All-Time Movie Rankings | Travis Bean

Hi, my name is Travis Bean. And I have…well. I have what some people say is “unique” taste in movies. Other people would use different adjectives: terrible, questionable, contrarian, etc. And hey, everybody is entitled to their opinions—including me. I like the movies I like and hate the movies I hate for a reason. You may not like it, but that’s the beauty of movie-loving: there’s always a new conversation to have. And I want to fearlessly be part of that discussion.

So Chris (co-founder of Film Colossus) and I decided to start these lists. This page will chronicle and rank every single movie I’ve watched starting January 1, 2022. I will be recording my thoughts about each and every movie along the way. And whatever your reaction—whether it be anger or combativeness or delight—I want to hear about it. If you disagree with me, leave and comment and I’ll respond. If you think there’s more to love in a film, leave a comment and I’ll respond. If you want to join in and trash a movie I hated, leave a comment and I’ll respond. But don’t just write me off—I won’t have time for that. I don’t want to shy away from how I feel about movies, but embrace those feelings. And I hope it inspire you to do the same.

If you don’t see a movie in these rankings, it either means I’ve never seen it or I haven’t seen it since starting this list (in reality I’ve seen thousands of movies). I watch new movies all the time, but I also greatly enjoy revisiting old favorites. So hopefully this list will become more comprehensive over time. If you’d like to see my ratings for every movie I’ve ever watched, then check out my Letterboxd.

Every movie I watched will be part of my all-time rankings. But if you’d like read my thoughts on any movie released after 2021, then check out my other lists:

Table of Contents:

Latest Movies I’ve Watched

Triangle of Sadness

A man and a woman sunbathe on a boat

Amongst the long line of great films about classism and capitalism, from Nightcrawler to Citizen Kane to The Exterminating Angel, I’m not sure how to feel about Triangle of Sadness. The first movie is benefitted by a richly deep character study; the second mirrors the soul-sucking yet undeniably attractive story of American greed; while the third provides Freudian insight into the existential emptiness of unfathomably banal social parameters. All three offer fascinating insight into classism and all its crippling and dehumanizing pitfalls. While Triangle of Sadness…well. I’m not sure what’s there beyond “classism is stupid.” Not that there necessarily needs to be more: a gripping, biting satire can own such a lean focus as it tears down the powers and overwhelming mentalities that be. But in the case of this movie, over the course of 147 minutes and several chapters, the message is strangely both saturated and slight. If there is more nuance to the commentary, it lies within Carl’s story as he navigates the absurdity of economic structures. He is by far the most sympathetic and engaging character, given he’s a mirror image of anyone who’s felt either entranced or subjugated by capitalistic systems. Between Yaya and the yacht and the island, we witness Carl traverse the various facets of capitalism, culminating with a brilliantly relatable moment where the only seeming option amidst all this ridiculousness is to run run run away. And throughout Carl’s journey, there are fleeting moments of genius, from the runway show to the sinking ship to that poor, poor donkey. Yet, within all those ideas lies the problem: the movie is all about structure, less about character. If I were invested in Carl—or anyone in this movie, for that matter—like I was invested in Lou in Nightcrawler or Charles in Citizen Kane or the vapid bourgeoisie troupe in The Exterminating Angel, then I could extract some nuance from the commentary. But as is, the movie does no more than simply observe what is. Luckily, great acting and truly hilarious moments make the journey pleasurable. Still…I’m left wanting more.

Watch Triangle of Sadness on:

The Banshees of Inisherin (second watch)

A man walks with a donkey in the hills of Ireland

For the podcast, I had to watch The Banshees of Inisherin for the second time, and I wasn’t excited about it. The first time around, I found the pacing to be sedative, the symbolism to be overt, the revelations to be much less than profound. But this time around, I settled into the tempo a bit more, which led to less concentration on the Irish allegories (which, again, are deafeningly conveyed through dialogue—the least sexy thing a film can do) and more focus on the overwhelming despair that hangs over the inhabitants of Inisherin. This is both the film’s greatest strength and its biggest missed opportunity. I cannot deny the heavy existential burden that rests on the shoulders of Pádraic and Colm, two characters that represent the Irish Free State and the Irish Republican Army during the Irish Civil War, that capture the debilitating division manifested by the country’s sociopolitical dipole. Their estrangement that at first struck me as plodding became strikingly familiar and innate on second watch as I considered the seemingly ceaseless sociopolitical division that grips my own country, that has gripped just about any civilization in the history of man. This incessant weight wears on society with age, crippling us one by one as we maneuver the cruelties of life to find inner solace. But despite all those philosophical quandaries at the film’s center, The Banshees of Inisherin’s inescapably listless nature wins out. The utter lack of life and style falls on director Martin McDonagh’s shoulders. While he allows his actors room to breathe and explore the existential dread, McDonagh’s drowsy approach sometimes renders the revelations rather ordinary. Pauline Kael once wrote that films must “astonish us,” they must unearth a deep-seated and often unwelcome recognition of life’s cruelest realities, of the soul’s irreparableness. As much as I like thinking about and discussing the ideology of The Banshees of Inisherin, the film’s composite aesthetic—from the abundant static shots to the overtly pronounced symbolism to the unambiguously drawn characters—is less than moving.

Watch The Banshees of Inisherin on:

The Fabelmans

A boy sits with his parents in a movie theater

I love metafilms. But they can be a tad…obvious. The fact that you’re watching “a movie within a movie” often becomes an overwhelming pessimistic force, rendering the deeper thematic implications moot. Even great movies like 8½, The Passion of Anna,and This is Not a Film own an inescapable sense of dread. That is not the case with The Fabelmans—a metafilm that tracks Steven Spielberg’s growth as a man, as an artist with depth, with nuance, with overwhelming compassion. To an extent, all art is a means of self-evaluation for an artist. But when the narrative, when the aesthetic is so self-aware, it’s often bogged down with grievances and dissatisfaction. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, but Spielberg unearths such benevolence, so many honest life lessons in his self-evaluation that the optimism completely vanquishes any semblance of cynicism. The camera is Sammy’s tool for growth and self-discovery, for his deeper understanding of the world and all its distinctions. We aren’t just watching a boy named Sammy grow up. We’re watching Spielberg’s evaluation of his own life. We’re watching an active therapy session as Spielberg recalls key moments from his life and vulnerably excavates important lessons for all of us to contemplate. It’s rare to encounter such an intimate meta experience that leaves you feeling hopeful about humanity’s ability to overcome and realize its deepest passions.

Watch The Fabelmans on:

All-Time Movie Rankings

All-Time Favorites

  1. Showgirls (1995)
  2. Magnolia (1999)
  3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
  4. Magic Mike XXL (2015)
  5. Superbad (2007)
  6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  7. Terrifier 2 (2022)
  8. Flash Gordon (1980)


  1. The Red Shoes (1948)
  2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
  3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
  4. Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)
  5. The Birds (1963)
  6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
  7. A Taxing Woman (1987)
  8. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
  9. Malignant (2021)
  10. Batman & Robin (1997)
  11. There Will Be Blood (2007)
  12. Nymphomaniac (2013)
  13. The Piano (1993)
  14. Vortex (2022)
  15. Groundhog Day (1993)
  16. Torn Curtain (1966)
  17. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
  18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
  19. jeen-yuhs (2022)
  20. Scream (1996)
  21. Ticket to Paradise (2022)
  22. Bayan Ko (1984)
  23. Bad Boys II (2003)
  24. Knock at the Cabin (2023)
  25. RoboCop (1987)
  26. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2022)
  27. The Descent (2005)
  28. The Holy Mountain (1973)
  29. Citizen Kane (1941)
  30. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
  31. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  32. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
  33. The Big Combo (1955)
  34. West Side Story (2021)


  1. Basic Instinct (1992)
  2. Now You See Me (2013)
  3. Don Jon (2013)
  4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  5. Under the Silver Lake (2018)
  6. Clash (1984)
  7. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
  8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
  9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2010)
  10. Psycho (1960)
  11. Melancholia (2011)
  12. Get Out (2017)
  13. Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)
  14. The Gunfighter (1950)
  15. Inception (2010)
  16. The Holy Mountain (1926)
  17. The Last Duel (2021)
  18. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
  19. Benedetta (2021)
  20. Prometheus (2012)
  21. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
  22. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  23. The French Dispatch (2021)
  24. X (2022)
  25. Happy Gilmore (1996)
  26. Dirty Dancing (1987)
  27. They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
  28. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
  29. Johnny Guitar (1954)
  30. Underworld (2003)
  31. Underworld: Evolution (2006)
  32. Puppet Master (1989)
  33. Dog (2022)
  34. Signs (2002)
  35. Pain & Gain (2013)
  36. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
  37. Friday the 13th (1980)
  38. Scarface (1983)
  39. Alien (1979)
  40. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
  41. Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
  42. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
  43. The Sixth Sense (1999)
  44. Fallen Angel (1945)
  45. Cool as Ice (1991)
  46. Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)
  47. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  48. I Love You, Man (2009)
  49. Little Italy (2018)
  50. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
  51. Fargo (1996)
  52. Nightmare Alley (1947)
  53. 300 (2006)

Very Good

  1. Ambulance (2022)
  2. 21 Jump Street (2012)
  3. Ball of Fire (1941)
  4. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
  6. Old (2021)
  7. Mandibles (2020)
  8. Saboteur (1942)
  9. Blade (1998)
  10. Parents (1989)
  11. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
  12. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
  13. The Man from Laramie (1955)
  14. Tenet (2020)
  15. Danzón (1991)
  16. This Gun for Hire (1942)
  17. Castle in the Sky (1986)
  18. Licorice Pizza (2021)
  19. Frenzy (1972)
  20. Light Sleeper (1992)
  21. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
  22. The Caper of the Golden Bulls (1967)
  23. 22 Jump Street (2014)
  24. RRR (2022)
  25. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
  26. Misery (1990)
  27. France (2021)
  28. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
  29. Orphan: First Kill (2022)
  30. The Monster Squad (1987)
  31. The Lake House (2006)
  32. Unforgiven (1992)
  33. Madman (1981)
  34. Kimi (2022)
  35. Out of the Fog (1941)
  36. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
  37. The Best Man Holiday (2013)
  38. Step Up (2006)
  39. The Hurricane Heist (2018)
  40. The Holiday (2006)
  41. A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988)
  42. Alien: Covenant (2017)
  43. Grease (1978)
  44. The Lady Eve (1941)
  45. Akira (1988)
  46. First Love (2019)
  47. Resident Evil (2002)
  48. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
  49. SexWorld (1978)
  50. Drive My Car (2021)
  51. Holiday in Handcuffs (2007)
  52. V/H/S/99 (2022)
  53. The Card Counter (2021)
  54. Last Night in Soho (2021)
  55. Resident Evil (2002)
  56. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  57. The Glass Key (1942)
  58. The Hateful Eight (2015)
  59. Murder at the Mansion (2019)
  60. I Am Legend (2007)
  61. The Swimming Pool (1969)
  62. Wish Upon (2017)
  63. Rubber (2010)
  64. Aliens (1986)
  65. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
  66. Deep Red (1975)
  67. Step Up 3D (2010)
  68. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  69. Killing Spree (1987)
  70. Day for Night (1973)
  71. Isle of Dogs (2018)
  72. Not Okay (2022)
  73. The Front Page (1931)
  74. Constantine (2005)
  75. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)
  76. Casino (1995)
  77. History is Made at Night (1937)
  78. Erin Brockovich (2000)
  79. The Browning Version (1951)
  80. Decision to Leave (2022)
  81. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
  82. Die Hard (1988)


  1. Odd Man Out (1947)
  2. Road to Salina (1970)
  3. High Sierra (1941)
  4. Heathers (1989)
  5. The Player (1992)
  6. And Soon the Darkness (1970)
  7. Dial M for Murder (1954)
  8. Mad God (2022)
  9. Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)
  10. The Secret of Convict Lake (1951)
  11. Ministry of Fear (1944)
  12. My Dinner With Andre (1981)
  13. The Green Man (1956)
  14. The Night House (2020)
  15. House of Gucci (2021)
  16. Fire of Love (2022)
  17. Gremlins (1984)
  18. Family Plot (1976)
  19. The Voyeurs (2021)
  20. A Star is Born (2018)
  21. Babysitter (2022)
  22. Turkey Shoot (1982)
  23. For Your Consideration (2006)
  24. Notting Hill (1999)
  25. They Live (1988)
  26. Night Tide (1961)
  27. The Blue Lamp (1950)
  28. Topaz (1969)
  29. Flatliners (1990)
  30. Dracula Sucks (1978)
  31. Nope (2022)
  32. Mean Girls (2004)
  33. Baby Doll (1956)
  34. Magnificent Obsession (1954)
  35. The Funeral (1984)
  36. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
  37. Deep Water (2022)
  38. Morbius (2022)
  39. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
  40. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
  41. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971)
  42. Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015)
  43. The Blue Dahlia (1946)
  44. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)
  45. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
  46. Bend it Like Beckham (2002)
  47. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
  48. Jackass Forever (2022)
  49. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)
  50. Midnight Run (1988)
  51. Confess, Fletch (2022)
  52. Now You See Me 2 (2016)
  53. Baby Blood (1990)
  54. Spin Me Round (2022)
  55. Falling for Christmas (2022)
  56. The Bob’s Burgers Movie (2022)
  57. The Making of Psycho (1997)
  58. 12 Pups of Christmas (2019)
  59. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
  60. Automata (2014)
  61. A Mighty Wind (2003)

Misses The Mark

  1. Spencer (2021)
  2. Holiday (1938)
  3. The Batman (2022)
  4. The Gentlemen (2019)
  5. Pacific Heights (1990)
  6. M3gan (2023)
  7. The Last Dance (1993)
  8. Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)
  9. Wife of a Spy (2020)
  10. Women Talking (2022)
  11. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
  12. This Much I Know to Be True (2022)
  13. I Love My Dad (2022)
  14. Neighbors (2014)
  15. Angel Face (1953)
  16. Batman (1989)
  17. This is 40 (2012)
  18. He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)
  19. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)
  20. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
  21. Big Fish (2003)
  22. Black Panther (2018)
  23. My Man Godfrey (1936)
  24. Hud (1963)
  25. Kiss of Death (1947)
  26. Logan (2017)
  27. The Social Network (2010)
  28. Major League (1989)
  29. Qala (2022)
  30. You Can Never Tell (1951)
  31. Alien 3 (1992)
  32. Bubble (2022)
  33. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
  34. The French Connection (1971)
  35. Me Time (2022)
  36. Facing Nolan (2022)
  37. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
  38. Desperado (1995)
  39. Friends and Strangers (2021)
  40. Crazy, Rich, and Deadly (2020)
  41. Wedding Crashers (2005)
  42. Jolt (2021)


