Also known as the one in which Red Metal forgets to be a game critic for an entire month. I apologize for not getting any of the promised game reviews done. After the Oscar nominees were announced, I decided to put all of my energy towards reviewing all nine entries so I can type up my annual “worst to best” list for them. The good news is that I can already say that this is a much better lineup than last year’s miserable showing.
Films watched in January 2020:
- Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams, 2019)
- 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)
- Weathering with You (Makoto Shinkai, 2019)
- Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
- Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
- The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
- Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
Regardless of what happened, I wanted to get this decade off to a good start, so the first film I saw at home was Wim Wenders’s classic Paris, Texas. Admittedly, I didn’t like it as much as Wings of Desire, but there’s no denying that it’s a quality film itself. The cinematography is amazing, and there’s a sense of looming darkness throughout the narrative that takes its time revealing itself. Once you know of the full extent of the plot’s backstory, things get turned on their head. It’s definitely worth a watch.
The many times I’ve failed to give a film a passing grade as of late is typically because they’re poorly thought out pieces that only succeed at reaffirming the beliefs of the current critical zeitgeist. It was therefore strange when presented with Weathering with You because, for the first time in a while, I was handed a film that failed to get a passing grade purely for story-related reasons. But yeah, I was really looking forward to seeing this film because I really liked Makoto Shinkai’s previous film, Your Name, but Weathering with You was a complete letdown. Its ending reminds me of that of The Last of Us in that it has a real “screw you, got mine” vibe to it that makes it extremely unappealing. It may be a critical and fan favorite, but I find I can’t recommend it.
Feeling ripped off, I then decided to watch an acclaimed anime film at home. I had actually planned to see it quite a while ago, but after getting into a conversation with ospreyshire over Ex Machina, I finally decided to give it a shot. Remember back when science-fiction didn’t have a total hate-on for science? I barely do, and I can easily recommend Ghost in the Shell for being the thinking person’s science fiction piece. It’s speculative, and has genuine concerns about how technology influences our lives, but treats progress with a sense of fascination rather than the kind of anti-intellectual, technophobic fearmongering works such as Ex Machina love to preach nowadays.
Films reviewed in January 2020:
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)
In many respects, The Last Jedi was the film equivalent of Gone Home. When the latter was released and your words had any kind of sway, you absolutely could not criticize it. Due to its overt LGBT themes, many considered criticizing it tantamount to criticizing the LGBT movement as a whole. I’m not pretending that the subsequent backlash wasn’t at least partially fueled by homophobia, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was possible to dislike the game for more substantive reasons such as its lack of content or its misbegotten story beats. The same holds true for The Last Jedi. Fans, at some point, need to accept that a majority of the film’s detractors actually have solid reasons for disliking it; it’s not because they’re anti-progress trolls. Plus, as difficult as it is to admit, bad people can make good points once in a blue moon. That’s why it doesn’t pay to sweep a work’s flaws under the rug for the sake of vindicating your beliefs; you’re just giving these bad people the intellectual high ground and, by extension, credibility and influence.
It is entirely because of how critics reacted to their opposition that I firmly believe The Last Jedi to have been a “jump the shark” moment for film criticism. It was the moment that critics began examining films not by their artistic merits, but rather their ability to reflect their own beliefs back at them. It didn’t matter that The Last Jedi was riddled with plot holes and bad characters; as long as it checked all of their boxes, it was golden. I think it’s very telling that when detractors pointed out legitimate problems with the film, the best counterarguments supporters came up with involved moving the goalposts. They would gloss over the issues raised, claim the problems are no big deal, or insist the original trilogy was flawed as well. At worst, they would either claim the detractors are all right-wing trolls or tell them to turn their brains off and enjoy the film – the latter of which is an ethos that should be considered unthinkable for any serious critic. Then again, it didn’t help that director Rian Johnson ended up doing his best Phil Fish impression on social media, dismissing any kind of criticism in the most juvenile way imaginable.
