in the well-worn high school soap opera genre with a heavy dose of hard NC-17 Kids/Thirteen-style teens behaving badly. Initially I was skeptical. It seemed to me like the business model here was to be as shocking as possible to promote controversy to get people curious enough to subscribe to HBO. All the lurid content seemed to be framed in terms of pro-helicopter parenting moralism.  DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE DOING?? But it’s sooooo lurid and seemed to have mischief in its heart, so I stayed with it. Four episodes in it has just gotten better and better. The fourth episode shows that Sam Levinson has some chops, with its vivid carnival setting and well-executed cross cutting between multiple subplots.  I thought homeboy was a hack after seeing Assassination Nation but I can’t fault what he’s doing here. The moralism, I’ve realized, is just to clear the way for some seriously risque fun. It’s like those early 60’s exploitation movies that would frame themselves as warnings about the dangers of homosexuality (or whatever)  but really just as a pretense to portray subject matter that couldn’t otherwise pass the censors. Euphoria is not here to lecture us, it’s here for subversive fun. 

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Even people not watching the show may have seen headlines about transgender model Hunter Schafer’s performance. She is really phenomenal. Her character is probably the most complex, three-dimensional transgender character I’ve seen in popular media. Too often, characters that occupy particularly marginalized social roles are saddled with moral sainthood. This is an insidious tendency. It reflects the impulse of guilty privileged progressives to idealize the moral purity of the oppressed, which is its own sort of dehumanization. Schafer’s character, Jules, is both flawed and profoundly sympathetic. Euphoria strikes the perfect balance of filthy dirty fun and sincere poignancy. 

And now, the bad news: Legion continues to languish. I thought the first season was stellar. That season was short and tight, and the weirdness was focused around a few good ideas that gave the whole thing structure. Several episodes take place in the time it takes a single bullet to travel across a room. That’s a really good idea! Season 2 was bloated and aimless, with whole episodes devoted to uninteresting tangents and an excess of godawful Don Draper pseudo-philosophical voiceover soliloquies (the smartphone sermon was where I admitted the show had jumped the shark). The finale of S2 was kind of a banger, however, and it left the door open for the show to redeem itself. So far, I’m disappointed. S3 started out with some pretty entertaining time travel action but now it’s back to slow and uninteresting tangents that pack less dramatic punch than their posture indicates.

I watched three episodes of Good Omens on Prime and bailed. Stylistically, it’s like a toothless American Gods. I was intrigued enough by the apocalyptic premise and the fact that the Antichrist is a character, but the show is much more interested in the friendship between an angel and a demon who have taken to enjoy life on Earth. The concept seems to be to get two very fine UK actors (Michael Sheen and David Tennant) buddied up and just let them banter. But the writing is nowhere near compelling enough to render this interesting. And once the apocalypse does start breaking out it is far too goofy. Not for me.

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Turning back to the Very Good, I certainly enjoyed the latest season of Billions, though it does have some major flaws. Some of the plotting is lazy. The first couple seasons felt fairly grounded in the show’s internal logic but at this point all such pretense has been abandoned and the writers take whatever contrived narrative shortcuts are necessary to set up the desired rivalries and give each character ammunition against the others. This complaint aside, though, the rivalries themselves are very entertaining. The show’s become a character study of the two most vindictive people in the world. I fear that we may be headed towards a cold shower of moralism, but we’ll see. For now, it’s all horrible people screwing each other over in ingenious ways and tons and tons of excellent dialogue in the show’s sui generis style.

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Big Little Lies is delightful. The show was teetering between preachy and campy at the end of S1 and now it’s doubled down on the camp. It’s basically like “let’s round up all our hammiest actresses and let them go absolutely apeshit on a hothouse melodrama.” Meryl Streep rehashes her glorious Mommy from Hell from Demme’s’ The Manchurian Candidate remake, but with fake teeth added and some very loopy dialogue. I love her so much in this! Laura Dern continues to absolutely slay, and Shailene Woodley is actually pretty good in this season. I’m still not fully onboard with the Reese Witherspoon performance, though, which seems really obvious and one-dimensional compared with all the genius around her.

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This brings us to Fleabag, which I think is very good indeed. It’s short and there’s no reason not to watch it. It’s witty, dirty, and relatively original. I appreciate how efficiently it turned Andrew Scott’s priest into a sex symbol. Olivia Colman continues to be amazing. Good show.

Deadwood: The Movie

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Alas, I wanted it to be better. I rewatched seasons 2 and 3 and they hold up incredibly well. The show has some of the best dialogue ever written. As for the movie, I don’t think it’s good, but at the same time I have affection for it as a Milch swan song.

The three seasons of Deadwood reflect the progression of the western genre. S1 is a heroic western with a relatively black and white moral landscape where we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. S2 is more in the territory of a 60’s Italian western where most of the characters fall somewhere in a moral grey area and the audience is invited to identify with less than savory characters as they manipulate and connive against even worse assholes. S3 resembles the late westerns that chronicle the fall of the last honorable men as the inevitable westward march of progress brings the intertwined forces of modernization and exploitation.  Aside from some unfortunate loose ends, the end of S3 was already perfect. It’s sad and dissatisfying but that’s how the west went out. Deadwood: The Movie is at its worst when it plays as fan service. It essentially returns to the heroic western paradigm, riles us up anew about Hearst, and then gives us a small victory to quench our dissatisfaction.  But this undermines the poignancy of the original ending. My other complaint is all the flashbacks from the original series reminding people who didn’t rewatch it of things that they may have forgotten. These flashbacks are uniformly disruptive and the scenes they intrude into would have been much more powerful if we could have inferred the relevant memory rather than being shown it. Just rewatch the series, it’s worth it. On the positive side, the Deadwood movie is at its best when Milch is foregrounding his own showdown with mortality and sense of abiding regret. There are some powerful moments, particularly surrounding Al on the one hand and Joanie and Jane on the other. Alas, I’m grateful to have this, but it’s not what I hoped it might be.

Franchise Fever vol. 2: Halloween

Halloween recently turned 40, a perfect occasion for a fresh installment (courtesy of David Gordon Green) and reappraisal of the series. I think it’s easily the greatest multi-director horror franchise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hot mess and there’s little solace for the purist, but if you’re willing to take each movie on its own and forsake all concern for continuity, it has many pleasures to offer.

Speaking of continuity, there are no less than five timelines in the franchise. It will be helpful to begin by laying them all out:

Original Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chappelle, 1995)

There’s a lot of lore surrounding the way the series was originally prolonged into multiple sequels and as a John Carpenter fan it’s easy to be annoyed by it, but the shit show that surrounded the production of these movies is what caused the later ones to turn out so distinctive and crazy. Basically, Carpenter wanted the Halloween franchise to be a disconnected anthology of Halloween-themed horror movies, but the public and the studio wanted more Michael Myers. He was contractually obligated to write part 2 and he made the screenplay deliberately bad out of disdain for the task. Tommy Lee Wallace, Carpenter’s right-hand man, was supposed to direct but washed his hands of it after reading the script. Rick Rosenthal felt differently, however, and directed the ever living shit out of Carpenter’s script. Carpenter got his way with part III, which broke away from the Michael Myers timeline in an attempt to turn the series into a disconnected anthology. It sadly flopped and so part IV brought back Myers, retconned the ending of II and proceeded to rehash the original. IV was more successful than III, and so V and VI continued on the same timeline. The productions for parts V and VI were notorious disasters and the story veers off into outstandingly bizarre directions in these entries (which I personally love). One thing the movies that make up the original timeline have in common is that they all feature Donald Pleasence as Loomis. If you ask me, Pleasence is the best element of the entire franchise. He just totally rules. He’s the British Klaus Kinski.

Season of the Witch Timeline

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

Halloween is a movie in the Season of the Witch universe. This is the only entry without Michael Myers. It’s a totally independent story about a nefarious scheme involving Halloween masks and Stonehenge. It flopped and was long neglected, but it’s been reappraised and is now considered a horror classic.

H20 Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998), Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

After the last couple entries in the original timeline were box office failures and the story had been irreparably written into a corner, the H20 reboot was launched with Jamie Lee Curtis back in the fray (her first appearance since part II). The narrative developments of IV-VI were discarded and on this timeline Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived her youth and has taken up at a secluded boarding school. Michael was thought to have died at the end of part II, but he has been alive all along and returns 20 years later to pursue Laurie.  Resurrection does not have Jamie Lee Curtis, but it does continue directly from the end of H20,

Blumhouse Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween (Green, 2018)

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s reboot for Blumhouse discards the narrative developments of all the sequels. In this one, Michael Myers hasn’t killed anyone for 40 years and has been locked up the whole time. Jamie Lee Curtis is back and Laurie Strode is more like Sarah Conner in this version, having long alienated her family with her Michael Myers-prepper lifestyle.


Halloween (Zombie, 2007), Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

Zombie’s Halloween remakes the original Carpenter film and has a timeline all its own. It begins before the events of the original and fleshes out Michael’s origins further. In the original, Michael is from a suburban middle class family. In the Zombieverse, he’s white trash. Zombie wanted to focus on this prequel material, but he was forced to include a quick rehash of the plot of the original film in the second half of the movie. His Halloween 2 goes off in a totally different direction from the original timeline. It has strong thematic continuity with Zombie’s other work.

Matt’s ranking

It probably won’t surprise Strohltopia readers to learn that my ranking of these movies is a bit heterodox. I’m just being honest. Let me be very clear that *I love all of these movies* and for the most part it’s very hard for me to rank them.

11) Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998)

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This one is definitely last. I do love it, but it’s the one that gives me the least joy. Lots of people who dislike IV-VI think that this entry saved the series, and some people even think it’s the best sequel (I see that the ever detestable “Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus” summary blurb makes this claim). I could not disagree more strongly. Yes, it does get back to the series’ roots in certain ways, but Halloween purism is off the table as far as I’m concerned, since literally none of the sequels do the original justice. Once you let go of the purist impulse and embrace the absurdity of IV-VI, H20 just looks tepid. It’s technically an R but at heart this is bloodless PG-13 horror. Not one kill stands out and we see Michael Myers doing very un-Michael things like stealing someone’s keys at a rest stop and just taking off when he could have easily murdered their entire family. I’m only being negative because I find the claim that this is better than IV-VI so irksome. Even with its flaws, it’s still delightful to see Jamie Lee Curtis again and her performance makes this worthwhile.

 10) Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

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I find it agonizing to rank Resurrection so low, because IT RULES. People hate it, but they are wrong. It’s great. The premise is that none other than Busta Rhymes has a reality webseries called Dangertainment (!) where he live-streams people doing something dangerous. (NB, given that this was made in 2002 it looks pretty prescient about the direction the internet was going.) A bunch of teenagers agree to spend the night in the abandoned Myers house. Of course, Michael himself shows up.

The problem that Resurrection does have (which I find easy to overlook) is that the abandoned house doesn’t have any lights and so there ends up being way too much stumbling around in the dark. It gets repetitive. But this is easily the funniest Halloween movie and it has no delusions about its own limitations. It’s having fun with itself. I suspect that some of the humor actually went over the heads of the Tomato critics who haughtily panned it. For example, there’s a scene where the Smart Girl is about to hook up with the Meathead Guy in the cellar. In a moment of escalating passion, he requests, “say something smart!” and she blurts out, “existence precedes essence!” I frickin’ lost it.  Also, you better believe Busta Rhymes attempts to use kung fu against Michael Myers.

9) Halloween (Green, 2018)

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The Blumhouse Halloween (written by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride) reboots the series, discarding the narrative developments of all the sequels. The first act is a pleasantly acrid satire of true crime podcasts and then we meet up with Laurie Strode, who has become a sort of Sarah Conner 40 years after the events of the original. Michael has been incarcerated the entire time.

I did not much care for this the first time I saw it, but watching it again after a fresh rewatch of the rest of the franchise changed my opinion. My original complaint was that it felt like mostly lazy rehash. I realize now that while it is indeed rehash, it is far from lazy. This movie is extremely dense fan porn. While it discards the narrative of the sequels, it makes at least one reference to every single one of them. By the end I had noticed allusions to every installment except IV and I started to despair “am I just missing the reference to IV? what kind of horror geek am I??” but then the final shot is a pitch perfect Halloween IV nod. I’m generally not into Easter Eggism, but this movie is so hardcore about it that I’m impressed. For example, there’s a scene in the original where they couldn’t afford rights to music so they just had Laurie and John sing a made-up song “I wish I had you all alone…”  Green had a frickin’ band record this song and then played it on the radio in a parallel scene. And the sets are packed full of props from the other entries.