  1. On the Rocks (2020)
  2. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)
  3. La La Land (2016)
  4. The Raid (2011)
  5. Candyman (2021)
  6. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  7. Parasite (2019)
  8. The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
  9. Prey (2022)
  10. House by the River (1950)
  11. The Northman (2022)
  12. Down to Earth (2001)
  13. La La Land (2016)
  14. You People (2023)
  15. Fresh (2022)
  16. Ip Man (2008)
  17. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
  18. The Automat (2021)
  19. Vengeance (2022)
  20. Death on the Nile (2022)
  21. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

Just Plain Bad

  1. The Daytrippers (1996)
  2. Don’t Worry Darling (2022)
  3. The King’s Man (2021)
  4. John Wick (2014)
  5. Bullet Train (2022)
  6. Reign of Fire (2002)
  7. The Pale Blue Eye (2023)
  8. Tár (2022)
  9. 10 Years (2011)
  10. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
  11. The Lost City (2022)
  12. Christmas with the Campbells (2022)
  13. Alien Resurrection (1997)
  14. Blade: Trinity (2004)
  15. Senior Year (2022)
  16. A Time to Kill (1996)
  17. Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

Really Bad

  1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
  2. Don’t Look Up (2021)
  3. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
  4. Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
  5. Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
  6. Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)
  7. The Menu (2022)
  8. Barbarian (2022)
  9. Closer (2004)
  10. Spotlight (2015)
  11. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


  1. Scream (2022)
  2. Vivarium (2019)
  3. The Gray Man (2022)
  4. Hereditary (2018)

Movie Diary

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Four people stand in front of their cars on a street

As explosive and gigantic as the Fast & Furious movies have become, the franchise has always excelled because of the emotionally rich core established by the first two films. The whole “family” theme has become a joke with these movies, yet it remains the unwavering foundation: we believe these characters love each other and want to help one another succeed. And the family has gotten so big at this point that it’s easy to forget about a movie like 2 Fast 2 Furious, where two of the franchise’s main characters (Brian and Roman) rehabilitated a friendship that previously was in disarray. The movie may feel small in comparison with a juggernaut like Fast Five, but the stakes are every bit as compelling and meaningful. Before Brian calls on Roman to help take down a drug lord, crucial pieces of these characters were missing amidst the rubble of their fallout. But by the end of the movie, their electric chemistry, their transformative teamwork, their sincere love for one another helps them rebuild.

The movie has a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, which tells you everything you need to know about the current critical discourse. Critics “ooh and awe” only when it’s a larger-than-life formula they can appreciate from a distance. Fast Five succeeded in their eyes because the action suddenly towered over the character dynamics—while 2 Fast 2 Furious failed because the emotion was too raw. John Singleton understood a crucial balance: the car chases and gunfire mean nothing without strong characters and strong themes. Everything must coalesce into a beautiful whole that reflects the severity at hand: Brian and Roman need to fix this friendship, because their future depends on it. 

And this is the foundation of Singleton’s breathtaking aesthetic. His flash-and-dash style isn’t goofy and cartoonish, but unrelentingly authentic. Brian and Roman are in desperate need of a pivot, and time is running out. They’ve let many great years pass them, and the urgency to set a new course is palpable. Every twist and turn on life’s racetrack is another obstacle they must overcome. And without each other, it’s hopeless. When all is said and done—after we’ve gotten through the insane car chases and police raids, after the chips have been removed from everybody’s shoulders, after Brian and Roman have rediscovered essential parts of their beings—2 Fast 2 Furious is a movie about friendship. This wonderfully simple scope allowed Singleton to have the last laugh in the end. What a master.

Watch 2 Fast 2 Furious on:

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

A black car and an orange car stop at a streetlight

My heart warms thinking about this movie. I am a vocal fan of the Fast & Furious franchise, and I have absolutely loved to watch it become a box office juggernaut with its outrageous action formula. The characters have essentially become superheroes in cars: they never die, and can complete any world-threatening task you throw their way. All the while, they have remained incredibly lovable and interesting as they’ve grown as individuals, grown as a family. And that’s largely thanks to The Fast and the Furious. As much as I have loved watching this franchise’s trajectory, I miss the original Fast & Furious formula so much. The atmosphere of the car-loving community, the insanely gripping dynamics between characters, the beautiful wash of colors and choreography that engulfs a collection of passionate people who are just trying to get by—it’s all just so wonderful. 

Rob Cohen brought such life to what most critics believed to be a story too stupid for their viewing pleasure (The Fast & the Furious owns a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes, which made me feel worse for the current critical landscape than ever before). He was completely committed to giving this humble L.A. setting such movement and rhythm, such ambience and character, such liveliness and importance. Family and community matter most to these characters trying to find themselves. The stakes are seemingly contained, with Dominic’s sort-of hilarious mission to rob DVD players from trucks, yet the stakes are so incredibly high for these characters who are looking to make their stamps on the world. That balance gives this movie a strange sense of delicacy, a gripping sense of urgency that no critic believed it should have back in 2001. These characters are trying to figure out life as it passes by at 120 miles an hour—and they’re racing to keep up. The entire aesthetic is so brilliant and realized. Twenty-two years and billions of dollars in box office receipts later, it’s undeniable that this rich foundation laid the groundwork for the greatest franchise of our time.

Watch The Fast and the Furious on:

La La Land (2016)

A woman in a yellow dress and a man in a white shirt dance as Los Angeles rests in the background

I just don’t know what I’m supposed to think about a movie like La La Land. It seemingly has nothing to say, and has no intention of providing more than “a fun time at the movies.” But what good is that when the musical numbers vacillate between sappy monotony and turbulent chaos? When there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, when the aesthetic is constantly vague, when your two leads in a MUSICAL can’t sing or dance!? In my mind, the only thing this movie pretending to be a whimsical musical has going for it is the two incredibly watchable people leading the film. They alone infuse what is apparently supposed to be an ode to classic musicals with life. Outside any musical numbers—which, thankfully, is most of the movie—this flick comes to life. Despite my seemingly incessant criticisms, La La Land is largely watchable (which is about the nicest I can be to this movie) because of those two.

Elsewhere, the “life” is a random array of manic colors and wild dancing and repetitive music that’s begging me to be charmed by just how effortlessly amusing it is (effortless is the proper word here, by the way, as the film’s trope-laden story is on autopilot). Usually I’m wild about a movie that’s so “full of life.” But Damien Chazelle’s idea of fun feels strikingly dull, and carries none of the weight of the movies he’s referencing (the most unforgivable reference being Rebel Without a Cause). The film largely feels like a series of tropes and references and kind-hearted moments—which is cool for a few minutes. But then I need something to chew on. I need meaty themes and stronger development between these two people. I need Chazelle to enliven the romance with affection and wonder. I need to be moved to care about this story. But in the end, I’m left bored—with nothing but questions upon questions. 

Seriously, I tried my best to figure out what I’m supposed to glean from this movie. Like, what is it actually saying about Hollywood? (Remember, the movie is called La La Land.) Does the commentary descend from the unforgiving up-and-down nature of entertainers? Is it about chasing what you’re passionate about? And the sacrifices you have to make along the way? And if the movie isn’t supposed to be about Hollywood, if it’s nothing more than a love story…then shouldn’t the script give these two great actors more to chew on? Is the message nothing more than meeting the right person at the right time? And the pain of losing someone who’s life is heading in a different direction? If that’s the case, then why don’t I feel anything at the end of the movie? Shouldn’t all the fanfare and spectacle be contributing to this central theme? 

Again: I’m perplexed by this movie. As a fan of old musicals, this had none of the breadth or heart I’m looking for. The movie feels like it has nothing to say because it doesn’t. It’s content with being a love story that’s supposed to charm your pants off…which is tough when I’m not charmed by any of it.

Watch La La Land on:

Fargo (1996)

A police officer looks scared as she points a gun

Fargo makes me realize how stupidly and frustratingly simple movies have become. There’s such pressure these days to expand narratives and add characters and inflate ideas…that films end up doing the opposite of what they intend: instead of strengthening the thematic core, modern movies often saturate themselves and dumb down their ideas. In comparison, it makes the Coen brothers look like zen masters. To think the absolute weight and power of Fargo can be boiled down to a few simple themes involving greed and discontentment; can be fortified by an astutely humble depiction of a desolate Minnesotan landscape; can be enlivened by writing that allows its master-class actors to infuse humanity into the snowy proceedings—that’s what movies are all about. Contained. Focused. Realized. Transcendent. Sure, they make movies like Fargo these days. But not as often. And they’re not as recognized. Which makes my search for truly great films all the more grueling. Thankfully, I can revisit Fargo whenever I please.

Watch Fargo on:

Bad Boys II (2003)

A man points two guns while another man stands behind him

You don’t become the most hated director in Hollywood without remaining stubbornly and unrelentingly devoted to your craft. So yeah: Michael Bay fits the bill. There’s no doubt that Bay has always been Bay. From the beginning with The Rock, the dude had his style down pat. But it wasn’t until Bad Boys II that he became truly unhinged. His sun-soaked triumph is a love letter to Miami, an unforgiving examination of crime and corruption, an uproariously funny outing that’s pitch-perfect for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Absolute chaos is Bay’s aesthetic, and boy is it realized here. The criminal anarchy that swarms Miami PD seems unconquerable—until two superheroes step up to the plate. Bay unabashedly propels what might be his greatest film to gargantuan heights because that’s what his characters deserve. We watch Mike and Marcus not only mend and strengthen their friendship, but stabilize their individual cores. It’s a tumultuous fight that deserves a tumultuous setting. The critics won’t say it, but: their growth is absolutely moving. And none of it would have been possible without relentless direction. I’m happy I don’t have to tell Michael Bay to “never change” or to “never listen to the critics” because I know he never will. Thank god.

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Step Up (2006)

A man on the left holds a woman on the right as they stare into each other's eyes

It’s been a minute since I’ve watched the Step Up movies—a franchise I share a strange history with. It all started with the Step Up 3D trailer, which left my brother and I salivating with anticipation for a movie that seemed so ridiculous that it had to be unintentionally hilarious. Back then, I was a proponent of the “so bad it’s good” mentality, believing that crap like the Step Up movies was inferior by nature, and was only good for accidental laughs and ironic enjoyment. But as I have matured and gained more perspective through the art of cinema, I’ve realized I don’t ironically love the Step Up movies…I just love them. I love how simple and uncomplicated their stories are, as they allow for the true emotion and weight to be found in the art of dance. These movies have a magnificent ability to showcase the personality of the characters and allow them to evolve naturally. In effect, the Step Up films become discreet reflections of finding your footing in the game of life.

Step Up beautifully sets that tone. While the franchise formula changes after the first movie, the aesthetic largely remains in rhythm: the art of dance has a tremendous ability to bring people together, to embody our most aching hopes and desires, to foster interaction and community and acceptance. Like most of the Step Up movies, the first film establishes two characters with broken (or absent) families who come together to build their own foundation. Channing Tatum owns that boyish charm mixed with unfledged rebellion that James Dean captured so wonderfully, and Jenna Dewan embodies the frazzled, existentially troubled teen going through the coming-of-age pains of finding your voice. Together, these two actors’ incredible chemistry fosters an exploration of self-expression, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Director Anne Fletcher succeeds by establishing an endearing tone about two ordinary people experiencing ordinary problems. While not as showy as the other franchise movies, the resulting aesthetic in Step Up is just as visually arresting and fully realized. We are completely immersed into these characters’ worlds and melodically in sync with their journey of self-discovery through dance.

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Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

Three dances pose as rain falls around them

You can think of Step Up as the The Fast and the Furious of its franchise—unassuming and humble in comparison with the rest of the franchise. Which makes Step Up 2: The Streets the 2 Fast 2 Furious of its franchise—the moment where they become a bit bolder and gravitate between the modesty of the first movie and the explosiveness of what’s to come. Step Up 2 shares similarities with the first movie, as Andie assumes the same rebellious persona as Channing Tatum as she struggles to find her voice. But at the same time, the story feels much bigger as nearly one dozen characters are introduced and developed alongside Andie. On paper, Step Up 2 feels more ambitious, as Andie’s mode of self-expression involves other dancers we come to know intimately.

Sadly, this is also the movie’s downfall. Step Up 2 thrives when it’s focused on building the dance troupe and establishing an emotional foundation for the characters—this sort of carefree storytelling, which isn’t burdened by the typical nadirs we see in Hollywood dramas, succeeds because it’s so uncluttered and unpretentious. But the second Step Up 2 forces its characters into the sort of banal drama that burdened the characters of Step Up, the film loses its muster. Step Up wins with this formula because of its incredibly capable actors. But for all the other franchise films, the acting is often more serviceable than it is riveting. Every movie after Step Up 2 understands the beautiful aesthetic of which the cast is capable of capturing: that dance has transcendent power as an artform, allowing for immense creativity and self-expression. Step Up 2 wants the best of both worlds, but clearly falters when it treats its actors like well-versed thespians and its material like a stage play. The movie wins when it strips away the monologues and simply embraces the melodrama that suits the light story and intense choreography so well.

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Step Up 3D (2010)

A troupe of dances pose for the camera

This is essentially the Fast Five of the Step Up franchise—the moment they figure out the winning formula. While I think Step Up is technically a better movie, Step Up 3D represents the pivot this franchise needed. Step Up 2: The Streets was too timid, stuck between the raw drama of the first movie and the absolute insanity of this 3D upheaval that nobody asked for but definitely needed. Here in Step Up 3D, the reins are severed for Jon M. Chu, who turns his attention entirely to the art of dance. The dancers aren’t required to act, but instead to express themselves through their known artform. As a result, the Hallmark-esque drama and acting is no longer distracting. The movie is focused on pure entertainment—a beautifully simple mentality that liberated this franchise and allowed it to reach a higher plane.

As somebody who watches hundreds of movies each year, it’s unbelievably refreshing to watch a movie like Step Up 3D that isn’t concerned with “depth” in the traditionally filmic sense of the word. So many modern films are pompous and ponderous enough to believe the world should start and stop for their deep-seated thoughts and ideas…when in reality, their thoughts and ideas are half-baked, their stories are humdrum and familiar, their aesthetics are embarrassingly unrealized. And worst of all: they have no style. Step Up 3D is nothing but style, as the film is entirely consumed by the art of dance. All the commonplace dramatic scenes we expect from movies are nothing but roads in Step Up 3D to new dance scenes—where quarrels are squashed with ferocity, where joy is expressed through movement and eye-popping color, where catharsis is found. As a result, the film achieves a hypnotic aesthetic that shatters the intimidating exterior that shields so many movies from forging a genuine connection between the characters and the audience.