Ignoring behind-the-scenes antics of its director, The Last Jedi is a lot like Hustlers in that as a result of several select instances of bad writing, it has absolutely no business calling itself progressive. That it would essentially tell its audience to blindly trust authority figures by itself completely ruins its own goals. Then, of course, there’s the fact that Rey has a maybe-maybe-not romantic interest in the acting antagonist Kylo Ren for absolutely no reason. Because that worked so well the last time it happened, right?
Fans praised The Last Jedi for subverting expectations. On that front, Mr. Johnson was successful. I was absolutely not expecting him to approach Rey’s characterization in such a blatantly chauvinistic (and borderline misogynistic) manner that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Twilight. It’s because of these reasons and more that The Last Jedi, even just two years later, has aged horribly.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams, 2019)
Jeez, when it comes to my theatergoing experiences, I did not get this decade off to a good start, did I? I think it really says something that even when I technically agreed with the critical consensus about The Rise of Skywalker, I still ended up disagreeing with their reasoning. You see, many journalists at the time put the blame squarely on J. J. Abrams for how disastrously The Rise of Skywalker turned out, claiming that he and Disney pandered to the aforementioned trolls in their attempts to placate them. On the surface, this appears to be a solid thesis. After all, the previous year, Solo: A Star Wars Story largely flopped in theaters. It was easy for the executives to dismiss the negative backlash to The Last Jedi as haters doing their thing, but not so much when it actually affected their bottom line. Therefore, it’s easy to conclude that they decided to play things safe in order to draw the burnt-out fans back in.
Admittedly, the sheer amount of critical ire The Rise of Skywalker generated did lead to several amusing moments wherein the supporters’ dogmatic defense of The Last Jedi backfired on them spectacularly. To wit, here’s what Patrick (H) Willems, a video essayist who liked The Last Jedi had to say in defense of the film…
…here’s what he tweeted upon seeing The Rise of Skywalker…
…and, finally, here’s what Twitter had to say about that.
Heads up: he’s not the only one who ended up with egg on their face. In fact, The Rise of Skywalker effectively rendered several of the positive essays written about The Last Jedi completely useless. It demonstrates why you shouldn’t use these kinds of tactics in a debate. Using them is like wielding a double-edged sword. One side of the blade is always facing you, and if your opponent is prepared, they can send it flying back in your direction.
So, while critics ended up blowing their stack over The Rise of Skywalker while decrying Mr. Abrams’s name, the fact remains that they consistently turned a blind eye to the myriad warning signs present in The Last Jedi. To anyone who had been paying even the slightest bit of attention, there was no real way The Rise of Skywalker could have been anything other than a total disaster. In this regard, Mr. Abrams was like a CEO of a dying business. If you’re ever in that position, you’re not concerned with succeeding as much as you are failing efficiently. As it stands, Mr. Johnson went rouge and gave the unfortunate recipient of the baton, Mr. Abrams in this case, absolutely nothing to work with. This ensured that even without outside influences or the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, The Rise of Skywalker was completely and utterly doomed.
I never thought that, by the end of the decade, I would actually find myself giving more credit to the prequel trilogy, but here we are. Sure, the prequels were disastrous, but they also had a true artistic vision guiding their creation. It was an artistic vision in desperate need of an editor, but it did exist. The sequel trilogy, for whatever good intentions it may have had at first, ended up being an openly cynical product whose creators actively worked against each other, resulting in something that managed to isolate nearly everyone.
Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
I believe Joker to have provided a conclusion to a running thread started with Ex Machina. I see the critics’ unabashed praise of A24’s unethical marketing stunt for the film as the moment in which they abandoned their empathy. It was with their commendation of the stunt that they made it clear their art comes before the emotional well-being of their audience – the latter not even being anywhere near a close second. The only reason they managed to get away with it is because Ex Machina ended up being something of a crowd pleaser. They wouldn’t be so lucky when The Last Jedi debuted in theaters. That was the film that officially cost them their credibility. Sure, there had been instances in the past in which they praised works for their messages rather than for their good writing (looking at you, District 9), but with The Last Jedi, the emperor was officially naked for all to see. That critics would, by and large, trip over themselves to praise something that lost even those who shared their political leanings caused the sane fans to jump ship.
