Happy New Year everybody! I hope you’re all doing well in light of this past difficult year. Either way, we can at least put it behind us and hope 2021 ends up being better.
Films watched in December 2020:
- The Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada, 2002)
- Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
- All the President’s Men (Alan J. Paluka, 1976)
- The Wrong Move (Wim Wenders, 1975)
- Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)
- Bob le flambour (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)
- Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
- Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
- Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
- The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Going into this year, I didn’t think the last film I saw in theaters would be in February (it was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for the record), but here we are. It’s a bit of a shame too because 2019 was a massive improvement over 2018.
I think of The Twilight Samurai as a far more effective version of what Robert Altman attempted with McCabe & Mrs. Miller. That is, while Mr. Altman deconstructed the Western and largely failed, Yoji Yamada does the same for the samurai film and succeeded quite well. In a lot of ways, it harks back to Akira Kurosawa’s legendary film Seven Samurai in that it doesn’t present the samurai characters as unstoppable killing machines, but rather ordinary people and subject to the laws of reality. It’s definitely a great character study set in a time when the days of the samurai were coming to an end. Definitely check it out.
Michael Mann’s Thief, not to be confused with game series, is an interesting early 1980s crime thriller. Mr. Mann would go on to direct Heat, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Insider, and while Thief isn’t as well-known as those films, it was a reasonably solid debut. Also seriously, Razzies, you gave this film, which was scored by Tangerine Dream, a nod for worst music? Get real.
It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. The typewriter must be pretty darn powerful too because it sure did a great job taking down the 37th President of the United States. Yes, I decided to watch a film based on the original “Gate” scandal: the classic All the President’s Men. It’s a story about how great the press can be when they have a strong ethical center, and is absolutely worth looking into.
After that, I moved back the Wim Wenders’s Road Movie trilogy. The weird thing I’ve noticed about trilogies with a definite continuity is that the third installment tends to be the weakest. I think it’s because in most cases, we’re just waiting for the pieces to fall into place, so there really isn’t any way for the installment to surprise us (The Lord of the Rings provides a very noteworthy exception to this rule). With thematic trilogies, on the other hand, the weakest installment tends to be the second one. In that regard, it makes sense, as the artist would want to make a good first impression and send the trilogy off on a high note.
I say all of this because the Road Movie trilogy conforms to this strange standard. The Wrong Move is definitely the weakest of the three films, though a weak Wim Wenders film is still worthier of your time than, say, the average Alex Garland or Ari Aster film. Indeed, despite its problems, I really dig its quirky energy, almost coming across as a melancholic take on what Wes Anderson usually accomplishes with his canon. Meanwhile, Kings of the Road is arguably the best film in the trilogy. It’s significantly raunchier than either of the two preceding films, but it lends the trilogy a very dynamic quality, and demonstrates that Wim Winders, not unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski, has an amazing talent for being artsy without being the least bit pretentious – something today’s auteurs should study if they want anything other than niche success.
Bob le flambour was made a little bit before the French New Wave began in earnest, but it is nonetheless considered one of its hallmarks. It can be described as a heist film, but it manages to be a highly subversive example of one, which is impressive given that it predates most examples (including the aforementioned Thief). It’s pretty difficult to talk about why it’s so interesting without spoiling it, so just try to find some way to watch the film blind, and I’m sure you will not be disappointed.
This year, I celebrated Christmas by watching the ultimate Christmas film (other than Die Hard): Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur is one of those legendary epics from Hollywood’s Golden Age that tends to come up whenever film enthusiasts discuss the greatest of all time, and this praise is well-deserved. That they were able to accomplish as much as they did using only practical effects makes it quite the technical achievement, and the story has a surprising amount of applicability to it – an amount that you certainly wouldn’t get from a present-day religious film (or at least not Pure Flix).
After that, I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. In a lot of ways, I kind of think of it as the kind of film Sicario tried and failed to be, tackling drug cartel activities with far more nuance in addition to showing it from more perspectives (Note: in this case, “failed” is relative because I think Sicario is decent – just not the masterpiece critics make it out to be). Benicio del Toro definitely deserved to win that Best Supporting Actor, and if you’re looking for any film with a great ensemble cast, this is the one to check out.