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Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

A man dressed as a hobo looks into the mirror as a butler stands at his side

For years, this has been one of my most anticipated rewatches. Mostly because I’ve become quite the Preston Sturges fan, having loved films like Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. In those two movies, I was struck by Sturges’s ability to navigate the madness at hand to find philosophical clarity. In both films, someone is caught in a lie, or is hiding a truth about themselves, and as they wear that mask, the world around them unravels until they are forced to confront reality. In effect, Hail the Conquering Hero serves as a frenetic depiction of this country’s often hollow obsession with patriotism, and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek provides a damning perspective on how conservative values can inhibit people from achieving a sense of belongingness in the world.

The energy and benevolence of those films is lost in Sullivan’s Travels. Sadly, I’m in the same position I was years earlier when I watched this exalted comedy: I understand why it is revered, but I find the execution horribly flawed and misguided. This is the kind of movie we love for being “about the movies,” as Sturges clearly made Sullivan’s Travels as an ode to the art of comedy. But his digressions and reflections on class warfare and Hollywood politics feel flimsy and half-hearted, largely disconnected from the heartwarming message purported at its center. As a result, the movie’s aesthetic is constantly adjusting and never feels fully realized—which leaves some truly spectacularly funny scenes (like the car chase that had me crying with laughter) feel artificial in retrospect. Sturges was clearly a master of comedy from a technical perspective. But crippled by a weak script, the comedy feels noticeably limp when the catharsis is an overly sentimental, unearned ending. The movie simply does not pack the punch of which Sturges is capable.

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Black Panther (2018)

A man stands on a bluff overlooking a technologically advanced city

I’ve always been at odds with this film. I thought an at-home 4K experience would turn the tables, but instead I was struck with the exact same feeling I had when I first saw Black Panther in theaters: it’s a film with lots of strengths that I wish I could enjoy more. The big problem is, however, that the movie can’t fully deliver on the inherent qualities that make it so great. To boot—and this is reflective of a bigger, much more personal problem I have—the movie is so clearly under the corporate influence in its lackluster CGI and limply premeditated ideology that I can’t help but feel Black Panther is sometimes nothing more than an advertisement about all the great things Disney is bringing to the movie industry, to the world.

Again: I’m in conflict. Because, without argument, Disney did do the world a great service with Black Panther. To surrender a black-themed movie that’s guaranteed to make one billion dollars to an almost entirely black cast helmed by a black writer and director? That’s incredible. That’s meaningful. But the social commentary is so surface-level, the awful CGI is so overwhelmingly present, and the action sequences are so poorly choreographed and statically staged that my desire to love this movie never extended beyond that very innate desire. Any moment where Black Panther moved me was entirely dependent on the tremendous acting at hand, as the players in this movie collectively find a wonderful blend of lively entertainment and stirring emotion. But during that final fight sequence—which comes at a moment where I’m already disappointed the filmmaking isn’t triggering my deeply intense desire to be moved by such an important movie—I felt the energy draining away. The climax of Black Panther simply doesn’t own the intensity and insightfulness it purports. Obviously this movie worked for a lot of people…but I’m left wanting so much more.

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Casino (1995)

A man stands in a casino

I’m always awestruck by Martin Scorsese’s effortless ability to frame shots, to orchestrate scenery, to arrange characters. That might sound lame, but that depth of composition lends such insight to his films, as that cinematic eye fully brings us into the world of his characters. The energy, the fervor, the electricity of Scorsese’s aesthetic as he navigates Las Vegas’s casinos—which serve as symbolic displays of the American Dream, of capitalistic greed, of the degradation of American values—is possibly unmatched by any movie made in the past five years. There’s such magnitude and power attached to the film’s thematic components that it makes you wonder if all these modern big-budget films that can’t realize their aesthetics actually deserve their big budgets.

My one gripe with Casino is the constant narration. On paper, I really love the idea, as the form plays with the idea of history and how it’s remembered. The constant shift in perspectives, which feel objective and historical but are actually entirely subjective and amplified, allows for nuance as the audience deviates between sympathy and outright despisal for people who descended from immigrants—immigrants who traveled across the ocean to find prosperity in America (oh the irony). But in practice, the everpresent narration feels intrusive in ways it never did in Goodfellas. Sometimes the voiceovers blend beautifully with the narrative and stylistic flow, but other times it glaringly gets in the way of the vitality of a sequence, of a great line delivery, of an emotionally effective moment. For a three-hour movie, that’s a really tough sell. Still, the weight of the commentary and the effectiveness of the aesthetic wins out in the end.

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The Automat (2021)

A man drinks coffee

An odd experience. As somebody who despises capitalism, I was trepidatious about watching an entire documentary focused on this country’s earliest example of a fast food giant. But I was hopeful the film would be a great learning experience about a strange piece of American history; a somber reflection on generational values; an uncompromising survey of how capitalistic ambitions can bring the downfall of a seemingly unconquerable behemoth. And sure, all of that stuff is technically part of this movie…but only inherently. Those topics aren’t necessarily part of the commentary—which is instead deferential and reverent (sometimes disgustingly so). 

I won’t deny that even the biggest corporate entities genuinely care for their employees and believe in their products. But some nuance would be appreciated. A more cynical view of Horner & Hardart would be that the company exploited a generation’s thriftiness, that the automat begged for our sympathy as it purported itself as a fixture of American life, that its business approach became the foundation for soulless brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s. We’re constantly asked to feel sorry for a failed business idea—and that, at its very core, profoundly disinterests me. I enjoyed learning about automats, but this documentary missed a chance to be more insightful about how generational values shape the economic landscape of this country. As is, the takeaway of this film is incredibly lame and flimsy.

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Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

A man and a girl speak with a clerk at a train station

I will die on this hill: the number one priority of film is entertainment. That dirty word has been reduced to utter banality, applicable only to crazy action thrillers or riveting crime dramas or deranged slapstick comedies. As a result, “entertainment” is no longer synonymous with “depth.” But any movie that can capture your attention? That can guide your eye through a riveting story? That can effectively transport you to another realm where the rules of your known world don’t matter? That’s entertainment. There’s such profound beauty in a film’s ability to create a spectacle of life, to astonish our senses, to challenge our views of humanity. This is, ultimately, the goal of any piece of art.

The big problem here is the inclination to believe Under Siege 2: Dark Territory is nothing but entertainment. Because most of us can agree: this movie is crazy. Steven Seagal crawls on top of a train as he listens (through superhuman hearing, I can only assume) to the bad guys discuss their evil plan in conveniently extreme detail; the ease through which Seagal takes out the evil henchmen, including the seemingly unbeatable Marcus (Big Ed from Twin Peaks!) who never lands a single blow, is astonishing; Seagal’s ability to run through the carts of an exploding train as it crashes into another train is crazier than any sequence in any MCU movie. You could see all of this and think: “What stupid entertainment!” But…isn’t there something moving about a film’s ability to cultivate such chaos? Doesn’t this sort of madness allow for the film to transcend, to more explosively explore its ideology? No, Under Siege 2 isn’t a super deep film. But is it effective? Not only would I say yes, but I’d argue that its ability to fully realize its batshit aesthetic makes it more profound than most arthouse and Oscar-bait movies made these days. A great time at the movies is one of the most valuable parts of my life—so I’m not afraid to stand up for this big dumb movie.

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

A man wearing sunglasses smiles while standing in a crowd

I really love watching documentaries, but they often suffer from a lack of voice. You would think the mere choice to make a documentary would force a filmmaker to enliven the subject with weight and breadth—but usually, they either steep in utter reverence of their subject or timidly sit behind the scenes as events unfold. I Am Not Your Negro does not suffer from these problems. Raoul Peck beautifully navigates the words of James Baldwin, who was dealing with the trauma of losing his friends and companions (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers) to assassination. Baldwin’s words come from the notes of his unfinished book, “Remember This House,” a title that fittingly describes the scary state of humanity he felt trapped within. How do you describe that feeling? How do you speak to a nation that has forever abused you and ignored your people’s voice?

I Am Not Your Negro is a film that requires the viewer to listen, not talk: listen to James Baldwin as he tries to understand how an entire population can exhibit such cruelty to a fellow human being; listen to Raoul Peck as he allows Baldwin’s words to float through the ethereal space of time and comment on modern horrors; listen to this distant figure as we gain new perspective on what America looks like to one population and what it looks like to another. The beauty of this documentary isn’t necessarily the subject matter, as these are subjects that remain as relevant today as they did in 1979 when Baldwin wrote these words—it’s the way Peck traverses these fiery plains. It’s the voice that comes from behind the camera. It’s the inescapable feeling that we’re not even listening to Baldwin’s words, but somebody’s soul-bearing interpretation of Baldwin’s words. Pain and trauma travels through America generation after generation, piling and piling until it reaches a breaking point. And this film shows just how precarious that weight has become.

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10 Years (2011)

A man and a women look at something while people stand in the background

Unfortunately, despite a fairly stacked cast, 10 Years suffers from a lack of zeal and direction. Clearly, the movie is about what happens to people in the ten-year gap between high school and adulthood. Have you grown out of your teenage immaturities? Does the past still haunt you? Or are you tempted by your ghosts? These questions are all inherent to this sort of film, yet none of them are explored in a compelling way (and none of them are interesting to me, anyway). Perhaps my sour high school experience has left me jaded, but I can’t imagine caring about what anyone from my high school thinks about me—and I definitely can’t imagine still being hung up on a high school relationship. The very impetus of the movie has no appeal to me. 

So why did I watch this film? Because I thought that Channing Tatum, Oscar Isaac, and Kate Mara would show me a good time; that 10 Years would amount to more than a one-night stand with nostalgia; that adroit direction could expose the stupidity of caring about high school reunions—a concept so lame that nobody watched the movie. 10 Years is a film that everybody skipped and forgot about within a month. Heck, my own diary entry—which is just in time for the 20-year reunion—will also go forever unnoticed. Which feels sort of perfect.

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He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

A man and a woman talk to each other at an empty bar counter

I certainly didn’t love He’s Just Not That Into You. The movie suffers from some very strange, half-baked attitudes about relationships that sneak into what is an otherwise multifaceted scope. But I was rather taken by the film’s sheer efficiency, its fluid editing, and its pure fervor in detailing the ups and downs of finding your other half. That sort of finesse gives weight to the movie’s focus on the trauma of emotionally abusive relationships, of feeling out of place in the dating world, of becoming whole for the first time in years. To boot, the movie is filled with lovely, nuanced performances. Jennifer Connelly wonderfully waivers between heightened comedic overreaction and authentic heartbreak, Ben Affleck is effortlessly charming and patient, and Jennifer Aniston plays the Jennifer Aniston role to movie star perfection. Those three (along with several other great performers) are doing their best to navigate what can sometimes be a head-scratching flick sprinkled with trivial moments (like the groan-inducing closing monologue that slightly sours the entire experience). Overall, the film is a decent callback to the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, bolstered further by a skillful execution of the 2000s ensemble formula that so many movies fumbled.

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Signs (2002)

Two men sit on a couch and two children sit in front of them

God bless M. Night Shyamalan. The man was put into “movie jail” for being too self-indulgent—but really, we just didn’t like that his movies had a goofier side. Something like Signs—a movie that explores grief and solitude and the power of family—isn’t allowed to have ridiculous-looking aliens that Joaquin Phoenix beats with a baseball bat. That’s too absurd. Well let me counter with: I adore absurdity. Because “absurd” is just another way of saying “different from the norm.” People are uncomfortable when Shyamalan seemingly hijacks his own premise and explores the eccentricities of humanity. But I believe it’s all part of the message, of the aesthetic. Shyamalan’s embracement of his ideas makes many modern films feel safe and antiseptic. Even when he misses—and for the record, he does not miss with Signs—you walk away having witnessed something truly unique. That’s the kind of power I’m looking for when I watch a movie. So once again: God bless M. Night Shyamalan. We need more filmmakers to be this “absurd.”

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Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015)

Several tiny monsters float between a man's hands

Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex was an especially cathartic experience for me during awards season when everybody is ranting and raving about movies whose technical prowess don’t hold a candle to the projects handled by special effects legends like Jack Pierce, like Phil Tippet, like Ray Harryhausen. The movie itself is fairly formulaic in its Wikipedia approach—and that is definitely my biggest complaint about the movie: it’s too straightforward and vanilla to truly honor these titans of industry—but it is fortunately enlivened by its behind-the-scenes footage of movie monster creation. The film also does a great job of detailing the desolate state of modern films; how capitalism and fragility has resulted in the sterilization of special effects, in a loss of terror and dynamism that was so crucial to the power of film for so long. If you’re a movie lover but you don’t know anything about the history of special effects in movies—or, like me, knew very little—then this documentary is essential viewing.

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The Last Dance (1993)

An elderly man drinks a small shot of alcohol mixed with water

I absolutely adore Juzo Itami. Tampopo is one of the absolute best movies about food, and A Taxing Woman might have my favorite movie character ever. But The Last Dance failed to make a deeper connection with me. I can’t be too upset, as I suppose this sort of movie is inevitable: after suffering a near-death experience, Itami made a movie about a director who has 365 days to live. A movie like The Last Dance that so deafeningly navigates the treacherous waters of death can either feel transcendent or self-indulgent (but either way, I do realize: it’s necessary). For me, The Last Dance deviates into that latter category, as it candidly moves away from a more nuanced story to one that screams about all the fears and joys of confronting death. I felt the movie was naturally moving towards a buoyant perspective on death that fit with tangential topics concerning regret, selfishness, and medical ethics, but Itami yanked the story towards the catharsis without resolving several narrative threads. The movie’s final 30 minutes certainly produce a powerful statement, but it also exists in a vacuum that lost much of its potential power.

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Mandibles (2020)

Two men look at something in the trunk of a car

God I wish movies would be shorter. Seriously: we should put a 100-minute time limit on movies. And if a director wants more minutes, you have to make your case to the Brevity Board of Hollywood. Mandibles packs so many interesting characters and crazy situations and thought-provoking ideas into 77 minutes that it makes all 157 minutes of Tár seem like pompous torture. With its short runtime, with its absurd premise, with its Dude, Where’s My Car? energy, Mandibles doesn’t stand a chance in modern movie culture. When many people say they’re looking for movies to say “more,” they literally mean more—more ideas, more societal parallels, more characters to whom we can relate. But why does it matter when movies fumble all that weight? 

