62. The Revenant

I love this movie. It’s fun exercise, a big-budget frontier tale and a chase through bitter cold across deadly terrain. The number of times Hugh Glass faces death becomes countless. He fights everything.

Leonardo DiCaprio struggles and suffers, but I think he won an Oscar for bringing the sad. This movie is better if it makes you feel terrible. Art is not nice.

Paralyzed by wounds, DiCaprio’s Glass watches from only a few feet away as his family is murdered. He freaks the fuck out, shows us what bottomless anger and sadness mix into (mostly spittle). Freezing and mauled, his every movement hurts, but the emotional pain seems worse. He lugs grief through recovery and subsequent hard-core revenge quest.

In exchange for forgoing warm feelings, The Revenant rewards us with a thrill ride. More than thirty men get killed in the first fight. The most memorable scene absolutely looks and feels like Glass is being shredded apart by an angry bear, and he wins that fight! The action scenes are life-or-death, charged with momentum and ensconced in an icy glow both beautiful and merciless. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu famously shot only when natural lighting was perfect. Sounds like a pain in the ass for the filmmakers, but the effect is a glimmering sapphire tint. Nature is hard as steel.

The plot is thin, but that’s OK. Story ain’t a star. The stars are DiCaprio, and Tom Hardy as the remorseless half-scalped murderer Glass hunts. The lighting is a star, and the cinematography’s seamless flow through thundering violence. The setting is a star: Ice, snow, wind and water are more powerful than the bear, they just work slower.

Objective correlative: the setting, the mountain, expresses emotions. Trees respond to Glass; when his son dies, they freak the fuck out too. Much later, when he comes upon a murdered friend, Glass’s face stays placid while in the background an avalanche rumbles and tumbles.

Man and nature; sad and awesome. In the pantheon of westerns, among not just movies but shows like Deadwood and books like Lonesome DoveThe Revenant will endure.



61. Phantom Thread

Reynolds Woodcock does not find it “spooky” being haunted by his dead mother. He says this early in Phantom Thread, and it’s a clue. Much later in the film, Reynolds gets catastrophically sick and sees his mother’s ghost, standing still in a dress he made as a boy. It feels ominous, like he’s going to die. But it’s not ominous. Nothing in Phantom Thread foreshadows evil. The twist is that it remains a sweet love story.

A meticulous dressmaker, Reynolds has problems with love. His hyper-controlling nature helps him star atop the European fashion game, but with a girlfriend it gets problematic. When Alma wears too much lipstick on their first date, he wipes it off right there at the table. When she butters her toast noisily, he snaps. And scolds. His obsessive work habits leave Alma feeling cold and ignored.

She falls for his charms despite these awkward exchanges and the constant presence of his sister and business partner Cyril. Cyril emits strong vibrations, in tones difficult to discern. She isn’t mean or even intimidating, really. Not quite professional, either. It’s difficult to peg, but it’s strong. Cyril smells Alma when they first meet, like an animal.

Alma becomes Reynolds’s model and live-in girlfriend. They love each other, but their personalities spark shitty arguments. After a particularly nasty fight, Alma seems to be murdering Reynolds, poisoning him with mushrooms.

She is not murdering him. He deserves it. Needs it, even.

Reynolds promises a princess the most beautiful dress ever made. Pressure! When it’s finished, he gets dramatic. He says it’s ugly. Then he faints and damages it, and the women of the house go to work, staying up all night snipping and sewing. His weepy tortured genius spawns ideas, but the art itself is a product of good work by several people.

He takes himself so seriously that sometimes he must be poisoned. Strange, maybe, if we’re judging, but it works. These lovers squabble, drift apart, solve their problems, and ultimately say “I love you.” Romance rarely feels so real on film. It darkens as it grows beautiful.


60. Get Out / Strong Island

The sunken place is real.

Chris Washington is put into “the sunken place” by a cruel hypnotist. Physically paralyzed, his consciousness drops through the floor. He sees the hypnotist from afar, until she closes his eyes with her thumbs. He cannot fight. He appears to be falling, then floating in space. He screams, but it’s muted.

The hypnotist’s family means to dissect Chris; to turn his body into a useful thing.

Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out, wrote on Twitter: “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.”

Chris is black, visiting his girlfriend’s white family. The cruel hypnotist is his girlfriend’s mother.

Strong Island, a documentary released the same year, is primarily about a shooting in New York. Director/narrator Yance Ford’s brother was the victim. Yance explains details in close-up, so we feel the hurt in his eyes. The district attorney cared more about his brother’s history than his death. Police and a grand jury believed the killing was justified. Because the brother confronted the killer a month before the shooting, and argued over an insult toward his mother, and threw a vacuum cleaner, they decided the killer responded reasonably.

Yance Ford’s brother was black; the killer was white.

The scream comes after a phone call with the investigating detective, who says he agreed with the grand jury. Yance next calls his girlfriend, crying. “The fucking vacuum cleaner is why they didn’t indict.” He hangs up, covers his eyes, and unleashes a massive scream. It overwhelms his microphone’s sound levels.

He is in the sunken place.

Get Out is highest-level genre horror. Prestigious. A fresh classic. But which film is truly scarier? Chris Washington fights villains, and Get Out is creepy and fun and funny and ultimately pretty satisfying.

Yance Ford can’t fight, but we can hear his scream.

Ford’s mother describes testifying to indifferent grand jurists. “I will die believing that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color. I will always believe that. Always. Until the day I die.”

Then she dies.






59. Pan’s Labyrinth

The penultimate scene of Pan’s Labyrinth feels like heaven. Ofelia arises in a golden throne room. A king declares she has earned her place as princess beside himself and the queen, Ofelia’s mother. An audience of subjects stands, applauding. Her eyes sparkle. She smiles.

To end his paradoxical mix of childhood and war, writer/director Guillermo del Toro cuts back from that scene to the real world, and the same shot that starts the film: Ofelia is bleeding. She stops breathing. She dies.

The throne room is her last thoughts, not heaven; it is the end of an imagined game. Being 11, she cannot understand that her sick mother is about to die, or that her new stepfather is a mad general exterminating anti-fascists in the Spanish woods. She doesn’t know that World War II rages, eating lives by the millions.

But even if they cannot comprehend, kids perceive. They intuit wrongness. Especially smart kids who like books. Ofelia’s stories, the mind games we watch her play so earnestly, help her endure incomprehensible cruelty.

But not survive it.

She invents a fairy tale. A freakish faun assigns tests for Ofelia to prove she is a reincarnated princess. She faces monsters including the child-eating pale man, who inserts his eyes into slits in his palms and bites the heads off fairies. (The pale man, chillingly, resembles our real world’s most hideous creature: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Many movies juxtapose largeheartedness and gruesome warfare, but few (if any) so well. Del Toro’s war film is a fable in a fantastic forest. Ofelia’s adventures are frightening, but they are essentially play. When her stepfather is in that same forest, he ain’t playing. He shoots wounded rebels in the head.

His darkness eventually claims Ofelia, but del Toro is no nihilist. Goodness prevails, somewhat.

We close on the girl gut-shot by a sneering fascist. Yet Ofelia is happy, joyous even, in her last moments. Storytelling and fairy tales cannot save her life, but they can save her from a cold and confusing death. What more worthy testament to the power of art?



58. Crimson Peak

Thomas Sharpe is reading a novel manuscript written by his young wife Edith.

“This fellow Cavendish, your hero,” Sharpe says, “there’s a darkness to him. I like him. Does he make it all the way through?”

“That’s entirely up to him,” Edith says. “Characters talk to you. They transform. They make choices.”


“As to who they become,” Edith says.

This is very Guillermo-del-Toro dialogue, functioning on multiple levels. Sharpe is describing himself: dark, yet likable. Will he make it all the way through? Writer-director del Toro sends his character a warning through Edith: You can survive this story, if you choose wisely.

Edith’s words are also an insight into process. Stephen King says the same thing, that characters surprise the writers who create them. Their unexpected choices can explode writerly plans for what happens next.

Thirdly, the dialogue serves the story. Sharpe will change his plan, choosing goodness and altering the fates of everyone in Crimson Peak.

Sharpe, though dashing, is a scoundrel. He marries Edith for money, whisking her from London to a massive, secluded, sinking house, so haunted it bleeds and breathes. Sharpe is inappropriate with his controlling sister, and they are poisoning Edith.

But we can’t hate him, or his slithery sister. Edith calls them “monsters,” an invective they have heard before. Del Toro, famously, loves his monsters.

The ghosts in Crimson Peak are horrific – rotting, dripping, vaporous, and beyond-blood-red crimson. They are also honorable, imbued with soul. Speaking in shrieks and moving with inhuman jerkiness, they try to warn Edith. They help her. Dying has perhaps made them insane, but they aren’t villains.

The villain is Sharpe’s sister Lucille. By the end of the film she has chased Edith through the ghastly house, hissing and swinging a cleaver. Lucille is malicious. She has wrought gory murder. Yet in the film’s final shot del Toro expresses a lovely goodbye. The tenderest scene is saved for the sickest beast.

There is sadness in that last moment, as though Lucille never lost the love of her creator. As though del Toro wishes she had made better choices.



57. The Shape of Water

He may be a racist, sexist, foul-mouthed and intimidating brute, who wields a bloody cattle prod and likes big tits and Cadillacs, but Strickland demonstrates profound understanding when he tells his boss, derisively, “These scientists, sir, they’re like artists: they fall in love with their playthings.”

That is a very Guillermo-del-Toro line of dialogue. A uniquely fantastic writer and director, del Toro loves his characters, particularly his monsters. His favorite plaything in The Shape of Water is, of course, the river creature imprisoned in a government lab where Strickland runs security.

The film tells a love story between mute janitor Elisa and the monster, but that’s the outer layer. Del Toro loves us, his audience, too. He must, because entertainment is an obvious priority. Often absent from prestigious Oscar-quality films is the sense of pulp that makes The Shape of Water fast and fun. It is packed (to the gills) with funny moments and intense confrontations between odd-ball characters.

The camera swims among the players, maintaining pace and assisting tone as Shape of Water lithely wafts from romance to horror to sci-fi to Cold-War spy yarn to heist to violent thriller. Film and monster both are built like agile athletes, muscular yet slender. And they share a color palate; the sets around Elisa are a vibrant seafoam green that bolsters her connection to the monster.

The story gives way, toward the end, to a black-and-white dance number. Our mute hero finds her voice, singing as she and the monster dance on a stage beneath the stars. It’s an old-cinema homage (and a chance to show how cool the monster looks in black-and-white). The sequence breaks the fourth wall to convey Elisa’s feelings, because the monster is too animalistic to understand “I love you.”

But it’s not her. It’s fantasy. None of this is literal. Elisa can’t turn the world into a black-and-white musical set. Del Toro does that, gifting his fairy-tale couple an enchanted moment not to serve the story or audience (it completely sets aside the story) but to exalt in their love and, clearly, to express his own.




56. Creature from the Black Lagoon

My 4-year-old and I planned to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon together. I told her it wouldn’t be scary, that it was an old movie with a silly monster. She’s amenable to my picks because, like all kids I know, her favorite time is screen time.

Then we got mad at each other about something stupid, and I decided If this little girl is gonna be mean to her dad, then she can’t watch Creature from the Black Lagoon. Eventually, we hugged it out and did a puzzle.

Which is good, because I was wrong. A 9-year-old could watch a river monster kill people in black-and-white, maybe, but not a 4-year-old. (Llamando Paw Patrol!) I assumed that because it was from 1954, before filmmakers could splatter blood or show sex, it would be tame and even cheesy. Never underestimate a classic.

It’s cheesy at first, when we only see the monster’s reaching webbed claw. The clueless characters don’t know it’s there, but the camera zooms in and horns blare on the soundtrack.

He mostly just grabs faces when he attacks, but the actors sell it, seeming truly afraid. And their characters deserve it, by the laws of horror old and new, for being ethnics and an unwed couple and a greedy businessman.

Is a violent creature, slow on land but powerful underwater, worse than these men? They have invaded his Amazonian turf, after all, desecrating the skeleton of his ancestor, flicking spent cigarettes wherever they please, and strapping on air tanks to hunt him with harpoon guns.

He kills them for these slights, but they brought a woman who arouses other intentions. The monster only follows her at first, watching as she swims, oblivious. She’s sexy and vulnerable in her one-piece. Then he gets close, almost touching. This is horrific on one level, but on another it’s tender and sad. He wants her, but by the rules of old movies there’s no way he can have her. He’s a monster!

It’s too bad. Guillermo Del Toro should make a sequel 63 years later – something rated R for gore and hot sex.



55. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I pray for the strength to avoid the next Star Wars movie.

When I was a kid, my sister and I each rented a VHS flick on Friday nights (we also got Togo’s sandwiches). I always picked either Tim Burton’s Batman or The Empire Strikes Back. Those movies were my gods.

Recently, I’ve seen Ben Affleck play Batman in Justice League, and I’ve seen The Last Jedi, and I feel like a sucker. Bad blockbusters are making me choose whether to bury the bespectacled young version of myself who clacks together action figures in my mid-conscious. He helps me write, but maybe that’s bad too. I should put away comics and try again to read Faulkner.

Justice League is objectively bad. I’ve said. The Last Jedi is also objectively bad, I think. (Paradox!) At two-and-a-half hours, it’s too fucking long, with an entire unnecessary story line. Coincidences, not choices, repeatedly rescue characters. The villains repeatedly fall for tricks, like fools. And it lacks momentum: Will the rebels’ gas run out before Rey decides to stop arguing with Luke Skywalker? (Spoiler: Yes.)

Writer/director Rian Johnson truly shits on Luke Skywalker. Original-trilogy Luke is a normal boy who answers the Call to Adventure and finds profound purpose; in The Last Jedi he’s an asshole. Powerful young hero Rey needs training, and Luke is obligated to pass on the teachings of Yoda, to honor Yoda by being better. He is obligated to train Rey well. A warrior would. Instead, he wastes time bitching.

He hears Han Solo was killed and still refuses to fight.

Maybe he sees that the premise of these newest films – the evil empire rebuilt itself after Vader and the second Death Star – undermines his hero’s journey with Han and Leia. The events in the original trilogy did not matter.

Why do that? Why render glorious source material meaningless? My friends like this movie. Critics love it. I don’t understand at all, and I want to stop trying.

But I know I can’t. Like Luke, I am an old asshole, seeing movies I know I’ll hate and then wasting time bitching.



54. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Battle on the planet Hoth splits iconic heroes into two concurrent storylines. In one, Yoda trains Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force. In the other storyline, Han Solo and Princess Leia are hunted through space by Darth Vader.

There’s a fight, but no more battles. The Empire Strikes Back is not epic, and by going small it becomes the best Star Wars film, and possibly the best sequel ever.

Momentum. As Vader pursues through an asteroid field, Han and Leia can’t stop. Stopping puts them in a monster’s belly, then falling into a bounty hunter’s trap, then betrayed by an old friend. Lando’s betrayal is unveiled when Vader rises at a table in Cloud City, glorious black against an all-white background. Han draws his blaster and fires, but it’s worthless. Vader has them.

That ain’t The Moment, though. Nor is anything from Luke Skywalker’s training with Yoda. As Luke exercises body and mind in an alien swamp, a clock ticks. Luke knows his friends are in danger. Yoda insists Luke finish the training, that leaving when he’s unready leads to peril. He’s right, but Luke goes.

When they meet, and fight, and Vader tells Luke “I am your father,” Luke’s response is to scream “No!” and that it cannot be true. Luke is defeated, devastated. This, fucking duh, is The Moment. Empire earns the emotional wallop by – I’m repeating myself, but it’s important – staying small.

Joseph Campbell said Star Wars was the best modern example of the monomyth, the hero’s journey passed down throughout history, a story so ingrained that we dream it. Essential ideas about humanity, our internal conflicts, are interpreted as space opera. If Luke cannot control fear and anger, a system will swallow him. “The passage of the hero,” Campbell wrote, “…is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified.”

And now (paging Freud) Luke’s own father demands he submit. The battle between light and dark shrinks to these two men, yet it’s enormous. Universal. That it does not resolve may be the greatest truth art can impart.



53. American Beauty

Lester halts at the cusp of statutorily raping his daughter’s best friend. He has seduced her, kissed her, unbuttoned her shirt. Finally, when she confesses “I’m a virgin,” he sees the wrongness. Before getting off her, though, he takes a beat to press his cheek against her bare chest.

This is gross, but the context changed in a fascinating way between 1999, when this movie debuted, and 2017, as I write this. Actor Kevin Spacey’s career appears destroyed by accusations of sexual assault, beginning with actor Anthony Rapp’s revelation that when Rapp was 14, Spacey picked him up, put him on a bed, got on top of him, and “was, like, pressing into me.”

American Beauty was beloved… and wildly misinterpreted. Lester, intended as a sympathetic character discerning the meaning of life, was actually a revolting villain.

“In less than a year,” Lester narrates at the beginning, “I’ll be dead.” Key days unfold, and suburban life – big house, neighbors, job – is presented as depressing.

We know now that affluent whites should not complain, and Lester’s self-absorption wreaks awful destruction. Had he been wise, or even merely decent, he would have lived and/or left his family intact. Instead, consider these last words to his daughter: “You’re going to turn into a real BITCH! Just like your MOTHER!”

The final time he sees said bitch mother, his wife, he torpedoes her affair, which may feel righteous but ends the only joy she’s had in years, right before he dies and leaves her forever.

Ergo, Lester is rotten, his choices vindictive, selfish, and rapey. He quits his boring job by threatening to lie about being raped unless he’s handed one year’s salary. Bad!

But not a bad movie. American Beauty is a different, darker masterpiece 20 years later – a portrait of arrogant self-pity that should work like a lesson on how not to live.

And it feels impossible to separate Spacey from this role. Brilliant as he’s been in The Usual Suspects or House of Cards or so much else, Lester should define him. Maybe Spacey deserved that Oscar, but his alter ego Lester deserved the bullet.