It’s admittedly too early to call, but while Ex Machina cost critics their empathy and The Last Jedi their credibility, I think Joker managed to sever the one last thing going for them: their influence. Even as 2018 doled out a series of toothless, underwhelming critical favorites, various think pieces suggested they still took journalists’ suggestions at face value.
This came to an end with Joker. For whatever reason, American film critics acted as though they wanted it to fail. It was a reality that absolutely did not come to pass when Joker became the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. Suddenly, after this point, people began to take critics’ suggestions with a grain of salt, possibly explaining the success of the (predictable) disaster known as The Rise of Skywalker. Why bother listening to them when the decisions they made became less logically sound?
The reception of Joker is eerily similar to how the old guard of 1967 condemned Bonnie and Clyde for its violent content. Its reception speaks to how artistically conservative and complacent film critics had become by 2019. Critics in the 2010s were so used to films, particularly from A24, pandering to their very whim that when a quality product was issued by someone who abjectly and pointedly refused to play by their rules, they failed to recognize its artistic merits – some going as far as saying it had none.
Ultimately though, what I think really threw critics for a loop about Joker is that it forced them to A) parse a good work that could be enjoyed by the faction opposite theirs and B) empathize with a group of people for whom they typically reserve none. The current wave of American critics has proven time and again to be wholly incapable of reconciling any kind of common ground they may share with their opponents. All I can say is that if you haven’t seen Joker, don’t be led astray by their words (or even the words of certain supporters); it is well worth seeing.
Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019)
Ford v Ferrari does admittedly strike me as one of the most standard films of the nominees, but it’s another one of those cases in which I feel certain critics unfairly dismissed it as a by-the-numbers biopic. While I will admit it wasn’t one of the absolute best films of the year, there is a lot more to it than what the trailers would have you believe. This is a film where, by the end, you really question who the real antagonist is. This level of nuance is not something most would expect out of a crowd pleaser, but it really is something that needs to be seen.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
Seriously, I can’t be the only one who learned of the March sisters’ names from Ocarina of Time. Anyway, while Ms. Gerwig’s unfortunate tendency to tell rather than show does show up in Little Women, it is a much stronger effort than the offbeat – and off-putting – Lady Bird. It is as much of a tribute to the author as it is a faithful adaptation, and for that, it’s worth watching.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Over the years of reviewing video games, I’ve eventually decided to coin a term I like to call the Jonathan Blow Paradox. For those of you who are unaware of him, Jonathan Blow is the indie game developer who created Braid, which is still considered one of the best independent efforts of all time. I absolutely do not believe that to be the case with Undertale taking any possible claim Braid may have had to the crown since then, but that’s beside the point. The point is that by the mid-2010s, gaming journalists eventually dubbed him “the righteous rebel video games need”.
The ultimate problem with this proposition is that actually going over his body of work with a fine-toothed comb reveals it is, in a roundabout way, guilty of many of the problems he accuses the AAA industry of having. In the case of Braid, his attempts at resolving the common, severe disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative choices surrounding it resulted in a game with a severe disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative choices surrounding it. His follow-up effort, The Witness, didn’t fare any better. With AAA games at the time padding themselves out to the point of absurdity, that exact same description can be applied to The Witness. Therefore, the Jonathan Blow Paradox refers to any instance in which an especially outspoken creator points out problems with the industry of their creative field, yet fails to provide a viable solution to them (or worse, ends up making the same exact mistakes in broad strokes).
“What does any of this have to do with The Irishman?” you may ask. The answer is simple. Before the release of The Irishman, Mr. Scorsese went on a massive tirade against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Naturally, this managed to upset fans of the franchise, who proceeded to criticize his opinion. Nonetheless, he stuck to his guns and refused to apologize. I would sort of describe Francis Ford Coppola’s own condemnation of the franchise as an example of the paradox, though his best works are admittedly better than the best the MCU has to offer. It’s still a little difficult to sympathize with him because, when you remember his gigantic failure known as One from the Heart, you’ll realize he was at least partially responsible for the current risk-adverse studio system that banks on safe properties such as the MCU to stay afloat.