When your movie explores an ideology so eloquently, when your movie realizes its aesthetic so precisely—that’s saying more. Your ideas reach deeper and extract something more profound. Mandibles is a buddy comedy about two dudes who find a giant fly in their trunk. But in Manu and Jean-Gab’s pursuit to capitalize on their bizarre discovery, Mandibles skillfully navigates a cavalcade of themes ranging from capitalism to class warfare to the power of kindness to nonconformity to what makes life worth living—ALL IN 77 FREAKING MINUTES. If you think Mandibles is doing less because of its length, then you might be watching movies wrong.

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Logan (2017)

A man with a beard stares into the camera while brandishing some blades

I like Logan for all the same reasons everyone else seems to like Logan. In a world filled with sanitized superhero movies that can’t be too adventurous under the Disney formula, it’s so refreshing to see a superhero movie explore such cruelty and abuse, to use curse words and torture, to kill with reckless abandon (including children!). There’s a mercilessness to Logan—a sense of imprudence that, while sometimes misguided and overtly cruel, often feels revitalizing tonally for the genre.

With all that said, I think Logan loses its footing as the story chugs along. James Mangold is a very Hollywood filmmaker: his films are competently structured and edited (which, in the modern movie industry, is increasingly rare), the actors always deliver solid performances, and the score perfectly lines up with the emotional journey of the characters—it’s all stuff I appreciate. But there’s something about Logan that almost feels too rigid and pointed. Like Mangold and the production company are shamelessly aware of their unique approach to the genre. The movie feels overtly steeped in the pain of misery of Logan’s downfall…to the point where I wonder if the redemption has the power it should for such a classic character. 

To be clear: I don’t need a movie to hold my hand. One of the worst things a movie can do is treat its audience like a child, to constantly dump exposition on our pretty little heads, to blatantly state the emotional journey at hand. Logan’s struggle to find himself, to overcome alcoholism, to become part of a family once again—that is all inherently affecting. So, no, we don’t need to be guided down that emotional path with very much instruction.

But…wouldn’t it be nice if we got a little bit of help? If there was some tenderness to accompany the squalor? Does the movie need to be so drenched in pain and misery? Does every bit of hope and optimism have to be colored with terror and gloom? I know it’s more of a personal grievance I’m expressing. But I really do think it hurts the story to never see Logan experience a shred of lighthearted humanity. I feel like that approach caters to a very specific demographic to which I simply don’t belong. I don’t mind a cold-blooded superhero movie—in fact, I welcome it. But without more emotional texture, it starts to feel a bit vapid.

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

A boy points his slingshot into the sky while four dogs stand around him

As much as I enjoy Isle of Dogs and revel in its effortless storytelling…I can’t deny that I’ve grown a bit tired of Wes Anderson. To be clear: I’m a big fan of this movie (in fact, pretty much all of his movies). But after watching Isle of Dogs, I’m convinced I’ll need another year (or two) before I watch another Anderson flick.

Perhaps it’s because I watched The French Dispatch recently, but the unchanging stylistic focus of Anderson’s films makes it difficult for each movie to craft its own aesthetic. I start to see similar takeaways and catharses—which, of course, isn’t an uncommon practice for a director. But Anderson helped me to realize the importance of versatility in direction. Diversity is very important in keeping things fresh and sparking new insight into universal truths. A great director may attack a common set of themes—like, say, Martin Scorsese with guilt and redemption, or Stanley Kubrick with war and violence—but they also have the ability to explore those avenues in new, refreshing ways.

I feel bad. I have plenty of positive things to say about Isle of Dogs. I think it’s a great kids movie (I hope my own children enjoy it someday). I think the acting is especially fantastic for an animated movie (Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum had me cracking up). I really love the animation, as it’s challenging the genre in ways few other movies are doing. But as I sit here to write about the film…all I feel is exhaustion. I’ve been an Anderson fan for nearly 20 years, and only now am I realizing how much of a toll it’s taken on me. Wes Anderson is a genius—a genius I need a break from.

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Erin Brockovich (2000)

A woman wearing a red leather jacket sits with another woman

I love Steven Soderbergh’s ability to find humanity, the benevolence of life buried amongst the insane. His films feature people who have been thrust into larger-than-life scenarios, yet most of the time we spend with them feels strikingly familiar and routine. It brings an air of authenticity to a movie that has no business appearing authentic. When watching one of Soderbergh’s films, you truly feel superhuman—like even someone with the most commonplace of abilities could pull off something extraordinary.

Erin Brockovich is likely the most sentimental Soderbergh ever got with that aesthetic. While the characters we root for in his films are often heels or anti-heroes, Erin Brockovich means nothing more than to spread goodness into the world. She is a common woman with common drawbacks experiencing the common cruelties of life—so, naturally, she is inspired to help the common people who have been disenfranchised by the seemingly unstoppable powers that be. (At one point, Soderbergh fittingly nods to the David vs. Goliath storyline that permeates his movies.) Soderbergh does such an elegant job of showcasing Erin’s verve that you can forgive the sometimes rather hamfisted, cartoonish portrayals of her counterparts—really, that’s just part of the aesthetic. Erin’s fortitude, her care, her dedication to helping her fellow man is so beautifully written and acted that it’s hard to be cynical about any sentimentality at hand. Sometimes it’s just nice when a movie is…well, nice. In comparison with today’s rather grim movie culture, I’ll take that energy anywhere I can get it.

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Drive My Car (2021)

A woman drives a car while a man sits in the backseat

Drive My Car caught me off guard. I hadn’t seen a modern Japanese movie since…well, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy—also directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. American movies are always so efficient, so front-and-center with their themes and character journeys, that I forgot filmmakers like Hamaguchi like to mosey, to steep. It’s an essential component of his aesthetic, as the characters contemplate and reflect on life’s often cold, unforgiving existence. 

I really enjoyed spending time with the characters of Drive My Car. The emotional catharsis experienced by Hidetoshi—the payoff of the entire film, which takes nearly three hours to achieve—is indeed an arduous journey. We are required to sit, to listen, to wait for Hidetoshi to fully comprehend his surroundings—his new friends, his lost love, his dispassion for his work—before he can be ready to move on from such a traumatic experience. Drive My Car isn’t pure entertainment like we’re used to with Hollywood. Instead, Drive My Car aims to be reflective of life. Efficiency isn’t the key here—reflection is the lifeforce of this film. The slow and steady mundanities of life that occupy our everyday are captured with such calculated prowess. It left me with a calming feeling that made me strikingly aware of my surroundings, made me feel human.

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Friday the 13th (1980)

Four young adults stand facing the same director at a summer camp

Horror movies have an incredible ability to capture the anxieties of the time. Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws—in retrospect, critics realize how valuable and vigorous their stories feel in response to politics, to war, to changing values in America. And perhaps that’s why I was weary of watching Friday the 13th (a movie that eluded me for years!). Would this become another Halloween? Aka an overpraised classic that lazily putters around the inherent thought-provoking core?

Thankfully: no. This one hits hard. Much like Tobe Hooper’s incomparable Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the obscenities of Sean S. Cunningham’s slasher feel born from the Nixon era, feel prescient of the oncoming Reagan era. The blue collar adults near Camp Crystal Lake are weary of the darkness that looms, while the nihilistic kids who confidently mark their territory—having carefree sex, drinking and smoking like there’s no tomorrow—laugh at such apprehension. The cold cruelties of life lurk in the dark crevices of Camp Crystal Lake, waiting to give these kids the most merciless reality check imaginable. 

Death and misery have such power in films because they become the most profound symbols of everyday life. These counselors are desperate to escape death; to hide from the unyielding barbarism of regressive politics. Yet, in their fight, they cause collateral emotional damage to people like Mrs. Voorhees. Trauma settles, pain erupts, revenge is sought, blood is shed—the cycle continues. Pain and suffering are steeped in this country’s DNA. For as much progress we make, just as much damage seems to follow. The only solution to this never-ending problem plaguing America is an empathetic ear, an understanding of humanity. Friday the 13th balances savagery with empathy beautifully.

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Notting Hill (1999)

A woman sits next to a man wearing scuba goggles in a movie theater

I gotta admit, I was really not into this movie at first. The energy felt so stale, so barren, so…lame? I didn’t understand why Anna was at all attracted to William, and I didn’t believe they shared enough captive energy to carry an entire film. But as I relaxed and became more aware of the characters, I realized it was no monotony at hand—there was melancholy. Heavy melancholy. There are so many quiet, seemingly “stale” moments because these two people who had experienced heavy emotional trauma were trying to find their footing with one another. It was awkward, it was clumsy—it was honest as hell.

And where did that trauma originate? Well…from life. From the everyday. This world can feel so empty and be so cruel to us in ways we’ll never understand—in ways we sometimes don’t even recognize. The melancholy slowly settles in for years, leaving us a dejected mess that feels alone in a world filled with billions. Maneuvering through that void? Finding love in such inhumanity? It can feel impossible…yet it’s something we all experience. Yet we can find love and warmth and understanding with our fellow human beings. One day we feel like there’s no way to win, and the next we feel invincible. Notting Hill captures that universal feeling with its aesthetic, revealing the tenacity required to find an antidote that will alleviate a little bit of the pain.

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The Front Page (1931)

A man wearing a hat talks on an old telephone

Criterion Channel claims that Lewis Milestone directed this influential screwball comedy with “verve.” Honestly, at first, I found that to be the biggest inhibitor for the movie. The camerawork was chaotic and the characters were off the chain. But as I settled into the rhythm of the movie and understood its intentions, I realized how purposeful the manic pacing was. 

Hildy Johnson is at a crossroads in life: does he stay in the newspaper business that’s been tearing him away from his girl? Or does he finally settle down and start a quiet life with someone he loves? Every high-octane, disorderly moment is meant to capture both the allure and the anarchy of his previous life. He was addicted to his job because it gave him a rush—he was essentially a junkie. But as the movie shifts into the second half, the quiet moments reveal the vulnerable man within. There’s more to life than capitalism, than work, than notoriety. We must find balance in life or we’ll go crazy. Through this very human exploration, The Front Page covers all possible emotional ground an entertaining movie can cover: humor, love, passion, anger, sadness, warmth, catharsis. Directed with verve, indeed.

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John Wick (2014)

A man points a gun out the window of his car

My plan was to watch all the John Wick movies before the fourth one comes out. But…man. I don’t know anymore. What a flat, miserable action movie this is. To be fair: Keanu Reeves is working his ass off, trying to bring gravitas to a purposely monotonous character. But Reeves isn’t helped by insufferably joyless choreography that is the equivalent of point-and-shoot video games. Headshot after headshot, body after body, lifeless moment after lifeless moment…I’m truly blown away that anyone can find amusement in such coldness. 

The only ounce of profundity lies in John Wick’s inherent struggle with grief—but even that theme is carelessly tossed aside as he mows down villains. You could argue that the killings themselves are reflective of his traumatic journey, but that would require (at the very least!) for the murders to be artfully shot. Otherwise…what psychological power am I supposed to glean? I can’t appreciate this movie on either a stylistic or philosophical level…because both levels are completely absent. The only forgivable moments are when Reeves—in all his delightfully stoic glory—is beautifully framed in the neon glow of nightclub life. Other than that, John Wick is a giant waste of time. I’m hoping there’s more life (oh the irony) to be found in the sequels.

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The Big Combo (1955)

A man with a hat stands next to another man. They both wear suits

Film noirs are some of my favorite movies because of how deceivingly optimistic they can be. Seemingly, with their dark and grisly demeanors, noirs scream defeatedness—American society is a mess, lawlessness runs amok, and powerful politics are out of control. But by going so far in the “negative” direction, film noirs had an immense opportunity to highlight the solution to such disorder. And very few noirs found that optimistic tone more profoundly than The Big Combo

Police Lieutenant Leonard Diamond is obsessed with taking down the ruthless gangster Mr. Brown, who constantly gets away with murder and pushes Diamond to the edge of sanity—the edge of morality. Brown teases Diamond and questions his manhood, forcing Diamond to question his way of life and what’s important. But defeating Brown—defeating hate and evil—requires Diamond to look inward, to love himself and embrace the people around him. Every glorious and beautifully lit shot, every enrapturing character dynamic, every emotional crossroads faced by Diamond is efficiently mapped out and masterfully conveyed. The Big Combo is a testament to the long, arduous, seemingly unconquerable game of life; to the goodness you must channel and manifest to turn that darkness into light.

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Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

A woman stares into the eyes of a man

Believe it or not, I’ve always been interested in watching this one. Mostly because it was a childhood favorite of my wife’s. I’m fairly forgiving when it comes to teen-focused movies from the late-90s/early 2000s. I grew up loving the “Disney Channel Original Movies,” and Bend It Like Beckham is only a couple steps above that bizarre faction of cinema. The film’s message is good and honest, the acting is respectable and committed, the style is totally unhinged and completely watchable—three tests that many modern movies fail. Bend It Like Beckham succeeds in its simplicity: it captures the difficulty in belonging, in finding a home in this cruel world when you constantly feel like a stranger. Manic, clever, innocent fun—wow. Modern movies sometimes make me forget how easy it is to make a good film.

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

Two older women sits on either side of a younger woman

The first Mamma Mia! is a legitimately moving experience about the difficulty of understanding your very essence. Sophie believes finding her real dad will become the missing piece in her own lifelong jigsaw puzzle before marrying the father of her future children. The ambition, the restlessness, the pure joy of that journey is navigated through the music of ABBA, which becomes the glue holding the entire aesthetic together. 

Here We Go Again does an admirable job of extending that energy. It’s not necessarily a great movie, with the obvious flaws lying in the somewhat frivolous backstory for Donna. The dance numbers that felt heartfelt and challenging in the first movie—as they were so intricately tied to Sophie’s desire to feel whole again—tend to come across as haphazard and arbitrary in the sequel. They’re fun, they’re enjoyable…and they’re a wee bit vapid. Honestly, it’s not the biggest crime. And all seems forgivable as the movie finds its footing in the final third, when Sophie is forced to take a step forward in life as a parent in the wake of her mother’s death. This movie has a special place in my heart because it affects my wife—a mother for the first time this past year—so deeply. Despite the flaws, its pureness is undeniable.

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Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

A woman stands to the left of another woman holding a shotgun as water falls from sprinklers

Whenever there’s a single director that the entire critical community hates? That’s when I know to pay attention. Because almost every single time it means the filmmaker has a pure, unadulterated style that hasn’t been infected by the Hollywood standard. Paul W.S. Anderson is one such director. His movies aren’t always great—but they sure as heck challenge you. They are completely alien forces that move and breathe and feel like no other modern flick. Obviously this defiance pushes the critical mass’s buttons, as the “purveyors of taste” prefer to honor the chosen directors who dutifully remain in their designated lane. What these critics—you know, the ones who gave Resident Evil: Afterlife a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes—don’t realize, however, is filmmakers like Anderson are the very kinds of auteurs they used to praise. Critics and the Academy are constantly three steps behind collective shifts and movements, while the Andersons of the world are shifting the zeitgeist. 

With all that said: Resident Evil: Afterlife is where Anderson figured everything out. The action is so perfectly choreographed that even the most ridiculous of moments are wonderfully moving. The movie has such fervor, has such confidence in its pacing, such contempt for the ever-boring norm that you’d have to be a mindless Umbrella Corporation drone to not feel invested in these characters and their impossible fight against totalitarian forces.

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A Taxing Woman (1987)

A short woman looks up to a taller man as an even taller women stands behind her

I love Juzo Itami’s entire stylistic approach. He’s energetic, he’s brash, he’s absolutely lawless with his storytelling, allowing his characters to create the madness at hand—and then navigate the madness at hand. In no movie did he do a better job of finding the heart of his characters and the wisdom of his message than A Taxing Woman. A flooring, moving experience, this 1987 “detective” story gravitates between richly intelligent comedy and profound existential quandaries with ease, creating its very own Philip Marlowe in the tax evasion universe. Being my second watch, this one unexpectedly left me in tears at the end. I knew I enjoyed it—but now I’m glad to absolutely love it.

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Vivarium (2019)

Another case of a film that’s entirely concerned with its social commentary…and not much else. In this case, Vivarium is attacking the American dream—with none of the grace Chung in Minari, none of the pizazz of Luhrmann in The Great Gatsby, none of the surreals of Lynch in Blue Velvet. Instead, it’s an ugly, feckless, vapid mess that constantly broods and has nothing much to say. Cynicism at its finest—or worst, in this case. Pretty torturous to watch.

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

While this wasn’t the best 4K transfer, it was still spectacular to re-experience Valerian for the first time since theaters. Luc Besson does the kind of universe building for which I’ll happily pay the price of admission. The characters are so rich and well drawn—even the small side characters with the tiniest of narratives—that I’m enraptured with the web-like storyline that constantly contorts, contracts, and eventually comes back around in a beautiful loop. Please give me more sci-fi movies like this.

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Parasite (2019)

Along with Everything Everywhere All At Once, Parasite is one of those movies where I don’t align with the larger film community. Interestingly, I have similar problems with both: their messages are blockheaded and loud, rarely ever nuanced or profound. While both movies have great intentions, they suffer from a rather doltish approach to topics with incredibly deep roots. In particular, Parasite is rather ugly in its structure, opting for thick-skulled characters and obdurate commentaries on capitalism. As someone who despises capitalism, I couldn’t find my footing with this one. The film is overbearing where it should be refined, skittish where it should be biting, unseemly where it should be compassionate.

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Heathers (1988)

A crackerjack film that aims to provide a deeper reflection on teenage brutality. The performances are all on point, the message is clear, and the writing is very clever—perhaps too clever. With this kind of banter, I always find it difficult to worm my way through the dialogue and concentrate on the meaning. It’s the same problem I have with Sorkin. The writer is way too present for me to get past him and become one with his characters. And the plot becomes so outrageous that it seems to lose sight of the message. Still, Heathers is a very entertaining movie that still somehow seems to remain culturally and socially relevant.

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First Love (2019)

Strangely, First Love seemed to come and go without much fanfare—and, to this day, feels lost to time. Maybe it’ll experience a resurgence someday, a cult-like following, because Takashi Miike’s crime ensemble has incredible energy. I’d compare it with beloved films like The Departed, Pulp Fiction, and Snatch, except First Love is much more visually stimulating than any of those movies. Plus, the characters are so expertly blueprinted that they could become meme-able cultural icons.

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Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

A movie I remember thoroughly enjoying as a teenager—that I continued to enjoy as an adult. Done much better than most mockumentaries—a genre which generally doesn’t enthuse me—Lona William’s canny screenplay becomes a perfect vehicle for the actors, who all absolutely slay in this film. Drop Dead Gorgeous takes a comedic look at the pressure to be “beautiful” in America, whatever that means. The twists and turns of the beauty pageant storyline provide a well-rounded response to such an absurd notion that continues to persist to this day.

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

A man stands in a saloon with a teacup

Nicholas Ray is my kind of filmmaker. This guy loves to steep in the moment, relish in the tension, sit with beautiful colors and imagery. Johnny Guitar is seemingly very forward with its themes of sexuality and the death of the American frontier—which is exactly why it feels so dynamic, so vital. Ray embraces the vitriolic color of his characters and produces a film that feels too self-conscious to own the naturalness of westerns that evoke similar ideas. Johnny Guitar is an artistic anomaly in the canon, forcing the viewer to rethink the tropes expected of a typical American western and recognize a wilder, sexually liberated frontier that’s encroaching on the plains.

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Road to Salina (1970)

A woman with short blonde hair

There’s something very mysterious and alluring about Road to Salina that I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint. I watched this movie 350 days ago, yet I can recall scenes like I watched it yesterday. The storytelling is tireless and the acting is self-aware, causing this rather ridiculous movie with a very simple narrative to feel vibrant and arresting. Its willingness and desire to shock and awe becomes part of the fun—even if it never shocks or awes that much because it feels so foreign and ridiculous. It’s a fully realized unpretentious vision that I appreciated.

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The Blue Lamp (1950)

A man smoking a cigarette hands papers to another man while another man sits in a chair

It’s interesting to compare the American noirs with the British noirs. While both entities feel grim and defeated, there’s a sense of urgency to the American noirs that signals something aggressively hopeful. But British noirs tend to feel a bit lethargic by comparison. British noirs may have a similar hopeful plight, but humble attitudes inform the aesthetic, causing movies like The Blue Lamp to lack the energy necessary for such social commentary. It’s a fine movie with fine acting and fine ideas…and that’s about it.

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Ip Man (2008)

A man stands with his fist jutted out in an aggressive pose

As a mild fan of martial arts, I fully expect to have fun with the fighting…and am content in dealing with broad-stroke characters. But Ip Man challenged my apathy. Every character arc felt eye-rollingly obvious and overdone, while the fighting itself seemed uninspired and passive. I never understand how these kinds of movies speak to such a large audience. Obviously the film is pandering in its outright idleness…but to whom? Who is watching Ip Man and believes it holds a candle to something like Enter the Dragon or The Grandmaster? Quite a boring movie if you ask me.

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Under the Silver Lake (2018)

A man unkempt brown hair and a worn shirt

The first time I watched this movie, I wasn’t impressed. It felt too plot-focused and consumed with the mystery for me to care. But this time around, I gave myself over to the convoluted storyline and found beauty in the disarray. Sam’s exhausting obsession with finding Sarah informs the film’s aesthetic, as his sleuthing becomes a representation of anxious existentialism, political frustrations, generational divides—the list goes on. And that’s the beauty of Under the Silver Lake: it’s a cavalcade of ideas told through a relentlessly stylistic lens. As it turns out, I didn’t like the movie the first time because…I couldn’t keep up. But now I’m racing to keep in step.

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Night Tide (1961)

A woman and a man dressed in white hold hands in a bed

I had always been intrigued by Curtis Harrington after seeing Fragment of Seeking, and Night Tide has me hopeful about his artsy horror movies. His filmography seemingly hasn’t stood the test of time—which, in my experience, could be a sign that his aesthetic satisfyingly lies outside the norm. He pulled some great performances out of Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson, and the sense of dread and anxiety that permeates this rather obscure fantasy movie kept me hooked the entire time. Not an amazing movie, but definitely unique.

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Constantine (2005)

A man walks through a hellish version of earth

I had a feeling I would like this one—and I was right. Anytime critics gang up on a movie—especially if it’s an action movie from the early-to-mid 2000s—I’m assured that it’s at least worth a watch. Often critics decry any filmmaker with vision; any piece of art that’s self-indulgently steeped in its blockbuster aesthetic. Constantine knows exactly the kind of movie it is from start to finish, and its defiance of anything that could be remotely considered pretentious is exactly what makes it so watchable and lovable. I get why this one has a following, and I’m excited for the sequel.

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

A girl with black hair and a robot arm stands with a sword while men stand behind her

Alita: Battle Angel turned out to be a better theater experience than at-home 4K experience. While the movie looks quite lovely at times and Robert Rodriguez finds order in the computerized chaos, the characters often felt like boring caricatures of villains and heroes I’ve seen a million times. Rodriguez—whose movies just about never interests me—seems to focus on fun and games more than people. Which is fine. But by the time the credits roll, it often ends up feeling like the least interesting parts of a Tarantino movie.

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The Swimming Pool (1969)

A man sits and smokes a cigarette as a woman in a white bathing suit stares at him

The first time I saw The Swimming Pool, I fell in love. I absolutely adored the atmosphere—the constant sense of uneasiness between the characters was palpable; I had never been so aware of the dead space that existed between people in such a tense situation. On this second watch,  however, it just wasn’t hitting the same. That awkward space felt a little more tedious than tactile. Great acting and interesting story, but the movie simply has too much dead air.

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I Love You, Man (2009)

One man wraps his arm around another man in a crowd

Might be my wife’s favorite movie, so I’ve seen this about eight times—and I expect to watch it thirty more times before I die. But I don’t mind at all. It’s not the most groundbreaking comedy, and in fact at times can feel pretty standard. But something about the energy of the story, the actors, the jokes—it all hits. One of the most watchable movies IMO. We quote it constantly. Love it.

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Out of the Fog (1941)

As part of the Criterion Channel’s November Noir lineup, I’ve been watching several film noirs this month. It’s a genre I love, that I’m still discovering. I am transfixed by the existential dread that permeates the genre during a time when it felt like the world was falling apart. And while I’ve seen several great film noirs this month—This Gun for Hire, Fallen Angel, The Glass Key—none have made quite the impact that Out of the Fog left. The film might lack the energy and flourish of the more sophisticated Hollywood crime dramas of that time period, but it’s full of incredible performances (John Garfield is a champion, Ida Lupino is melodramatic perfection, and Thomas Mitchell quietly steals the show) and insightful ideas about the state of American society in the face of inescapable fascism. 

It’s one of those film noirs that’s incredibly blunt in its commentary—but that’s what makes it work. Stella shouldn’t embrace tyrannical temptations, but she also can’t coast away in her little bubble while others suffer. And that overwhelming see-saw is key to the film’s aesthetic: Goff is a cartoonish lure to narcissism, smugly fleecing the quiet, humble inhabitants of working-class America; while Stella’s father, Jonah, shrewdly maneuvers his daughter to remain loyal to her small town, to refrain from dreaming bigger than her well-to-do high school sweetheart. Is Jonah any better than Goff? By the end, they both become killers, they both relish at the sight of money, and they both manipulate. All the while, Stella—the innocent, sincere, wide-eyed dreamer who doesn’t know how to find happiness in the changing American landscape—is stuck in the middle. And she’s left to clean up the debris by the end.

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The Glass Key (1942)

Modern films aren’t necessarily bogged down by excessive plot—they’re crippled by an inability to efficiently traverse and excitedly detail their excessive plots. The expeditious-yet-astute storytelling of The Glass Key makes so many of today’s saturated crime thrillers feel embarrassingly limp and meandering by comparison. Each of The Glass Key’s top notch performers delivers a punchy, incriminating blow to the shady behavior that ran (and still runs) amok in American politics—and it’s done with characters that are fascinatingly written. It feels crazy to say this, but that’s not something I used to in modern cinema.

Alan Ladd is perfect as the stone cold Ed Beaumont, who daringly dukes it out with the nastier parts of society with twice the intensity (and in half the time at 85 minutes) as Robert Pattinson’s Batman. Veronica Lake, stripped of the self-seriousness that plagues modern thrillers and free to steamily tempt the virile characters of The Glass Key, makes Rosamund Pike’s in Gone Girl femme fatale feel cartoonish and dreary. Brian Donlevy is pitch perfect as the political manipulator Paul Madvig, whose antihero presence commands our attention and challenges our loyalty so much better than any of the eye-rolling villains of empty exercises like Wind River. And don’t get me started on William Bendix as the hideous and destructive Jeff, who makes Paul Dano’s lunatic character in Prisoners seem laughably ordinary. The Glass Key is pure entertainment from start to finish, yet it never dumbs down its humanistic observations. Take notes, modern filmmakers.

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This Gun for Hire (1942)

I almost skipped on watching This Gun for Hire. I saw it five years back and wasn’t very impressed. The storytelling felt thin and the characters felt standard compared to the more extravagant film noirs I’ve always loved—your Lauras, your Kiss Me Deadlys, your On Dangerous Grounds. It seemed to me that a director like Frank Tuttle couldn’t keep up with the rapidly paced plot, the actors couldn’t liven up a rather commonplace storyline, the screenwriters couldn’t quite bring the social commentary to life. But now I have to admit: boy was I wrong.

Upon my reluctant rewatch, I found myself entranced by the gritty nature of the film. Tuttle is a proletarian filmmaker—his entire aesthetic is laden with abrasive introspection, a workmanship attitude that entrenches itself in the unforgiving social ladder of America that dictates who gets a leg up and who is doomed to the trenches. Raven, played with such menacing grace by Alan Ladd, is scarred by a flat iron his aunt used to beat him as a child. Ironically, this scar that became a symbol of his doomed impoverished status, as it is used by police for identification in their manhunt. Yes, Raven is a killer. But he is also a victim of abuse, entrapped by his past. The movie doesn’t aim to reform his character, as the final scene may indicate to some viewers. Instead, the slow fade out into credits signals that Raven will always be doomed by his past not because he is evil, but because society made him that way. And Ellen—played by ever-watchable Veronica Lake, who just absolutely steals the show—sees right through his resilient veil. Raven may be tough—but he’s not impure. He’s much more of a victim than the entitled scumbags he kills for a living.

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Fallen Angel (1945)

The only Otto Preminger film that didn’t blow me away—and, in fact, quite underwhelmed me—was Angel Face. The only difference between Angel Face and three other great Preminger films: Where the Sidewalk Ends, Laura (perhaps the greatest film noir of all time), and Fallen Angel? That would be cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who framed such underrated classics as Cluny Brown and 7 Women. Together, these two filmmakers can apparently turn any ordinary whodunnit into a thoughtful reflection on humanity.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Dana Andrews plays the guarded beaten-to-the-ground-by-society drifter Eric Stanton with depth and finesse. His tough exterior slowly but surely reveals its deficiencies, cautiously and elegantly revealing a broken man who desperately desires to feel loved. Stanton constantly pursues what he thinks he wants, what society has convinced him to chase, always reluctant to be vulnerable and open to people who care about more than his status. Stanton’s half-hearted grifting of Alice Faye—who is inhabited with such poise and complexity by June Mills—becomes an ironic reflection of his much-needed vulnerability. Stanton doesn’t need the superficial arousal of Stella (there aren’t enough positive adjectives to describe Linda Darnell’s relentlessness, by the way) or the bank account of June—he needs love. He needs a home. He needs to feel whole again. Feel whole for once in his life. Fallen Angel is all about that fundamental journey. And even given all the adept performances, this film wouldn’t carry nearly the same weight without Preminger and LaShelle behind the camera. Not only do they give actors room to breathe, but they allow their nail-biting story to captivate and flourish. What a film.