The finale very closely mirrors certain aspects of the finale of the original and the first time I saw it I was annoyed by this. I realized on my second viewing that it’s actually doing something much more precise and purposeful than I thought. It reenacts all the most iconic moments from the original’s finale, but with the power dynamics between Michael and Laurie swapped. This sort of thing doesn’t exactly blow my mind (we are up to our ears in gender-swap remakes) but as a fan porn exercise it’s pretty cool.

My overall opinion is that this is decent as fan service but also limited by the modesty of its ambition. On the plus side, the opening is *amazing*, the random bits of writing where Danny McBride’s sense of humor shines through are bizarre and delightful, and I welcome the brutality of many of the kills. I appreciate the way the rest area scene deliberately corrects the tepidness of H20. This is a movie that should please franchise fans, and I’m looking forward to the sequel. At the same time, it can play as reasonably effective jump-scare horror for multiplex audiences who won’t catch all the geeky references.

8) Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)

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There’s a lot to love about IV: some great kills, funny jokes, excellent Loomis, and terrific child acting from Danielle Harris. I have a pretty low threshold for annoyance at child protagonists in horror movies, but Harris doesn’t register as even slightly annoying. In fact, her performances in this and V are among my very favorite child acting performances. On the downside, though, IV is the least imaginative of the original timeline. It’s pretty straight rehash of the original, but with a cheekier tone that reflects the direction the genre had gone in the 80’s. But also, the ending is amazing. Some people discount this consideration because V takes it back, but I don’t see it that way. Taken on its own, the ending is great, but then it had to be undone so that part V could do an incompatible thing that’s also great.

7) Halloween (Zombie, 2007)

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I go with the director’s cut for both this and the sequel. It’s more important for the sequel. I love Rob Zombie’s Halloween, though it clearly could have been better. I especially love the gritty, grimy first half, with William Forsythe’s glorious performance as the abusive stepdad and all the Gummo-esque adolescent nihilism. The second half, where the story of the Carpenter original is rehashed, is a big letdown (though hurray for casting Danielle Harris!). Zombie didn’t want to do this part and it shows. Also, his style here is immature compared to the sequel. He’s still doing Hellabilly-infected Tobe Hooper karaoke at this point.

6) Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

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This movie was a huge leap forward for Zombie. Here he developed a very distinctive style that he further elaborated in 2012’s Lords of Salem (which I think is his best film). He shot this on 16 mm and it looks awesome. Grindhouse meets arthouse. The director’s cut is absolutely mandatory here; anyone who just saw the theatrical version is missing out. Zombie picks up from the end of his remake and takes the story in a totally different direction, much more like The Devils Rejects than the original 1981 Halloween II. With respect to mise-en-scène, this towers above most contemporary horror. Many people, including my brother Josh, consider this to be one of the best Halloween movies overall. While I agree that it’s great, I don’t think it’s that great. I miss the aggressive grime of the first Zombie movie and I think the Loomis arc here is just straight bad. Malcolm McDowell is a fine choice, and while he’s no Donald Pleasence he does a good job with the first movie. The turn the character takes here totally loses me, though. He becomes a vain wannabe true crime celebrity and we lose all sense of his obsession with Michael, which is absolutely essential to the character (I guess we’ve found a place where I am indeed a purist). When he does confront Michael and seek redemption it feels hollow. Also, the title card explaining how to interpret the symbolism of the white horse is a bit on the nose.

5) Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)

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“I shot him SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!!” Halloween II is all about the Loomis factor. There is so much Donald Pleasence waving a gun around and raving like a lunatic. Also, Rosenthal directs the ever living shit out of this. There are some seriously dope tracking shots. This does have some pacing problems and goes for more rehash than I would have preferred, but overall it’s a tremendous delight.

4) Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers [part VI] (Chappelle, 1995)

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Producer’s cut mandatory! Here my opinions admittedly get a bit… eccentric. Let me emphasize again that the producer’s cut is the only version that counts here. It bombed with test audiences and some new footage was shot and cut into the movie. The new footage is crap quality (though it does include what would be the movie’s most memorable kill), and the theatrical cut seriously tones down the best aspect of the movie: the DRUID INCEST CULT. The purist complaint about this movie is that what makes Michael Myers so compelling is that he lacks a motivation beyond pure evil, and so any more detailed mythology can only detract. This is correct in principle, but that ship has sailed 10 times over. If Michael is going to get a richer mythology, I don’t think you could do any better than druid incest cult. Also: grown up Tommy Doyle is played by *Paul Rudd* and it is one loopy performance.

3) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

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This is the only entry after the original that looks and feels like a John Carpenter movie. He did the music and it was directed by his right hand man. This is a sui generis entry, without Michael Myers, and it was an abject box office failure, with the result that Carpenter’s anthology idea was abandoned. As mentioned above, this has benefited from reappraisal and is now rightly considered a classic. I think the series is clearly better for containing this oddball installment. I mean c’mon, the plot revolves around Stonehenge and secretly nefarious masks for children (it actually does very loosely connect with some of the druid lore that is alluded to in II and developed later in VI).

2) Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)

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This is an indefensible opinion, but it is very much my opinion. I accept that I am out on my own here (even Josh thinks this is ridiculous), but I am a total stan for part V. First of all, you’ve got Danielle Harris back for an even better performance than part IV, because now she’s gone all The Fury and has TELEPATHIC SEIZURES whenever Michael kills someone. But what really sends this over the moon for me is PEAK LOOMIS. Pleasence was totally shitfaced while filming this and his performance is truly spectacular. Also, there’s a mysterious and pivotal Man in Black and we get zero idea of what his deal is. They just left this for part VI to explain, which didn’t happen for six years. They had no plan. I love it.

1) Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

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Perfect in every way. You can safely dismiss the opinions of anyone who ranks the Halloween movies and doesn’t put this number 1.


Franchise Fever vol. 1: Saw

This is the first in a series of posts about franchises, focusing on horror and action. I’m not sure how far we’re going to take this but I at least intend to write about the Halloween, Transformers, and Fast and Furious series.

I watched through the entire Saw series earlier this spring and I think it holds up extremely well. A lot of these franchise movies are hard to evaluate at the time of their release because there is often so much noise from the popular conversation that it’s hard to avoid bias. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: many popular franchises, including for example Transformers and Twilight, have been so thoroughly coded as low-class and for people of poor or uneducated taste that it’s not even possible to discuss their merits in a serious way without coming across as a contrarian troll (except in niche circles where there is a presumption of good faith about revisionary takes). Saw and Halloween are less vivid examples because they largely precede social media, but there was a fainter sort of cultural presumption at the time that Halloween 5 and 6, for instance, were garbage. I often find when I go back and revisit a series with as much of an open mind as I can muster, I end up surprised. This is why I’m revisiting several franchises and writing this series of posts.

I don’t have some grand take on Saw, but I do think it is a very interesting horror series. My views about the relative merit of the films are unorthodox, but I’ve generally found that people either like most of these movies or hate all of them so relative ranking is probably not the biggest controversy. Regarding the broader question:  I’m definitely a hard yes on Saw. It’s not as good as the Halloween series, for instance, but it’s absolutely delightful in contrast with the smarmy so-called “elevated horror” trend.

Saw is grimy, grisly, and grotesque. The themes are blunt and spelled out explicitly. The writing unapologetically embraces the absurdity of continuing the series past the first couple sequels and becomes so convoluted and intricate that you couldn’t possibly follow what’s happening in the late sequels without a fresh rewatch of the earlier ones. The visual style is abrasive and lo-fi with whiplash editing. It’s like a diseased nightmare of late Tony Scott.

What does Saw have to offer? The most obvious answers are the creative set pieces and kills, the healthy serving of schadenfreude we get from the loathsomeness of the victimsand the standard franchise pleasure of familiarity amidst difference (“THE CHOICE IS YOURS!”). I would also add that a diseased nightmare of late Tony Scott is a very fine thing to be. The level of abrasive scuzz on display is impressive. I fully adore the byzantine narrative of the late sequels, where Jigsaw is already dead (OR IS HE?) but traps he laid years earlier are still being sprung. In general, I think one’s reaction to expansive horror franchises heavily depends on how one feels about the sort of flagrant narrative contrivances that keep the series going. A good contrivance makes me cackle: yes you thought we beheaded the villain in the previous installment, but that was a cop he forced to wear his mask! If you dislike this sort of narrative MacGyvering I’m happy to live and let live, but I have trouble relating.

The Saw series ranked (no spoilers):

8) Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers)

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I like the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers and (especially) Predestination but they are just the wrong directors for Saw. I’m all for keeping the Saw series going but I think it’s a mistake to reboot the aesthetic the way they did here. This is waaaaaaaay too high polish to be Saw. The kills are generally solid but nothing groundbreaking. I wasn’t as thrilled with the overall narrative structure: it seemed more concerned to glorify the writer’s cleverness than Jigsaw’s. There is going to be another Saw movie and I am very optimistic. Chris Rock had an idea for a premise and he is producing it, with Bousman directing. I implicitly trust that if Chris Rock is going to go to the trouble and expense of getting this movie made, he’s got a damn good idea. In any case, he shows excellent judgment in bringing Bousman back on board. I expect it will be a real Saw movie.

7) Saw (Wan)

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The original Saw is iconic and supplies great material for the rest of the series to develop but it’s got way too low of a body count and the dialogue and acting are too lousy to sustain the threadbare chamber horror approach. I have affection in my heart for Saw, but it’s the weakest of the proper Saw movies.

6) Saw: The Final Chapter, aka Saw VII (Greutert)

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This one is divisive. A lot of fans of the series dislike it. It definitely has problems. The main one for me is a very common issue with 3D franchise entries (like The Final Destination): the 3D becomes a substitute for cleverness. The traps and kills are less creative because the director is just riding the 3D gimmick, which of course is lost on home video unless you’re a 3D TV owner. The other thing people don’t like about it is exactly what I find appealing: the narrative gets exponentially more ridiculous in its contrivances. When you watch through the series in order by the time you get to this point it’s amazing how many Generic Movie Cops it has become necessary to keep track of.

5) Saw III (Bousman)

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Saw III is undeniably an endurance test. Whereas the rest of the series wisely keeps running times short, this juggernaut is just north of two hours long! It has some of the best kills but it’s pretty repetitive: over and over again the guy caught in Jigsaw’s maze has to decide whether to try to save someone from a trap or not, and each time he decides to save the person after it’s too late and makes a gory failed attempt. If you are not into the series, this is probably the one you’ll hate the most. For me, there’s something admirable about Bousman’s brash indifference to the audience’s ability to tolerate the depraved spectacle. This is TOO MUCH SAW IN YOUR FACE. It’s not my favorite, but respect.

4) Saw V (Hackl)


Also divisive. People who are not interested in the mythology will get off the train here, as this is deep in the weeds introduced by the fourth installment and the focus has decidedly shifted away from Jigsaw himself. It does look and feel like a Saw movie and there are some great kills. The real estate commentary is a nice touch– I like the idea of exploiting the audience’s class resentment to juice up the schadenfreude. Perverse social consciousness suits Saw well.

3) Saw IV (Bousman)

Billy Otis in Saw IV (2007)

Now we’re talking. I think this and the next two are stellar. This is the Fast and Furious IV of the Saw series: dawning self-awareness plus a bit of a reboot that brings the franchise closer to its authentic self. This is where Saw gets super byzantine and FUN with all the Generic Movie Cops and batshit twists. 

2) Saw II (Bousman)

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This is the gnarliest saw movie. It fulfills the unrealized potential of the first movie without yet getting too deep into the convoluted overarching narrative. It contains the best set piece in the series and one of the best in modern horror with the FILTHY USED SYRINGE PIT. This one is for genre fans and is not going to appeal to the squeamish.

1) Saw VI (Greutert)

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I normally use ‘didactic’ as a pejorative when discussing movies but this baby is didactic in the best possible way. Imagine Bernie Sanders getting a Mission Impossible message: “Bernie Sanders, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to win the American public over to single-payer health care using only a Saw Movie. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.” Released during the original Obamacare debate, this is an absolutely delicious feast of healthcare-themed torture porn. It takes the perverse social consciousness that I enjoy in Saw V to a sublime level. It holds up extremely well in the Age of Trump. Easily my favorite.



Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 7

Amazon Prime

Keoma (Castellari, 1976)

A shoddy version of Keoma has been on Prime for a while, but now they have the new Arrow transfer and it looks fantastic! I love Keoma so much that I get full body tingles when I think about it. This is spaghetti western nirvana, and one of the last notable works in the cycle. Franco motherfucking Nero plays a half-Indian gun-slinging vagabond/existential searcher (one of his best roles) who returns to his home town to find that (surprise) a wealthy oppressor has everyone under his thumb. This is a very typical setup but what makes Keoma special is the abundance of biblical apocalyptica, Nero’s unspeakable badassery, Castellari’s pulpy Western Gothic hyperstylization, and a whole ‘nother level of soundtrack that I didn’t even know existed before I saw this. I’ve watched it twice this week since I realized the Arrow transfer was out, once with each audio track. I think it’s a toss up between the Italian and English tracks (they both have merits) but in any case the English version is the one on Prime.

Compañeros (Corbucci, 1970)

Image result for companeros movie tomas milianComedic Zapata spaghetti western with a really fantastic cast. You’ve got a comedy duo beyond your wildest dreams with Franco Nero and the one and only Tomas Milian, you’ve got Fernando Rey as the idealistic professor, and then you’ve got an absolutely amazing Jack Palance in an insane role as a vengeful falconer with a wooden hand. Plus you’ve got an Ennio Morricone score. Hell yes.

The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, 1982)

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I’ve been watching through key moments of the 80’s slumber party/sorority house/summer camp slasher cycle and this is a high point. Most people would be surprised to learn how many of these movies (including this one) were written and directed by women. There’s a kind of punk feminism beneath the surface– very, very, very, very different from contemporary manifestations of feminism in film. Many of these movies follow the giallo convention of not showing the killer till the end but this is not one of them. It’s a lunatic with a power drill (i.e.. death phallus). This is a ton of fun and ideal for a movie night with a crowd.

Ronin (Frankenheimer, 1998)

I’m excited to revisit this myself. It’s a spectacular late work from Frankenheimer. It’s best known for having one of the very best modern chase scenes (maybe the best?), but it’s just a peak crime movie in general.

20th Century Women (Mills, 2016)

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I highly recommend giving this a look if you skipped it. It’s a companion piece to Mills’ beautiful Beginners. Whereas that film is a tribute to his father, who came out as gay late in life (and is touchingly portrayed by Christopher Plummer), this one is a tribute to his mother (a characteristically phenomenal Annette Bening) and a story about growing up punk rock in a house full of strong women.

Funny Face (Donen, 1957)

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Gershwin music, Audrey Hepburn as a bookish philosophy hipster, Fred Astaire: pure joy.

Southern Comfort (Hill, 1981)

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One of Hill’s very best movies, about a group of National Guardsmen out on a training excursion in the LA bayou who get embroiled in a conflict with some swamp folk. The virtuoso ending features some of the best use of sound in any action movie.

Youth Without Youth (Coppola, 2007)

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While many of the great 70’s auteurs have been fairly tame in their late output, 2000’s Coppola goes harder in the paint than just about anyone. This is an unqualified masterpiece and one of his best films. I see it as a sort of sequel to his Dracula, and they make an awesome double feature.


Cage Corner

Say what you will about Netflix, they have been great about offering plenty of bargain basement Nic Cage titles. I watch them all. I don’t necessarily recommend any of them to a general audience, but Cage fans should take note. Here’s my rundown of the newest additions:

Arsenal (Miller, 2017)

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This is the one to watch. This is that good shit. This is that 3% Tomatometer Cocaine Cage shit. One unfortunate thing about Cage’s filmography is that one of his very Cagiest performances is too small a part of the movie: DeadfallArsenal is a dream come true: he reprises the character from Deadfall, but now he’s a major part of the movie. Make no mistake: Miller is a hack and in some ways this is a terrible movie, but it has twenty times the Cage factor of Mandy. Come for the Cage, stay for the Cage.

The Runner (Stark, 2015)

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The Cage factor here could be easy to miss for the untrained eye. It’s a pretty mild movie striking some low blows against capitalism in light of the BP oil spill. Its cynicism is trite. But as a hothouse melodrama I kind of love it. Cage is an idealistic politician with an inconsistent New Orleans accent who just wants to do good but can’t keep it in his pants. This has more Cage factor than any of the others except Arsenal.

Season of the Witch (Sena, 2011)

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Oh boy. This has some decent Cage factor but that’s not really the main attraction. The Claire Foy factor is what makes this. Also, the story is way less formulaic and way crazier than I expected. This is not the greatest movie but if you’re into this sort of thing (dark ages horror-adventure), you could do a lot worse.

Inconceivable (Baker, 2017)

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Meh, this doesn’t really live up to its premise. It’s a hand that rocks the cradle sort of thing where the nanny wants to seduce Cage and replace his wife, but there are only a few glimmers of Cage delight and this formula is beyond tired. I can’t deny I enjoyed watching it, though.

I Think You Should Leave (Robinson, 2019)

Sketch comedy that’s actually funny! It avoids politics and just goes for deep weirdness that straddles the highbrow/lowbrow distinction. I’m still laughing about that motorcycle sketch.

Ninja Assassin (McTeigue, 2011)

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Look, I am not in favor of CGI ninjas, but we are in an era where you can’t really expect otherwise. Game of Thrones is like “yeah we didn’t put Ghost in this final season much because the CGI is too expensive,” and I thought, “is it no longer even an option to just use a fucking dog?” Anyways, as CGI ninja movies go, this one is the bee’s knees. The premise is so wonderful: the dire consequences that accrue when ninjas fall in love. This is actually one of my favorite martial arts movies from the last decade.

The Butterfly Effect (Bress and Gruber, 2004)

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This baby has aged well. It has always been an extremely funny good-bad movie but newly restrictive norms of political correctness make this play even funnier, because it deals so flippantly with such taboo topics.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart II (Johnnie To, 2011 and 2014)

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Two of the only truly great romantic comedies this decade. They work as genre movies, but they also weave in an acrid critique of life as a successful professional under late capitalism (relating to To’s Life Without Principle and Office).


Hulu is pretty bad now (but they’ve got Veronica Mars coming) They’ve still got the wonderful The Duchess of Langeais, at least. These two recs are super obvious and probably not helpful but just in case:

Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008)

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A masterpiece of bittersweet optimism from one of the greatest British filmmakers.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi, 2016)

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Waititi’s best movie by a mile. I think we’ve already recommended this once, but in any case, if you liked the diluted flavor he brought to Thor: Ragnarok, you can get the full strength version here.

Criterion Channel

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I don’t usually include recommendations for Criterion Channel/Filmstruck, because really it’s all worth watching and I think it’s best to let the curators be your guide, but I want to super emphasize one thing: My Name is Julia Ross. It’s a feminist gothic noir that could have been famous for originating the concept of gaslighting if not for the movie Gaslight.

High Life

I had been keeping my eye on the possibility of catching a screening of the new Claire Denis flick High Life while visiting Vancouver this last week. It opened Friday, and I realized that my only opportunity to see it would be at the most commercial possibly downtown multiplex at 10pm Friday night. Not ideal, but I went for it because I’m not sure I’ll be able to see it on the big screen in Missoula (it will play at the art theater, but I won’t watch movies there: the place attracts people who view the movie theater as a place to eat, drink and socialize). The Vancouver audience was relatively well-behaved. One awful woman crinkled a bag of smuggled candy during a quiet moment, but even the popcorn barbarians generally knew when to stop crunching. This movie really benefits from the big screen presentation and I’m so glad I decided to go. 

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Denis is among my very favorite living filmmakers, so I was dying to see this. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though. Her narratives are often so elliptical that they approach incomprehensibility and her subject matter tends to be very multiplex-inappropriate. Given the relatively optimistic marketing blitz High Life has received (complete with obviously deceptive trailers), I wondered if maybe she took a more accessible turn with her first English-language movie.

Definitely not! It’s not her most elliptical narrative (this is of course L’intrus), but it is quite elliptical (more and more so as it progresses), and it does have some of her most challenging subject matter (alongside Bastards). I think it’s an absolutely tremendous film. I expect it will be in my top ten for the decade. It’s a film that will surely be divisive and I fully understand how someone with good taste could dislike it, but I’m all in.

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***I can’t discuss the film further without mentioning certain things that I personally wouldn’t want to know before seeing it, so some may want to stop reading at this point.***

Why is it bound to be divisive? Well, aside from the elliptical narrative and unpleasant subject matter, it is her most heavy-handed film, with the possible exceptions of her two films directly about colonial Africa and her relation to it as a French person who grew up in Cameroon (Chocolat and White Material). It very bluntly and sometimes a bit didactically addresses the moral atrocities of the death penalty, lifetime incarceration of young people, and incarceration as a solution to social problems. It also addresses the vastly disproportionate impact of these atrocities on black people, and even builds in a mea culpa about the fact that the three main characters in a movie concerned with incarceration are white. “Even up here the blacks die first.” There’s a moment that I found brilliant where we see the body of the one black male central character (André 3000!) fertilize the spaceship’s onboard garden of Eden. Whoa. Another reason many will dislike High Life is that as a sci fi movie (which she denies it is, though, c’mon, it clearly is), it’s not innovative.

These are not problems for me. Some artists use heavy-handed thematic content and symbolism and well-worn genre trappings as a context for other sorts of artistic achievement.  The interest of High Life is primarily in the details of the execution. The heavy-handed and well-worn elements work for me in the film because they provide the context in which these exquisite details are realized. This is not to say that the film is flawed in some respects but excellent in others: I don’t think it could have worked as well if the handling of the main themes were more subtle — the heavy-handedness generates brute force impact. The details elicit such a visceral response in part because the larger structure is so unapologetically blunt.

I was reading a few reviews this morning and I found a very negative write-up from parental watch organization Common Sense Media that unintentionally did a great job conveying much of what’s great about the film. They write (NB there are spoiler-ish revelations):

“The result is a crude, profane, violent film that aspires to be high art but is more a collection of things you wish you could unsee. It creates a highly sexual environment in which everything about reproduction is cold, clinical, and icky. French director Claire Denis viscerally attacks the audience with shocking rapes (brutal and drugged), dripping bodily fluids, and a never-ending scene in which a completely nude Juliette Binoche masturbates on top of a sex chair.”

I often come across negative reviews that increase my interest in seeing a film, but this example is the bee’s knees. Doesn’t the movie they describe just sound GREAT? If not, it’s probably not for you. High Life outdoes Denis’ wonderful Trouble Every Day with respect to its fixation on bodily fluids and orifices (including a literal black hole!). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film (aside from gross-out comedies) with more semen and urine. There’s also a whole lot of blood. The clinical, Cronenberg-esque approach to reproductive bodily functions is indeed deeply icky, and I love it. The brilliant set design enhances this icky clinical feel. These elements pile up into what I found to be an intensely visceral experience that left me shaken and unable to sleep. High Life infected my thoughts with images that just won’t leave me alone (the ones the Common Sense Media folks wish they could unsee), and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a film. It also addresses sexual trauma in a particularly visceral way, and delivers moments of tragic catharsis that took my breath away.

Juliette Binoche’s performance is perhaps her most bizarre effort to date. I have seen a whole lot of Juliette Binoche movies and I can report that she is fully capable of delivering English-language dialogue in a non-stilted way. Many of her most important lines in High Life are delivered with a Bressonian level of emotional blankness. This is clearly a deliberate artistic choice. In general, the emotional blankness of much of High Life sets the viewer up to be absolutely destroyed by the moments of nakedness and catharsis. Binoche’s character—a terrifying latter-day Medea—is one of her very best. I don’t have as much to say about Robert Pattinson, but he continues to be excellent, and the thought of unexpecting young folks going to see this because of residual Twilight fandom utterly delights me.

