As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.
Seriously, how can you top this:
I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.
My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.
I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)
The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.
In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.
Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!
Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.
Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.
In the Heights(movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.
Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.
A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.
Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.
As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.
But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.
I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
On to the list…
1. Before Sunset
The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.
2. The Incredibles
This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.
3. Shaun of the Dead
I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.
4. The Village
The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.
Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”
Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.
Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.
8. Ocean’s Twelve
Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.
9. Friday Night Lights
The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.
10. I, Robot
This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.
Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.
One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.
What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.
For the brand
“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.
Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.
Movies and machismo
Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)
Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.
The beauty of synchronicity
The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.
Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…
Really enjoyed this post from Freddie de Boer about his frustration with the common misinterpretation of Mad Max: Fury Road as “Furiosa replaces Max in a Mad Max movie”—a take that’s entirely false:
It’s important to understand that Furiosa doesn’t replace Max because the entire movie demonstrates the failure of dictatorship and the superiority of communal leadership. It’s not about men being erased in deference to women; it would be totally bizarre for a movie with that intent to place so much agency in its male characters. (Nux’s sacrifice saves the lives of the remaining characters, to pick an obvious example.) It’s about the superiority of democracy and shared governance and diversity over the the whims of an individual autocrat.
He then links this framework to how a “new masculinity”, embodied by Max, can be “unthreatened by the strengths and abilities of others” while joining with the ideal version of feminism:
Feminism is not about women replacing men in an equally stratified and undemocratic structure as the patriarchy that preceded it; that’s a parody of feminism. Feminism is about equality, diversity, communalism, and radical democracy. Indeed, the movie models consensus and communal deliberation for us. When they stop and discuss whether to continue on the salt flats or turn back for the Citadel, Max and Furiosa do most of the talking, but everyone weighs in and is heard. Furiosa doesn’t lead by fiat. She listens and becomes convinced, as do the rest, and they all make a plan together. Max isn’t erased; he’s a valued and essential part of the whole, just as white men will be in the new world of democracy and equality we are building.
In that group discussion on the salt flats—one of the few quiet moments of the movie—Max concludes his case to Furiosa thusly:
Look, it’ll be a hard day. But I guarantee you that 160 days riding that way, there’s nothing but salt. At least that way, we might be able to, together, come across some kind of redemption.
What a great metaphor! The path towards a better world is hard and painful, but retreating away from it is worse in the long run. “The obstacle is the way,” as Ryan Holiday would say.
I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.
I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.
Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.
Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.
As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”
On to the list…
1. Brokeback Mountain
True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.
2. Good Night, And Good Luck
There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.
3. Grizzly Man
I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.
4. Batman Begins
Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.
5. A History of Violence
The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.
6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.
7. The New World
I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.
8. Walk the Line
At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.
9. Four Brothers
An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.
10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith
We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.
Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds
My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.
First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.
I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:
seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.
My mediocre movie marathon
This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.
I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)
I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.
Anyway, on to the list…
Top 10 of 2006
I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:
Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III
Based on the ongoing series, here are the books, movies, and music my two year old is into recently.
So. Many. Books. We have shelves stuffed with board and picture books in four different rooms of our house, plus a stash of library books, so he’s never lacking literature. Some current favorites: Sandra Boynton’s Pookie series, Tap Tap Bang Bang, There’s a Mouse About the House!, and really anything related to trucks.
So. Much. Music. He’s a big fan of the Super Simple Songs catalog, which introduces him to childhood staples like “BINGO” and “Old McDonald”. But it’s very important to me that he gets exposed to quality music for adults too. The last few weeks we’ve listened and/or danced to pop and rock (The Beatles, Paul Simon, HAIM), soul (Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Ben E. King), classical (Mozart, Haydn, Handel), country/folk (Willie Nelson, Uncle Earl, Joe Pug), hip hop (Jay Z, The Roots), and jazz (Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson). Cue The Onion.
Peppa Pig. Might be my favorite of his things to watch. It’s the go-to for when we (or he) need a break. The delightful British silliness has made me laugh a few times.
Caitie’s Classroom. Part of the aforementioned Super Simple universe, this YouTube show is also very Mister Rogers-esque, with the cheerful Caitie leading crafts, songs, and field trips that he’s learned a lot from already.
At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:
You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.
This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:
JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?
JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.
I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.
Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see LittleWomen, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.
But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.
My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.
This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)
A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)
6. First Cow
In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)
5. The Assistant
Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)
While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)
3. My Octopus Teacher
I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)
2. Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
1. The Vast of Night
The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes
Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round
Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:
Only Lovers Left Alive Magic Mike Kramer vs. Kramer A Night to Remember Margin Call The Firm A Hidden Life The Last Temptation of Christ Waves