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The Blue Dahlia (1946)

As indicated to me by The Glass Key and This Gun for Hire, there may have been no better duo in film noir than Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake—yes, perhaps eclipsing Bogart and Bacall, Andrews and Darnell, Ford and Hayworth. Their chemistry goes far beyond the steamy crowd-pleasing flair that big studios wanted to represent Hollywood back in the day. Together, Ladd and Lake create filmic fire, a diligent exercise in character work, an intense cross-examination of hypocritical America. Yes, they make movies watchable and entertaining as hell. But more importantly they make films have an impact, help them last and feel relevant decades later.

The only roadblock? A stale, stodgy eye. To be fair, I’ve only seen one George Marshall film—this one. But if The Blue Dahlia is any indication, then I can expect a relatively comatose camera detailing the proceedings. Penned by Raymond Chandler, it’s no surprise that the film won over critics and excited audiences at the time (like I said, Ladd and Lake can light up any story). But Chandler’s stormy material only works when the camera can keep up. Masters like Altman and Hitchcock traversed Chandler’s scripts with depth and clarity, while the Wilders and Marshalls of Hollywood were bogged down by an overbearing plot. The Blue Dahlia has a promising foundation, equipped with hard-hitting social commentary regarding mental abuse in America. War, greed, politics—it’s all in play. But before long, the movie becomes nothing but plot. It’s a greatly entertaining plot, mind you, acted with gravitas even by people not named Ladd or Lake (William Bendix is a character actor for the ages, and Doris Dowling is the most watchable cruel housewife ever). But by the end, The Blue Dahlia feels more exhausting than enrapturing. Marshall wears the thematic meat of the film thin by the end, turning Chandler’s promising ideas into a blockheaded lecture. It’s a good time at the movies, but you’ll need to stretch your legs afterwards.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Nothing shocked me more this month than my utter apathy towards The Postman Always Rings Twice. While I shouldn’t be surprised that a revered film noir also happens to be one of the least adventurous and most problematic of the genre, I was convinced that players like Lana Turner (who is entracing in Imitation of Life), John Garfield (who might have given the best film noir performance ever in He Ran All the Way), and Cecil Kellaway (one of the great versatile character actors of Old Hollywood) couldn’t let me down. But by the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice, I felt nothing but disappointment.

It was odd to watch those three players seem awkward and unrelatable in such a misfire of a film. Turner constantly feels unconvincing as the torn housewife who wants a taste of the finer life, likely due to the script’s loyalty to the source material. On paper, Garfield’s character Frank Chambers is actually quite similar to Nick Robey in He Ran All the Way—yet Garfield lacks the careful framing of James Wong Howe and the experienced pen of Dalton Trumbo to accentuate the nuance. And, to my absolute shock, Kellaway’s usual charm felt charmless, to the point where his presence became a tropeish nuisance. Sadly, The Postman Always Rings Twice becomes a cautionary tale about the importance of director-actor relations, as great filmmakers are capable of properly showcasing their talent and extracting the thematic clarity necessary. Standing next to a classic like Fallen Angel, this strangely revered film noir’s chastisement of the American Dream feels as biting as that dead cat (which, in my opinion, gives one of the better performances of the movie).

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Kiss of Death (1947)

I knew Kiss of Death would be my last showing of Noir November. Not because the month is officially over…but because I felt exhausted by the end of what I found to be a tiresome exercise in noir storytelling. The only other film I’ve seen from Henry Hathaway is the rather underwhelming (and slightly annoying) Marilyn Monroe thriller Niagara, which gave me pause before starting on Kiss of Death. However, I was so enticed by Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, and Richard Widmark (who is perhaps most remembered for his scummy performance in this film) that I couldn’t convince myself to pass it up.

The good news is that those three gentlemen made Kiss of Death bearable, and oftentimes very watchable. The bad news is that Hathaway provided no help by listlessly drifting about an urban crime scene that should feel vibrant and exciting. The highest praise I can offer Hathaway is that he allowed his actors room to breathe and find their voices. The long, contemplative shots of Nick Bianco allow Mature to display his versatility, ranging from cold and stubborn to loving and protective. Donlevy is as absorbing as ever, skillfully playing the vigilant-yet-distressed lawyer. And Widmark earned his accolades by gleefully inhabiting such a despicable presence. (The only dud of the cast is Coleen Gray, whose implicit admiration of Nick feels forced and empty.) But those actors are stuck in a barren landscape where the crime never feels exciting and the legal system never feels merciless. Thus, the theme of societal entrapment never takes flight and never has bite. We’re simply watching the reality of criminal activity and legal discourse. Which by no means is a flawed starting point…but, as is, sure as heck isn’t as riveting and revealing as it should be. Now excuse me while I take a nap.

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The Devil Wears Parada (2006)

A brunette woman in black whispers something in the ear of a gray-haired woman in black

You know those terrible TV shows where every single character seems like an awful human being with no redeeming qualities? And then you wonder how anyone could make themselves watch this crap? That’s how I feel about The Devil Wears Prada

I don’t mind when characters are bad people—but they need to be bad people I can become invested in, that I can empathize with. Someone with a shred of humanity that makes me think, “OK, this guy must have had a rough childhood or something.” Just about none of that exists for any character in The Devil Wears Prada (except for the awesome Stanley Tucci, whom I suspect requested the privilege to completely rewrite his character). Everybody in this movie is selfish, is manipulative, is close-minded, is neglectful. Worst of all, they are all completely vapid. 

There are many great movies where the characters are self-consumed narcissists (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Boogie Nights, The Importance of Being Earnest) because those characters are either A) presented compassionately or B) serve as a lesson for the greater good. There’s nothing redemptive about these people who treat each other like garbage, and the “lesson” is a hamfisted and trite one. We get it: Andrea encounters everything she could become for straying from her “destiny” as a serious journalist. Miranda is the self-centered capitalist; Emily is a materialistic robot; and Nigel is what happens if you remain stuck in a job where you’re overshadowed for too long. Oh, and I guess Christian represents your deplorable fate if you…don’t stay with your dunce of a boyfriend who doesn’t listen to you and never tries to give advice that isn’t completely condescending?

Nah, this movie ain’t it. It doesn’t even have very much fun with the fashion formula because it’s too busy rushing back to cover petty, empty drama. From beginning to end, it never takes the right step or makes the right move. An all-around dud of a flick that pretends to be something it very much isn’t. You might as well make me watch a mindless season of television, which is every bit as useless as this movie.

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

A black and white image of a car with its door open outside a motel

The first time I watched Psycho, I wasn’t a huge fan. But the more I’ve read about the film (in anticipation of a giant explanation I plan to write) and the more I’ve learned about Hitchcock’s creative process, the more I’ve become fascinated with everything the film represents. And nothing has provided me with better insight than the documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.

As soon as you can get past the cavalcade of celebrities gushing over the “Master of Suspense” (a format that honestly makes me grimace), you can settle into a breathtaking examination of what many consider to be the first slasher from Hollywood. While the technical exploration of Hitchcock’s filmmaking process—from the conception of the script to his work with the actors to the chilling score to the hilarious promotional material for the film—is fascinating, the most delightful part of the documentary was watching everybody’s different interpretations and reactions to the movie. And not just to Psycho itself, but to this single scene from Psycho. You can see the light in people’s eyes as they recall their first memories of witnessing this revolutionary moment from Hitchcock, and you can tell that it’s warped the way they watch and make movies.

By the end of 78/52, you’ve waltzed through a labyrinthine journey that leaves a phenomenal artistic work in even higher regard. I have a feeling the next time I watch Psycho—which will be very soon—I think I’ll be a full-fledged fanboy. WHAT A TWIST!!

Desperado (1995)

A man carrying a guitar case and a woman carrying a gun walk away from a wall of fire

A film from Robert Rodriguez has the wisecracking dialogue of a Quentin Tarantino flick; the playfulness of a Wes Craven joint; the gunfire of an Anthony Mann outing. So…why don’t I ever seem to love Rodriguez’s movies? Why does a story like Desperado leave me feeling unfulfilled?

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with the concept or the script, which inherently seems filled with enough melodrama to keep me interested. Sadly, I just can’t ever seem to break into Rodriguez’s stylistic approach. Desperado has notes of the three previously mentioned directors—and perhaps that’s where the problem lies for me. Rodriguez’s aesthetic certainly has its trademarks…yet it never feels unique. Never realized. And always just a little too dogged for me to take seriously.

Tarantino, Crazen, and Mann never sacrifice the drama for humor and style—but sometimes that feels like all Rodriguez is doing. The second I become invested, everything turns into a big joke. Which happens over, and over, and over again. To the point where the kooky dialogue becomes annoying, the wild characters become unrelatable, the outrageous gunfire becomes exhausting. Which leaves me cold by the end. I certainly recognize the talent on display, but I never seem to enjoy Rodriguez like I enjoy those other directors.

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Two men sit at a table together at a restaurant

Someone once asked Roger Ebert if he could think of a movie entirely devoid of clichés. His answer: My Dinner with Andre. And I totally agree. My Dinner with Andre certainly isn’t a perfect movie—perhaps not even great. But it’s undeniably transfixing, alluring, perplexing.

It’s a film that’s entirely consumed with the directionless nature of conversation and where it can lead. The dialogue often reminded me of interviews with Kanye West, who often goes spiraling down several different trains of thought that seemingly share no connection…before bringing everything back together in the end to create a complete (albeit incredibly convoluted) circle.

Andre is let loose over the course of a dinner that becomes increasingly enlightening for Wally. Andre’s eccentricities challenge Wally’s humdrum humanism; Andre is chaotic yet intimidatingly centered, where Wally is static yet constantly stressed; Andre’s wild adventures cause Wally to appreciate his quiet life. This push-pull dynamic lends energy to their conversation, even when one person is dominating the discussion. It’s a concept that doesn’t work on paper, yet immediately makes sense once you’ve entered Wally’s reality. You want to listen to Andre because he’s so bizarre that he would force anyone to reevaluate themselves. That’s the energy you want from any movie—but no movie does it like My Dinner with Andre.

The Social Network (2010)

Four boys gather around a computer in their dorm room in The Social Network

I remember running eight miles in the snow (I didn’t own a car) so I could pick up my blu-ray copy of The Social Network from the post office. I couldn’t wait to watch it—not even until the next morning. I had already seen it in theaters, and could barely afford food and shelter as it was. But…it was The Social Network. It was my generation’s Citizen Kane. So nothing could stop me. 

Fast forward twelve years, and I’ve traded in my enthusiasm for apathy. What once felt like a generational film has now become a corny over-dramatization of rich kids arguing with each other about who invented a useless invention that sent society sideways. Perhaps my current disdain for social media isn’t helping here. But I have a harder time falling for this ostensibly clever flick’s schtick than I did back when social media meant everything to me. David Fincher’s hovering gravity and muted color palette thrives in the right setting, but when paired with Aaron Sorkin’s just flat-out stupid and awful punchy dialogue it loses its muster.

Fincher is an adept filmmaker with a great eye, and he’s able to extract some great performances (from people tripping their way through Sorkin’s eye-rolling wordplay (besides Justin Timberlake, who reveals not even supreme charm can overcome bad writing)), and he gives power and gravitas to rather trivial situations and whiny dialogue. But nothing can hold the most overrated writer in Hollywood back. Sorkin’s words become the star of the show in what supposed to be a visual medium. We’re listening to this movie rather than watching it. And it’s become a bit cumbersome for me to slog through at this point. At best, The Social Network is a very watchable misfire of a movie. And just like Facebook, I won’t be too sad if it’s lost to time.

Parents (1989)

A mother cuts meat for a child at the dinner table while a father looks on

Parents made me realize something very, very sad but very, very true: horror movies have no idea how to be scary anymore. Actually, let me amend that: modern horror has no idea how to be terrifying. Because yeah, maybe a jump-scare is technically “scary.” But Parents plays on childhood trauma in a way that makes modern horror feel either sanitized (as is the case with the new Scream movie) or pretentious (*cough* Hereditary *cough*) or flat-out ridiculous and unwatchable (did anyone see that Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake?).

Parents has none of those problems. It’s a film both completely removed from reality and frighteningly familiar in its machinations. Through a child’s eyes, the world is a scary and confusing place. And moms and dads are often cruel and unforgiving. Parents forces us to step into the shoes of those innocent children that are trying to find themselves in a world that’s already actively tearing them apart—life is hard enough. Some people are born with sinister parental figures who can’t remove themselves from themselves in order to nurture a growing and terrified mind. These children feel lost from the very first moments and spend the rest of their lives trying to catch back up. Parents captures that overwhelming reality, that agony, that trauma so many people face. And it’s done compassionately, artistically, and terrifyingly—exactly how a horror movie should be.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Six people stand in a line along a fence

Shaun of the Dead is not a perfect movie. But…it’s sort of perfect. Does that make sense? Perfect in what it sets out to accomplish—which is much more philosophical than you’d think—and perfectly unique in the zombie canon. Something has to be said for a movie that’s this entertaining, this gruesome and ridiculous, this mechanical in its comedic clockwork. The film ticks and churns painlessly, from the performances to the zombies to the running jokes. Shaun of the Dead‘s completely bizarre British humor feels both steeped in tradition and refreshingly new—even by today’s standards.

In fact, you’ll be so astounded by Simon Pegg’s deliberate writing and Edgar Wright’s chaotic direction—each of which are perfectly synced with each other—that you might forget how much heart the movie has. This isn’t just a zombie apocalypse; this is a defamiliarization of Shaun being forced to grow up. This is when you have to choose what you care about. This is when you lose people to death, when you lose people to the changes of life. This bloody disarray is all part of the journey we all experience. And the movie moves through it all so effortlessly and brazenly that you won’t need to be guided along that journey—you’ll experience it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll look inward as Shaun does.

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

A demonic figure holding a weapon stands in a light at night

The most engrossing cinematic experiences belong to the emboldened, the unabashed, the genuine. Filmmakers often become so bogged down in their own ideologies that they forget about the root of artistic purpose: to move. To inspire. To amaze and astound and bewilder. You’re so engrossed by Darry and Trish’s escape from death in Jeepers Creepers that you might forget that they’re bickering siblings, that their mother is expecting them home any minute, that hundreds of people that have gone missing on this country road were just like them. Director Victor Silva is too busy catapulting you into this hellish adventure to stop and moralize or lecture with stylistic fluff or mind-numbing exposition—the meaning is inherent in the craft, the style. At the heart of this energetically paced film is a message that pulsates, that beats with anxious ferocity: we can easily and suddenly lose those closest to us. You don’t need to be told that’s the message. You just feel it.