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I would also call attention to the portrait of fatherhood in High Life. It’s interestingly almost like a prequel to the father-daughter relationship in Denis’ (again, wonderful) 35 Shots of Rum. In that film, the father-daughter pair are isolated from French society by their status as immigrants, whereas in this film they are isolated from humanity by light years of literal distance, but in both the result is an unusual degree of intimacy. It’s at once creepy and warm, and the warmth is somehow both disrupted and reinforced by the icky and disturbing dog scene. It’s that special Denis magic.

Is High Life the most refined new release I’ve seen lately? No. That would be Ash is Purest White. But High Life is certainly the most intense, viscerally affecting new release I’ve seen in a long time. I love it without qualification.





California Food Odyssey

Strohltopia will always be cinema-centric, but I’m going to try to incorporate occasional food writing, including this report on my recent trip to California.

By an incredible stroke of good fortune, the Pacific meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics happened to fall immediately before my spring break this year. I thought about the prospect for two seconds and spoke the words aloud: California food odyssey!

As far as I’m concerned, LA is by far the best place in the USA to eat food. It’s not even close. Sure, there are some particular categories that are superior in other places: NYC for pizza and bagels, NJ for Indian food, Seattle for oysters, Texas for BBQ. But no place has anywhere near the breadth and depth of amazingness that LA does.

The plan was to drive along with my wife Angela to Berkeley for the conference, hang out an extra day or two in San Francisco, drive down the coast, and then spend a few days doing some world class eating in LA, punctuated by a quick trip down to San Diego to visit the Riggles.

We had to narrow down our food agenda. LA is just too overwhelming, and I knew that rubber necking would be a bad strategy. We decided to totally cut Mexican food out of the picture. We spent two weeks in Oaxaca last year eating everything in sight and I spent another 5 days in San Diego, during which time I ate like 40 tacos. That itch has been scratched. We decided to focus on two other categories that are particularly well represented in LA: Chinese and Korean. I ate a ton of Chinese food in Flushing last fall and I’m headed to Vancouver/Richmond BC soon, and so I will have visited the three best places to eat Chinese food in North America within one year. We decided we would also fit in one or two Thai meals and a single Persian lunch, and I figured that since it’s Angela’s first visit to California I absolutely had to get her to In-N-Out Burger and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. She was appropriately impressed by both.

Here’s a trip report with up-to-date California food recommendations, followed by a brief excursus on my methodology for culinary tourism.


We ate well in Berkeley! Better than I expected, honestly.

Top recommendations:

Royal Egyptian Cuisine


This is by far my top recommendation for the Bay area. I have to thank my friend Autumn for sending us to this place.  It’s a food truck that sets up by a sketchy little park on Folger Ave. You have to check twitter in the morning to see if he’s going to be there or not:

If you catch him, the trick is to show up and just say “I’m hungry, Chef Elmy, please feed me,” and then specify any dietary restrictions. I went with Angela and Anthony Cross and it was the best damn food truck omakase we’ve ever had. Elmy himself is hilarious and utterly charming, and the food he served us was a uniformly delicious mix of traditional and bizarre. He served fried polenta seasoned like a samosa. There was a rice and grain pilaf with fucking Roquefort on it. He gave each of us a gyro with fresh flatbread. There were freshly made dolmas and fried peppers and falafel. It was a feast, and it was obscenely cheap. He basically said that he likes to undercharge so that you know that he’s cooking for you out of love rather than a desire for profit. Elmy is a being of pure culinary light. Bask in it. And tip well.

Fournée Bakery



This was way the hell out of the way but I’m glad I tried it. I had a couple croissant variations and a canelé. The canelé was just okay but the croissants were some of the best I’ve ever had. I started eating the fruit croissant above and then realized I’d better document it. Look at that fucking lamination! This place had a long, annoying line on Saturday morning and it’s in a very inconvenient location but they seemed to have tons of extra trays of each item, so at least you don’t have to race there first thing in the morning lest they sell out. I took two Ubers to get these croissants and I’d do it again without hesitation


Udupi Palace

This is a fantastic little south Indian place close to campus. I will try to have lunch here every time I come to Berkeley from now on.

Chengdu Style


This is an absolutely perfect place to take a big group after a conference.  Big tables in a big room with a delightful cafeteria feel. The menu is super legit and we ordered a feast. It was all really good and very inexpensive. Highlights: husband and wife cold beef slices, toothpick lamb, stir fried cabbage, and a gruesome crimson bowl of various innards and cubes of duck blood bobbing in molten chili oil that Thi ate like half of himself before I realized what he was up to and commandeered the remains.

Pyeong Chang Tofu


Super legit Korean soft tofu joint. I believe it’s an outpost of a popular spot in Oakland. Very spicy broth, beautiful tofu texture, good banchan. Not too expensive. Highly recommended.

Tacos Sinaloa

Mediocre taco joint near campus. The al pastor was alright but definitely not worth wasting a meal on this place.

Chaat Café


Fish pakoras were a hit and the chaat was solid. Close to campus, recommended.

KoJa Kitchen


I wound up here with the motley crew of Angela, Susan Feagin, Corey Reed and John Dyck after Saturday’s talks. We chose this place because Angela was super hungry and we needed something fast. KoJa stands for “Korean-Japanese” which would have ordinarily deterred me, given my distrust of all things fusion, but I’m glad I bracketed my skepticism because this shit is delicious. The main event is what they call a KoJA: a sandwich where the “buns” are lightly deep fried garlic rice cakes and the filling is Korean BBQ. Holy shit, these Berkeley undergrads are lucky. If I had access to this place late at night in my undergrad days I would have massacred some KoJa. We also had Kamikaze waffle fries topped with bbq beef, kimchi, hot sauce, and Japanese mayo. Very craveable food.

Royal Rangoon

I had in mind to go to Burma Superstar, but a friend of a friend suggested this place as a less-hipster and lower key Burmese alternative run by former affiliates of Burma Superstar. There were some good starters but the curries were boring and the noodles were bad. Seemed like the food could have benefited from some hipsterization? In any case, not recommended.

Rainbow Donuts


This place is far from campus but near where we stayed and it’s hella good, though not worth a big expedition if it’s out of the way.

San Francisco

San Francisco sucks now! Wow, does it suck. I remember when there was a legitimate conversation to be had about whether SF or LA is better (I certainly always thought LA), but that conversation is over. San Francisco is tech douchebag purgatory. Everything is outrageously expensive and everyone sucks. Anecdotally, we shared an Uber with some Trader Joe’s shopper who refused to put her groceries in the back because “it’s dirty back there.” The driver, Muhammad, protested, “but the food is completely contained within a grocery bag!” She insisted on bringing three full bags of groceries into the front seat with her, “it’s food, and I don’t want it to get dirty, does that make sense?” Much to my pleasure, Muhammad held onto the truth despite the imminent threat of a bad review: “To me, this does NOT make sense.” No, it certainly doesn’t. We did have some good dim sum, though.

Top Recommendation:

Yank Sing



Famous dim sum place in a central location, on the expensive side but super amazing. I think it’s justifiable to pay a little extra to eat here if you’re in this part of town rather than schlepping out to a cheaper dim sum place in the environs. I went with Angela and John Dyck and we frickin’ loved it. The highlight for me was the seafood and basil dumpling. Angela went nuts over the honey walnut shrimp and the baked pork bao.


State Bird Provisions


This was the splurgiest meal we went for. I was intrigued by the concept: dim sum style service, dim sum inspired dishes, but localvore seasonal farm-to-table Michelin star kinda shit. Alas, I can’t say I’m too surprised to report that it was a bit underwhelming. It wasn’t crazy expensive but you could eat at Yank Sing two or three times for the price of eating here once, and Yank Sing is way better. This is a fun place to eat with friends, though, (in my case, Angela, Samantha Matherne, and Thi) and it’s entertaining to see surprising things roll out of the kitchen and conduct quick negotiations about what to order. I thought the food was generally weak when it tried to imitate dim sum (e.g., the dumpling skins were too thick and a bit under-cooked) and much better when it went off into left field. In retrospect, the most memorable dish was definitely a cube of pork belly that was crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, served with fish sauce vinaigrette and fresh fruit.

Golden Gate Bakery


Famous egg tarts. The pastry is incredible, the filling is unremarkable. The other pastries they sell are at least as good so don’t stop at the tarts. Overall, I wasn’t as thrilled by this place as I was by the New Flushing Bakery in NY.

Barnzu Korean

We had dinner with an old friend of mine here (the one and only Gary Tsifrin). The sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken was great (skip the garlic soy variant) but this place was just okay overall. It’s the sort of newfangled hipster Korean restaurant where they don’t give you banchan by default. In addition to the chicken, we had a big braised pork hock, which was good but nothing special, a nice seafood pancake, and some very disappointing salty Brussels sprouts.

LA part 1: Koreatown and West LA

We started the Southern California portion of the trip with a brief stay in Koreatown, then hopped down to San Diego for one night, and then spent the last stretch of the trip in the San Gabriel Valley. I totally recommend both Koreatown and the SGV as places to stay. They were cheaper than other areas and you are totally surrounded by amazing food and boba joints. Koreatown also features the famous, fully amazing 24 hour Korean Wi Spa where you can get totally naked (on gender segregated floors) and then sit in a 200 degree sauna (!) before plunging in an ice bath. I love this place: it has just the right mix of shamelessness and extremity for me.

Top Recommendations:

Eighth Street Soondae



This was a deeply soul satisfying meal. I love everything about this place. You walk into a disconcertingly large, mostly empty room but are immediately beckoned through a door to the cramped backroom dining area. There isn’t much on the menu—mostly variations of soondae and broth—but it all sounds hella good. We ordered a combo platter for me and a bowl of tofu for Angela. The banchan were tremendous. The combo platter turned out to be enough food for four people. There was a big stack of soondae (vermicelli, blood, onions, seasoning, etc stuffed into a casing) and then there were generous piles of intestines and sliced heart, tongue, and liver. I found the overcooked liver unpleasant but everything else was amazing, especially the silky, luscious, mild soondae. If I had to eat one meal for all of eternity this would be a strong contender. The ladies who run the place were impressed by the zeal with which I attacked the family-sized portion.  “You like it?!” “Why yes, I most certainly do.”

Naan Hut


Sangak bread from the gods. I was going to skip this place but my eating associate Thi Nguyen absolutely insisted that I eat here and then he brought it up five times reminding me to make sure I don’t miss it. I was a bit dismissive at first: how good could naan be? But I decided that Thi is at that highest echelon of aesthetic trustworthiness where I would be a fool not to take such an insistent recommendation from him. I was told to get sangak with kashk and eggplant. And yeah, Thi was right. Do not miss this place. Make sure you try the bread both toasted and untoasted. Toasting brings out more depth of flavor but one also needs to experience the impossibly stretchy texture of the untoasted bread.

Saffron & Rose


Persian ice cream place not too far from Naan Hut serving some of the best ice cream we’ve ever had. Normally I’m ambivalent about floral ice cream but this is on another level. Angela and I both thought Orange Blossom was the best. Stick with the Persian flavors, I sampled a couple others and they were nowhere near as good.


Dan Sung Sa


This is a dark, atmospheric bar with tasty grilled skewers, open late. It isn’t an ideal place to sit down and eat dinner but it would be a great place to party with friends.



What is this sorcery? I don’t even know. It seemed like some sort of lighter-than-air shaved ice construction but it’s not shaved ice in any normal sense, it’s some ethereal but painfully cold substance from another dimension.

Jitlada Thai Restaurant



I ate at Jitlada like a decade ago and remember feeling so overwhelmed by the menu that no matter how indulgently we ordered I was never going to be satisfied. I vowed to go back and order completely different things. I’ve finally lived up to that vow, but I still feel like I have to go back a half a dozen more times before I’ll even begin to make headway on that damn menu. This is vibrant, gorgeous southern Thai food, with a lot of unusual regional preparations that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the US. I’m still dreaming of the pomelo salad. The pork and jackfruit curry was spicy and pungent and the Dungeness crab with chili-garlic sauce was delicious (though they didn’t even attempt to retain any of the delicacy of the crab).

Night + Market



This is the other really famous Thai restaurant in LA. I had never eaten here before. This place does two totally different things: crowd-pleasing party food and aggressive pork-centric regional food from Northern Thailand. You can only get the really aggressive dishes at dinner time. I was fighting with myself over whether we should spend a dinner slot on this place over Chinese, and I was finally deterred by a trusted friend who told me he had ordered much of the menu and was unimpressed. As it turned out, we drove right by this place at lunchtime and made a snap decision to try out the party favorites. Some of it was pretty good, like sweet and salty wings and a fried chicken sandwich piled with papaya slaw, but this stuff was also quite predictable. The very spicy grilled pork salad was more adventurous but way the hell out of balance: too much acid and salt. It seemed like it had been seasoned indiscriminately. The crispy rice salad was both boring and too acidic.

Attari Sandwich Shop



Good Persian lunch spot but would not recommend over Naan Hut. Bland but pleasant osh, tender sliced tongue sandwiches. The star is the super interesting kuku sandwich, which contains a frittata-like egg filling that’s about 50% herbs.

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles


As Thi rightly put it, there are places with better fried chicken and places with better waffles, but no place with better chicken-waffle gestalt. The soft, fluffy waffles demand to be wrapped around shreds of meat, skin, and syrup like a little taco.

LA part 2: San Gabriel Valley


There’s not as much to do in this area aside from food but if you’re out this way definitely hit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It has a small but densely wonderful collection and– best of all– it’s not crowded. There were no kids and very few selfie-taking philistines.  We also enjoyed visiting Imen at Tea Habitat (pictured above) to sample the best Dancong oolong collection outside of China. This is very advanced and expensive tea, but if you’re into this kind of thing it shouldn’t be missed.

Top Recommendations:

101 Noodle Express

The best bite of food I ate on the entire trip was the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. If aliens visited the Earth and were like “Earthling, show us your most delicious Earth food.” I would be like “yo get that beef roll at 101 Noodle Express.” This paragon of human culinary achievement consists of a thin pancake, lightly smeared with the world’s best sweet bean paste, judiciously studded with shreds of five spice-scented braised beef, generously piled with cilantro, rolled up and fried crisp. It looks intimidating but is actually light, airy, and herb-forward. It’s a crispy, crackly umami bomb of profound deliciousness. I cocked my head back and bellowed “yuuuuuuuuummm.” I’m told their dumplings are also great but I had no eating capability left after the late night beef roll.

Chengdu Taste


This is widely thought to be the gold  standard for Sichuan restaurants in North America and I don’t disagree. It’s awesome. It will make you sweat and thoroughly anesthetize your mouth, but at the same time it is very refined. The husband and wife beef slices are the best I’ve ever had (though I have to dissent on the dan dan noodles: good but I still think I prefer the ones at Han Dynasty in Philadelphia). One absolutely must order the green pepper fish, which is a nuclear Sichuan bomb. The broth is generously seasoned with green Sichuan peppercorns and raw green chilies and loaded with tender fish slices and crunchy bean sprouts. It’s intensely grassy and floral and it will definitely clear out your sinuses.

Huge Tree Pastry


Taiwanese breakfast joint, not to be missed. I frickin loved the fan tuan: it’s a savory donut, some fried pork fluff, an egg, and some pickled mustard greens wrapped in rice. The layered textures and balanced, mild flavors made my heart sing.

Beijing Pie House


These are really damn good Northern Chinese meat “pies.” The shell is thin and light but effective at containing the juices, which dramatically squirt out when the pie is bitten into without appropriate caution. We had lamb with squash and pork with leek and they were stellar.


Savoy Kitchen


A longtime institution, serving Hainan chicken in a tiny little corner spot. Hainan chicken is a simple dish of plain poached chicken and rice cooked in the resulting chicken broth, served with three condiments: soy sauce, ginger sauce, and chili sauce. The simplicity of the dish lets the main points stand out: the texture of the chicken, the savory unctuousness of the rice, and the bracing pungency of the condiments. This was a very nice version of the dish, though didn’t stand out among the wealth of SGV treasures.

Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House


The thing to get here are the hui tou, which are the rectangular pork dumplings pictured above. They have a perfect crispy texture and the oniony filling is delicious.

Shaanxi Garden



We ate here in honor of my beloved Jia Zhangke (who hails from Shaanxi) after seeing Ash is Purest White (which is an extraordinary film). The specials here are the biang biang noodles and the rou jia mo, which they refer to as a “Chinese hamburger.” It’s a crispy bun filled with braised pork. The noodles had a nice toothsome texture and were long enough to be served with scissors, which is always a good sign. I’d pass on the wontons in hot sauce next time. Angela particularly liked the noodles.

Phoenix Desserts

Hong Kong dessert chain with a couple locations in the SGV. Definitely enjoyed it but I admit I struggled with the Durian mochi rolls.

Banh Mi My Tho


Anthony Cross absolutely insisted I try this place. It was low commitment to split one with Angela and it was indeed extremely good, though we had even better Banh Mi at Dakao Sandwiches in Vegas on the way home.



The Riggles have been known to set a damn fine table! Great to see them.

The Griddle

If you ever find yourself in Winnemucca, NV, eat breakfast here.

Fiesta Mexicana

Always delighted to get a chance to swing by the much-loved Dillon, MT taco bus. Some of the best food in the state of Montana.

Nomad Donut


Made a brief stop in the morning after visiting Riggle in San Diego, and I continue to be impressed by these donuts (which I had a couple times the last time I was in San Diego).

Dakao Sandwiches

A few miles off the highway in Vegas but totally worth it. The best baguette texture of any banh mi I’ve ever had.


I do a fair amount of research for trips like this, and I think in general I get good results. Here’s a few notes on the various resources that are available.

Yelp/Tripadvisor/Google reviews

Borderline useless, especially Yelp. Yelp is so reliably bad that you can almost use it as a reverse predictor. There are many problems with these aggregators. They are too democratic.  Most people who post reviews just don’t know what they’re talking about. Typical reviewers harbor a preference for crowd-pleasing, Instagram-optimized, inoffensive, boring food. People who use these platforms tend to weigh service and cleanliness too highly, giving preference to over-attentive, obsequious service. Very, very often when there are two places in the same category and one place has 4.5 stars on Yelp while the other place has 3 stars, the 3 star place serves better food and doesn’t give a shit what you think of the service. Of the three I think Google reviews tends to be the most useful (the content of particular reviews, not the aggregate) and Tripadvisor is much better than Yelp.


Vastly more useful than Yelp et al, but still unreliable, attracts annoying self-styled foodies, and you have to wade through a lot of useless and outdated content to find useful tips. It can be a goldmine when you find someone who really knows what they’re talking about, though, and there are a lot of people on Chowhound who really know what they’re talking about. In general, negative reviews should trump positive reviews. Everyone wants to think their $200 dinner was good, it takes courage to admit that it wasn’t. Chowhound is California-centric and thus the California discussion threads are particularly overloaded. I only used Chowhound on this trip for cross-referencing recommendations from other sources, but I’ve used it extensively for visits to other cities and gotten very good results.

Asking random locals: Airbnb hosts, taxi drivers, etc.

I know some people who swear by this. It’s high risk but high reward. A lot of people like things that are bad, and it’s not easy to determine how much to trust an individual. If you get lucky with who you ask, though, you can get some of the most up to date and under the radar info.

Food critics

Publications like Eater, The Infatuation, Serious Eats, etc. provide a good starting point but they are extremely fallible and need to be cross-referenced with Chowhound or a friend. A lot of the listicles that these outlets put out (e.g. “15 Best Dumpling Joints in the SGV” or “22 Foods You Have to Try in San Francisco Before You Die”) are composed without much thought or care as ephemeral clickbait, but others are actually quite helpful. Unfortunately, many the critics working for these publications (let alone regional newspapers) are from my experience just unreliable. I’ll never forgive Kenji López-Alt for sending me way the hell out of my way for a mediocre Cuban pork sandwich. If you find someone whose sensibility works for you, it can be a godsend, but it’s a double-edged sword. LA of course long benefited from the work of one of the best and most reliable food critics of all time, Jonathan Gold, but anyplace he raved about was propelled into super popularity and as a result may no longer be as good as it was when he reviewed it. Still, his lists and guides (e.g., the wonderful Koreatown guide) are the best place to start for LA trip planning.


I don’t tend to crowd-source food recommendations, especially for big cities. You may get some good recs but it generates too much noise. People with limited knowledge of a city will recommend the two things they liked out of the four things they tried. And people are more likely to recommend farm-to-table small plates shit rather than the kind of stuff I like. I try to single out friends whose sensibility I trust and who have extensive knowledge of a given city.  I’m acquainted with some pretty hardcore food enthusiasts, and they are often sources of the very best information, but for a city as big as LA all individuals have blind spots and friends need to be supplemented with other sources.

So, then, my overall methodological recommendation is:

Narrow down your agenda to a few categories; use google, listicles, critics, and Chowhound to generate an initial list; cross reference questionable options with Chowhound and/or by Googling to find food bloggers; and then if you have a friend or two with knowledge of the area run everything by them to eliminate some places and add things you may have missed. Or you can just show up and ask a taxi driver what’s good and not be such a nerd about it.

Recommended on Netflix: Lady J

As someone who ragged on Netflix relentlessly for years, I’ve gotta keep giving credit where credit is due: they have been been killing it with proprietary content lately. This time I’m here to rave about Emmanuel Mouret’s Lady J (aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières).

It’s based on the same Diderot story as Bresson and Cocteau’s collaboration Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. A widow resists the advances of a womanizing Marquis until he eventually persuades her that his intentions are honorable. When he betrays her faith, she plots revenge by enlisting an unfortunate woman born to noble parents out of wedlock and her ethereal young daughter.

I love this movie. It scratched the itch that I hoped The Favourite would scratch. It’s got that “polite on the surface but oh so deliciously nasty and wicked underneath” Dangerous Liaisons thing going on. The Favourite was a near complete failure for me: the emotions are too close to the surface, it’s missing the tension that accrues when passions are left to seethe beneath oppressive social norms. And Emma Stone just doesn’t have the range to pull it off. Cécile de France, on the other hand, is a stone cold genius. She is immaculately perfect in this movie.

Another area where Lady J triumphs while The Favourite fails is
mise-en-scène. As I’ve said, The Favourite looks to me like shitty Barry Lyndon. Lanthimos just throws the camera down in the corner with a fisheye lens. Those compositions are neither pleasing nor interesting. Lady J, on the other hand, doesn’t waste a single shot. Every composition is purposeful. Every image is appealing. The use of sunlight is vibrant without being cloying. The blocking highlights the subtle brilliance of the acting and conveys overwhelming lust without ever being vulgar or heavy-handed. As a bonus, there are some delightful nods to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais is another clear influence.

I am tempted to go on raving about how much I love this, but I think you’d be better served if I just insist that you go watch it. It’s a rare instance of a truly great costume drama.

State of the Cinema 2018

This was a very strange year. At first we thought it was pretty bad, mostly because of the glut of topical indie movies for the Twitter crowd and the diminishing returns of the franchise blockbuster. But this was also a year that saw momentous posthumous releases from Abbas Kiarostami and Orson Welles, as well as very fine films from Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Alan Rudolph, Paul Schrader, Steven Soderbergh, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Strohl brothers agree on the best five films of the year (which is a first, even given how much we tend to agree). We also agree that the MVP of 2018 was 88 year old Clint Eastwood, who made two of the most formally audacious films of his career. He redefined gonzo casting with his own daughter playing the estranged daughter who hates him in The Mule and the actual guys who stopped a terrorist attack playing themselves in The 15:17 to Paris. He challenged his own legacy with brutal honesty and graceful poetry. He examined the mechanics of white privilege with surprising nuance. He had two threesomes in the same movie. He broke our hearts with that Dianne Wiest scene. Clint Eastwood: we salute you.

This year we did things a little differently. Josh is incorporating comments throughout his post wherever he has something to say. Matt watched a lot more new releases than usual after Filmstruck was snatched away from him and decided to copy Josh and just rank them all. He gave every film a brief comment. Isabel and Angela did not want to include commentary or full ranked lists.

Joshua Strohl


  1. The Other Side of the Wind (Welles) The Other Side of the WindThis melted my face. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I turned this on. I’m a big Orson Welles fan, and the legend of the movie preceded it, but I never really understood what it was. As soon as I started it I was totally captivated, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It creates its own ecosystem of maddening controlled chaos. The movie-within-the-movie is like silk, but it’s always just out of reach for the viewer. It’s a lost burning ember of elemental cinema floating in a world of shit: media consultants and paparazzi and publicists and vultures. John Huston towers over the proceedings with his built-in legendary stature. Not for most people, but if you’re seriously interested in film history, it’s a must watch.
  2. First Reformed (Schrader)first reformedWe’ve been digging late Paul Schrader movies for a while and it’s a weird feeling that suddenly everyone is on board. This is a movie that worms itself into your brain. It’s great to see someone working in this controlled, precise register. The ending left me breathless.
  3. The Mule (Eastwood)muleI like all of Clint’s movies, but every now and then he has a burst of intense creativity, such as when he made White Hunter Black Heart, UnforgivenA Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County at the start of the 90’s. This is one of those times. This is the year when he started channeling Kiarostami, which is a very unexpected and most welcome development. He also gave us the most surprising Harmony Korine inspired booty party of all time. I thought The Mule was beautiful, heartbreaking and hilarious and I can’t wait to watch it many, many more times.
  4. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)24 FramesA peaceful and achingly beautiful experience. I love this in the simplest way possible, but it is not at all a simple movie.
  5. Unsane (Soderbergh)Unsane 3Soderbergh channels Frankenheimer through an iPhone. This movie is jagged and nasty and effective. It’s a rare topical movie with sharp teeth. His cinematography is the best of the year.
  6. Ready Player One (Spielberg)RP1Spielberg’s most meta film is a slyly subversive critique of the nostalgia machine and searching examination of his own legacy. Halliday is a high-tech Willy Wonka and Spielberg stand-in. The moment where Wade Watts walks in to meet the final avatar and finds Halliday/Spielberg’s childhood self playing Atari is extremely poignant and peak Spielberg. I think a whole lot of people missed the forest for the trees here. This movie also just straight up bangs. It moves between the real world and the virtual world with the kind of fluidity that only Spielberg is capable of. The rewatchability factory is at the level of Spaceballs and Goodfellas for me.
  7. Double Lover (Ozon)Double loverAfter I watched this, the first thing I did was watch ten other Ozon movies. I had only seen Swimming Pool, which I thought was alright, but I didn’t realize what an enfant terrible he is. This movie is completely nuts, in the best possible way. It tickled me.
  8. First Man (Chazelle)first manAlright Damien Chazelle, now you’re showing me something. I can’t believe the La La Land guy made this movie. As a new father myself, I found its depiction of fatherhood extremely moving– even overwhelming. The movie is a technical marvel and it has an almost Eastwoodian focus. Ryan Gosling is really good, and I don’t easily hand out Ryan Gosling compliments.
  9. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood)15 17 to ParisOne of the most radical movies to come out of a major studio in recent memory. Critics didn’t know what to do with it. I think they missed the boat.
  10. BlacKkKlansman (Lee)BlackKklansmanIt’s great to see Spike Lee in the spotlight again. His technique and storytelling are in top form. It’s a masterful and very entertaining movie that hits poignant grace notes with Spike’s distinctive wild tonal shifts. It’s potent, playful, and ultimately devastating.
  11. Welcome to Marwen (Zemeckis)
  12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros.) Pan shot!
  13. Let the Sunshine In (Denis) Juliette Binoche is stunning in this woozy and gorgeous Denis film.
  14. If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins) Pure cinema, the strong Jonathan Demme influence is very touching to me.
  15. Burning (Lee) Like Lee’s other films, it uses the grammar of the mystery genre in an abstract way to get at something haunting and just out of reach.
  16. Zama (Martel) Finally, a movie that understands the comedic potential of llamas.
  17. Shoplifters (Kore-eda) Kore-eda doing what he does best: he’s the master of the quiet, tender moment. Major affection for this.
  18. Cam (Goldhaber) A lot of fun. Wicked, witty, wacky cam girl thriller. Madeline Brewer gives the breakthrough performance of the year.
  19. Ray Meets Helen (Rudolph) Alan Rudolph returns after 15 years and he’s bonkers as ever. This movie sticks out like a diamond in the rough amidst all the unimaginative cookie cutter junk. It is *weird*.
  20. Custody (Legrand)  A waking nightmare that starts off like your average family drama and freefalls into something truly terrifying. Some of the finest suspense in recent memory. Parental horror of the highest order.
  21. The Day After (Hong) Another playful Hong Sang-soo movie about a guy who has an affair. This has an interesting rhythm and plays more like French new wave than typical Asian festival fare.
  22. Venom (Fleischer) That lobster tank scene stole my heart.
  23. The Commuter (Collett-Serra) Awesome editing, fun plot.
  24. Looking Glass (Hunter) The Nicolas Cage movie of the year is also a welcome return of Tim Hunter. Wildly unpredictable and fun.
  25. Mission Impossible: Fallout (McQuarrie) Mind-blowing stunts, breakneck speed, Tom Cruise in full gonzo Tom Cruise mode running like a gazelle on top of motorcycles and shit, the best fight scene since Eastern Promises. For me this is a rock solid addition to the franchise.
  26. Creed 2 (Caples Jr.) Another great fatherhood movie that moved me. Don’t overlook how great the acting is in this across the board.
  27. Upgrade (Whanell)
  28. Support the Girls (Bujalski)
  29. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed) Here’s a novel concept: a superhero movie that’s fun. I like this way, way more than any other Marvel Studios movie.
  30. Isle of Dogs (Anderson) It makes a few missteps but I found a lot of delight in the details and I’m a sucker for a Man’s Best Friend movie.
  31. Vox Lux (Corbett)
  32. Incredibles 2 (Bird) Best raccoon fight scene ever.
  33. Green Book (Farrelly) It’s amazing how much ire this stirred up. I get it, but I think people miss how much work this movie does critiquing the very things about it that piss people off.  It’s too complicated to dismiss on the basis of its synopsis. It’s sweet and lovable and it has some very funny food scenes. I am a big fan of the Farrelly brothers and I think Peter has a distinct humanist touch: clumsy but sincere.
  34. Paddington 2 (King) I love that talking bear but Hugh Grant puts this over the top.
  35. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman) Won over my Spider-Man weary heart.
  36. Roma (Cuaron) One of the hardest movies for me to rank. I was really impressed by it but it left me cold. I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but I have respect for it and I think it’s worth another look.
  37. Western (Grisebach)
  38. May The Devil Take You (Tjajhanto)
  39. Bodied (Kahn)
  40. The Endless (Benson and Moorhead)
  41. Between Worlds (Pulera)
  42. Soller’s Point (Porterfield)
  43. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Van Sant) This moved me far more than I anticipated.
  44. Love, Simon (Berlanti) This has a good heart.
  45. Annihilation (Garland)
  46. The Night Comes for Us (Tjajhanto) A bit repetitive for me but when this is in full force, it’s a sight to behold.
  47. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Fiennes)
  48. Blockers (Cannon) Apparently our society is done with comedy, so seeing a movie that is actually funny is like seeing a dog walking around on its hind legs.
  49. Mom and Dad (Taylor)
  50. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont) So much head banging. Bring on the sequel.
  51. Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare (Wadlow) My favorite junk food.
  52. Halloween (Green) As a Green fan, I wanted this to be better. I don’t think he’s a natural horror director, unfortunately, but I appreciate the spirit of the movie and it has some nice directorial touches.
  53. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona) I hated the first Jurassic World but was delighted to find out how campy and ridiculous this one was. It’s a dinosaur/volcano disaster hybrid movie that morphs into a dinosaur/gothic haunted house hybrid movie complete with a Republican dinosaur auction. Can’t say I’ve seen that before!
  54. A Star is Born (Cooper) It’s a weepy, sappy affair and it falls apart in the second half but whatever, sue me, I like it anyways.
  55. Blindspotting (Estrada)
  56. Den of Thieves (Gudegast) Sleazy sweaty Gerard Butler shit.
  57. A Simple Favor (Feig)
  58. Instant Family (Anders)
  59. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel) Lots of Dafoe rolling around in fields of wheat. It had a startling immediacy that I responded to.
  60. Wildlife (Dano)
  61. Thunder Road (Cummings)
  62. The Wild Boys (Mandico)
  63. Hold the Dark (Saulnier) This movie is dark.
  64. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun (Wilkerson)
  65. The Nun (Hardy) I don’t like this as much as Matt and Angela do, but I appreciated seeing a horror movie with some craft and panache. It got a little muddled toward the end.
  66. The Rider (Zhao)
  67. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts) I enjoyed this as a nice flipside of the first one.
  68. Super Troopers 2 (Chandrasekhar) There is some comedy gold in this after a shaky start.
  69. Bumblebee (Knight)
  70. Hereditary (Aster) It has major flaws, but also moments of great inspiration. Hard to shake, awesome Toni Collette performance.
  71. The Favourite (Lanthimos) Lanthimos’ weakest movie but there’s still plenty to enjoy. I’m looking forward to his upcoming detective noir.
  72. American Animals (Layton)
  73. King Cohen (Mitchell) Another recent documentary about one of my favorite filmmakers. Generally I think of these movies as extended special features, but this Larry Cohen doc has enough crazy stories and interviews to elevate it above the pack, including the great Yaphet Kotto proclaiming that Larry Cohen was “The white Martin Luther King Jr. for black movies.” I’ve been rewatching Larry Cohen movies since I saw this and they are every bit as great as I remember them. We need more Larry Cohens. We need more renegades.
  74. The Legacy of a White Tail Deer Hunter (Hill)
  75. Claire’s Camera (Hong) Slight but interesting
  76. Bird Box (Bier) I had a lot of fun with this and I particularly enjoyed Malkovich’s version of the guy’s who’s just in it for himself. A fun B movie, it’s what A Quiet Place should have been.
  77. Game Night (Daley, Goldstein)
  78. Juliet, Naked (Peretz)
  79. Unfriended: Dark Web (Susco) I’m digging the screen capture genre. I hope it can keep developing without repeating itself.
  80. Skyscraper (Thurber) You had me at “The Rock has one leg.”
  81. Searching (Chaganty)
  82. The First Purge (McMurray) A fun hybrid of the Purge and Blaxploitation, but it’s clearly the weakest Purge movie.
  83. The Predator (Black) Two words: Predator dogs.
  84. Before I Wake (Flanagan)
  85. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
  86. Golden Exits (Perry) This is why we need Woody back.
  87. Rodin (Doillon)
  88. Apostle (Evans) Some good horror imagery but what a mess.
  89. Adrift (Kormakur)
  90. Milla (Massadian)
  91. Revenge (Fargeat)
  92. Andre the Giant (Hehir) This movie gets three stars just for Ric Flair’s dick jokes.
  93. The Devil and Father Amorth (Friedkin) I love Friedkin but I can only appreciate this because of his delightful narration.
  94. The Equalizer 2 (Fuqua)
  95. Boy Erased (Edgerton) What is with Joel Edgerton making nasty movies and casting himself in the most unappealing roles imaginable.
  96. Fahrenheit 11/9 (Moore) For a Michael Moore movie, it gets into more interesting corners of the current political climate than you would expect. Believe it or not, I found it funny and insightful. But it’s still a Michael Moore movie and has all the faults that come with that.
  97. Hal (Scott)
  98. The Meg (Turteltaub)
  99. Uncle Drew (Stone lll)
  100. Tomb Raider (Uthaug)
  101. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (Neville)
  102. We the Animals (Zager)
  103. Arizona (Watson)
  104. Galveston (Laurent)
  105. Mandy (Cosmatos) The most disappointing movie this year. Cheddar Goblin was tight though.
  106. Gotti (Connelly) Of all the bad movies this year, this is the one I find myself drawn to the most. I have affection for it.
  107. Mile 22 (Berg) Murky and dumb but with great action and some solid violence.
  108. Death Wish (Roth)
  109. The Girl in the Spider Web (Alvarez)
  110. Flower (Winkler) 
  111. Leave No Trace (Granik)
  112. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu) I like this more than than my strohltopia colleagues and I’m very ashamed of it.
  113. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard)
  114. 211 (Shackleton)
  115. Tully (Reitman) The parenthood aspect resonated for me and Theron is good but the twist ruins the whole thing.
  116. Tales from the Hood 2 (Cundieff, Scott)
  117. Black Panther (Coogler) It just didn’t do it for me. I just don’t like most Marvel movies.
  118. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (Mitchell)
  119. Fifty Shades Freed (Foley) This is the first one of these I didn’t totally hate. It has some good sex scenes and the camp factor is enjoyable.
  120. Skate Kitchen (Moselle)
  121. Hotel Artemis (Pearce)
  122. Ralph Break the Internet (Moore, Johnson)
  123. Can You Ever Forgive Me (Heller) Melissa McCarthy is pretty bad in this, but it works best when it focuses on middle-aged queer lady dating dynamics. Richard E. Grant is great, as always.
  124. Alpha (Hughes)
  125. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
  126. Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sollima) Well, apparently Trump liked it.
  127. The Old Man and the Gun (Lowery) How did you mess up this “elderly Robert Redford robs banks for fun” movie? How can this not be good?
  128. The House with a Clock in its Walls (Roth) Eli needs to go back to the grindhouse. No bueno.
  129. The Sisters Brothers (Audiard)
  130. Widows (McQueen) This movie is lucky that Ocean’s Eight came out this year or it would feature the lamest heist in movie history.
  131. Bad Times at the El Royale (Goddard)
  132. Mid 90’s (Hill)
  133. Rampage (Peyton) Giant monkeys, giant crocodile, giant wolf, The Rock: the rest should take care of itself, but somehow they messed it up. Terrible screenplay. Some of the laziest writing in recent memory misses an easy slam dunk.
  134. Three Identical Strangers (Wardle)
  135. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker) Some really interesting and unique qualities in a movie that is insufferable and annoying.
  136. Breaking In (McTiegue)
  137. Kin (Baker Bros.)
  138. A Prayer Before Dawn (Sauvaire)
  139. Assassination Nation (Levison) 
  140. The Grinch (Cheney, Mosier)
  141. Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer) Where to even begin with this debacle. It’s like a car crash you can’t look away from. I didn’t hate it: I kind of enjoyed it as a bad movie, but the awards attention is concerning. In what universe is this up for Best Editing? It’s the movie they will use in editing classes for generations as an example of how not to edit.
  142. The Wife (Runge) This is so lame.
  143. Suspiria (Guadagnino) At least no one else will remake it now.
  144. A Quiet Place (Krasinski) Really good concept. Really dumb execution. IT’S SOUND!!!
  145. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci) Really bad concept. Really unfunny movie.
  146. I Feel Pretty (Kohn, Silverstein) This movie needed to be way more offensive. Made me wish the Farrellys would get back to their roots.
  147. Overboard (Greenberg) Overboard (1986) has to have the most fucked-up premise in all of romantic-comedy history. And they made a REMAKE. A GENDER-SWAP REMAKE!
  148. Pacific Rim Uprising (DeKnight) Why’d you have to go and ruin a good thing?
  149. Eighth Grade (Burnham) Creepy, Todd-Solondz wanna-be-movie that has real disdain for its characters, unlike actual Todd Solondz movies.
  150. Sorry to Bother You (Riley) None of this worked for me. I don’t think it had any interesting things to say and the jokes all fell flat. Overrated.
  151. The Oath (Barinholtz) Like reading annoying, progressive Twitter for 100 minutes.
  152. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) This really made me sad for the state of blockbuster cinema.
  153. Escape Plan 2: Hades (Miller) I should have known better…
  154. Christopher Robin (Forster) Where Pooh gives Christopher Robin a two hour guilt trip.
  155. Thoroughbreds (Finley) Pretentious, boring, and depressing. No thanks.
  156. The Happytime Murders (Henson) I really wanted to like the raunchy puppet movie. It’s really bad.
  157. Deadpool 2 (Leitch) I don’t get the appeal of these.
  158. Tag (Tomsic) This is so bad it’s jaw-dropping. The ending is an all time WTF.
  159. Peppermint (Morel) You can’t be serious with this. Pierre Morel is a shadow of his former self in this painful-to-watch slog that expects me to buy that Jennifer Garner is Liam Neeson.
  160. Ocean’s Eight (Ross) I’m not trying to hate on female reboots, but c’mon you gotta do better than this. They had the idea, “Ocean’s 11, but with women,” and stopped there.
  161. Vice (McKay) Ugly, ghoulish, smug, morbid, obnoxious, cynical, and dumb.

I seriously regret not getting to see Welcome to Marwen. I love Zemeckis and I will review it and/or update the list when I see it.

Best Performances (top ten): 

John Huston (The Other Side of the Wind), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Clint Eastwood (The Mule), Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Madeline Brewer (Cam), Tom Hardy (Venom), Claire Foy (Unsane), Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Steven Yeun (Burning), Tom Waits (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

Best Director: Paul Schrader- First Reformed

Best Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh – Unsane

Best Editing: Bob Murkawski and Orson Welles  – The Other Side of the Wind

Best Original Screenplay: Paul Schrader – First Reformed

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sam Dolnick- The Mule

Isabel Garcia

  1. First Reformed (Schrader) 
  2. Ready Player One (Spielberg) 
  3. BlacKkKlansman (Lee) 
  4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Neville)
  5. Upgrade (Whannell) 
  6. First Man (Chazelle) 
  7. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Fiennes)
  8. Sollers Point (Porterfield)
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse  (Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman) 
  10. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood) 

Honorable Mentions: Creed II (Steven Caple Jr.) / Incredibles 2 (Bird) / Mission: Impossible – Fallout (McQuarrie) / Bodied (Kahn) / The Rider (Zhao) / Green Book (Farrelly) / Roma (Cuaron)

Worst Of: Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) / A Quiet Place (Krasinski) 

Matt Strohl

The first three are tremendous and I don’t think I can meaningfully rank them at this point, but I tried anyways. The movie that I most regret not getting to see in time for this list is If Beale Street Could Talk. NB, Josh included Lover for a Day on his list last year, but it’s technically a 2018 USA release.

  1. The Mule (Eastwood) A consummate masterpiece where Clint checks his privilege, reflects on his greatest regrets in life, examines his own mythology, poetically depicts the creative drive, elaborates a Kiarostami-esque existential driving theme, and much, much more.
  2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami) Haunting deathbed meditation from one of the greatest artists of our time, it hasn’t left my thoughts since I watched it.
  3. The Other Side of the Wind (Welles) I specifically do NOT recommend this to most people, it is very aggressive. I will not try to blurb it, I haven’t even begun to comes to terms with it, but I may write a longer piece eventually.
  4. First Reformed (Schrader) Schrader finally makes a film in the transcendental style.
  5. Unsane (Soderbergh) In the tradition of Shock Corridor, it’s one of the most effective thrillers in recent memory, making spectacular use of the iPhone camera.
  6. Let the Sunshine In (Denis) Lovely freeform character study with gorgeous Agnès Godard cinematography.
  7. Ray Meets Helen (Rudolph) Rudolph’s humor, magic, and romanticism are in peak form and it’s wonderful to see a septuagenarian love story so light on its feet, even if it does lose itself a bit in the final act.
  8. Double Lover (Ozon) Exhilarating, lurid, and gives no fucks about making sense.
  9. Roma (Cuarón) Reaching into the past not with nostalgia, but with agonizing hindsight and futile compassion—technical virtuosity as contrition.
  10. Ready Player One (Spielberg) Masterful, infinitely entertaining pop cinema that I like more every time I watch it (which is already a lot of times); it gets back to some of the themes of A.I., which I consider to be his masterpiece.
  11. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood) Clint invents conservative postmodernism.
  12. Lover for a Day (Garrel) The best of Garrel’s recent trilogy, his use of light is in vintage form here.
  13. The Day After (Hong) The purposefully disorienting timeline is fascinating and the social horror is acute.
  14. Milla (Massadian) Bracingly original inside-out storytelling, the opposite of condescending towards its subjects.
  15. Western (Grisebach) Brilliantly acted reappropriation of western archetypes to examine contemporary globalism.
  16. The Night Comes for Us (Tjajhanto) When he broke the guy’s leg in half and used each jagged piece to kill a separate guy I knew this would be in my top 20.
  17. The Nun (Hardy) In the year when Guadagnino delivered Italian horror cinema the ultimate insult, this was the movie that celebrated its legacy: part Fulci, part Bava, and the most crucifixes in one movie ever.
  18. The Commuter (Collett-Serra) Everything a thriller should be and a smart commentary on contemporary urban life.
  19. Bodied (Kahn) Might be hard to take if you don’t like battle rap, but this is relentlessly audacious and insightful and the finale is amazing.
  20. Venom (Fleischer) So bonkers and fun, it’s easily my favorite comic book blockbuster in years.
  21. Cam (Goldhaber) Smart, scary, erotic technological horror.
  22. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont) Too long but plenty mesmerizing and I love the concept.
  23. Looking Glass (Hunter) Excellent Nicolas Cage creepy hotel voyeur thriller.
  24. Rodin (Doillon) A Rodin biopic more focused on depicting his process and ruminating on the birth of modernism in sculpture than on narrative, and it has the strongest sense of tactility of any movie in recent memory.
  25. Burning (Lee) Elusive, gut-clenching movie that definitely stuck with me.
  26. Zama (Martel) Odd colonial purgatory tale with an impressive sense of misery and some very memorable touches.
  27. BlacKkKlansman (Lee) I was a little disappointed by how conventional it is compared to Chi-Raq, but it really moves and I enjoy how much Spike loves depicting white people leaning into the Klan shit.
  28. Between Worlds (Pulera) Maximally ridiculous new age possession movie, with Nicolas Cage in full comedic excess mode.
  29. May the Devil Take You (Tjajhanto) Energetic Raimi-esque horror.
  30. Mom and Dad (Taylor) Fun, violent, and irreverent.
  31. Den of Thieves (Gudegast) Trash version of Heat that works because Gerard Butler is so utterly committed—you can smell his body odor.
  32. Shoplifters (Kore-eda) Sakura Ando’s performance is deeply moving and the first two acts are beautiful, but the procedural third act is a stylistic letdown.
  33. Upgrade (Whanell) A companion piece to Venom, with less exciting acting but some very cool and weird action scenes.
  34. Creed 2 (Caples Jr.) Holy shit, I did not expect the dramatic punch of following up on Ivan Drago.
  35. Paddington 2 (King) This is the closest we have nowadays to vintage slapstick; Brendan Gleeson and Hugh Grant are amazing.
  36. First Man (Chazelle) Stunningly beautiful, but weighed down by the bad choice to use archival material (especially the sound during the landing).
  37. Love, Simon (Berlanti) I was totally ready to be cynical about this (I watched it on an airplane) but it melted my cold heart and by the end I just really wanted Simon to have a nice boyfriend.
  38. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel) Checking off the obligatory van Gogh biopic boxes is painful, Schnabel’s bifocal shots are often annoying, and Oscar Isaac is no Anthony Quinn, but Dafoe is utterly amazing and all the scenes of him painting and basking in nature are enough to sustain this.
  39. Fifty Shades Freed (Foley) Ridiculous, amazing Grade A camp.
  40. Annihilation (Garland) I don’t take this too seriously: it’s a solid genre movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  41. Hold the Dark (Saulnier) Ultra-weird black metal sloooooooooow horror, not for everyone.
  42. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Surya) Uneven but deeply strange in an appealing way and the payoff is worth it.
  43. Blindspotting (Estrada) Stands above most of the other topical indie movies of recent years thanks to its complex outlook and dire intensity.
  44. Blockers (Cannon) Refreshingly raunchy, very funny gender-inverted American Pie.
  45. Support the Girls (Bujalski) Great ensemble cast, sweet and poignant, if slight.
  46. Bird Box (Bier) Very fun if approached as a trashy B movie.
  47. Claire’s Camera (Hong) Minor Hong, but that’s still pretty good.
  48. Super Troopers 2 (Chandrasekhar) Starts out clumsy but once it gets going it feels like a hilarious time capsule from a better era of comedy.
  49. Green Book (Farrelley) Well-acted buddy movie examining issues at the intersection of class and race.
  50. Before We Vanish (Kurosawa) There’s some great material but it plods on too long and lacks bite.
  51. The Rider (Zhao)- I don’t care for Zhao’s visual style but the non-professional acting is amazing.
  52. Hereditary (Aster) Takes itself too seriously in certain ways and botches the finale but peak Toni Collette.
  53. Skyscraper (Thurber) A spectacularly silly B movie with the Rock.
  54. A Simple Favor (Feig) Mostly a fun comedic thriller, but it doesn’t stick the landing and the end title cards are unforgivable.
  55. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros.) I appreciate how morbid it is but the vignettes range from delightful to godawful and cringe-inducing (ugh that Liam Neeson one). Pan shot!
  56. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed) Unlike most Marvel movies, it has a genuine sense of wonder.
  57. The Endless (Benson and Moorhead) I like the low-budget Lovecraft vibe, but it pulls its punches.
  58. The Meg (Turteltaub) Giant prehistoric shark campfest with all sorts of ridiculous fake science and Jason Statham.
  59. Incredibles 2 (Bird) Good energy and imagination but I would be fine if this turns out to be the last movie I ever see where the world realizes we really do need superheroes.
  60. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (Mitchell) The first part of this is hilarious but it totally loses me well before it’s over.
  61. Mandy (Cosmatos) Try-hard hipster shit, but not without its pleasures.
  62. Revenge (Fargeat) Mostly standard rape-revenge movie that’s overly slick but has a solid finale.
  63. Game Night (Daley and Goldstein) Too much but often funny and the cast is solid.
  64. Rampage (Peyton) Another fun B movie with the Rock.
  65. Halloween (Green) Half-ass Halloween movie that partly redeems itself with a few inspired sequences and an appropriate sense of love for the original.
  66. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts) I appreciate its 80’s heart but it loses what’s special and terrifying about the first one.
  67. Isle of Dogs (Anderson) The high points are high (F. Murray Abraham!) but the Greta Gerwig stuff is a disaster and Wes didn’t really have very many ideas here.
  68. Mission Impossible: Fallout (McQuarrie) There’s no impossible mission, it’s just a generic spy movie.
  69. Tomb Raider (Uthaug) For what this is, it’s actually pretty good, and it’s got Walton Goggins doing his usual thing.
  70. Unfriended: Dark Web (Susco) I like the form but the screenplay is too stupid for the movie to have much grip for me.
  71. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona) A hot mess that partly redeems itself with its ridiculous genre mashups and amazing Republican dinosaur auction.
  72. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard) Donald Glover is great and there are some good set pieces but the dude who plays Han is bad and this isn’t even trying to be better than mediocre.
  73. 211 (Shackleton) So-bad-it’s-good low budget Nicolas Cage cops and robbers movie.
  74. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay) A grindhouse movie that’s afraid to be what it is.
  75. Happy as Lazzaro (Rohrwacher) Manderlay as a fairy tale– there are some nice ideas but I found it plodding and heavy handed.
  76. Bad Times at the El Royale (Goddard) Too cute for its own good and way bloated, but Chris Hemsworth is amazing.
  77. The First Purge (McMurray) The most generic and unremarkable in the series.
  78. A Star is Born (Cooper) The one thing that works about this is the chemistry between the leads, but that disappears in the second half and all that’s left is Cooper’s amateurish direction, tired musical biopic clichés, and some boring solo numbers from Gaga.
  79. Black Panther (Coogler) I love Michael B. Jordan in this but otherwise it doesn’t interest me.
  80. The Equalizer 2 (Fuqua) Disappointing and tired.
  81. The Favourite (Lanthimos) Emma Stone is terrible, the script (not written by Lanthimos) is tepid, and the movie looks like shitty Barry Lyndon with too much fisheye lens nonsense.
  82. The Girl in the Spider Web (Alvarez) Yo, Claire Foy, that’s not a real accent, but I do sort of enjoy how spectacularly bad this movie is.
  83. Apostle (Evans) This has like a half a movie worth of ideas.
  84. Pacific Rim Uprising (DeKnight) Very disappointing—utterly dumb sequel to a movie that I loved.
  85. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu) So many missed opportunities (you can’t get one joke out of that party boat set piece?), overloaded with cloying bright colors, and how can you unreflectively treat million dollar earrings as authentic self-fulfillment in 2018?
  86. Assassination Nation (Levison) Incompetent, derivative topical pandering.
  87. The Humanity Bureau (King) So tedious I struggled to finish it, but at least its ambition is low.
  88. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci) Godawful concept, not funny aside from Rupert Friend, Jeffery Tambor is as bad as it gets.
  89. Sorry to Bother You (Riley) Painful to watch, not even slightly witty.
  90. Eighth Grade (Burnham) Toothless Welcome to the Dollhouse by way of a hamfisted Sofia Coppola imitation, with a lot of sexualized ogling of the bodies of middle school kids.
  91. Leave No Trace (Granik) Boring Instagram trash that needed a killer bear or a bounty hunter or something.
  92. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) To paraphrase our friend Chris Knitter, it’s the cinematic equivalent of the Old Country Buffet.
  93. Widows (McQueen) Pandering topical heist movie without a proper heist.
  94. A Quiet Place (Krasinski) The most inept horror movie in recent memory.
  95. Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer) Reprehensible gay-shaming trash fire featuring the worst Freddie Mercury impression imaginable (for one thing, I don’t want to punch the actual Freddie Mercury in the face) and editing that appears to have been done by a hyperactive toddler.
  96. Suspiria (Guadagnino) Suspiria minus everything that makes it good, plus a lot of pretentious bullshit—it offends me on a personal level.