I’m just going to say it – Detour is one of the weakest films that currently has a 100% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not a total failure, and if anything it’s remarkably ahead of its time in how it spins a narrative with a very unreliable narrator. However, while pioneers are important, the problem is that I can name several other films that manage to go what Detour is going for far more effectively. Plus, the fact that it’s only 70 minutes long ensures the plot goes way too fast and doesn’t give anything a chance to stick. So, pass on this one.
And finally, rounding out the end of the year, in another case of “How the hell has Red Metal not seen this film?”, I watched The Silence of the Lambs for the first time. Seeing it kind of reminded me of watching Casablanca for the first time in how it’s such an influential film that has firmly embedded itself in pop culture so thoroughly that there were several instances in which I found myself thinking “Oh, that’s where this line is from”. But, it certainly lives up to the hype with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins turning in unforgettable performances. Without a doubt, it is a solid thriller.
Films reviewed in December 2020:
Wherein Red Metal continues to backpedal on previous recommendations.
With Uncut Gems, A24 continues to be the masters of winning critical favor while leaving half of the general audience with nothing. Naturally, I figured that just like with Hereditary, the notoriously irascible Owen Gleiberman couldn’t leave well enough alone and would complain about the audience’s supposed poor taste. I’d celebrate my victory, but predicting his reactions is about as mentally taxing as solving the mystery of your average Blue’s Clues episode.
(Aside: I also wouldn’t call Uncut Gems “a new kind of movie” given that Good Time and Mean Streets exist and both manage to be an upper and a downer at the same time. And Berserk, for that matter.)
Unlike Knives Out, the problems with Uncut Gems are a little bit more abstract. It too could be considered an idiot plot, but unlike the case with Knives Out, the protagonist being an idiot feels intentional. It helps that, even at their worst, the Safdie brothers have a degree of self-awareness not possessed by any other most A24 directors. Instead, its main failing primarily boils down to the characters being too unlikable or boring to really make a film out of. It really speaks to Robert Pattinson’s charisma that he was able to carry a film with similarly unlikable protagonist far more effectively in Good Time, but the Safdie brothers ended up overreaching with their techniques in Uncut Gems. At the end of the day, Uncut Gems isn’t bad, but in the face of its superior predecessor, which covered the same stylistic ground far more effectively, it is mostly redundant.
It may not seem so on the surface, but revisiting Looper was quite the bittersweet experience for me (more bitter than sweet). When The Last of Us Part II came out, its director, Neil Druckmann, was derisively compared to Rian Johnson in how he seemed more interested in subverting expectations and pushing buttons than telling a good story. There are certainly a lot of similarities between the two controversial figures whether it’s their egotistical posturing, inability to take constructive criticism, and having rather pseudointellectual, Stannish supporters. I myself compared the two of them in the past, but while they do indeed have a lot in common with each other, there is one major difference between them: their level of potential. Neil Druckmann is, and always has been, only ever exactly as good as the people he surrounds himself with. This is why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the abhorrent working conditions of his company caused a 70% turnover rate in personnel, it resulted in his worst game to date. Without Amy Hennig (or even Bruce Straley) to keep him in check, it wasn’t a question of if he would burn out, but rather when. He himself just didn’t possess the charisma or auteur hutzpah required to sell a mass audience on his out-there ideas (and if we’re being honest with ourselves, said out-there ideas were only so in comparison to his own standards; most avant-garde artists would’ve considered them slightly below their own baseline).
Rian Johnson, on the other hand, actually demonstrated a lot of potential with his early works and could easily have become one of the greatest auteurs of his generation. His problem isn’t that he was forced to run before learning how to crawl like Mr. Druckmann. Instead, his problem is that that he let the success go to his head, and soon became the darling and beneficiary of an increasingly apathetic critical circle that left itself extremely susceptible to confirmation bias. This bad combination of factors led to him becoming a poster child for the American scene’s myriad shortcomings along with their worst, most self-absorbed excesses.
However, when I look back on Looper, I don’t see the deeply insecure social media troll he would later become. Instead, I see a fledgling indie talent who could have easily used the promising-but-flawed Looper as a springboard to bigger and better things – much like Wes Anderson with Rushmore. Under better circumstances, Rian Johnson would have gone on to become an auteur genius in the same league as Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh. But, alas, it wasn’t to be. Instead, we ended up in the timeline where Rian Johnson would take all of the flaws present in Looper and dial all of them up to eleven for The Last Jedi (before dialing them back down to eight for Knives Out). As such, I would say his parallel in the video game industry isn’t Neil Druckmann as much as it is Phil Fish. Both are artists who showed a lot of promise early on only to completely blow it when their inflated egos and complacency granted to them by the enabling critics ultimately proved to be their undoing (which would make Oasis their musical equivalent).
Rian Johnson may be a favorite among cinephiles, but he is, in practice, his generation’s Paul Schrader in how he is hailed as a genius despite having a very spotty track record – one I wouldn’t expect from someone of his stature (though funnily enough, Rian Johnson has the exact opposite problem as Paul Schrader in that he’s a legitimately good director, but a journeyman-level writer). Until he learns from his mistakes and gets good, Mr. Johnson will never be anything other than one of the absolute biggest wastes of potential in the history of filmmaking.
A year ago, I said that Knives Out was the best of Rian Johnson’s films, but now I think that distinction should go back to Looper. Like the films that came after it, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever when you take a second or two to think about it, but I invariably have more respect for the failed storyteller than I do the failed preacher, hence why, unlike The Last Jedi or Knives Out, I can at least give Looper an honorable mention (not that Looper is a failure, but you get my point). Indeed, the weird aspects of Looper come across more as the result of its high-concept nature rather than laziness and that “Everything I do is genius” attitude Mr. Johnson would later adopt. It may not have gotten a straight recommendation from me, but I will say it is by far the most timeless of his 2010s artistic canon (or most 2010s science-fiction, really), so if you’re looking for a science-fiction piece that doesn’t make you think too hard and isn’t a disguised soapbox used by its author to scream at their audience with a megaphone about how much technology/intellectuals/humanity/anyone who isn’t them suck, it may be worth your while.
Redout – Review – Apparently, a redout is what happens when a body experiences a sufficient enough negative g-force to cause blood to flow from the lower parts of the body to the head. It’s also the name of a futuristic racing game that Nepiki reviewed this month.
Guacamelee 2 – It’s a little ironic how the 2010s was arguably the best decade for Metroidvanias, yet both Metroid and Castlevania were out to lunch during that time. Matt of Nintendobound talks about Guacamelee 2, which is considered one of the indie hallmarks of the decade.
5 Films Reflecting the Tension Between Artistic Types and the ‘Bourgeoisie’ – Artists can be a weird bunch, can’t they? It’s like when they achieve success, they conclude the masses’ tastes must be inferior. That disconnect has resulted in some interesting films, though, and on Vigour of Film Lines, five narratives using it as a focal point are discussed.
A Love Letter To My Favourite Steampunk Game: A Love Letter to Final Fantasy VI – My knowledge of Final Fantasy only extends to the first six installments, but reading Pinkie’s take on the sixth installment was definitely enjoyable.
Literary Sins: The Firestarter to Stephen King’s Flame – That Stephen King is quite the prolific guy, isn’t he? Amanda Hurych takes a look at Firestarter, which isn’t one of his more well-known stories, but seems to offer the occasional interesting story beat.
Live-action film retrospective (2020) – I’m not the only one detailing the films I’ve seen – AK of Everything Is Bad for You has given his two cents on three films he has seen: Parasite, The Death of Stalin, and Ex Machina. Between one of the best films of the 2010s, one I have yet to see, and one of the biggest disappointments of the 2010s respectively, it appears to have been quite the rollercoaster ride.
My Top 5 Games of 2020 – Xtensive Game Reviews makes an end-of-year list regarding the best games of 2020 (Spoiler: once again, the indie scene carried most of the weight).
Project G: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) – In the next installment of Aether’s Project G, he revisits Godzilla vs. Megalon, which is generally considered one of the goofier films in the series (which is saying something).
Let’s Chat: One Week With the Xbox Series S – The Xbox Series S, which is a totally intuitive name that doesn’t sound the least bit confusing, was recently released alongside the Xbox Series X. A back-and-forth occurs on WC Robinson’s site about how the new console fares in comparison to prior ones.
WW1984: I’m Torn on This One – After much anticipation, Wonder Woman 1984 was finally released this month, and the crowd goes… apathetic. Apparently, it was considered fairly middle-of-the-road, which is a sentiment echoed by Book Beach Bunny. Shame, really – it seemed the DCEU was improving after Shazam!
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020) Video Game Review – Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the best PlayStation exclusives out there (the only one I’ve given an 8/10 or higher to, in fact), so seeing Lashaan Balasingam’s take on its sequel really has me excited to try it out.
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