Turkey Shoot (1982)

A man and a woman dressed in wet yellow jumpsuits

Unsophisticated sophistication—a big no-no in today’s movie culture (which is why 90% of modern horror movies aren’t any fun)—is a lost art. I was reminded of that minutes into watching Turkey Shoot, as I immediately something very telling that speaks volumes about modern horror movies: I forgot what it was like to be shocked. The acting, the dystopian setting, the weird circus freak that breaks people in half—yeah, this is my kind of horror. Turkey Shoot is an absurd movie that has a sense of humor about itself. The more serious it is, the more ridiculous it becomes—and that’s the fun of it. Back in the 80s, there was an air of separation in many horror movies: you are watching something insane that would never happen in real life. The parallels you can draw to yourself and society are inherent—so why aggrandize and take away from the fun? Movies can be entertaining in superficial ways without sacrificing enlightenment.

Candyman (2021)

A man in a white painter's shirt stands in a hallway

You know how some movies have subtext? These underlying messages that are woven throughout the film’s form and style? Well, Candyman is what we’d call a textual film. As a film made from the Black perspective, it’s certainly fascinating and eye-opening. Brianna and Anthony are trying to find their voices in a sea of outsiders trying to capitalize on Black art, in a setting that’s literally been washed clean of Black families. Thus, the Candyman killer becomes both a monstrous and a compassionate depiction of such a casualty. Candyman’s reflection in the mirror serves as a striking reminder that society’s troubled past is always looking right back at us—and Candyman is trying his best to manifest in the real world where he can exact his revenge.

But the philosophy is quickly cheapened in a sea of twists and turns that aggravatingly feel tedious and unnecessary. The movie is about gentrification, about Black identity and exploitation, about police brutality…and so on and on. Is the movie making a good point? Sometimes, yet…sometimes I can’t tell. Which can’t be a great sign. Candyman examines an amalgamation of crises affecting the Black community, which is a cool approach on paper. But after several strangely sanitized killings (an odd trend in modern horror movies) and a number of narrative twists that blockheadedly serve as social commentaries, the catharsis feels saturated.

Automata (2014)

A man and a robot face each other in Automata

People usually come at me with their eyebrows raised or their noses turned up or their mouths sneered and say something like, “How could you possibly like that movie?” to which I respond with a bowed head and a forlorn sigh as I think, “You’ll never get it…” This is my life. I like movies people hate. And I almost always have a really good reason (I really do!) that I’ve thought deeply about and can articulate very well. And people will usually respond in one of three ways: “Huh, that’s interesting” or “You’re just trying to be different” or “LMAO I’m 15 years old and don’t care.” Then we part ways, and the cycle continues.

But this time…this time is different. This time there’s a fundamental difference in the way we watch and appreciate movies that separates me onto a deserted island. This time I have to explain to you why this movie that definitely isn’t good…is actually quite good. (Huh?)

So. I watched this sci-fi movie called Automata that you’ve never heard of. This totally-off-the-rails wannabe ChappieEx Machina crossover shockingly stars Antonio Banderas (who I do believe is reprising his role as El Mariachi in this sick, twisted dystopian setting) as an insurance…investigator? I think? who stumbles upon a case that proves our slave robots are actually becoming smarter and forming their own super-robots, or something like that. I’d go more into the plot, if only I could remember what the heck was going on and why anything led to anything. All you really need to know is Antonio is there to act his butt off as various people who are usually extras in movies with no lines get in the way and respond to the very important piece of society-shaking information that Antonio has just dropped on their doughy heads. 

My reason for watching this movie is even dumber than the plot of Automata itself, and it reveals quite a bit about my movie-watching habits. My wife and I are doing an actor movie chain, which means every movie we watch (when we choose to subject ourselves to this hellish venture) must star an actor from the previous movie. Well, the previous movie was the Michael Keaton thriller about a squatter who won’t leave an apartment called Pacific Heights (a movie that, as I’m astounded to discover while I write this, is only about half as crazy as Automata), which starred Melanie Griffith, who also happens to be in this 2014 sci-fi movie you’ve definitely heard of. We chose this movie because Melanie wasn’t offering us much else, and we couldn’t use Michael Keaton as the connection (he was our connection between Spotlight and Pacific Heights). So we plopped down on the couch and injected a dose of what-the-heck-am-I-watching into our veins.

And I gotta say…it was awesome.

To clarify: the movie itself isn’t awesome. It is, in fact, quite bad. Which…is why it’s awesome. Am I making sense?

No, I’m not. I never do. Whether I’m explaining why a bad movie is actually good or why a bad movie is, yes, indeed bad but actually kinda awesome…it doesn’t really matter. People react the same every time. Good movies aren’t allowed to be anything other than what we’ve defined good movies to be, and you’re not allowed to color outside the lines as a movie lover. Like what you’re supposed to like, and throw the rest in the trash heap where it belongs.

It’s funny, though. The more and more I watch movies—and I’ve watched thousands of them—it’s movies like Automata that leave the biggest impression on me. When I look at the mechanics of Automata, at the logic of the story, at the reasoning behind why everything that happens happens, at the robots that are apparently trying to become more human, at the hilarious attempts at profundity and social commentary, at Dylan McDermott’s recreation of Dirty Harry…I’m simply astounded. I know I’m watching something I’ve never seen before. These other pieces of schlock from Hollywood that are being praised by the critics and influencers as profound and revolutionary? They all feel painstakingly familiar and boring to me half the time. Maybe these movies—known to the world as Knives Out or Spotlight or Everything Everywhere All At Once—are technically sound…but they sure as hell aren’t interesting. They don’t transcend. They don’t enliven my cinematic spirit. Not in the way this completely alien movie known as Automata does. I know for a fact I’ve never seen anything like this before.
So go ahead and scoff your nose, call me names, tell me I’m not trustworthy—I really don’t care. In the meantime, I’m gonna go watch Orphan: First Kill again and try to understand how this 31-year-old woman who’s posing as a lost 12-year-old American girl can get away with having a rather thick Estonian accent. And I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.

Pain & Gain (2013)

One of the biggest movie crimes I’ve ever committed is waiting nine years to watch Pain & Gain. I mean…I’m Travis motherflippin’ Bean. My part-time job is loving directors you hate and talking about how awesome they are. And Michael Bay belongs at the top of that list. I think 6 Underground is an avant-garde masterpiece that showcased Bay’s otherworldly eye for movement and color—without ever sacrificing character and thematic development. 

The best part of Bay’s movies is that the aesthetic goes way beyond the banal “explosions and aggression” label so many people try to reduce it down to. The hyper-ness of a Bay movie feeds into the emotional journey at hand. 6 Underground is a great example of this. The characters of 6 Underground must give up their lives and pretend to be ghosts. They don’t get to have alter egos like every other superhero…they’re just people. People who must make a gigantic sacrifice that clearly eats away at them. Their inherent struggles is that they must remain in the shadows and be committed to making the world a better place for the living people they care about. The film moves with as they navigate that spiritual trek.

As much as I love 6 Underground and how Bay handles the characters, Pain & Gain stands out to me as his best work in the character development department. The plight of his characters is directly mirrored by the momentum and style of Bay’s aesthetic. And because of that, it becomes a film that’s truly on the level of Scarface in its evisceration of the American Dream. 

People won’t accept such a notion, however—because Scarface is an important, dramatic movie that takes itself very, very seriously…while Pain & Gain is a bit of a joke LOL riiiight??? When a director critiques all the malarkey associated with the American Dream and how this country defines “success,” the people who decide what movies are and aren’t allowed to do—aka the critics, the self-important art lovers, the cinephiles who proclaim that the visual medium of storytelling has a succinct set of rules that must never be violated—believe the movie must have the bite of Scarface or Blue Velvet or A Streetcar Named Desire. You’re not allowed to use adolescent humor to illustrate your social commentary (even though that form exposes the idiocy and naïveté of the American Dream); you can’t use bodybuilders as your protagonists (even if those characters serve as a symbolic representation of this country’s unquenchable consumerism); and you certainly are not permitted to patch that story together with such chaotic editing (even when that approach stylistically captures the tumultuous journey of finding “success” that’s been defined by a primitive drove of greedy, self-serving hogs).

Am I making my point clear? Movie in and move out, Bay is navigating his characters through a bombastic minefield of style and color. The problem isn’t that he isn’t concerned with character and theme—the problem is that we don’t like how he goes about exploring his characters and themes. And we only don’t like it because his approach is so different from everything we’re used to with movies. Pain & Gain is every bit as deep and profound as any cinematic attack on the American Dream I’ve encountered—and I love Scarface and Blue Velvet and A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, Bay might have one-upped each of those movies by critiquing the American Dream in such a unique manner. Mark this one up as another win for the most over-hated director in the history of Hollywood.

A Star is Born (2018)

I watched A Star is Born back when it came out…and did not understand the hype. It felt so by-the-numbers and unadventurous in a way that so many biopics feel—and this isn’t even a biopic. It felt beholden to a formula that didn’t even apply. Of course the performances were great…but what is else there to grab onto?

The first 45 minutes of my recent rewatch were a completely different experience. The first 24 hours of Jackson and Ally’s romance is a truly magical experience, full of wonder and tension and hope and despondency and elation—pretty much in that order. Bradley Cooper (the director and star) expertly maneuvers Jackson and Ally’s shared time together to expose each of the characters deepest flaws and mental roadblocks that have prevented them from achieving spiritual transcendence. They each have what the other needs, and they’re willing to give it to each other—they just need to meet in the middle. They each need to open up a little bit for a lifelong romance to begin and blossom. The catharsis that comes with Jackson’s concert where Ally sings her song…I mean my god. Incredible. From the emotion you’re getting from the actors to the way the concert is framed to the incredible performances from the singers—it’s too much to handle. So much ground is covered in those first 45 minutes that you feel you’ve fully digested these people. If the movie ended there, it would be one of the best short features ever.

Then…the rest of the movie happens. It’s strange for Cooper’s aesthetic to feel so realized and moving in those opening 24 hours, only for it to become lost in a mishmash of biopic tropes and musical montages that don’t come anywhere near to capturing the magic of the opening scenes. It doesn’t even seem possible that A Star is Born couldn’t do more with the foundation it laid—yet the final scene where Ally is singing to Jackson doesn’t pack anywhere near the emotional punch of that opening “Shallow” number. The build to that moment should run with the energy created in the first 45 minutes. Instead, it’s slogging through the typical rise-and-fall storyline we’ve seen a thousand times.

The best moments are when Cooper and Lady Gaga interact. The movie is so beautiful and lively when they’re simply being and growing together. I really resent that movies feel this need to dramatize, to find a nadir moment that isn’t reflective of reality in the slightest. Why can’t a movie just be about…love? About cooperation and interaction and prosperity? Of course there’s fluctuation in any relationship. But so much of this movie feels dragged down by otherworldly downbeat moments. Love is a beautiful thing, but Hollywood has a tendency to paint it as sad and ugly. I yearn for a movie that allows a relationship to unfold without all the unnecessary and unrealistic fluff.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Sigh. At some point during my Alien trek, I knew I’d find a dud—and Alien Resurrection is indeed that dud. Even Alien 3 has many redeeming qualities, namely the substantial thematic meat with which the film is embedded. Alien 3 sets up all of these intriguing ideas about female agency and reproductive rights. Does it…do a great job with those themes? Not always—but at least there’s something. There’s a foundation that allows the film to serve as social commentary and be more than a Hollywood spectacle trying to cash in on a major franchise.

Alien Resurrection, on the other hand, constantly feels like it has nothing to say. Ripley comes back in android form…to what effect I’m not sure. Her story is too epic and has too great of a send-off in Alien 3 for this to be her return. As somebody who analyzes movies for a living, I can’t seem to grasp what exactly Jean-Pierre Jeunet is adding to Ripley’s story, to the sprawling commentary the franchise has historically tackled. Perhaps the generational fight for equal rights? The fight against the mega corporations? Against capitalism? How the battle never ends and takes on different forms? Maybe?

Trust me: I don’t need any particular film to be infused with social commentary, or to be making some grand sweeping point. But this is an Alien film, after all, so it’s strange for an entry to not have any of that stuff.

I, of course, can get on board for a goofy slice of entertainment that just wants to have fun with the formula. But even in that department this film is a major slog. The offbeat humor of Jeunet wears off after the third sexist joke from Ron Perlman—actually, it wears off well before that. The action choreography never reaches the gnarly heights expected of a gruesome Alien film, and instead often feels coy or frivolous. Jeunet’s stylistic choices certainly have their own unique rhythm, but for some reason it works much better with a romantic comedy like Amélie than this sci-fi film that randomly decides to be a comedy once in a while. It’s a shame, because Alien Resurrection is a true auteur experience full of self-indulgence—something I truly appreciate. But instead of feeling fun and amusing, it’s exhausting as all heck.

Magnolia (1999)

Stanley sits in a library as the shadows of frogs falling from the sky paint the walls

This is a strange movie to rank. Because…this is the one. Like, the one. The movie that made me fall in love with movies. How do I rank a film like Magnolia against everything else? This movie is everything to me. It’s what kickstarted a lifelong attachment to an artform I had previously taken for granted. How do I put my love of this movie into words? How does a number placement accurately reflect how I feel?

To answer those two questions in order: I can’t possibly, and of course it doesn’t. There aren’t enough pages in a notebook for me to profess my love for this movie—so I won’t bore you. What I will do, however, is reflect on this particular viewing experience. Because it was truly profound.

I’m so excited to continue this movie diary for the rest of my life, because every subsequent viewing of Magnolia will be colored by where I’m at psychologically and ideologically. I have changed so much since my first viewing of Magnolia 16 years ago (my god). I can quote every single line, but now those lines carry an entirely different heft. As I’ve gone out into the world and tried to find my place within it, I’ve experienced many of the same trauma and obstacles experienced by Stanley, and Donnie, and Frank, and Claudia, and Linda, and Jim. Not the literal obstacles (I was never a child genius on a game show), but the emotional baggage that comes with feeling like you’re insignificant, like you don’t fit into this world, like nobody could possibly understand what you’re going through. Of course I saw all of those dynamics playing out the first time I watched Magnolia—but to experience those struggles? To viscerally feel them? That’s a different adventure entirely.

This time through, I was really struck by the loneliness depicted in the characters. Claudia and Jim are debilitated by their solitude, desperate for love to enter their lives; Stanley and Donnie are frozen in time, yearning for their parents, for anyone to view them as more than cute fixtures on TV to “ooh” and “aww” at; Linda and Frank require very different yet strikingly similar emotional relationships from Earl. Even the despicable characters like Jimmy feel lost in their heinous lifestyles, mortified by their scandalous behavior and grieving the fulfillment they never found. It’s an overwhelming mixture of pain and suffering that’s ultimately caused by yourself. Even when people like Jimmy and Earl are to blame, the inability to become your own fully realized individual falls on you. The attitude of Magnolia isn’t “get over it,” but instead (and this is stated very literally) “wise up.” Because it’s not going to stop.

I’ve always adored Magnolia for how adventurous and experimental and self-indulgent it feels without sacrificing entertainment and enlightenment. It’s truly movie-like in how it fluctuates and moves you with incredible acting and captivating scene construction. But more than ever on this viewing, I discovered how realized Paul Thomas Anderon’s aesthetic is. The movie lives and breathes its characters loneliness in an almost uncomfortable manner. Magnolia screams its intentions, yet it never feels obvious or straightforward. It weaves and bends between these characters in a daunting manner, artfully capturing the manicness of our collective mental landscape. We all feel detached and alone in our trauma, yet the trauma is what binds us all. (It felt more relevant than ever in our current divided times.) Never has a movie captured the feeling of life barreling out of control quite like Magnolia. It can often feel like there’s no solution to our problems…until we find it. That moment of clarity and catharsis feels so hidden, yet so crystal clear and natural and obvious once we place it—and it was so much closer than we thought.

There are a million more aspects of Magnolia I could praise and go on and on and on about. But as I’m sure I will continue to revisit this movie over the years, I feel relaxed leaving those thoughts for the next diary entry. Because one year from now—five years from now, twenty years from now, fifty years from now—this movie will carry an entirely different-yet-defining weight that I can’t wait to explore.

Alien vs. Predator (2004)

A predator (left) and an alien (right) face off

I feel like I really disappointed everyone with this one. “Surely this is the one time that Travis won’t go against the grain and love a movie we all hate!” everybody thought in unison as I sat down to watch Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2004 reboot (or perhaps reconstruction?) of the Alien franchise. And you guys know me: I love the Alien movies. So I was fully expecting to fall in line and hate this movie with everyone else.

Alas, I’m here to disappoint you once again. Because Alien vs. Predator was freaking awesome and a truly thought-provoking addition to the Alien storyline. The franchise is most fascinating for its deconstruction of the modern female identity. Ripley is a fantastic heroine we can root for—somebody who’s rebelling against the system, fighting a major corporation that has a stranglehold over society, battling to retain agency over her own body. Her ultimate opponent is a parasitic symbol of that fight: an alien creature that’s looking to tear the human race from the inside out. This monstrous creation is a female that’s looking to produce other aliens that will do the same. Thus, the alien becomes a demonized emblem of women—an emblem looking to be controlled and mutated by society. In turn, the alien becomes Ripley’s utmost enemy—the fight against this alien is a fight against horrifying notions regarding femininity.

So how the heck does Alien vs. Predator fit into…any of this? Because of the Predator part. In fact, adding that element makes Anderson’s film one of the most profound entries into the Alien canon.

Think about it. The Predator series is in many ways the opposite of the Alien franchise: the former explores toxic masculinity, while the second explores society’s patriarchal fight to retain control of the feminine figure. But…you can also see how those two storylines would go hand in hand. One thing leads to another. Which makes these franchises a natural fit.

And boy does Anderson deliver. From the get-go, I was quickly reminded of the auteur director’s eye-catching aesthetic. His movies feel like video games—most notably Resident Evil: Retribution, which might be the most underrated film of the past decade—but not in an annoying rigid way. His movies float with that video game form; they become transcendent experiences that feel unlike anything else in cinema. Of course you can not enjoy that aesthetic—but to deny its otherness almost seems perverse. The man is bringing unique insight to storylines that consistently deal with the deterioration of societal values and (subsequently) the destruction of civilization.

Which is what makes Alien vs. Predator so awesome. Anderson’s approach works so well because it finds the humanity behind the hyper-masculine figure that’s looking to extinguish the virulent sentiments manifested in the alien creature. In the original Predator, the Predator constantly challenged (and constantly conquered) the male ego, ripping Dutch and his crew apart without much effort. The Predator isn’t just some enemy—it’s representative of what price such toxic masculinity can cost society. The Predator isn’t necessarily a figure to be conquered, but instead overcome and controlled. The alien, however, is representative of our often blockheaded, neanderthalic society’s stance on women—and that must go. So if an awesome female hero needs to team up with a big masculine Predator to do that? So be it. I’ll watch that kind of entertainment any day of the week.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man climbs up the side of a building

Part of me really wanted to give this movie a half-star. In many ways, it deserves it. Spider-Man: Homecoming is everything that’s wrong with franchise movies these days, as it (very candidly) aspires to be part of a cinematic universe rather than have its own story with interesting characters and themes and an aesthetic that separates Spider-Man from other superheroes. Each and every scene has the studio stamp on it, as the movie constantly reminds us of all the other great characters in the Avengers universe and how awesome it is that these superheroes exist, that we get three or four movies featuring these awesome dudes each year. Spider-Man: Homecoming constantly has a smug smile on its face, as Disney executives laugh quietly to themselves and think about their year-end bonuses as people fill the theater seats. The character doesn’t need to be interesting or unique (trust me: he isn’t) for this movie to be successful. It just needs to be part of a gigantic puzzle (which is apparently what was wrong with the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies) for it to be considered a success and be graced with two or three or seven sequels.

But I honestly can’t bring myself to give Spider-Man: Homecoming it the lowest rating possible for a movie because that would be a disservice to the worst movies I’ve ever seen. In reality, this is just another bland movie–one of dozens that I see each year. It’s not offensively awful because there’s nothing offensive about the movie other than just how inoffensive it is. It’s so clearly a studio film with a money-hungry agenda that it never even bothers trying to be a real, ambitious movie that could possibly stir up any sort of negative emotion in me. It’s a boring film with a boring lead and a boring villain; it farts out a couple funny scenes from Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau, who together were probably on set for a total of 180 minutes; and the themes are so eye-rolling obvious and forthrightly stated that it requires almost zero thinking on the viewer’s part for…2 hours and 13 minutes?! Oh my god that’s torture. 

The central struggle of this movie is that a kid doesn’t want to be a kid anymore and would like to become an Avenger. OH SO LIKE EVERY KID THAT’S GOING TO FORCE HIS DEAD-EYED PARENTS INTO THE THEATER THAT SUMMER. It’s moments like these I’m thankful my daughter is just a few months old. I’m hoping she never falls prey to these dumb studio tactics and forces me to watch absolutely mindless schlock. In the end, the comic book nerds are happy (I still cannot fathom why that is important even in the slightest) that their hero is just a regular kid with regular problems and that the movie doesn’t propel the comic book aesthetic to cinematic proportions like Sam Raimi so beautifully did an entire 15 years earlier.

Alien 3 (1992)

An alien bares its teeth next to a woman who sweats and cowers in fear

I just finished the Alien series (if you don’t count the Alien vs. Predator movies) and was reminded of how interesting its commentary is on motherhood and femininity in a patriarchal society. How the aliens and the world of the aliens comment on reproduction, nurturing, destruction, masculinity—it’s all quite brilliant in this defamiliarized setting where people are fighting for their lives. That goes double for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s character), who is constantly forced to destroy the aliens before they obliterate the human race.

Alien 3 is obviously a perfect entry into this grand storyline, as Ripley crashes her ship at a maximum-security correctional facility housed by men with a genetic predisposition for antisocial behavior. The commentary is a bit blunt, amirite? But that’s fine, as it presents another thread to the narrative spinning around Ripley as she battles against the patriarchal powers that be. A baby is literally forced upon her by the aliens, taking away any and all agency over her own body. And the film chronicles her journey to gain that power back.

But while the thematic foundation is strong, the execution is not. Historically, David Fincher does not enjoy this movie and believes it was butchered by the studio in the editing room. Plus, the movie went through so many rewrites and had so many issues on a technical level (most with special effects) that it never came to reflect Fincher’s true vision. And it shows. The movie’s editing feels stilted, never giving Ripley’s story the power and send-off it deserves. Beyond the core concept of the movie, Alien 3 never finds its footing with the patriarchal overtones and forms it into a defined universe like Alien and Aliens (as well as Prometheus and Alien: Covenant) were able to do. There are some great moments in this one. But it’s largely a missed opportunity.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

A woman dressed in white wearing red lipstick sits in a canoe on a lake

Yesterday, I was fooled by a movie. And I’m just now coming to terms with it.

I chose to watch Leave Her to Heaven because it is, according to many, a film noir—which is possibly my favorite genre of film. But a noir in color? That sounded crazy. Noirs are known for their gritty black-and-white palettes, their heavy shadows, their abundance of dark and claustrophobic settings—none of which lends well to color. Especially technicolor. Nevertheless, I was interested in what Leave Her to Heaven had to offer.

But as the movie unfolded, I found myself continually and firmly holding the position that this was not film noir. It was, stylistically, too much of a departure to fit the genre mold. The characters were too happy and living too much of the “good life.” In a film noir, I expect people to be down on their luck, to feel discarded by the system, to be driven to upend the social structure.

Yet throughout my viewing, there was a nagging sense that something was different. That there was a lurking underbelly to this film that was darker than any film noir I’d ever seen. That something sick and sadistic was pulsing through the veins of my television—a dark truth I was trying my best to pretend it wasn’t there.

The beauty of Leave Her to Heaven is that it tricks you. You’re lured in by the deceptively charming color palette…only for it to jam a knife in your side. Gene Tierney’s crimson lipstick on the lake as a boy calls for help, her melding with the baby blue walls as she approaches the staircase with her unborn child, her fire-hydrant-red bathing suit as her husband mourns—you’re so taken by the beauty that you can’t see director John M. Stahl screaming in your face. Gene Tierney is either one with her environment or in a life-or-death battle to achieve dominance. And that tension has to eventually reach a breaking point.

When people are around, when she’s viewed as a “wife,” she puts on a smiling face and performs her motherly duties. But when she’s alone, she scowls and grimaces as the weight of society sits on her shoulders. Melancholy consumes her. This world—including her husband and her family—is not giving her what she needs. And in the face of her father’s death, it’s tearing her apart. Increasingly, she feels more and more alone as the people in her life continually fail to fill the emotional void.

And this reveals the true “film noir” aspect of the film. Seemingly, everything is great. Society gave her all that she needs. The people around Ellen love her and want the best for her. But…do they understand her? As sick and sadistic and unforgiving as she is, Ellen is ultimately misunderstood—and, thus, cast aside. Everyone sits around waiting for Ellen to pull herself together. She has to come around eventually…right? But she never does. And she punishes the world for it.

Once Leave Her to Heaven reaches its final moments, the movie reveals its final trick. The film has been solely focused on Ellen and her destructive narcissism. But…we never actually hear Ellen’s story, do we? We’ve heard this entire tale from an older gentleman sitting by the lake, who’s merely recounting Richard’s side of the story. So do we ever actually hear the truth? Or are we simply witnessing how society will remember this devilish, indecent woman.

What a twist. That deceiving color palette? Ellen’s shift in mood? Her unhealthy attachment to her father and her emotional stranglehold over her husband? That’s all hyperbolic in a way that’s fitting of a melodrama—but it’s also revealing in a way that makes this movie a true film noir. What’s hidden throughout is that the “truth” about Ellen is only society’s “truth.” Society sees her as a shameless, narcissistic creature, so that’s how she’s presented. But we also know that Ellen was lonely, was depressed, was hoping to rekindle something she’d lost when her father died. Is that so unforgiving? Isn’t that something we can all empathize with? That hidden truth is the black-and-white color palette, the heavy shadow, the claustrophobic environment of a film that has revealed itself to me to be an American classic.

Punch-Drunk Love (2004)

Barry and Lena embrace in a hotel lobby in Hawaii as people play on the beach behind them

It’s funny to try and rank a movie like Punch-Drunk Love. Or any Paul Thomas Anderson movie for that matter. He was the guy who got me into the movies in the first place. Magnolia completely re-altered my DNA and introduced me to a wonderful new world that I’ve been obsessed with to this day. And early on, Punch-Drunk Love was one of those movies that felt of another world. So when I go to rank a movie like this, other movies don’t really stand a chance—it’s going near the top.

Today, I’ve slotted Punch-Drunk Love in the #6 position—the highest current ranking a movie that’s not part of my “All-Time Favorites” can achieve. I watched the film yesterday with my wife and was transported back to 2006 when I first watched it, yet I found a new appreciation for the film that could have only come with 34 years of living.

Anderson’s youthful, vigorous approach to filmmaking was something I’ve always recognized and loved, and Sandler’s darkly comic performance is one for the ages. But this time around, I was really invested in this man’s ability to break out of his shell, to find his voice in a world that feels chaotic and doesn’t make sense.

At times Punch-Drunk Love feels like a “movie within a movie” without being overwhelmingly obvious about it. Set in the more remote, less glamorous portions of L.A., there’s a striking difference between Barry Egan’s everyday life and his time in Hawaii with Lena. At home the world is gray and constricting and formidable; boxes fall and vehicles crash and blonde brothers chase him down alleyways; his sisters emasculate him and restaurant managers threaten to crack his head open. But when he travels away with Lena, the air becomes pure and unadulterated. The waves faintly flow in and out, the sun peeks through the palm trees, and silhouettes of people pass by like clouds in the sky as Barry and Lena absorb each other. But when they return home…the world threatens them once again. Which means it’s time for Barry to change the story.

Lena’s patience and interest in Barry is as loving as it is mysterious. She sees the broken man within and wants to help, undoubtedly because she sympathizes with and relates to his struggles. We are all fighting battles internally—some are just handling it worse than others. What she sees in Barry isn’t what the world sees or what his sisters see. Hell, it’s not even what Barry sees. Barry is trying to make sense of his life just like Lena, and they came together at just the right time for reasons that couldn’t possibly be put into words.

This is the part where my past self diverges from my current self. Yes, I could always appreciate the onslaught of colors and gorgeous lighting throughout the film. Of course the score has always mesmerized my senses. And obviously I’m overtaken by Sandler’s handling of such a dramatic role. But this time around the movie really crystallized. I saw myself in Barry Egan, who learned to open up to this woman, who became part of the movie’s score, who decided to become director of his own movie. He has enough pudding to travel anywhere in the world with Lena—but he can be happy here with the rest of us as well. The outside world won’t always make sense. But your inner world can.

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