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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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52. Superman II

Lois Lane realizes Clark Kent is Superman, and tells him she loves him. He flies her to the Fortress of Solitude. They wine, and dine, and he uses a special crystal chamber to negate his superpowers, presumably so the sex won’t kill her. Superman becomes human, for love.

Which is good, because the comparative limits of 1980 special effects are cheesily apparent in Superman II. It cannot be about the fights. Superman’s flying kick looks more like a stiff older man reclining. His heat vision looks tepid.

Old-school limitations, however, do not curb ambition. Superman thwarts terrorists at the Eiffel Tower and throws their H-bomb into outer space. He flies into Niagra Falls to save a plummeting child. Super villains rip the roof off the White House and force the president to kneel, then superbattle against Superman amid the skyscrapers of Metropolis.

Decades later, around 2012, absolutely everything became cinematically possible. Since then, copious Hollywood comic-book flicks feature long fights in which blocks of homes or even entire cities get destroyed. At almost 40 years old, Superman II is like an antidote to ubiquitous computer-generated violence. A 1980 action scene has to be tight. Practical, not spectacle. Mario Puzo, The Godfather author, wrote the script to Superman II, and all scenes serve the love story. It matters that Superman gives up his powers for Lois, because three evil enemies with their own superpowers have forced the world to “KNEEL before Zod!”

The simplicity is almost elegant; a conflict – Superman’s choice – is the point. Twenty-minute battles would delay our finding out what happens next.

It may not be subjectively better for a movie to prioritize storytelling. The 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel unleashes absolutely ridiculous effects in meticulously choreographed, brutal, long fight scenes, and they are amazing spectacles of strength, speed, and power. Not incidentally, the story in that film is so convoluted that viewers get lost, and stop caring what happens next.

In this (and most) cases, I guess I prefer the basic. Superman II endures as a love story with stakes (and fun bad guys). So what if it looks a little silly?

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51. Justice League

For a second, the Flash seems human. Then the tension fizzles and we’re back in toyland.

Flash sees the villain – a giant who swings a flaming ax, surrounded by winged demon henchmen – and gets scared. He pulls Batman aside to confess he’s never “done battle” before. Batman, leader of the Justice League, dispenses sage advice: “Save one.” Save one hostage. “Bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott says. And so the Flash saves one. Then another. Tuns out, it’s easy. Too fucking easy. After facing real fear, there’s nothing to it. He cracks jokes.

No good movie can be this tension-free. The characters are never in danger. Nothing has gravity.

I read that the actor (Ciarán Hinds) who plays Steppenwolf, the giant supervillian, never met his costars; his entire performance was motion-captured and digitized. You feel the disconnect. It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf looks intentionally generic; his whole body has a crinkled-aluminum-foil motif best described thusly: boring. Hinds’s face is buried behind a rendering who looks like no one.

Tragedy struck director Zack Snyder halfway through filming (his daughter committed suicide), and the movie was taken over by Joss Whedon. Neither director’s gifts shine through. Snyder proved himself master of Superman action with Man of Steel (a movie I love and hate simultaneously). In Man of Steel, when Superman fights other Kryptonians (in Smallville first, then above Metropolis’s skyscrapers), they move so fast they practically teleport, and their punches land like meteors.

Whedon’s talent for dialogue cultivated genuine superhero chemistry in the first Avengers movie and over a brilliant run of genre TV shows and X-Men comics. He should be ideal here, but the mix is bad. Snyder’s fast, heavy action and Whedon’s writing are diluted. Justice League is like a decent first draft.

They forgot to add tension. We know the superheroes will win; they always do. Pressure is making the fight compelling despite its preordained outcome, and Justice League whiffs. As Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and their superhero friends fight to prevent magic boxes from destroying the world, it feels as fake as watching someone else play with action figures.

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50. The Killers

Burt Lancaster had unique size and skill. In The Killers he plays a character, the Swede, invented by Ernest Hemingway, who epitomizes manly contradiction. A boxer with a bum right hand, he is both the strongest person in this movie and the weakest. The Swede wouldn’t argue if you called him an ultimate sucker. After being warned that hitmen are coming, he sits up and waits. They kill him easily. He lets them.

In flashbacks, we learn why. The Swede takes his nice blond girlfriend (real marriage material) to a fateful party where he meets Kitty Collins. Swede embarrasses the girlfriend by staring hard at Kitty all night. She’s sharp, dark, alluring. Black hair, black dress.

Later, Kitty is caught with a stolen broach, her perfect emblem: a spider made of diamonds. So snared in Kitty’s web is the Swede that he stupidly takes the pinch for her, and goes to prison for three years.

When he gets out he still wants her. Menace gushes. (“Stop listening to those golden harps, Swede. They can land you in a lot of trouble.”) Shady characters connive a hat-factory heist. Double crosses eclipse double crosses. The stakes are a quarter million bucks and their souls. (An old woman begs the Swede, when he almost jumps out a window, “You’ll never see the face of God! You’ll burn until the end of time!” Later, a tough copper barks at Kitty “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell!”)

The best part in all this rich, inky noir is the nameless killers of the title. Their faces impress. One hitman is fat with a mustache; the other’s chiseled and bug-eyed. In the first scene, they walk into a diner and get deathly rude with the manager, the cook, and a single customer. They reek of murder even before they blast the Swede.

As the plot puzzles out why the Swede had to die, we don’t see them again until the very end. Their reappearance, their sheer presence, is chilling. They don’t say a word. They killed the Swede, and stole his movie.

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49. The Killing

Betrayals are exposed. Blood splattered. Breathing men turned to corpses. A meticulous racetrack heist, with a God-money payoff, undone by her, by a no-good, nosy little tramp who’d sell out her mother for a piece of fudge. And then, at the end, amidst the gore and heat, emerges the true X-factor, the character to finish Johnny Clay for good: Sebastian, a poodle with a little bow between his ears. Some tubby grandma snuggles the spoiled mutt to her jowel, and beseeches an airport employee: “We haven’t seen Daddy Sweetums for such a wong, wong time. Would the nice man wet us wait outside so we can wook at the airpwanes?”

Sebastian joins Kubrick’s evil game for a reason.

Stanley Kubrick is beloved, and considered brilliant by consensus because (though this is putting it too simply) he mastered all arts in filmmaking, writing to cinematography to everything else. One of the generational talents in his tool box was precision, and The Killing keeps a tight clock. Literally, a narrator with an important newscaster voice tells us the exact date and time at the start of each scene. As Johnny Clay plans the heist with six other guys, none of whom knows all the details (for good reason), The Killing jumps time to arranged pieces on the board. We get the gist at the beginning: One guy’s gotta shoot a horse, another starts a fight to distract the cops, etc. We watch one players’s day up to the big race, then go back and watch another’s. The entire time, the narrator updates exactly when we are. It’s brilliant. It’s chess with guns.

And then the floozy – the femme – and her stupid lover Val muck it all up, igniting a nasty climax drenched in death.

Never do a heist; it’s not worth it.

At the end, arf arf. It is antithetical, in a story this hard-boiled and mean, for goofy Sebastian to enter the game. This is not the finale of a film that takes itself too seriously. It’s like a lesson from Kubrick: Have fun.

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48. The Witch

The witch in The Witch is such a bad witch.

I watched this movie alone on Halloween Night 2017, while my young daughter slept a room away and my wife worked late hours photographing a wedding. I swear something kept moving in the backyard, stepping on fallen leaves.

A pious father’s disagreement with the church gets his family banished from their Puritan plantation. This is America in the 1600s. They move far away, to the edge of some woods. The oldest daughter, a teenager, is outside with the youngest son, a baby, playing peek-a-boo. She covers her face and coos, uncovers and says “Peek-a-boo!” She covers her face for a few more seconds and… “Peek-a-boo!” The baby giggles. She does it again, uncovers her eyes, and the baby has vanished. He was under his sister’s nose one second, gone the next.

This is scary, and it is only the beginning, and The Witch is not ambiguous. We see, in a dark scene, what happens to that baby. He is not coming back.

That leaves the teenage daughter and her pious father (whose voice sounds like God), suicidal mother, brave and slightly younger brother, and bratty little twins. What happens to these people next is motherfucking crazy.

The Witch is all bad in the best way. There are no scenes of levity. An outcast family is terrorized by a witch in the woods. The genius is in their destruction being so simple and profound simultaneously. Reality and black magic work in tandem. Paranoia reigns.

It seems that in over a century of films, no major release had ever been titled The Witch. Witches are time-honored horror fare, and here is the small, scary movie to finally give them their due. The title was waiting, and the witch in The Witch is such a bad witch.

After it ended, I turned on a light and inspected the backyard. Nothing but a breeze. Then I walked to my sleeping daughter’s room and put my hand on her back. In the moments before she moved, I contemplated a black abyss and felt absolutely terrified.

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47. Ex Machina

The realistic monster in Ex Machina might kill us all.

It’s a game between three characters: a drunken tech tycoon, his duped employee, and a female android who wants out of her room. No one in the triangle is completely honest. Each wants something. And at stake, essentially, is humanity’s future. Micro, macro. Nathan, the drunken tech tycoon, says “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa: an upright ape, living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Ava, the female android, asks Nathan “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Yes! Knowing you’ve helped an inevitable apocalypse might also be strange. No wonder Nathan drinks so hard, and fucks and dances with his robots.

You don’t fuck with Ava, though. She is a classic movie monster. Her sculpted body is twinkling robot components, and her soft face is inspired by a quantifiable ideal (porn). Her movements are unnaturally lithe, yet her eyes are so expressive. Caleb, the duped employee testing Ava, believes her fear. He believes her love.

Here’s potentially real horror: Superstar scientist Stephen Hawking told a conference in London “Computers will overtake humans with A.I. at some point within the next hundred years.” He warned “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He co-wrote a column that said A.I. could eventually outsmart our financial markets, out-invent our researchers, manipulate our leaders, and make “weapons we cannot even understand.”

That’s the macro, but for all its dire technology the movie is more Hitchcock than Cameron. Its war is fought through three characters talking, not space soldiers blasting a robot army in epic battle.

Behind the secrets is another important question: How could the CEO of a search engine build a computer with enough data to achieve consciousness? Ava’s wetware brain is beautiful, and built with information we hand over via phones, tablets, and laptops. We gift him our interests. We’re inside his machine.

Now we wait to be massacred.

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