Top ten performances not by Nicolas Cage:

  1. Sakura Ando in Shoplifters
  2. Tom Hardy in Venom
  3. Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves
  4. Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
  5. John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind
  6. Selma Blair in Mom and Dad
  7. Toni Collette in Hereditary
  8. Meinhard Neumann in Western
  9. Keith Carradine in Ray Meets Helen
  10. Kim Min-hee in The Day After

Angela Shope

  1. First Reformed (Schrader)
  2. Rodin (Doillon)
  3. Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour (Åkerlund)
  4. The Rider (Zhao)
  5. Den of Thieves (Gudegast)
  6. Roma (Cuaron)
  7. 50 Shades Freed (Foley)
  8. Milla (Massadian)
  9. First Man (Chazelle)
  10. Lover for a Day (Garrel)
  11. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel)
  12. Let the Sunshine In (Denis)
  13. Upgrade (Whanell)
  14. The Favourite (Lanthimos)
  15. A Star is Born (Cooper)

Worst of the year:

  1. Sorry to Bother You (Riley)
  2. A Quiet Place (Krasinski)
  3. Isle of Dogs (Anderson)
  4. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers)
  5. Widows (McQueen)
  6. Black Panther (Coogler)
  7. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu)
  8. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood)
  9. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci)
  10. Zama (Martel)


Nicolas Cage year in review: 2018

This was a busy year for Nicolas Cage. He was in 8 movies, including smaller voice-acting parts in two animated movies (Spiderverse and Teen Titans). I didn’t see either of them, but Josh says he’s funny in Spiderverse.  We’re only including movies that he starred in.

The Cage movie everyone was talking about this year was Mandy. To be frank, as longtime Cage diehards who have eagerly watched every damn direct-to-video crime movie he’s ever done, our feeling is that Mandy is for posers. The key to the latter-day Nicolas Cage movie is that it’s just a regular movie that Cage took in some extraordinary direction. Cage is most often at his best when he’s out of proportion with everything else. Mandy is too self-consciously a Nicolas Cage movie, and it teeters on the brink of self-parody. If Cage made two other movies like Mandy, it would be time to declare him on the decline. Thank god, he did not. He made three movies that were considerably better and a couple others that were trash (which we are fine with: it can’t all be fine dining, and wading through trash makes it all the more gratifying when he hits one out of the park).

Without further ado, our ranking of the six movies that Cage starred in this year:

1) Looking Glass (Hunter)

Image result for looking glass movie cage

Tim Hunter! You’d probably know him from River’s Edge, but he also directed episodes of many popular TV shows (Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Riverdale, and lots of others). Looking Glass is pure sleaze and we love it. It opens with credits in David Lynch font and some ominous driving. We soon learn that married couple Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney are struggling after losing their only daughter and have purchased a scuzzy motel off Craigslist in hopes of starting a new life. The hook is: Cage finds a secret passageway to a two-way mirror where he can spy on guests! It’s a bit like Bad Times at the El Royale, but good. His performance is brilliant throughout, and he’s doing something that he’s never done before. It’s a relatively understated performance, without a lot of screaming and shouting, but it is totally batshit. Three things especially stand out. First: for most of the movie, whenever he’s not looking through the spy mirror, he’s thinking about looking through the spy mirror. The distracting obsession is all over his face. Second: his reactions! There are dozens of meme-worthy reactions in this movie. Certainly all the scenes where he’s perving out at the spy mirror are pure gold, but his reaction to his own messed up dream is priceless. Third: the sex scenes with Robin Tunney are magnificent.

2) Between Worlds (Pulera)

Image result for cage between worlds

If it were just me writing this, I probably would have put this first, but Josh feels strongly about Looking Glass and he makes a strong enough case that I decided to concede this one. Looking Glass has Cage doing something we’ve never seen him do before, whereas this is another in a long line of balls-to-the-wall Cage explosions. But what an explosion it is. I mean look: he’s wearing a shark tooth necklace. It’s hard to describe this, but basically: Cage is a truck driver who has lost his wife and daughter. He meets a woman with psychic powers (Franka Potente, from Run Lola Run) who wants him to help guide her comatose daughter’s soul back to her body, but Cage’s wife’s soul ends up possessing the daughter. It’s completely insane throughout, with Cage leaning into the white trash angle. There’s lots of weird sex shit and the movie savors every morsel of luridness. Director Maria Pulera is someone to watch.

3) Mom and Dad (Taylor)

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We love Brian Taylor and this movie is a ton of fun. It’s a fairly straightforward extrapolation of an excellent premise: parents everywhere are overtaken with an uncontrollable urge to murder their children. Cage here is very clearly paying homage to Jack Nicholson. It’s a blast, even if his performance is predictable. Mom and Dad loses some Cage factor points because Selma Blair soundly upstages him.

4) Mandy (Cosmatos)

Image result for mandy cage

Ah, Mandy. Look, we wanted to love this. We thought we would love this. But we just didn’t. It’s a glorified music video, remixing tropes that have been done so much better before (you want a scary satanic sex cult? Let me direct you to Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, which eats Mandy for breakfast). The storytelling is inept in a bad way (it’s too pretentious to enjoy its ineptness as such). The part that irked me the most was when he sets out to track down the cult, with only one lead about where they might be, and we cut *immediately* to him having them in his crosshairs. I mean c’mon, how can there be tension when you don’t even try? Also, to borrow an observation from Brazilian critic Filipe Furtado, it takes a special kind of mediocrity to render a meeting between Nicolas Cage and Bill Duke underwhelming. And yet that’s what Cosmatos has done here. We don’t hate Mandy, though, we just think it’s overrated and for posers. We have to admit that it has two scenes that immediately join the Cage pantheon: vodka-chugging and axe-forging.

5) 211 (Shackleton)

Image result for 211 nicolas cage

This is deep in the bottom of the bargain bin. It does, however, work on the good-bad level. What makes it fun is that the bank robbers are total psychopaths who kill people indiscriminately rather than professionals who only resort to violence if they have to. Cage loses it only once, but there are lots of fun shots of him casually shooting a pistol in the general direction of a building full of hostages. One of the main arcs in this is “bullied black teenager learns that white cops are his friends,” and so A+ for “Not ALL white cops. Not Nic Cage, for instance.”

6) The Humanity Bureau (King)

Image result for the humanity bureau nicolas cage

Alas, this one has basically no redeeming value. It starts off with a promising setup: it’s the near future, and climate change, etc.. has messed everything up real bad so that there’s not enough to go around in the US anymore. There’s a dystopian state with a policy of deporting anyone who produces less than they consume to the euphemistically-named “New Eden.” The Humanity Bureau is like the new I.C.E., but now they’re scooping up derelict Trump supporters (yes, Trump is explicitly referenced). Anyways, it quickly loses any semblance of interest and becomes a tedious slog. No Cage factor to speak of.