Regardless, with The Irishman being released a month later, Mr. Scorsese could have very easily fallen victim to the Jonathan Blow Paradox. Thankfully, Mr. Scorsese ended up being one of the very few creators I’ve witnessed express such a steadfast opinion only to back up their words with genuine talent. I do implore you to see The Irishman because when you hear cinephiles say “they don’t make films like this anymore”, this is what they’re talking about. For all the right reasons, it is extremely out-of-place amongst the stuff you see in theater nowadays. And he used Netflix to distribute it a year after Steven Speilberg attempted to forbid them from winning an Oscar. Well played, Mr. Scorsese, well played.
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
With the way I discover films, I find the strength of a given year when it comes to Oscar nominations is inversely proportional to the number of features I have to catch up on when the list is announced. In 2019, I ended up missing three such films (Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book). These were works whose critical receptions, while still positive-leaning, failed to ultimately grab my attention the first time around. When I actually went out and saw them, it turns out my hesitance to see them was justified, being the three weakest films in what was already a heavily flawed lineup. Technically speaking, there were three films I hadn’t seen of 2020’s lineup by the time the nominees were announced, but it’s worth noting that two of them (The Irishman and Marriage Story) hadn’t actually been released in theaters, instead using Netflix as a distribution platform.
This left Jojo Rabbit as the sole effort to have flown underneath my radar. Admittedly, I wasn’t too excited to see this film, as, like Green Book, critics were not especially enthusiastic about it, and unlike Joker, there really wasn’t a strong enough second opinion to get me to see it. However, it turns out that Jojo Rabbit was effectively another Joker; a film not terribly liked by critics because it openly challenged their sensibilities. See it if you haven’t already; as a comedy-drama, it has an incredible amount of both going for it.
Deep reads #2.1: Why I like Disgaea – A noted fan of Disgaea, AK over at Everything is Bad for You makes a compelling case as to why he likes the series so. Personally, I can see it being a great change of pace to not have an RPG take itself too seriously after the angsty stuff we got in the late 1990s.
My Top Five Games of 2019 – With the end of the year comes a time for reflection. I have to admit I kind of missed out on the big game releases of 2019, but if Matthew Thompson’s list is anything to go by, it was quite an exciting year.
Project G-Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster – I don’t really believe in Roger Ebert’s assessment that a film is only as good as its villain, but I’d say King Ghidorah is the kind of villain the Godzilla franchise needed after going through the same “hey, the monster isn’t really evil” motions up until this point.
Knightmare: Cult Classic British Blue Screen Kids TV Done Proper – I have never watched an episode of Knightmare, but its immense difficulty is legendary. Quite impressive considering it was intended to be a kids’ game show. I learned of it about twelve years ago, but reading Mr. Wapojif take was refreshing as well.
Knives Out Review – Scott of the Wizard Dojo managed to see Rian Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out. I thought it was an improvement over The Last Jedi, but I do think it speaks to Mr. Johnson’s limitations of a filmmaker – that he had to pick a genre that so happened to fit his skills to succeed rather than adapt them to a new challenge. Then there’s the fact that, as Scott points out, Mr. Johnson does a lot of telling without showing. I thought Knives Out was an above-average effort, but I completely understand the problems he had with it.
The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time – It really says something about The Legend of Zelda as a series that the fourth-best entry still manages to eclipse the output of entire developers at their absolute best without even coming close to breaking a sweat. Having Matt of Nintendobound describe what made it such a capital-E Experience back in 1998 (and that, even today, its level design stands out as exemplary) was definitely a treat.
Still to come:
Last month, I didn’t review any games, so this February, I promise to review at least four of them. The ones I have planned this time are Dark Souls, Mega Man 3, Tacoma, and Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, finally bringing the mini Wonder Boy retrospective to a close. It was an interesting change of pace focusing entirely on my film reviews, but I think it’s best to return to what I had originally been planning.
I also have a review of 1917 ready to go; it is scheduled to be posted this coming Wednesday. Hopefully, by the time you read this, I will have seen Marriage Story, which I intend to review fairly soon as well. Furthermore, just like last year, I intend to write a special post wherein I rank the Oscar nominations from worst to best. I know this is going to be rather difficult, but I will do everything I can to make it happen.
Links to my articles: