There and Back Again: A Covid Tale

Chapter I: Safer At Home

In a two bedroom apartment in Burbank there lived a human…

A human who had spent the better part of five months as an unkempt recluse. The months of gaining weight from bloated Instacart orders were followed by months of losing it through intense twenty-mile excursions on my stationary bike. I let my hair grow out for the first time in a decade, but at the 100-day mark I could no longer endure it… so out came the buzzer. For some unknowable reason I kept the ragged and untamed beard. I suppose it’s a marker of the madness that 2020 has wrought. Maybe I’ll shave it after Election Day. Maybe when a vaccine is ready.  Or maybe I’m destined to look like a backwater lunatic for the rest of my days. After having ditched cigarettes in 2018, I finally kicked vaping and nicotine all together at the start of the pandemic. So there’s that. But this human, in his suburban apartment, found himself at the five month mark of the global pandemic feeling disjointed, misaligned, and generally off in every way imaginable. 

I spent the beginning of the pandemic working on my first television gig thanks to my dear friend Bert. Our writers’ room abruptly closed up the office in mid-March, sending us home to continue script work. I took it in stride. After years of toiling, the door was finally cracked open. I had my WGA card and in short order would have a real honest to goodness TV credit. I’d even get to produce my episode when it filmed in mid-June. With any luck, the show would be a success and we’d be back to work on season two by the end of the year. That was the plan anyhow. But like the plans of millions upon millions of people around the world, they were shredded and tossed to the unforgiving winds of Covid. 

I struggled without the ability to host Game Nights and Hunts and other ridiculous events from my game-addled mind. I tried to do a weekly online puzzle, but it wasn’t the same. I’d occasionally venture out from the safety of my little apartment for a drive around Burbank. On a feisty day I might even meander all the way to Sherman Oaks. But even those drives felt like visitations at a prison behind plexiglass. Each week another long-standing plan would crumble. I tried to drown out the nerves with all manner of media. From Tiger King to Baghdad Central to Picard to Dear White People and on and on. Giant chunks of days were spent down the binging rabbit hole. And when my mind was too scattered for a serialized show, I’d just blankly watch hours of Beat Bobby Flay or Impractical Jokers. 

When my work on the first season of the show wrapped, I began the scramble to assemble new writing samples. I dug in and put together an hour-long pilot that I was mostly happy with. As happy as I am with anything I write. After some helpful notes from trusted friends, I did another pass. By then my brain was running low on juice. My fingers ached. My eyes were a bit blurry. 

I get it, poor me. I remained gainfully employed and free of the deadly virus. What was I complaining about? My on-demand groceries?  My dependable health insurance?  The whole thing made (and still makes) me feel like an entitled fraud. But the psychological toll of so much time spent in my little box with no yard or trees or open spaces began to weigh on me. Eventually my slowing devolving brain matter hit a breaking point. I needed to escape. 

Back in 2019 I had started an ambitious stockpile of camping and road trip supplies. The layoff and severance I was anticipating at the close of the Fox / Disney merger would give me ample time to take a breather after a soul-crushing few years. Two months on the road with no real plan. Wake up in the morning, check the paper atlas, and point to a new spot on the map. That was the dream. However, the deal closed but those layoffs weren’t immediate. Weeks became months. I resigned myself to the fact that my epic road trip would not be happening in 2019. A buddy of mine was kind enough to let me store my heaps of camping gear in his garage in Woodland Hills. 

But then the shutdown hit and furloughs began flying. I got a call from my pal informing me that he and his wife were giving up the house in Woodland Hills and heading to Iowa. I swung through and crammed everything into my Mazda. That’s where it sat for the better part of three months. I took a look at my old wish list and started ordering the odd outstanding item. Retail therapy, I suppose. Soon I’d assembled it all and, in my truly nerdy organizational fashion, I labeled and cataloged the shit out of every single item. But there it sat… in my Mazda. 

Chapter II: The Decision

One fine, scorching day in early August, I made a snap decision. I needed to get out of LA. I needed to see my family. I needed to get on the road. No airplanes for this Covid-phobic dude. I hit up Instacart for some Chex Mix, sandwich supplies, and Diet Mountain Dew and readied myself for a quick jaunt across this wide and wonderful country. Alicia recently got a full set of new tires and an oil change, so she was ready to go. To be clear, my Mazda CX-5 earned her moniker because the first song to play on the radio when I bought her was “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys. 

She and I departed during an epic heat wave. I spent the first day traversing the Mojave where temperatures screamed from 105 to 120. The air conditioning did what it could, but the rays of the sun cut deep like fire. And I didn’t dare crack a window. Not unless I wanted the force of fifty hairdryers bearing down upon me all at once. It was still a miserable 95 degrees as I set up camp outside of Flagstaff. I cursed the heat as I tossed and turned in the struggle to find sleep. 

At 2am that night, I woke up shivering in a cocoon made of a single cotton blanket. That’s the desert for ya. 47 degrees. There was a thicker wool-lined blanket tucked UNDERNEATH my sleeping pad, but I was too cold to roll over to pull it free. I tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep. Screw it. I made the move for the other blanket… and it made all the difference in the world. As the warmth slowly returned, my mind drifted to the state of my face. I’d never suffered under the weight of facial hair like that before. And in that moment it was twisted and matted with sweat and mayo droppings. And it was only night one. I started to worry about my cleanliness in the coming days considering my personal hygiene for the trip would distill down to two words… Wet Ones. 

The next day I made a detour up to the Southern Entrance of the Grand Canyon. It had been several years since I saw the old crack, so I figured it was worth a peak. I cruised by the steakhouse where my brother Jason and I went for my 22nd birthday fifteen years ago. We camped right by the rim of the canyon that night and listened to Sinatra. That was a great birthday. I snap the requisite pics along the south rim and slide precariously to the edge of an overhang to scoop up some sand before getting back on the road. 

I roamed into New Mexico with my sights set on the mountains near Santa Fe. But first I popped in on Walter White’s stomping grounds in Albuquerque and took in a few noteworthy locales. I remember hearing stories about fans throwing pizzas onto the roof of the house that was used for the show. Stupid people. The current owners have taken care of that problem by putting up a big, angry-looking fence. Good for them.

Suddenly the skies decided to get all impressionist on me. Big swirling, sweeping clouds filled the foreground. Fat raindrops began slapping down on the windshield. I took that as my cue to depart The Duke City and head for the mountains. I watched the graffiti zip past as I followed the bones of historic route 66 to a spot north of Santa Fe. The rain let up, but the winds were howling from the moment I hammered in the first stake at my campsite. They wouldn’t relent for most of the night.

The next day I cut north. I clipped the southeastern corner of Colorado on county roads that wound through the Comanche National Grasslands. Long, straight stretches of pavement were lined with… well, grasslands. I tried to find a radio station with enough juice and landed on 96.9. NON-STOP CHRISTMAS HITS! So I sang along to some holiday favorites as I gazed out at the stream of abandoned structures that seem plucked straight from an old Western. Before I knew it, I was in Kansas and it was a little less dry, but still flat and empty. I lost the Christmas station, but suddenly was greeted by a news radio alert informing me that an enormous and unexpected storm was bearing down on my position. Hail the size of golf balls, they said. Get to safety, they said. I had planned to camp for the night right over the border in Nebraska, but after fighting through the first band of nasty weather, I can spot the sequel approaching on the horizon. Push through, I decided. I charged straight at that second band and luckily encountered no hail; golf-ball sized or otherwise.

I found a campground in central Nebraska near Grand Island. The trouble was I had run out of daylight and everything in sight was drenched. I decided to give the whole sleeping in my car thing a try. Unfortunately Alicia was packed so tightly, I couldn’t even lean my chair back an inch. It was a rocky night with next to no shuteye. Finally, at 5am, I gave up on the experiment and decided to get back on the road. 

I stopped off in West Des Moines to say a socially distanced hello to my buddy Pat and meet his new baby. And by meet, I mean the baby was dangled from the upstairs window. Safely behind a screen, of course. I moseyed along toward Illinois and snapped a few pictures at the original Antique Archaeology store in LeClaire (American Pickers fans, anyone?). I crossed the mighty Mississippi and found a camping spot in central Illinois. It was a beautiful wooded grove surrounded by farmland. I noticed the brush was a bit thick and the humidity had started to climb, but I didn’t think much of it until I was lying in my tent later that night. I began to hear a strange sound. It was as if those big fat raindrops from Albuquerque had returned and were pelting my tent. I held up my lantern only to discover that an army of insects had invaded the space between my rain cover and the top mesh portion of my tent. We’re talking a solid wall of creepy crawlers. I quickly switched off the lantern and rolled over, muttering a prayer that the horde wouldn’t find a way inside. 

Luckily they did not, though cleaning out the stragglers in the morning while packing up wasn’t particularly pleasant. I got back on the road and began to notice some stark differences. When you find yourself east of the Mississippi, suddenly the roads are shittier. Not mildly, but dramatically. Construction becomes an endless plague as far as the eye can see, yet the roads never seem to improve. And just to add insult to injury, suddenly there are tolls EVERYWHERE. Theoretically that toll money is helping to fund the construction that hinders my drive, but in no way improves the quality of the roads. I call shenanigans. 

I slide south slightly to avoid Chicago and roll into Indiana. I find myself at a quaint little National Park called Indiana Dunes. My favorite feature is the distant silhouette of Chicago floating on the other side of Lake Michigan. Momentum is carrying me now. I quickly make my way into Ohio. You know what’s distinct about crossing the border into Ohio? Cops. In the other nine states through which I had passed, I may have seen a total of five police cruisers. TOTAL. But the Buckeye State must have higher quotas because you can’t drive more than ten miles down the highway without seeing another trooper. After skimming the top of this speed trap paradise, I finally dip down and cross the border into my beloved Pennsylvania. The change is almost instantaneous. The flatness gives way to rolling hills and thick woods. The serpentine roads curve back and forth through the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. I’m home. 

Chapter III: That Old Familiar Feeling

Outside of my parents, no one was aware that I was making this unplanned visit. That allowed me to both surprise my family and better control expectations around visiting with folks. Southwestern Pennsylvania is a different beast than Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure how seriously people outside of my family were taking the Covid crisis. I hated the idea of being forced into an uncomfortable position. But that first morning, none of that mattered. I ducked down around the corner on the front porch at my sister’s house and loudly played the Mario Bros theme music on my phone. My nephew Noah crept out from the front door looking for his 5th birthday surprise. His face said it all. Deep down I knew he had zero understanding of the rigors that led up to that moment, but I’ll tell him one day. I’ll remind him in excruciating detail of how Uncle Chewy dared leave the controlled confines of his eremite existence to venture across this vast country. How he braved heat waves and freezing nights just to see everyone after a very long eight months.

It was a relief to let my sister and brother and their families know that I had arrived. I’d missed them terribly. It had become the norm for me to come home three or four times a year since they started popping out kids. I’d get to see a lot of them in the following weeks. Zealand would proudly show me his fidget spinners, proving that the fad is alive and well. Lily would ask me to watch her do a dance routine or jump rope or any variety of activities that sprung to her mind. Karis would sweet talk me into anything she wanted and then make me laugh with her infectious giggle. Noah would read off a list of video games he desperately needed and give me detailed descriptions of all of the creatures in the Mushroom Kingdom. Callan would calculate every way in which he could test my limits, all while wearing that shit-eating grin on his adorable face. They’re quite the troop. 

Chapter IV: Projects Aplenty

The most entertaining part of spending time with those kids was watching their little imaginations at work. Ever since Jason and Elizabeth and the brood returned from Texas, the united cousins have created a fantastical role-play whenever they come together. They refer to the area around my parents’ house as “the Kingdom.” Zealand long ago claimed the title of King, which the others seem strangely okay with. The rest end up being guards or cooks or some other role they’ve concocted on any given day. This little game of theirs gave me an idea. I took a strip of brown paper from a roll once used to cover tables for a crab boil and got to work. I spent many late nights with an assortment of colored pencils and markers by my side as I meticulously recreated the area between my parents’ house and my sister’s house. A map of the Kingdom. I decided to give their whimsical world some added dimension by naming things like The Portal, The Spy Hollow, The Sacred Stump, and the Eyes of Evil. I rolled that sucker up and left it as a parting gift that the kids would receive only after I left town.

In the meantime, they often acted as dutiful assistants by helping collect the beans and tomatoes and zucchini from my parents’ garden.  It may be hell to get them to eat anything that they picked, but they sure liked carrying around those baskets. That also provided the stage for the biggest project of my visit. An old cement pad sat idle near the bee-riddled chive plants. At one time it was home to a doghouse. Later it would be a pen for an oversized goat named Loki. In more recent years, it simply acted as a good area to stack things. But all that was about to change.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I did my best to assist my stepfather in constructing a greenhouse on that fabled cement strip. He had a vision in his mind, but we had nothing on paper. It started with cementing cinder blocks and anchor bolts. Then came wood framing and roof struts. Admittedly, I’m not the handiest person in the world. Fifteen years in Los Angeles have made me soft. However, I did my best to fetch the right tools and do the odd math problem. Slowly it took shape. When we encountered a problem, we devised a solution. We built the damn thing AROUND the roof of the shed. And it worked. My brother brought over his handy paint sprayer to cover the naked beams with a deep brown to match the rest of the house. In went repurposed sliding glass doors as windows. By the end of my time there, I stood back in wonder. The dang thing really came together. Not only did it look functional and organic, it was unique and, quite honestly, special. And despite the odd bruise or miscalculated cut, we had a damn good time together bringing it to life.

My other contribution to the homestead during my visit was helping my mother dig through boxes of papers and keepsakes. It not only gave me a chance to laugh heartily at old relics like my ventriloquist dummy, my POG collection, and a foam Stone Cold Steve Austin middle finger, it also gave me time to reminisce with my ma. We broke down looking at some of the ridiculous tapes in her old cassette collection. We realized where those reading glasses had been hiding for seven or eight years. We waxed nostalgic as the pile of photographs grew larger and larger and larger. It was cathartic, often frustrating, but mostly joyful. I know going through things like that can be hard to do on your own, so I’m glad I was able to ride shotgun for part of it. 

Chapter V: Thanks for the Memories

As time went on, I was able to visit with my aunts and uncles who live in the area. It was obviously hard not being able to hug everyone, but just seeing them outside, distanced and behind a mask was comforting. This was especially true of my visits to my grandmother. She’s about to turn 91 and there was no way I’d risk her health. But she enjoyed sitting on the shade of her porch while I kept my distance and talked to her about the comings and goings. During one visit I decided to bring a small tripod for my phone. She protested when I asked to record her. She hadn’t done her hair, you see. But eventually I got her to relent and for over two hours I asked her questions. Questions about her childhood. About the world in which she grew up. The world in which she raised her kids. Not all of the answers came quickly or clearly, but I was surprised by how much she could recall. She talked about dances at Jimmy’s and performing with her father’s band. There were moments where I could tell that her mind had found a particularly vivid memory and she would smile. It was really something.

I got a chance to see some close friends and witness what little people their kids were becoming. It’s terrifying how fast they grow. They all have interests and thoughts and attitudes. It’s cute… until you remember their entire purpose is to replace us. Little shits. 

For the better part of a month, I was perpetually covered in slobber thanks to my folks’ golden retriever Addie. For years we said she’d outgrow her puppy-like intensity and for years she has refused to take the hint. I also found myself covered in mosquito bites. Those blood-sucking, winged devils are infatuated with my blood. Maybe I’m just a big target, but they are unrelenting. If I forgot to slather myself in 95% deet before the sun began to set… BAM! Six new bites! But I suppose that’s a small price to pay to be outside surrounded by sky and trees and sunlight. 

As the days drifted by, I watched Lily shoot pool with pap and Noah don his Link costume. Much to their parents’ chagrin, I told spooky stories to Zealand and Karis and Callan around the fire right before they were set to camp out in the backyard. We had hibachi nights on the flattop grill and discussed the issues of the day for hours on end. I had the chance to visit the cabin up in the mountains and fumbled my way through a shaky fantasy football auction draft. I spent $20 on Le’Veon Bell. Seriously. There were makeshift gym classes in the yard, sand ceremonies, and a special play called “Under the Sea” that involved stirring performances from my parents. My buddy Pia decided that our pal Danny and I should head over for a socially distanced football night on his back patio. It was a chance for us to watch the first Steeler game of the season together since our annual excursion to a December game would be on ice this year. And there were somber moments, like when we gathered outside to release balloons in remembrance of my cousin Daniel’s passing. How quickly a year slips by. 

I feel blessed to have a family that took the pandemic seriously. It allowed me to visit and be comfortable in that temporary bubble. I appreciate those friends and family members who never pressured me to come inside or to give them a hug or to take off my mask. Because of that, I was able to recharge and defragment. During my last week there I felt torn. Why did I want to leave?  Why not stay a little longer?

But I had to go. It would have been easy to heed the siren call and stay in the relative safety and familiarity of my parents’ home. But time moves differently there. A two week visit became three. Then why not stay for my sister’s birthday? Oh look, the air quality in LA is bordering on nuclear winter. What’s another week? The nighttime temperatures are too chilly. Best wait for a brief late September warm up. Suddenly it’s been five weeks since I left Burbank on this spur of the moment adventure. Five weeks without much writing. I had convinced myself that I deserved a little break, but now R&R had become a bog of avoidance. The clock was ticking. 

That didn’t make leaving any easier. You start to think about life. How many more chances will there be to spend a big chunk of time like this with my parents? The kids are growing up so fast. In the blink of an eye they’ll be teens and “Uncle” will become just another lame adult. My remaining grandparents are pushing the envelope on longevity, but that can only last so long. It’s painful to knowingly trade time with them to venture back to my isolated existence for the long shot hope of getting my life in order. 

Chapter VI: Northward Bound

But let’s give it a go. I reloaded Alicia, grabbed some more Chex Mix, and got back on the road. That sweet mistress of boundless possibility. I make my way across the uninspired bits of northern Ohio before cutting up into Michigan. A drive around Ann Arbor prodded my already emotionally raw state. I delved into memories of college days that now seem so very distant. I spotted reminders of the “normal” world that had been so completely and dramatically upended in 2020. I stood outside of the Big House and wished that there was a slightly inebriated crowd pouring in for a game. Instead, it was silent. A jogger passed by with a mask limply hanging around his neck. 

I found a spot in Sleepy Hollow State Park that night. I sprawled out in the darkness of my tent listening to other campers chat and laugh around distant campfires. It was good to be back on the road. Out here I could keep moving. You never have to sit still long enough to dwell. 

The next morning I backtracked a bit and took a turn through East Lansing. The Circle portion of Michigan State’s Campus is strikingly beautiful. I parked near the stadium and found my way to the Sparty statue. It’s no Nittany Lion Shrine, but worth a photo. I passed through the botanical gardens before doubling back to the car. I didn’t get very far before a Zoom call sidelined me for an hour. At least it gave me a chance for a rare sighting… a Family Video store. I remembered working on that account back in the day. Back when movie rentals drove the business. Another dose of nostalgia shot directly into the veins. 

I gassed up at a Chevron when I hit the coast of Lake Michigan. An older gentlemen spotted my California license plate and struck up a distanced conversation. He gave me a couple tips for places to stop as I headed north. It was the first human interaction I’d had on either leg of this drive. It reminded me that meeting people has always been one of the great joys of road tripping. Such a shame. 

Route 22 follows the coast of the lake for much of its northward journey. But as grand as that lake may be, it was the foliage that took center stage. Suddenly bursts of color swarmed from all directions. Butterscotch and tangerine whipped by as Alicia hugged the curves of the road. I stop briefly at the Point Betsie Lighthouse and plopped down on a sun-bleached chunk of driftwood to watch the waves. When I got back on the road, a scourge of new colors emerged… red and blue. Even growing up around that door-to-door grassroots style of political campaigning, I had never seen such a sea of electoral signage. The only respites from the partisan pageantry were brief detours through quaint little lake towns like Glen Arbor and Lake Leelanau. I slipped east to Suttons Bay and followed the shoreline south to Traverse City. I only managed a quick glance at the charming downtown and lakefront before I made my way to a campground on the edge of the town. 

The next morning I got an early start. I set out north on State Route 37. It was as if I entered the eternal land of autumnal postcards. The highway ran the seam straight up the peninsula. On either side, carefully manicured vineyards and orchards blanketed the rolling hills that swept down to meet the blue waters of the lake. Red farmhouses were nestled in the corners; perfectly positioned for photographs. Every few miles I came across another stand selling pumpkins or apples. No one manned these stands, of course. They operated on the honor system. Take a bushel of cherries and toss your payment in the bucket. This unreal drive culminated in a stop at the end of the peninsula at the equally picturesque Old Mission Lighthouse. Black squirrels scurried about, blissfully unaware of how unsettling I found their appearance. I’m a grey or fox squirrel kinda guy. 

I made my way back down 37 the way I came and turned northeast through the Gaylord State Forest and up toward Mackinaw City. Then came the wait. A two-hour crawl to get across that damn bridge. It brought back memories of getting stuck on the Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel or sitting on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge en route to Ocean City. It wasn’t pleasant. And when I finally made it onto the bridge, I found myself in a lane that consisted of an odd green grate. I could feel Alicia’s tires slipping and sliding on this strangely slick surface. I forced myself into the other lane to escape it. At the other end of the bridge, I took a quick look around Saint Ignace and stopped at a couple bridge view overlooks. I came across a statue of a blue-collar worker that was dedicated to those who had died building the Mackinac Bridge. You never think about things like that. Nearly every major infrastructure project of serious scale that was undertaken in the early to mid 20th century came at a price. Not just in dollars, but lives. Five died building the Mackinac Bridge. That’s the same number who died building the Empire State Building. Eleven lost their lives for the Golden Gate Bridge and an astounding ninety-six humans died building the Hoover Dam.

I had made it to the Upper Peninsula. I cruised along the coast and ignored the signs for the Mystery Spot tourist trap while I pined for the pasties that seemed to be for sell every couple of miles. If it wasn’t pasties, it was smoked fish or firewood. The noble Scandinavian blood runs heavy in the UP. There was something charming about the kitsch. The brilliant colors I’d witnessed the day before became sparser as stretches of pines overtook maples and oaks. However, even those evergreens took on an otherworldly rust motif at intermittent points. I rode the brakes along the coast as other travelers pulled off to the side and played a live game of Frogger to get to the sandy shores. 

Eventually I turned northward and hunted down Sable Falls near Grand Marais. I followed the signs down a path to a set of wooden stairs that descended into the forest. I could hear the water roaring in the distance. What are a few steps? 168 don’t sound like that many. I couldn’t know at the time, but that was only the beginning of my stair-related misery. The falls were stunning, of course. I huffed and puffed my way back to the top and set out on H-58. If ever there was a road begging to be in a car commercial, it’s H-58. A tunnel of autumn hues framed the winding journey past Sable Lake and along the coast of Lake Superior. I stopped for a moment at Hurricane River near Twelvemile beach. I sat my ass on the sand and looked out on yet another Great Lake. It was a perfect moment until the sand flies came. I imagine they locked in on my mosquito-ravaged legs and wanted their share. That was all it took to send me swatting my way back to the car. I didn’t get nearly enough time to explore the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore. It became obvious that it would require its own trip. I made my way south to Green Bay and left the surprisingly stunning state of Michigan behind. 

Chapter VII: Lactose Intolerant in the Land of Cheese

In the morning I couldn’t help but take a quick trip over to Lambeau Field. Another one of those wishful moments. I wanted to be wearing long johns and six other layers, eating a brat slathered in hot mustard, and getting ready for a late December game on the Frozen Tundra. Maybe some day.  I headed south on Route 41. After the pristine drives of the past few days, this was underwhelming. Too much cement. Too many shopping centers. A dull, gray sky didn’t help. The sun clawed its way through just as I rolled into more appealing farmland. The trade off was the sudden, unavoidable stench of manure. I held my nose for as long as I could on the way down to Devil’s Lake. 

I decided to save the lake itself for later and made my way to the Baraboo Bluffs and one of the paths that promised a short hike to the Balanced Rock. I’m not claiming it was false advertisement, for I’m sure the point to point distance was accurate, but what I failed to realize was that my hike would consist of nearly two hours of climbing and scrambling up boulders and shoddy stone steps. Each time I reached another plateau I was certain I had made it to the top. And each time I would turn the corner to find another stretch of jumbled rock that needed to be traversed. I wanted to quit so many times. I had vivid flashbacks to my ascent through the thousands of gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. My lungs were burning as if il Diablo himself had shoved his fiery fist down my windpipe. My heart pounded like a bass drum. But just like Kyoto, I somehow put one foot in front of the other (though admittedly with many, many breaks) and made it to the top. The Balanced Rock wasn’t much to look at, but the view from the top of the bluff was pretty rad. I passed up on the gentle grade forest path back down, as it was something like eight miles long. Instead, I decided to test out my knees and climb back down the way I came.

I hobbled around the lake, trying to recover from the punishment I just inflicted on every inch of my body. There were a few families having picnics and a handful of kids splashing around the murky blue-green waters, but the most notable contingent of park goers that day were the Amish. In what I can only imagine was some type of courtship outing, young Amish women in simple dresses and bonnets walked alongside young Amish men in trousers and flannel shirts. I’m guessing protocol prevented them from holding hands. It was just about the most wholesome damn thing I’ve ever seen. Leaving the romance behind, I traveled up to Wisconsin Dells and marveled from my car at the bonanza of saltwater taffy kitchens, fudge shops, mini golf courses, and tourist hot spots of escalating bizarreness.  I ignored the eye candy, as I was in search of the mysterious Witches Gulch! I spent a solid hour scouring the back roads that are tucked behind the giant plaster Wizards and Pirates. Eventually I stumbled upon some posts online that regretfully informed me that the Witches Gulch was now only accessible by a specific boat tour. Unwilling to get on any enclosed vehicle with strangers, I had to leave the Gulch un-gazed upon.    

Instead, I set out to see a man-made wonder. The Rudolph Grotto Gardens in Rudolph, WI. It’s hard to describe exactly what I found adjacent to St Philip’s Church. My only reference point would be Salvation Mountain alongside the Salton Sea. Christianity-inspired creativity. Heaps of stones are intertwined with flowers and sculptures. Carefully designed mosaics weaved through towering stone monoliths. Golden leaves fluttered down from above. Wind chimes lulled me into a peaceful repose. As a general rule, I find religious iconography unsettling. But all in all, this place was quite beautiful. I felt a calm come over me. Then I made a horrible mistake. I forked over the $3 surcharge to enter the Wonder Cave. This manmade mound was built for people much shorter then me. First strike. I had to walk with my head bowed nearly to chest level just to navigate the jagged overhanging rocks. I did that for fifteen minutes as I weaved through the brightly colored lights, which illuminated an array of bizarrely placed statues and tin plates embossed with biblical quotations. An eerie soundtrack called out from somewhere deep inside. When I finally emerged into the daylight, I praised God. Maybe that was the point. 

I covered a bit more ground that afternoon on my way to Eau Claire. The scent of manure became ubiquitous as I jumped from one many-lettered county road to the next. E to HH to CX to D to ZZ. Who can keep track? Regardless of which road I was on, the sea of grain and corn stretched out in every direction and was only interrupted by the occasional deer or wild turkey crossing.

The next morning was a straight shot north on SR 53. The most interesting part of those couple of hours was when I witnessed two bald eagles and a handful of enormous crows engaged in a dustup alongside the highway. I don’t know who did what to whom, but these birds were not happy. I can’t remember ever seeing more than one bald eagle at a time. Nor can I remember witnessing a bird fight club. My only regret was that I was driving over 70mph and couldn’t safely slam on the brakes to snap a photo. I was still thinking about it when I arrived at Pattison State Park. I skirted the lake and took the tunnel down to the falls. I was struck by the strong smell of pine even as brightly colored leaves gently rained down from above. 

Chapter VIII: Lake Country, Dontcha Know 

Having eaten absolutely no cheese, I left Wisconsin behind and found myself in Duluth, MN. This is a land of brick and stone. It’s hearty looking and it smells of roasting meat. I can dig that. I head over the Aerial Bridge and out onto the sandbar that stretches seven miles into Lake Superior (the longest freshwater sandbar in the world, if you believe what you read online). It’s a fascinating little community. The lake is a mere stone’s throw in either direction. I made a quick stop at Point Park to take in the bay before heading back to the Lakewalk Area. I watched the Aerial Bridge make a full up and down rotation before meandering out to the North Pier Lighthouse. Never have I seen such bold and aggressive seagulls. I’m guessing it was because the people on the pier refused to heed the voice on the loudspeaker begging them not to feed the damn birds.

The plan for the day was to follow the North Shore Scenic Drive on SR-61 about two thirds of the way to the Canadian border and then turn around. But I couldn’t resist a stop at the Leif Erickson garden in Duluth on my way out of town. The beloved Viking hero has a well-manicured rose garden dedicated to him that overlooks the sandbar. I can understand why he’s a hero around these parts. There are a vast and undeniable number of blonde, Scandinavian folks wandering the streets in this corner of America. 

With the day flying by, I got back on the road and zipped northward along Lake Superior. My first stop was a place called Black Beach. Not complicated to see why; the sand was a spooky shade of black. But unlike say the lava flow beaches of Hawaii, this sandy spot is not a natural occurrence. You can thank the mining companies for dumping tons of taconite into the lake over the years. It fused with the sand and gave birth to this otherworldly locale. I see the massive mining operations hunkered down on the shore as I pass back through Silver City. Just to the south lies the Split Rock Lighthouse. It’s a beautiful landmark, which only gets better as you follow the nearby trails that provide spectacular views of the rock face. Unfortunately for me, that meant more steps. A lot more steps. Thoroughly exhausted, I made my way to Gooseberry Falls State Park. I slid the $7 entry fee into an envelope and dropped it in the box like a big goober. While the falls themselves were impressive, it was the pitted stone shores at the lake that won me over. Tiny pools of water reflected the sky above as gentle waves splashed into hollowed out slots in the hardened coast. I leapt and climbed over the alien landscape for a solid half hour before deciding to call it a day. I would have stayed longer to goof around like a teenager if I had known what awaited me. Hello, two hours of near standstill traffic. It seems everyone decided to go out and enjoy the lakefront on that mild Sunday afternoon and there was only a single lane back to Duluth.

The next morning was cold and wet. I broke out the jeans and the knit cap. I made a brief stop in Bemidji, which is admittedly fun to say. There stands the famous Paul Bunyan and Babe statues. Big and blue and screaming for a selfie. The soundtrack for this stop was a man cutting down trees with a chainsaw just a hundred yards behind good ole Paul. Where’s the ax, dude? I leave my new pals behind and jump on the road to Lake Itasca. What’s special about this lake in the land of ten thousand lakes, you ask? Headwaters. Specifically the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. That’s right. The whole damn thing starts as a bubbling brook up at Lake Itasca. I hop across the headwaters from stone to stone like a big oafish child. It’s an interesting place. To think that something so big and powerful and integral to our society begins in such a small, gentle way. Without hesitation I choose to take the one-way Wilderness Drive around the lake. As expected, it’s stunning. Fall foliage is on point. Not a soul anywhere in sight. Perfection. 

I soaked in what I could before heading southwest to Glendalough State Park. Gone were the thick woodland areas and in their place I met the soft, flowing prairie grasses. It was cold there. The wind would slice through with a wicked bite before vanishing into a near perfect stillness. Annie Battle Lake was calm and pristine. There were lodges along the shore that reportedly hosted US Presidents at some point back in the day. I wonder if there was nearly as much goose shit back then as there is now? This would be one of many lakes I would see over the next several hours. The country roads I followed toward the North Dakota border weaved their way through dozens upon dozens of lakes. Everything from expansive shimmering bodies of water to tiny fishing holes. I couldn’t help but wonder… what’s hiding at the bottom of those things? Cars? Treasure? Bodies?

Chapter IX: The 49th State

The winds pick up on my way to Fargo. I suddenly become aware of some aerodynamic deficiency in poor Alicia. Every time the wind hits her just so, it lets out a screeching whistle. The first time absolutely terrified me. Okay, not just the first time. I made it to the border and parked in central Fargo. I wandered down Broadway and snapped some pictures of the famous murals tucked away in the alleys. This was sort of a big deal for me. North Dakota was one of two states (Alaska being the other) that I had yet to visit in my lifetime of US travel. Here I was, finally standing in Roughrider Country. This was a big thrill for a person who likes making lists and checking boxes. I was, however, disappointed to learn while researching that much of the movie Fargo was not shot anywhere near Fargo. And regardless, the actual filming locations don’t exist anymore either. They’ve all been torn down or remodeled to the point where you can’t recognize them.  

I left downtown and found myself at the Oak Grove Pedestrian Bridge where I was able to straddle the state line between North Dakota and Minnesota above the Red River. I’d only just arrived in ND, but I heard the call and roamed back into Minnesota. Here I stopped at one of the oldest Dairy Queens in America. This Moorhead institution isn’t just old; it’s where they invented the Dilly Bar. The twenty-five foot shrine outside of the shop won’t let you forget it. I took my dairy-free dilly and found my way to a local landmark near Concordia College to watch the sun set. The “Crazy Tree,” as it is affectionately called, is a massive twisted beast of a tree that seems to have slipped deep into the earth. Somehow the main trunk of the tree is buried underground. It is… crazy. There was another stadium to check off the list… the FargoDome. Welcome to the home of the sixteen time national champion North Dakota State Bison football team. Go Thundering Herd!

The next day would take me to Bismarck. Now, I have nothing mean to say about Bismarck. It seems like a fine town. A lot of chain restaurants. Some houses. But when you google “interesting things to do in Bismarck” and the top result is the state capital building, you aren’t setting the tourism world on fire. I did check out that state capitol, by the way. It’s a nice art deco building. There’s a groovy statue of Sakakawea outside near the heritage museum. It’s all very fine. I slipped over to the Missouri River to check out a few attractions. A couple of dry-docked riverboats, a pair of eagle statues, and a model Keelboat. All very fine, indeed. 

I decided to ditch Bismarck and taken an unexpected detour north. I wound my way through the prairies toward Lake Sakakawea State Park and dodged a monstrous piece of farming equipment in an intense game of chicken. A cute ranger lady at the main office slipped me a map and told me I didn’t need to pay the entry fee if I was just looking around for a bit. The park, like so many on this trip, was nearly empty. I could spot the odd camper or fisherman in the distance, but that was about it. It turns out this lake was created by a damning operation in the 1950s. Tragically its creation destroyed several towns, including those belonging to native populations. One of the many sad tales that are too often left out of our history books.  

The next several hours were nothing but an endless streak of ambers and tans and rusts. It was unnerving because the deer blended in so seamlessly with the landscape that they always caught me off guard when they bolted across the highway. God bless my brakes. Eventually, the flat prairielands gave way to more interesting panoramas as I approached the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is where North Dakota came alive. The rugged terrain featured sweeping rock formations with pronounced layers of gray and tan sediment. Occasionally I’d turn a corner and find slashes of bright white or deep red cutting through the rock face. Hard scrabble bushes and trees filled the valleys and soft spots in the ridges. All of it was dressed with yellow flowers popping against the earthy tones of the park like the fringe icing on the top of a cake. As I drove along the winding loop road, I encountered vista after vista. Each was filled with a multitude of beasts like bison or wild horses or the squeaky little prairie dogs. Those things were everywhere. Anytime I stepped too close to their domain, a wave of yipping would sweep across the assembled masses. I knew it was best to retreat. I had no beef with them. I eventually came uncomfortably close to a rattlesnake, climbed atop some strange sandstone formations, and had a chat with a lonely bison that had strayed far from his herd. This was the crown jewel of my North Dakota experience. One I won’t soon forget. 

Chapter X: The Great Wide West

I spent the next few hours hustling across the dark to Billings, MT. It was a drive filled with frustration. First, with the avalanche of bugs that suddenly materialized as I crossed the border. I literally had to stop twice at gas stations to scrape off their viscous juices from my windshield just so that I could see properly. Second, I was listening to the first Presidential “Debate” on the radio. An exhausting and exasperating experience. It wasn’t the best way to cap off an otherwise excellent day.

But luckily another excellent day is always just around the corner when you’re on the road. I debated a trip up to Glacier National Park and over to the state of Washington, but the reportedly frigid temperatures dissuaded me. Instead, I explored a bit of Montana including Pictograph Cave State Park. Before long I got antsy and decided to turn south and head for Cody, WY. My GPS got confused several times as the trip began and eventually it shot me out on a backcountry cattle road. It went on for miles. Alicia slid and danced across the loose gravel as my fingers tightly gripped her steering wheel. Occasionally a giant pickup truck would rumble towards me at great speed and disappear in a smattering of stone and dust. I wasn’t sure whether I was in Montana or Wyoming. It was… unnerving. But soon it gave way to your standard two-lane highway and I carved my way through the parched landscape toward Buffalo Bill’s stomping grounds. 

Cody is a groovy little town. Sure, there are countless tourist traps and plenty of cheesy cowboy gimmickry, but there’s also an old world charm to it. I discovered Old Trail Town on the edge of the city. At first blush I thought I was about to waste $10 on some tacky life-size dioramas. But I was very wrong. It turns out a man named Bob Edgar started roaming around the Old West back in the 1960s and scooped up deteriorating places of interest. He had them broken down, reassembled in Cody, and restored. It was actually quite something. Frontier cabins of every sort lined the property. There were even a few that were once used by Butch Cassidy and his gang. Luckily for me, on this Covid-cautious trip, the whole thing was viewable from an outdoor boardwalk.

I left Cody and made a quick stop at the Buffalo Bill Dam. Somehow they built this mighty wall back in the early 1900s without any steel reinforcement whatsoever. It’s impressive. Not to be a downer, but seven workers did perish during its construction. I couldn’t seem to shake those thoughts since the Mackinac Bridge. But the other important thing about the dam was that it also served as the opening act to the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. This curvaceous and pictorial drive hugged the Shoshone River for fifty odd miles from Cody to Yellowstone. It was my first time entering the great park from the east.  

With no particular plan, I charged headfirst into the wild and wonderful land of hydrothermal oddities.  I zipped along the stretches of dead, stripped pines. It’s unnerving, even though I know it is part of the natural death and rebirth of the park that is allowed to occur without interference. I made my way down to Yellowstone Lake and slid my hand into the crystal clear water. That unmistakable scent of sulfur suddenly hit me. I smiled and cringed simultaneously. I found my way up to Artist Point and did the short hike out to the prime overlook. I cursed the heavens as traffic suddenly bottlenecked when tourists stopped in the middle of the road to get a blurry picture of a lone gray wolf in the distance. I meandered through the wafting steam at the top and bottom of the Mammoth Hot Springs in search of smelly, bubbling cracks in the earth. I passed a massive herd of bison as I high-tailed it down to Old Faithful before dusk. That blowhole goes off on average every 60 to 100 minutes and it was just my luck that about fifteen minutes after arriving, it put on a grand show just as the sun was fading below the horizon. My drive out of the park was a bit of a nightmare as traffic backed up for miles approaching the West Entrance. When I finally hit the open road, I realized I had a brilliant, nearly full moon to keep me company as I drove into Idaho. At one point I spotted police lights flashing desperately in the distance. I slowed as I approached. Two police cruisers were parked alongside a small sedan that had been absolutely smashed to bits. But there was no other car nearby. No tree in its path. Oof. A splattering of blood stretched across the road. A massive beast the size of a horse lay mangled and still. I couldn’t tell if it was a moose or a very large elk or mule deer. Either way it was very sad. Needless to say, I drove much slower from that point on. 

Chapter XI: Alien Landscapes

I woke up the next morning in Idaho Falls and set out early to hunt down one of my most anticipated targets of the trip. But first was a lot of driving through empty Idahoan farmland. The strangest part of it was that I never lost cellular signal. I was plagued on every step of my journey by piss poor reception, but out here, in the middle of nowhere, I had full, unwavering bars. Then I saw the discreet sign for Idaho National Laboratory. Ah, secret science experiments. That makes sense. I avoided any portals into the Upside Down and found myself at the Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve (don’t call me a Park). Haven’t heard of it? I hadn’t either before this trip. In the middle of the Snake River Plain in Idaho I found a volcanic wonderland. Hardened lava flows and mounds of lava rock were scattered around the dormant cinder cones. Sagebrush emerged from the cracks and reached for the sky in the shadow of juniper trees. Way back in the day, some preacher found his way here and thought it was a ghastly and wicked place. That’s why you have names for formations like the Devil’s Orchard and the Inferno Cone. Later, astronauts would use this area to train for moon missions (hence the name). I call it the Tilda Swinton of the National Park Service: admittedly creepy, but oddly beautiful. It’s also here where my entry fee got upgraded to an annual NPS pass!

After waterfalls that required countless steps and a bounder-ridden hillside in Wisconsin, I was not looking for any major climbs. So when I stood at the bottom of the Inferno Cone and looked up at the Star Wars-like horizon of black lava rock, I was reticent. The signs said it was only a quarter of a mile to the peak. What the hell, right? The problem is that there are no switchbacks on that bastard. You don’t realize that the slope is gradually growing and growing and growing. It’s not until my calves began to ache and flashes of pain exploded through my lungs that I realized how damn steep this climb was going to be. Like so many ascents before it, the mound taunted me by revealing an even steeper slope just as I crested the first. I wanted badly to just roll down the damn hill and take my lumps, but my fat ass slowly made it to the top with a palm planted on each knee.  As I’ve said before, it was worth whatever long-term cardiac damage it may have done, but I hate climbing things. 

With the eerie landscape behind me, I traversed more backcountry in Idaho. At one point, I was jamming to some Johnny Cash with my arm hanging out of the window when a juicy critter smacked off the inside of my forearm and its carcass flew into the car. I swerved a bit, of course, and looked down at the glob of orangish goo that was smeared on my skin. I pulled into some overgrown RV park and had a zoom call about a TV project as I disinfected my arm.  A quick drive across the belly of the state led me to Shoshone Falls. According to signage, this natural waterfall is actually bigger than Niagara. It sure is more beautiful, in my opinion. The Snake River carved smooth, winding paths through the hardened cliffs and poured down into a long, beautiful canyon. You can still see the big hump on one side of the rim where Evel Knievel tried unsuccessfully to jump the Snake River on his rocket motorcycle back in the 70s. 

As I pushed south, I knew I was entering a new phase of my trip. Salt Lake City lay ahead. The sudden emergence of a ten-lane highway was nearly as unnerving as the damn mosquitos that attacked during a gas station stop. As I rolled into the city, I couldn’t ignore the many, many Jesus-related billboards. Way to stay on brand, SLC. I made a quick stop for a backyard visit with my buddy Amin and his kin. We quickly found ourselves in an impassioned argument about a story point in a project of ours. I won, of course, but more importantly I gave Meg and her dad a thoroughly entertaining show. I took a winding mountain road over to the State Capital before descending down to the Temple Square. I snapped a few photos, but it’s hard to enjoy visiting a new city when you can’t interact with people or explore the landmarks. 

So I took a rain check on peeling back the layers of the Salt Lake City onion and shot out into the Great Salt Lake Desert. I noticed rather quickly that people seemed to just drive off of the highway and into the desert willy-nilly. Not at predetermined exits. Not at a particular sign or juncture. Every few miles I would pass some makeshift art piece on the side of the road. Some amateur Banksy (or maybe just drunk University of Utah students) had assembled a sea monster made of old tires and foam balls. Things like that. Eventually I came across the Tree of Utah. The massive concrete structure and its spherical adornments protruded into the desert sky like an alien probe. What does it mean? I’m not even sure the Swedish artist who built in the 80s knew what it meant. Distractions aside, I found myself near the Nevada border at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats. A four-mile asphalt road came to an abrupt end. A sign welcomed me to this legendary land of speed. I started off timidly, unsure how Alicia would handle this new surface. Nadal is much better on clay than grass, if you know what I mean. It was a strange experience. Flat, chalky white, hardened salt stretched into the distance without end. There were no roads or lines or guardrails. No rules, apparently. It was equal parts thrilling and disconcerting as I gradually picked up speed. If you get a chance, go here.  

Chapter XII: The Final Stretch

As I crossed into Nevada, I could have taken the straight and boring I-80 route straight across the state, but I wasn’t having any of that. I cut south and took a less-traveled route toward the Ruby Mountains. Almost immediately the terrain was starkly different from Utah. Tan plains pulled up tightly to the base of rocky outcroppings like animal hide stretched out to dry. I lost signal less than an hour from Bonneville and wouldn’t get it back the rest of the day. That meant that I had to break out the paper maps at one point when I found myself unsure what to do at a remote intersection. I would get lost several times that day. Each led me to a close encounter with a herd of inky black cows or a gaggle of grazing horses. I eventually found my way to a pass through the mountains toward Elko just as the sun was starting to set. They say the mountains are named for the garnet gems that were discovered there long ago, but as that dusk light hit the peaks they all took on a warm reddish hue. You rarely regret taking the scenic route.  

The next day brought hours upon hours of dusty, unappealing Nevada desert. It’s the kind of place you just need to get through. I tried to visit Pyramid Lake, but only caught glimpses of it from afar as the road was closed to non-local traffic. I called an audible and stopped at Fort Churchill State Park. The remnants of a 19th century army base littered the landscape. While historically interesting, it was what I found when I crossed a grove of cottonwood trees and passed through a squeaky gate that really grabbed my attention… a sandy beach on the banks of the Carson River. It was oh so serene and peaceful. A complete contrast with the towns I encountered after leaving the park. Everything was hot, dry and dusty. Off road drivers kicked up clouds of earth as they unleashed their ATVs. Unkempt trailers lined the highway in every direction. I looked for a way out of this place. 

That’s when I found the Six Mile Canyon. This legendary source of gold and silver was also a refreshing sight away from the dirt and decay. The short drive led me directly to Virginia City, NV, which was one of the great tragedies of my trip. The central stretch of the town is at the top of a hillside, overlooking the valley. Well-preserved Old West structures line the thoroughfare in either direction. Timeworn churches, schoolhouses, and relics of the region’s prospector past offer plenty to explore. Boy, did I want to explore it. This place had the ideal formula of history and spectacle. Folks un-ironically roamed South C Street in cowboy gear. It was magnificent. But as much as I would have liked to park and investigate, there were far too many people out and about. The sidewalks were teeming with bikers and Reno gamblers on day trips. Based on the volume of Trump signs in the area, it was unsurprising that most of them weren’t wearing masks. So the Red Dog Saloon and Washoe Club and Grant’s General Store would have to wait for a post-pandemic visit.

A curvy descent from the mountains led toward Reno, but I kept pushing. For the first time, Alicia seemed to struggle a bit as I asked for a great deal of elevation climbing in a short stretch. I stopped at Incline Village on the coast of Lake Tahoe. I skirted the resident-only beaches and drove south until I found Sand Harbor State Beach. The striking blue water of the lake carved its way into a shoreline of sand and rounded boulders. Families hunkered down on the beach as kayakers glided over the still water across the shallow harbor. Alpine lakes, man. Nothing quite like them. 

Chapter XIII: The Golden, Yet Somewhat Hazy, State

The next day was a big one. I crossed the border into California, returning to my adopted state for the first time in nearly two months. I stopped at various beaches and coves around South Lake Tahoe. It reminded me of Big Bear on steroids. The highlight was Emerald Bay. Highway 89 climbs up to the peaks above the sapphire waters and provides incredible 360-degree views. I tried to soak it all in, for this was sure to be the last pleasant bit of my trip. 

I made my way to I-80 and spent the entire afternoon riding my brakes as I descended from 8,000 feet to 180 feet near Sacramento. It suddenly got very hot. The air quality bottomed out. The highways were lined with trash. It was a far cry from the fall foliage of northern Michigan or the mysterious lake country of Minnesota or the otherworldly setting of Craters of the Moon. As I descended into the San Joaquin Valley, the side effects of the recent and ongoing wildfires became strikingly clear. Thick, Silent Hill-like smoke had settled into the valley. Luckily it didn’t affect driving visibility, but everything on either side of the road quickly dissolved into the murky gray vapor. It brought with it dread. The next day I would return to the life that I had paused for this unexpected adventure. I would be back in my tiny apartment, far from the open spaces I had become accustomed. Career uncertainty loomed large. My reflections of time, mortality, health, family, love, and purpose… what would they mean when I was back in my own bed? 

When I arrived in Los Angeles the next morning, I shot straight for an Urgent Care in Glendale. I had a swab jammed into my cerebral cortex for a rapid Covid test. It didn’t hurt. Rather it felt like eating salt and vinegar chips… in my nasal cavity. The results were negative. So off I went to lock down my storage unit. I wasn’t about to spend the next several months with all of this camping gear trapped inside Alicia’s guts. So for the first time in my life, I carved out a little piece of cement-floored, tin-walled heaven. For someone who has lived for over a decade with nearly zero storage capability at my apartment, having a storage unit was a rapturous experience. I had a little 5×5 chunk of land where I could put anything. Camping gear? Sure. Game night crap? You betcha. That stationary bike? No… you have to start doing that again, Matt. Fuck. I made my way to Dodger Stadium for Covid test number two. This one required a near two-hour slow crawl up the hill to the testing site. It was one of those cough and swab every corner and crevice of your mouth and throat kinda tests. I drop my saliva bag in the slot and head home to Burbank. 

Not much changed in the world while I was gone. Wildfires and floods and hurricanes remind us that the climate crisis is real and dire. Covid cases continue to intermittently spike across the country, reminding us how precarious the situation remains. Our political situation remains broken and volatile and unreflective of the needs of too many. I still don’t know what my future holds, but I undoubtedly will find out eventually. Until then, it’s time to get to work.

Our country is big and diverse. We wonder why there’s so much division, but seeing how different our lives are from one another, it amazes me that we agree on anything at all. But I’m sure glad that we do. I’m blessed to have been able to take this journey. It was a gift to spend so much time with my family. To hear my nieces and nephews laugh. To help my parents in the small ways I could. To see old friends, even behind masks. And to soak in the splendor that America has to offer. I might not have been able to chat with new people or dig deep into exploring any cities but, I had a beautiful, inspiring, recharging, sometimes sad, sometimes overwhelming, unexpectedly incredible trip there and back again.


follow me on instagram to see the photos from the trip @absenceofbrevity

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2019 Cinema Review & Top 25


Here we go again. It’s time for me to spend hours writing up my thoughts on the previous year in film so that the three of you out there who enjoy it can spend a couple of hours avoiding work at the office. Incredible television programming continues to consume more and more bandwidth as the streaming wars heat up, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of excellent films well worth our cash and time.  This year I sat down and watched 85 of them. That total is slightly down from last year, but still higher than the few years before.

Here’s my annual reminder… this list represents my FAVORITE movies from the previous year. The ones I enjoyed the most. It is not an intricate review of the filmmaking craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies. That list would likely look very different.

Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2019.

From the Top 60 at the Box Office I missed The Secret Life of Pets 2, The Upside, The Addams Family, Alita: Battle Angel, Men in Black: International, Annabelle Comes Home, A Madea Family Funeral, Angel Has Fallen, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Abominable, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Escape Room, Midway, The Curse of La Llorona, Pet Sematary, Gemini Man, Five Feet Apart, and Ma.

Of the critical and award favorites I wasn’t able to catch A Hidden Life, Clemency, Just Mercy, Richard Jewell, Les Miserables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Motherless Brooklyn, Waves, The Edge of Democracy, One Child Nation, Diane, The Mustang, Burning Cane, The Cave, Maiden, or For Sama. 


And now, as always, a few quick “special awards” before jumping into my Top 25 list.

Award for End of An Era

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s been a long and fruitful journey for our favorite mutants. There were highs (X-Men, X2, First Class, Days of Futures Past, The Wolverine, Logan) and lows (X-Men: Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Apocalypse), but we won’t forget that you started it all. Way back in 2000 as Y2K hysteria fizzled, you broke onto the scene and re-defined what a modern superhero franchise could look like. We’ll forgive your warts. The “apocalyptic” missteps. Because even in those dark days, seeing Hugh Jackman throw out those claws or Patrick Stewart invade another mind was always a thrill. We wish there had been a better send off than whatever the heck Dark Phoenix was, but it was not to be. But at least in your waning days you sort of gave us Deadpool.

New Mutants is coming in 2020, but that feels far removed from the big metal Xs and Cerebro helmets. We know you will be reborn in the MCU eventually, but you shall not be forgotten, original Fox X-Men franchise.


Award for Why’d You Make That?

The Lion King

I have nothing against making money. I have nothing against taking a chance at re-telling a classic if you have a fresh angle from which to approach it. And of course I love the Lion King. It came out in 1994 when I was 11 years old and still comfortably in the Disney animated halo. It was brilliant. Vibrant. Full of catchy songs. It remains as excellent today as it was 26 years ago. So why’d you make this? Other than some updated Timon and Pumba banter and a new Beyonce song, this is a near carbon copy of the original with animated (though photo realistic) lions. It wasn’t bad. In fact it was an impressive technical feat. But why’d you make this? I think I’ll stick to the original the next time I have a hankering for some lion-infused Hamlet. That said, Mulan looks rad.


Award for Letting It Be

Frozen 2

I get it. How could you not make a sequel to the highest grossing animated movie of all time? You should. Of course. No argument. But what in the name of Mickey’s magical broom was this? The plot was so convoluted and soft around the edges that I truly can’t imagine how an Oxford Literature professor could follow along, let alone a child hopped up on Sour Patch kids. But then again the kids don’t care, do they? Fireballs and magic mist people and statue memories. It doesn’t have to make sense. Just give me another Top 40 hit and some water horse dolls.


Award for I Don’t Care If You Liked It, It Thought It Was Meh


For months I’ve had the same conversation about this film with tons of people. It always ends with someone accusing me of going in with the intention to dislike it or being a pro-Marvel, DC-hating fanboy. Neither of those things are true. I just found the soon-to-be Oscar winning performance of Phoenix to be campy and distracting. I prefer him in understated roles (You Were Never Really Here, Her, Two Lovers). I felt the “message” of this movie was either A.) weak and lacking a substantive exploration or B.) flat out irresponsible. Visually I found it drab for drab’s sake. It was fine. I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t find a single grimy frame to be exceptional in any way. But if you loved it… you do you.


Award for Unfulfilled Expectations


It: Chapter Two

After Get Out the expectations for Jordan Peele’s next creepy outing were through the roof. And while there’s something in this concept that’s intriguing, and Lupita is outrageously good, the meat just wasn’t on the bone. Any allegory that was intended is lost in a convoluted soup of plot holes. In the end, we got a pretty standard horror thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just felt like a letdown after the highs of Chris’ nightmarish run in with the Armitage family.

Likewise, It was a creepy good time back 2017. The casting for Part 2 seemed spot on. And, yes, the book is even weirder. But they just had to call him some names? That’s it? Really? After all those episodic mini-adventures we just needed them to make fun of Pennywise and he shriveled up to a creepy infant? Okay… if you say so.


Award for Not Screwing Up A Sequel When You Easily Could Have

Jumanji: The Next Level

Zombieland 2: Double Tap

Terminator: Dark Fate

Say what you will about these three flicks, but none of them were bad. In fact, they all were pretty fun. Sony continues to pull all the right levers to keep Jumanji fresh and entertaining. Zombieland was well worth the long wait even in a world where zombies seem old hat. Dark Fate isn’t in the same legendary club as the original two features, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than anything since.


Award for I Don’t Know How Good This Is, But You Had Me at the Map Overlay

Under the Silver Lake

If you were to dig through my spreadsheets and take a peak at my Top 25 list from way back in 2006 you would find that Brick, the feature directorial debut of Rian Johnson, reigned supreme. There’s some DNA of that film in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, but not enough for it to be great. I’m not even sure if it’s any good. But as a guy that loves to create games and riddles and weird 36-hour scavengers hunts across Los Angeles, I can’t deny I dug the intricate, mind-bending puzzle that pulls the action forward from one ludicrous stop to the next.


Award for Pleasantly Surprised


Doctor Sleep

Long Shot

Here’s the counterpoint to my earlier critique of The Lion King. Aladdin (1992) is my favorite animated movie of all time. It is incredibly sacred to me. So it goes without saying that I had serious reservations going into this one. But Guy Richie and team made a film that was different enough from the source material that it stood on its own. Will Smith’s take on the genie didn’t try to replace the epic performance of Robin Williams, but instead carved its own blue niche. Was it fantastic? Not really. But it was fun and spared any scars to my childhood memories.

The Shining is a classic. Doctor Sleep syphoned off just enough shine from the original to give it that “cozy” sense of the familiar while blazing a unique and intriguing tale. Watch the full director’s cut if you have the option.

Maybe you missed Long Shot in the heat of the early summer movie season. It’s not about giant robots or latex clad superheroes, but it is sweet, vulgar, and surprisingly original. You will even find yourself suspending your disbelief long enough to imagine Seth Rogan actually ending up with Charlize.


Award for Defying the Aging Process


There’s not a lot to say here. You saw the Super Bowl halftime show, right? I don’t know what the terms were, but I’m pretty sure Jennifer Lopez got the better end of that deal with Lucifer.


Award for Inspiring a Future Trip

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

This flick had a lot of heat around it when it was originally on the release slate. A few shifts on the schedule and a lukewarm reception cooled things off in a major way. But it was a surprisingly charming film that solidified my now burning desire to visit Antarctica. Just need to save up the $10k for the cruise and I’m on my way!


Award for Reminding Us How Important the 60s Were

Apollo 11

Echo in the Canyon

Both of these excellent documentaries transport you back in time to the groovy 1960s when change was happening on the airwaves and out beyond the atmosphere. Apollo 11 delivers an incredibly detailed, behind-the-curtain look at a momentous achievement in human history from previously unviewed angles. Echo in the Canyon provides an insightful journey down Laurel Canyon and the music scene that would reshape the sounds of a generation.


Award for Adrenaline Inducing

John Wick 3: Parabellum

Ford v Ferrari


On the surface, these three films seem nothing alike. But whether it’s knife-slashing, road-hugging, or nazi-evading, all of them provided that kick-you-in-the-ass, heard-pounding adrenaline rush. There was plenty of action to go around in this year’s superhero slate or in the many adventures of The Rock, but it was these unique entries that stood out for me among the pack.


Award for Cast This Kid In Everything

Jojo Rabbit

Oh, Archie Yates, you pudgy little bundle of charm. Such impeccable comic timing! You were a ray of light in a Nazi youth uniform. Roman Griffin Davis was excellent as the title character, but every time you popped up on screen we knew at minimum a smile would follow. Here’s to a bright future in the Home Alone series reboot and countless other projects before puberty hits!


Award for Showing That Bird Who’s Boss

The Lighthouse

Animal lovers beware! There’s only so many times those damn gulls can give Robert Pattinson the stink eye before he’ll lose his shit on you. One bird in particular found that out in the most graphic way possible. Things aren’t looking good for Colin Farrell’s Penguin in the next Batman reboot!


Award for Line We’ve Been Waiting A Decade To Hear

Avengers: Endgame

“I am inevitable,” growled Thanos. “I am Iron Man,” tosses back a defiant Tony Stark. It’s the kind of exchange that sends a lightning bolt up a Marvel fan’s spine. But there was another moment fifteen minutes earlier that comic nerds had been waiting for patiently for over a decade. Captain America, on the verge of defeat, is joined by dozens of heroes via a series of glowing portals. And there it is… “Avengers… assemble!” Worth the wait.


Award for Best Musical Moment

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

LEGO Movie 2



Music is integral to every movie in some way or another. However, every year we have a few special or exciting or silly musical moments that stand out above the rest.

Even if you haven’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighboryou’ve probably seen the trailer. That magical scene of a subway car of men, women and children singing the show’s theme song for Mr. Rogers is just as touching even when you know it’s coming.

In LEGO Movie, every parent in the world was painfully introduced to “Everything is Awesome.” Not only did the folks at WB Animation double down on a catchy tune for the sequel, they went full blown meta with it. And so was born “Catchy Song” AKA “This Song’s Gonna Get Stuck Inside Your Head.”

Yesterday interweaves your favorite Beatles’ tunes into a sweet story about love and success, but the highlight musically was of course when Ed Sheeran pushed for a rewrite that gave us “Hey Dude” instead of “Hey Jude.”

There’s plenty to pick from in the Elton John Bio-Fantasy Rocketman, but who wasn’t tapping their foot as the ambulance ride slowly transformed into a triumphant Dodger Stadium performance?


Award for Makeup That’s Maybe Too Good


I’m pretty sure even Megyn Kelley had to do a double take when she first saw Bombshell. It was Charlize, right? Does anyone know for sure? Can we check travel records?


Award for Never Taking a Break

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die, The Report, Marriage Story, Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker)

Give it up for this dude’s work ethic. Whether it’s a small town deputy facing down the undead, an unrelenting Senate staffer searching for truth, a damaged artist trying to make sense of his failing marriage, or a Sith lord with anger issues, Adam Driver simultaneously seems like an everyman and yet the most unique man you’ve ever come across. This ex-marine turned Juilliard student seemed to be everywhere in 2019. I have a feeling that won’t let up anytime soon.


Here’s a quick look at what didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 25. Plenty of well-made films here. Many of them I really enjoyed. It was tough to land on a final ranking.

60.) Downtown Abbey

59.) The Report

58.) Us

57.) Honey Boy

56.) The Lion King

55.) Harriet

54.) Bombshell

53.) Under the Silver Lake

52.) Aladdin

51.) LEGO Movie 2

50.) Hobbs & Shaw

49.) Where’d You Go Bernadette?

48.) The Art of Self-Defense

47.) Hustlers

46.) Missing Link

45.) Shazam

44.) Ash is the Purest White

43.) Good Boys

42.)  Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

41.) Uncut Gems

40.) The Souvenir

39.) Doctor Sleep

38.) Rocketman

37.) Yesterday

36.) Captain Marvel

35.) Little Women

34.) Zombieland 2: Double Tap

33.) The Last Black Man in San Francisco

32.) Echo in the Canyon

31.) Jumanji: The Next Level

30.) Spider-man: Far From Home

29.) Long Shot

28.) Apollo 11

27.) John Wick 3

26.) Won’t You Be My Neighbor

If you’re curious about #s 61 to 85, I’m happy to share. But with that, let’s jump in to my Top 25.

25.) Luce

While it never quite veers into full-blown psychological thriller territory, this tense drama will certainly keep you guessing from start to finish. On the surface it’s a complicated struggle between an all-American high school teen and a suspicious teacher. But the underlying questions about race, family, and American values makes for a far darker and more uncomfortable cocktail. Spot on performances from Kelvin Harrison Jr, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and the consistently amazing Octavia Spencer.


24.) Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker

Go ahead. Get it out of your system. There have been buckets of venom aimed at the end of the Skywalker Saga over the last month. In many ways it is deserved. The film is overwrought and clumsy. Major plot shifts occur with no setup in previous installments. It doesn’t appear to have a solid compass (or any compass). All of that is true. However, it simply isn’t this film’s fault. I put the blame on wildly inconsistent visions. Had JJ Abrams stuck around for all three, perhaps more seeds would have been planted and allowed to grow organically. But most of all I blame the lack of a “Fiege-type” at the top of the Star Wars universe. Someone who can bring the same level of detailed franchise planning to the galaxy far, far away as he does to Marvel. So yes, it was messy. It was strange. But in the end, I still had fun.


23.) Dolemite is My Name

Sometimes it is easy to forget just how great Eddie Murphy can be when he’s on top of his game.  Since Dreamgirls way back in 2006, the only things he’s given to us were either Shrek-related or the occasional misfire. But the master is truly back in form with this very funny, very vulgar biopic of Rudy Ray Moore. Slipping into the skin of someone even more wild and outrageous than his own popular persona gives Eddie a chance to flex those comedy chops in a way he hasn’t Bowfinger two decades ago. Come for the graphic birth of rap and stay for the kung fu!


22.) Ready or Not

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good game. And anyone who has ever taken part in a Game Night or a Hunt knows that maybe, just maybe, I find the tiniest bit of pleasure in making the players struggle. But I’ve got nothing on the Le Domas clan. This wild and graphic horror thriller is seasoned with just the right amount of comedy to keep it fun and shocking. There’s a reason you’re seeing Samara Weaving pop up everywhere now. Great cast top to bottom. Kudos to Searchlight for another unexpected, but welcome slate choice.


21.) Peanut Butter Falcon

While Shia LaBeouf’s fascinating autobiographical film Honey Boy didn’t quite make it into my Top 25, Peanut Butter Falcon grabbed my heart with both hands and just wouldn’t let go. Despite its modern flourishes, this is a story that feels timeless. It’s sweet and funny and ultimately uplifting. We follow Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, as he breaks out of a care facility and embarks on a mission to attend a professional wrestling school. Luckily for them both, he befriends LaBeouf’s Tyler, a low level criminal type. Like Huck and Tom before them, the river and its many adventures will lead them maybe not where they wanted to go, but rather where they need to be. Kudos to LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen for their top-notch performances. Excellent supporting players include Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church.


20.) The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers knows how to make us uncomfortable. The suffocating framing. The intensity of light and dark. Imagery that invokes curiosity, but then leads us by the hand into utter shock. The Lighthouse is a mesmerizing psychological thriller that ultimately is successful because of the precise and passionate performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Their descent into madness is captivating and chilling. This film certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s a wild ride for those willing to jump on the boat.


19.) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As I watched Tarantino’s 9thfeature film I had many thoughts. It’s beautifully shot. The production design is stellar. The performances were impressive. The dialogue was clever as always. But I spent the entirety of my viewing experience wondering what the hell was this journey all about. In the end I still wasn’t sure. Yes, there’s an explosive rewriting of history at the end, but while that felt cathartic in Inglorious Bastards, it left me more or less uncomfortable in this spot. Regardless, the thrill of the journey outweighs any lingering questions at the conclusion.


18.) Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach is an acquired taste. His dry wit and penchant for the awkward doesn’t always appeal to the masses. But in Marriage Story he manages to weave his distinctive voice into a narrative that is painfully relatable to a large swath of the population. Not all divorces are created equally, that’s for sure, but if you’ve been through one or know someone that has, you’ll undoubtedly find a moment (or ten) that hit you right in the gut. Baumbach’s ability to give depth and dimension to both Adam Drivers’ Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole is what makes for a riveting watch. As relationships unravel they can be painful. Brutally painful. But even in that cloud of hurt there can be humor, humanity, and, strangely enough, love. Driver and Johansson both deliver incredibly vulnerable performances while being supported by stellar contributions from Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, and Ray Liota.


17.) They Shall Not Grow Old

Despite 75 years having passed, the sheer volume of footage, interviews, and grandparents available to tell stories have made WWII seem vivid even to those of us born long after the cities had been rebuilt. WWI, however, remains more remote and nebulous. Enter Peter Jackson and his magical technology elves. They Shall Not Grow Old provides incredible insight into the Great War through detailed audio recordings of those who served and never-before-seen footage that Jackson and his team transform into an immersive encounter with history.


16.) Honeyland

I knew next to nothing about this film when I pressed play. But if it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature AND Best International Feature there had to be something to it. Boy, was there. Yes, this is a non-fiction film about a middle-aged woman in Macedonia tending to beehives and caring for her elderly mother. But don’t let that logline dissuade you from watching. Honeyland was gripping. The sheer weight of the struggle and raw humanity has a gravitational pull that won’t let you go. It is a heart-breaking, yet brilliant portrait of a resilient woman straddling the line between the past and the present… what is and what could have been.


15.) How to Train Your Dragon 3

The Shrek franchise may get all of the attention, but the How To Train Your Dragon films remain the most captivating in the Dreamworks Animation library. Ever since Hiccup and Toothless flew into our lives in 2010, I’ve been a wide-eyed passenger for their high-flying antics. The Hidden World brings their epic journey to a close in a way that will pluck at your heartstrings with vigor. As always, DWA seems to save all of their finest animation work for this franchise. Each frame is composed with care and artistic flare. Once again another soaring score from John Powell ties it all together.


14.) The Two Popes

The papacy has always been cloaked in mystery. That is doubly true about the process by which a new pope is selected. On TV we watch thousands of onlookers stare at a chimney; anxiously waiting a puff of smoke. But just as he did with City of God back in 2002, director Fernando Meirelles pulls back the curtain and gives us a new and immersive angle through which to view his subject matter. The story of Pope Benedict being the first to retire from the top job since 1415 was already fascinating. However, rather than simply exploring the politics of that decision and the fallout among the faithful, we are treated to a clever, thought-provoking meeting of the spiritual minds between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. It’s an enthralling exploration of faith in the modern age and how sacrifice can take on many faces. The success of this film relies almost entirely on the brilliant performances of Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. Honestly, I could watch them discuss whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold.


13.) Toy Story 4

Let’s get real. It’s hard to top the emotional weight of the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. So while I’m always happy to see Woody and Buzz on another adventure, I was surprised Pixar felt compelled to write another chapter. With that said, everything about this franchise continues to radiate heart and a creative flourish. Like each previous installment, we find our loveable friends facing a crisis that will force them to reflect on their place in an ever-changing world. This time they’re joined by Forky, a craft-time-gone-wrong creation with suicidal tendencies. He’s a great edition to a cast of familiar faces and he gives Woody renewed purpose. And that is what this chapter is all about… purpose. It’s sure, yet again, to dampen the eyes. Except when the ventriloquist dummies arrive. That’s sheer terror.


12.) Fighting with My Family

This based-on-a-true-story gem may have slipped by you last year. It’s the tale of a young woman navigating the pitfalls on a road to professional wrestling glory. Based on the experiences of WWE superstar Paige, the story is brought to life by writer / director Stephen Merchant (yes, he of Hello Ladies, Extras, and The Office (UK) fame). While the struggles of training may be arduous, it’s the emotional turmoil of potentially succeeding where her brother failed that provides the heartbeat of the story. While most folks may be talking about Florence Pugh’s nomination for her role as Amy March in Little Women, her performance as Paige in this film is a revelation. Meanwhile, Vince Vaughn does some of his best work in years as her trainer Hutch and Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, and Lena Headey all excel as the other members of the Knight family.


11.) Booksmart

Teen comedies generally fall into one of two categories; derivative and hollow or inventive and fresh. Sadly there are far more in the former than the latter. But in 2019 we were lucky enough to get one of those rare gems courtesy of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. It starts off in familiar enough territory as our heroes Amy and Molly have navigated their way successfully to the end of high school. The only problem is they’ve played it safe from start to finish, believing that was the only way to get them to the next level. When they learn that the carefree partiers that populate their school have gotten to the same place while still “living it up,” they are suddenly overwhelmed by four years of backlogged FOMO. The R-rated antics that follow are edgy, innovative and a hell of a lot of fun. Cameos from the likes of Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, and Jason Sudeikis hit all the right notes, but it is the stand out performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever that not only sell the hijinks, but deliver the heart that makes a film like this memorable.


10.) The Irishman

Yes, it’s long. Very long. But as the director of some of my favorite films of all time, I’m more than willing to give Marty a pass on the lack of editorial restraint. The Irishman not only is another gripping journey into the gangster underworld, it’s a prism through which he offers commentary on a changing America from the 50s through the 70s. Robert DeNiro gives an incredible understated performance that works perfectly in contrast with Al Pacino’s often-manic Hoffa. The real treat, however, was seeing Joe Pesci emerge from retirement to deliver a dynamic, yet restrained performance. It’s such a shame we don’t get more of him on the silver screen these days. The production design, music, and cinematography are all top notch and the de-aging technology used throughout is impressive to say the least. It’s no Goodfellas, but it is certainly another top-notch entry in the filmography of this legendary auteur.


9.) I Lost My Body

We all love a good animated yarn featuring a goofy donkey or talking Mr. Potato Head, but I Lost My Body delivers something from another universe entirely. The story of a dismembered hand embarking on dangerous journey from a medical refrigerator back to its owner is both visually captivating and exceptionally emotional. As the tale unfolds, we see the life of that hand and the boy to which it was previously attached. As I watched, I suddenly became aware of the sensations I take for granted. I found myself staring at my own hands. The stories they hold. The memories etched in their surface. This film is strange, no doubt. At times it verges on disturbing. But there’s an underlying beauty that’s hard to ignore and it lingered with me long after I finished watching.


8.) Knives Out

Earlier in this recap I made reference to Rian Johnson’s 2006 film Brick. After its release I immediately became a Johnson fan. I was all in on The Brothers Bloom and Looper. Granted, The Last Jedi left me with a lot of questions, but I was still more than a little excited for Knives Out. Who doesn’t love a good who-dun-it? Clue, that gloriously campy masterpiece from the mid-80s, was and is one of my favorite comedies of all time. This film certainly didn’t lean into the slapstick to the same degree, but Johnson’s commitment to over the top plot twists and colorful characters hit a similar nerve. Daniel Craig’s southern drawl was the cherry on top of this fun, blood-soaked romp.


7.) Pain & Glory

For decades, Pedro Almodovar has given us emotionally complex and structurally unique films that have cemented his legacy as one of his generation’s greatest filmmakers. His latest picture not only deepens the roots of that legacy, but also provides Antonio Banderas a platform for what may be the greatest performance of his career. As Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker overcome with physical and mental maladies, Banderas uses the quiet spaces in every scene to convey the depth of the character’s struggle. The smallest gesture or soft-spoken line paint a vivid portrait of the emotional agony, which comes from no longer being able to do what he was born to do. Almodovar uses memory to compound the pain of the present, while ultimately bringing Mallo and the audience to a point of deliverance that does not feel in any way contrived or coerced. It’s a beautiful film, which I love all the more because there are so many moments that could easily stumble into melodrama, but are skillfully maneuvered instead to a place of stunning truth.


6.) Ford vs Ferrari

Sure, we take off from the starting line with a raucous “us vs them” premise. America versus those dastardly Europeans. That gets the pistons pounding. But it’s the very personal stories of a down-and-out British driver and a designer robbed of his own driving dreams by a medical condition that provides the fuel necessary to run this race. Matt Damon and Christian Bale breathe life into these heroes and they find an onscreen chemistry that makes their joint struggles so compelling. James Mangold deftly balances the human drama with incredibly thrilling race sequences. I’m talking some of the most exhilarating race footage I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s one of those movies that hits all the right marks and not only thoroughly entertains, but leaves a lasting impression long after it crosses the finish line.


5.) The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s very personal film is a reflective piece about family, compassion, and duty. The story follows a Chinese-American woman, Billi, traveling home to China upon learning that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The catch… the family is intentionally keeping that diagnosis from her in order to bear the burdon and allow Nai Nai to enjoy what days she has left. We watch as Billi struggles with the widespread practice of keeping this information hidden as she tries to reconnect with her heritage and appreciate time with her grandmother. Everything about this film is honest and emotionally complex. I not only found myself invested heavily in the characters, but reflecting on my own family and mortality. Awkwafina, who is known primarily for her comedic chops, delivers a touching performance that shows more range than one would expect. Be sure you to stay for the credits as a title card provides possibly the best moment of the film.


4.) Avengers: Endgame

I won’t spend a lot of time on this one. If you know me or have read these lists in the past, you know I’m a fan of most of what comes out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Endgame was a big, bold, spectacular conclusion to ten years of interwoven narratives that spanned over twenty films. It had more characters than a Democratic primary. Despite a million and one ways for this to be a messy slop pile, the Russo brothers once again showed their skill for wrangling cats at a galactic level. It was a near perfect, thrilling, and emotional end to an era.


3.) 1917

In many ways, this film has the simplest plot of any on this list. A regiment of troops is about to walk into a trap and there is no way to reach them. Two soldiers must make their way on foot and deliver word before the slaughter begins. But from that simplistic setup emerges a two-hour odyssey wrought with dangers of every sort. As our two young heroes traverse the twisted and burnt landscape they are forced to face their fears and doubts. Directed with great care by Sam Mendes, the picture utilizes filming techniques that give the illusion of one singular tracking camera. This method forces the viewer so close to the action that you can’t help but feel the unrelenting obstacles closing in around you. It’s a stellar piece of filmmaking with precision camera work, production design, visual effects, and sound design. Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay deliver what may be the most underappreciated performances of the year. It’s a heavy pack to bear, but they both do so with great depth and nuance.


2.) Parasite

If you’ve seen The Host, Snowpiercer, or Okja, you know going into Parasite that any journey with director Bong Joon Ho will be a unique one. And so it is. We begin with a poor family of colorful characters living in a basement apartment in Seoul. Like my favorite family from last year’s The Shoplifters, this rag tag group gets by as best they can. Sometimes that requires a good scam. What follows in the first half of this film is a brilliantly plotted and fantastically funny tale of how the Kim family covertly integrates themselves into the household of the uber wealthy Park family. Their intentions aren’t explicitly nefarious, but they see an opening and seize it. The performances from everyone in both the Kim and Park broods are excellent. There’s a restraint early in the film that makes the comedy truly pop. It’s a story of desperation and aspiration. Sure, it’s hard seeing yourself doing the things the Kim’s are doing to get ahead, but you can completely understand why they’re doing them. And then suddenly there’s a dark discovery. In a flash, the film takes a sharp turn and gleefully wraps itself in a tone of a different color. As the chaos mounts there’s nothing to do but grab hold of your seat and enjoy the insane ride to the finish. In reality, it shouldn’t work and, for some, the midpoint shift may be too much. But I came out of the theater equal parts mortified and beset with laughter. For that, it earns the penultimate spot on this year’s list.


1.) Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi has had a film in my Top 25 list in three of the previous four years. In 2015 it was the genre-bending What We Do In the Shadows at #13. In 2016 the adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople clocked in at #22. And in 2017 his brilliant and bizarre take on the God of Thunder pushed Thor: Ragnarok all the way to #7. This year he grabbed a bit of the best spices from each of those films and cooked up something truly special.  I remember when I was still working at Fox and the logline came over the wire for Taika’s upcoming film. A comedy about the Nazi Youth near the end of WWII. Personally, I was immediately on board. The rest of the studio, however, pondered nervously how to go about marketing something like that. If you haven’t seen it (shame on you), it’s the story of a ten-year-old hardcore Hitler fan named Johannes (Jojo to his friends). He’s thrilled by the prospects of attending a Nazi Youth training camp and his excitement is bolstered by the encouragement from his imaginary friend… a pompous, oaf-like caricature of Adolf himself. Jojo is being raised alone by his mother, played with expert care by Scarlett Johansson, who does not share her son’s enthusiasm for the Third Reich. In fact, unbeknownst to him, she’s a full blown subversive. At this juncture, you might begin to think this is just a Mel Brooks-esque spoof film, but you would be very, very wrong. When Jojo discovers a young Jewish girl being hidden in the walls of their home, the story suddenly finds a very real and dramatic through line. The transformative relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa serves as a beautiful heartbeat that keeps both the satirical comedy and dark tragedy of this film humming along. It’s a film that shouldn’t work for any number of reasons. I am confident in saying that there are very few filmmakers working today that could pull it off. And none that could do it in the glorious way in which Taika does. He’s said repeatedly in interviews that he believes that we need to find new ways to tell these stories so that the message makes its way through the white noise and complacency that has built up over the decades. That is especially true at a volatile time like today where fascism and white supremacy is somehow remerging at an alarming rate. I concur one hundred percent and tip my hat at his ability to do just that. Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johannson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant and the new megastar Archie Yates are all phenomenal throughout. Taika calls upon his own genius acting instincts to portray an off kilter version of one of the most vile men in history (as imagined by a ten-year-old boy). I laughed. I squirmed. I cheered. I shuddered. It’s a truly unique and moving cinematic experience. I cannot wait to see what Taika does next.


With that, I put 2019 to bed. I hope this list helps you to find a movie that you enjoy and might not have gotten around to otherwise. I’m always happy to discuss where you thought I was wrong and where you thought I was very wrong. Feel free to reach out. If you notice any typos… ignore them. Life is too short to harass me about misspelling and improperly placed commas. Here’s to a great year of cinema in 2020!

Until next year…




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2018 Cinema Review & Top 25

2018 cinema review.png

Welcome one and all (more likely one), to another year of my movie musings. 2018 had a little bit of everything. Much of it was good. So come along with me if you dare for my 13th Annual Cinema Review.

First, my favorite part… statistics. I clocked 96 new releases this year. That’s 37.14% more than last year and the most I’ve seen since I watched 115 back in 2011. Not bad considering the amount of excellent television continues to swell.

Here’s my annual reminder… this list represents my FAVORITE movies from the previous year. The ones I enjoyed the most. It is not an intricate review of the film-making craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies. That list would likely look very different.

Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2018. From the Top 50 at the Box Office I missed The Mule, Hotel Transylvania 3, The Meg, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, The Nun, Peter Rabbit, The Equalizer 2, A Wrinkle in Time, Fifty Shades Freed, I Can Only Imagine, Smallfoot, The First Purge, Book Club, The House with the Clock in the Walls, Skyscraper, Insidious: The Last key, Instant Family, Pacific Rim Uprising, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado.  There are a couple on here I regret missing, but for the most part… I’ll survive. I did miss a few that I really wanted to see like Kin, Anna and the Apocalypse, Unsane, Overlord, Vox Lux and Disobedience. I’ll get around to them soon enough.

Of the critical and award darlings, I have missed Boy Erased, The Front Runner, Destroyer, Mirai, Suspiria, At Eternity’s Gate, A Private War, The Hate U Give, Private Life, Of Fathers and Sons, Ruben Brandt Collector, Capernaum, The Guilty, The Sisters Brothers, Quincy, On the Basis of Sex, Never Look Away, Ben is Back, Tito and the Birds, Early Man, 22 July, Welcome to Marwen, and On Her Shoulders. I tried my best to squeeze in as many of the late year contenders as I could, but I decided at some point I had to eat and bathe.

As always, I’ll drop a few “special awards” before jumping into my Top 25 list.


2018 special awards.png

Award for Surely these Guys are Un-insurable

Mission Impossible: Fallout

Free Solo

Don’t get me wrong, Tom Cruise is a badass for doing a lot of these nutty stunts, but how does Paramount get insurance for these things? And the dude in Free Solo… his premiums must be astronomical.


Award for Worst Use of CGI Animals


This was close. As much as I love Black Panther, the war rhinos were a hard sell. But the giant crocodiles and sharks and seahorses populating the ridiculous underwater world in Aquaman take the cake. You can swim at super speeds… why do you need to ride these ridiculous creatures?


Award for Badassery

Thor in Avengers: Infinity War

Lori in Halloween

The god of thunder’s electric arrival at the battle in Wakanda is a stand up and cheer kind of moment. And while there are plot holes bigger than manhole covers in Halloween, the moment when Michael looks out the window and Lori has disappeared from the ground… badass.


Award for Product Placement

Oreos in Love, Simon

Clever, Nabisco. Those Halloween Oreos will now be an iconic symbol for generations of teens. And so delicious.


Award for Worst Pet Feces Removal

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Okay, Lee Israel did not keep a clean apartment. So the mountain of cat crap under her bed isn’t shocking. Still gross, but not shocking. But come on, Cleo. That dog crap sits in the driveway way too long to be acceptable.


Award for Wait, What Am I Watching?

American Animals

A bit jarring at first, this flick jumps from fictionalized narrative to documentary-style interviews throughout. After a while, however, it becomes part of the charm of this true tale caper.


Award for Say It Ain’t So

Old Man and the Gun

Robert Redford really is a charming dude as he reminds us in this delightful picture. Here’s hoping this isn’t his last role as he suggested prior to its release.


Award for You Had Me Until the Third Act

A Star Is Born

Kudos to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper for a very fine film. The first two thirds are rather brilliant. But you lost me in that third act. I still don’t buy that one asshole junior record exec managed to undue all of your sobriety and healing because he said something mean.


Award for Best Reason to Leave Social Media Behind Forever


Assassination Nation

Facebook and Instagram will lead to all of the children dying. That’s the message, right?


Award for Scary But True

Crime + Punishment

Three Identical Strangers


These three docs were all highly disturbing in different ways. While the first two stoke fears about trusted institutions, the third warns you why you should definitely not trust any weird American ex pats named Georges who want to make a film with you in Singapore.


Award for Making My Skin Crawl

A Prayer Before Dawn

There are forty different moments I could reference in this film that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It’s a visceral portrayal of a young British man trapped in Thailand’s most notorious prison. Use your imagination. Or watch the movie.


Award for What Did You Put in My Drink?


Sorry to Bother You

I liked both of these movies. Though I still am not sure why. Mandy is trippy from weird, red-tinged start to the knife dildo to the chainsaw battle. Sorry to Bother You saves its WTF moment for the naked horse-people with massive genitals. Yeah. You read that right.


Award for Really Upping the Ante on Wedding Expectations

Crazy Rich Asians

How many flooded churches will there be around the world because of this movie?


Award for Highest Trailer Expectations Leading to Greatest Watching Disappointment

Happytime Murders

Melissa McCarthy is generally pretty great. And the trailer for this acid trip, hyper violent puppet movie seemed intriguing. But then you watch it… and your soul dies a little.


Award for Best Musical Moment

Bohemian Rhapsody

Kudos to Cold War for making polish folk tunes kind of catchy, A Star is Born for another hit from Gaga, a great end credits music video from Unlovable, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for some toe-tapping cowboy tunes, Mary Poppins Returns for another round of lessons in musical form, and Super Troopers 2 for giving us Cracklin’ Bacon, but this Queen biopic rules the roost this year. I don’t care what the critics said, it was a blast. It is shocking how many hits Queen had.


Award for Absolutely Best Cameo of the Year

Brad Pitt in Deadpool 2

Did you not know? Be sure to hit pause when the Vanisher hits those power lines. I wonder what that payday looked like. Coming in a close second and third were Ready Player One for cameos from every character that populated my childhood (including Battle Toads for the love of God) and Ralph Breaks the Internet for a memorable Disney Princess sleepover.


Award for My Personal Nostalgic Orgasm

Han meets Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

“The Touch” playing on the radio in Bumblebee

Say what you will, but I enjoyed Solo. Its box office performance and lukewarm reviews seem to be a result of over-saturation and release timing. But the moment where Han and Chewie meet… awesome. Ditto for Bumblebee. I’m definitely not a fan of recent Transformers movies, but this soft reboot seems to have more of the 80s spirit. No moment more so than when “The Touch” blasts out of the radio as the title bot tries to encourage Charlie to leap off a cliff.


Before I jump into the Top 25, here is a quick look at what didn’t quite make the cut. There were tough calls up and down this list. Many of them I moved around ten or even twenty spots multiple times.

55.) Mary Poppins Returns

54.) Stan & Ollie

53.) Happy as Lazzaro

52.) Heart Beats Loud

51.) RBG

50.) Unlovable

49.) Sorry to Bother You

48.) Mandy

47.) A Prayer Before Dawn

46.) Halloween

45.) Mary Queen of Scots

44.) You Were Never Really Here

43.) If Beale Street Could Talk

42.) Upgrade

41.) Good Times at the El Royale

40.) Ralph Breaks the Internet

39.) Ready Player One

38.) The Death of Stalin

37.) Burning

36.) Love, Simon

35.) Three Identical Strangers

34.) Ant-Man and the Wasp

33.) Shirkers

32.) Searching

31.) A Star is Born

30.) Old Man and the Gun

29.) Bohemian Rhapsody

28.) American Animals

27.) A Quiet Place

26.) Thoroughbreds

If you’re curious about #s 56 to 96, I’m happy to share. But with that, let’s jump in to my Top 25.



2018 top 25.png

25.) Ballad of Buster Scruggs

This anthology flick from Joel and Ethan Coen is quite the tonal roller-coaster. The six individual stories are all set in the Old West of lore, but each delivers the audience a very distinct experience. Anthology projects can often feel disjointed or unsatisfying, but the Coen brothers manage to use their dark and humorous magic to craft an epic, cohesive journey for the audience. From the melancholy musical beginnings to hangings gone wrong, treacherous prospecting and epic wagon trails, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs packs a powerful punch.


24.) Leave No Trace

Don’t be shocked if you get lost in the emerald foliage, streaks of light, and shifting mists and shadows that serve as the backdrop for much of this film. The peace, beauty and isolation of those landscapes are precisely the reason Will creates an off-the-grid existence with his daughter in these forests. Leave No Trace is a layered, emotional examination of family, mental health, modern life, and ultimately survival. I found myself conflicted throughout the picture. I was unsure if I was rooting for acclamation and “normality” or if I just wanted these characters to be left alone by a society that doesn’t seem to understand them. The performances by Ben Foster as a PTSD-addled vet and Thomasin McKenzie as his sheltered and uncertain daughter are top notch.


23.) Annihilation

Director Alex Garland’s first feature film, Ex Machina, was on my Top 25 list of 2015. His follow up proves that it was no fluke. Annihilation is a vividly imagined, expertly executed, science fiction thriller. Garland’s screenplay slowly pulls back layer after layer, deftly revealing just enough new information to repeatedly intrigue and terrify the audience. The filmmakers tastefully use the visual effects tools at their disposal to bring to life an imaginative and wholly unique world that never feels overproduced. Natalie Portman continues to remind us of her seemingly endless range.


22.) Blindspotting

Blindspotting is one of those films that remind you how powerful it can be when you combine timely commentary with cinematic flare and a commitment to entertain. The story is about Collin, three days away from the end of his probation, simply trying to survive his work, volatile best friend Miles, and the chaotic city around him to get to that finish line. And that’s an important point. The city of Oakland is unquestionably a central character in this incredibly funny, yet profoundly powerful film. Director Carlos Lopez Estrada and writer/actors Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs don’t hold anything back. In doing so they reveal to us that the unspoken or uncomfortable truths about both our modern society and us as individuals, can be equal parts painful, hysterical, and enraging.


21.) Can You Ever Forgive Me?

When early award buzz started picking up for Melissa McCarthy, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. The comedian, more widely known for wacky characters and physical pratfalls, does not disappoint in this uncharacteristic role. While the gruffness and vulgarity of Lee Israel may get the laughs, it is McCarthy’s channeling of her pain and desperation that grabs your attention and won’t let go. Richard E Grant is stellar as her unscrupulous partner-in-crime and the duo make this seemingly low stakes caper pop. Let’s be honest, Lee Israel is not a lovable protagonist. But despite her many flaws, there’s something very human about what drives her into her life of crime. Something that invokes pity at the least and, for many, empathy.


20.) The Rider

You very likely missed this heart-breaking gem that premiered at Cannes in 2017 and had a modest theatrical release in the US in April of 2018. Set in the Badlands of South Dakota, The Rider skillfully captures the stark beauty of the terrain and the quiet struggle of its inhabitants. It’s the story of Brady, a young rodeo star who is forced to face a dramatic realignment of his dreams and ambitions after sustaining a serious brain injury. The understated performances by the cast of non-trained actors is truly something to behold. Even more so when you learn that the story is based on the actual experiences of Brady Jandreau; the lead actor. His father, sister, and some close friends are all cast as versions of themselves. That pain behind Brady’s eyes is as authentic as it gets. He lived it. He relived it so that we as an audience could go along on this profound journey. A journey about adversity, family, and perseverance.


19.) Minding the Gap

I saw a number of incredibly powerful documentaries last year. One of the more gripping was this seemingly small-in-scope tale of three young friends growing up in Rockford, IL and finding solace and identity on their skateboards. Bing Liu, the film’s director, is also one of its subjects. As we move back and forth in time, the tapestry of kickflip fails, drunken parties, and teen antics gives way to an exploration of pain and longing. Kiere, Zack and Bing may be a small sample size, but their early lives and burgeoning adulthood offer a potent look at America today. The racial barriers. The class divide. Masculinity in the modern age. It is very likely that something in this portrayal of these three young men or their town in the heart of the Midwest will personally resonate with most viewers. However, Liu’s simultaneously kinetic and measured execution ensures that even if you don’t, you’ll be enthralled by the telling of their stories.


18.) BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee always has something to say. More often than not, it’s something the world needs to hear. Perhaps none of his films since Do The Right Thing have seemed so very needed. Set in the 1970s, the film details the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department as he undertakes a dangerous undercover infiltration of the KKK. He does this by engaging with local and high ranking klansman over the phone while his white colleague represents him in person. It’s a dangerous game that generates continuous suspense from the word go. If that were all this movie was, it would have been thoroughly transfixing. But as I said, Spike Lee is a man with a message. BlacKkKlansman is a warning. There is darkness out there. We look back now and it is easy to say those men in hoods were evil. Look at the things they said and did. It’s undeniable. So why then, when the vocabulary shifts slightly and the robes are swapped for polo shirts does it seem difficult for certain folks to come to grips? The film is a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. John David Washington and Adam Driver are excellent from start to finish, as are the various actors charged with bringing to life the most despicable sort of bigots. That could not have been pleasant.


17.) Roma

Imagine this. It is 1975 and you’ve settled into your seat at the theater on main street. You hear the flickering of the projector as the film begins to play. Today’s feature – Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. It wouldn’t feel out of place or jarring. That’s because this atmospheric, black & white tale of family, loss and love is as timeless as they get. The wide open, gliding cinematography captures the frenetic energy of 1970s Mexico City and the quiet elegance of the countryside and beaches beyond. Our hero isn’t a general or president or film star, but a humble housekeeper named Cleo who is played to perfection by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. You can’t help but to find yourself lost in another time and place alongside Cleo as she tackles her hardships and fears with an uncanny grace.


16.) Vice

Several years ago, The Big Short found its way into my Top 10. It was a departure for the generally zany Adam McKay and a welcome one. Now he’s back with an unconventional look at former Vice President Dick Cheney and his rise to power. Mr. Cheney is a mysterious figure in American politics. Vilified by many. Understood by few. That’s what makes McKay’s unique brand of film-making the perfect fit to convey his story. It comes in starts and fits. There’s a faux end credits sequence in the middle of the movie. It is by no means a conventional narrative. And one suspects there is a liberty or two or three taken when telling the story of such an intensely private figure. But all of that is part of the appeal of this film for me. It’s unique. It’s funny (even though deep inside you want to cry). And above all, it’s packed full of incredible performances by Bale, Adams, Rockwell and Carell.


15.) Deadpool 2

In 2016, Deadpool caught everyone by surprise. We had become trained and programmed as to what a superhero movie should and would be. Then came Ryan Reynold’s Merc with a Mouth with his f-bombs and kinky sex montages and outlandish violence. It was a hit by every measure. I even had it as my #3 film that year. And here’s the rub… I strongly believe that Deadpool 2 is funnier on many levels, has significantly better action sequences, and has a far more compelling story. The only problem (and it isn’t small) is that you can’t recapture the shock and excitement of that first foray into the unconventional. If you could, this flick would likely be back near the top of my list. That said, it has incredibly high rewatchability… particularly if you’re incredibly high.


14.) Isle of Dogs

In a world of Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks, it’s always refreshing to find that animated film that marches to the beat of its own drum. And nobody has a more unique beat than Wes Anderson. Taking his knack for detailed world building to a new level, Wes constructs a vivid reality in the not too distant future that simultaneously feels alien and timeless. Atari’s journey to Trash Island in search of his lost dog Spot is simple and relatable. Who wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth for their beloved canine pal? The ensuing adventure is funny, heart-warming, and awkward in all of the right ways. Here’s hoping Wes revisits the stop motion genre again soon.


13.) Cold War

I had to build up the nerve to see this one. I won’t lie. With so many movies to see, the black and white Polish film was not at the top of the list. In fact, it was one of the last films I saw from 2018. However, I’m incredibly pleased that I made my way to the theater. Cold War is quite simply a love story. A man and a woman who meet under inauspicious circumstances in post-war Communist Poland spend the next fifteen years trying to become one. Like Roma, there’s an out of time feel to this picture. Everything from the earliest visits to poor villages in the Polish countryside to the swinging jazz scene of 1960s Paris exudes authenticity and personality. Zula and Wiktor’s journey in and out of one another’s lives is bittersweet and never substitutes truth for melodrama. Kudos all around to director Paweł Pawlikowski and actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot.


12.) The Favourite

I have a penchant for British monarchical history. I don’t know why. There’s no shortage of films and television programs that fit the bill. But when Yorgos Lanthimos got his hands on one, it definitely carved out a unique place in the filmography. His dark, deranged and comedic approach to the politics of the British court in the 18th century is quite unlike anything to come before it. But credit where credit is due, the reason this film works as well as it does is the performances. From regal politeness to moaning madness, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman are stellar from start to finish. As the battle for power and position intensifies, you find yourself unsure just who you should be rooting for in this demented game of favor.


11.) Eighth Grade

Sometimes the most moving experiences come in simple trappings. That’s what you will find with Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. On the surface it is the story of a shy, awkward middle school student just trying to survive the last few weeks of school. But Elsie Fisher’s vulnerable performance offers a window into a confusing and tumultuous time in the lives of many kids today. Kayla attempts to balance her insecurities by making online videos giving advice on the very topics with which she struggles. Watching her navigate the dicey teenage waters makes your heart hurt. You’re reminded just how rampant cruelty and selfishness can be when hundreds of kids are all trying to establish identities amidst hormone spikes and the crush of social media.


10.) Incredibles 2

It took a decade to arrive, but when it did it packed a wallop. Brad Bird once again brings to life everyone’s favorite animated super family. The story picks up right where we left off and wastes no time giving us the right doses of spectacle and family drama. That’s what sets this film apart from so many super-powered contemporaries. It’s a family film first. Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack have all of the same problems as every other American family. A checking account low on funds. Teen crushes. Busy schedules. The only difference… they occasionally need to save the world. Top notch animation from Pixar as always. A voice cast that had no trouble jumping back into form. There’s no better franchise in animation for laughs AND action. Here’s hoping number three doesn’t take quite so long.


9.) Avengers: Infinity War

If you know me at all, you know I’m a fan of nearly everything Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel have been doing since 2008. Sure there are pictures that miss the mark a bit, but the consistency and quality of the MCU is frankly unbelievable. Look no further than across Burbank to find another studio that has burned hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to replicate their success with staggeringly different results in quality and cash. With all of that said, in 2018 we were given part one of a massive, culminating event. Infinity Wars was a nearly impossible task. Take 70 or so characters and give them all meaningful screen time in an epic action film that ties together events from the previous 20 films. Even I was weary of what that would look like. In the end though, the Russo brothers wrangled all of those cats and delivered something that was thrilling, funny, and moving. There’s no denying the nerdy joy of seeing bizarre team ups like Iron Man and Doctor Strange or Thor and Rocket Raccoon. Who’s ready for April?


8.) Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

We’re in the superhero stretch on my list. This entry, however, is very different than the others. Despite a productive and profitable agreement with Disney/Marvel, Sony continues to venture out to seek other ways to monetize their Spider-man rights. In some cases (Venom) it is bizarre and unappealing. But in the case of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse they hit pay dirt. Not only was it a fresh, fun take on the wall-crawler, it was done with a visual flourish that was unique, stunning, and clearly stood out against animated contemporaries. Shepherded by Lord and Miller, their choice to focus the story on the Miles Morales version of Spider-man brought a new, and much needed, cinematic perspective to a very familiar figure. It was hip and funny. Action-packed and heartfelt. And its cast of spider characters from Spider-Woman to Peni Parker to Spider-Ham had a little something for everyone.


7.) Black Panther

The final superhero entry in my Top 25 is one of the highest grossing films of all time. While some harp on Marvel’s reliance on a “formula,” it is hard to argue that they aren’t willing to take risks. Whether it’s a heist film starring a pint size hero few have heard of, a gaggle of oddballs on a space adventure, or the king of a fictional, high-tech African nation, they’ve been committed to delivering heroes that weren’t a rubber-stamped version of those that came before. The world crafted by Ryan Coogler and his team is as vivid and detailed as any you will find in science fiction, fantasy or superhero films. Building upon a core Shakespearean drama, the filmmakers developed a rich cultural tapestry that pulled from many existing cultures on the African continent. Much has been written about the power of representation in film. How it can inspire the young, draw in diverse voices to the cinema trade, and stir meaningful conversation. Black Panther achieves all of these goals while being visually stunning and dramatically engaging. Enough cannot be said about the performances of Boseman, Jordan, Nyong’o, Gurira, Kaluuya, Freeman, Duke, Bassett, Whitaker and Serkis. Every role was cast to perfection. There’s no doubt more Wakandian adventures are on the way and I for one can’t wait.


6.) Free Solo

Save one of the best for last. I had heard rumblings about this documentary for months, but knew very little about it. I was compelled to squeeze it in. It became the last film from 2018 that I viewed and it was perhaps one of the most gripping I’ve seen in years. I was lucky enough to see it in IMAX (which I high recommend). Alex Honnold is a world class climber and noted free soloist. The type of madman who scales very large rock walls with no ropes or harnesses. The question that this film seeks to ask is part “why?” and part “why not?” Friend and director Jimmy Chin gives us incredible insight into this fascinating individual. What drives a man to tackle such dangerous endeavors? And what does it mean to love someone like that? The examination of his relationship with girlfriend Sanni is painful to watch at some points. But it is his friendships with fellow climbers and filmmakers (all of which are acutely aware of the deadly possibilities of his quest) that really hit home. Not only do they care about their friend, they are committed to documenting what could very well be a tragic end. As compelling as I found Alex’s story for the first hour of the film, it was the final act which you could feel in your bones. Watching his epic attempt to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite was physically torturous. Props all around to the daring and talented film crew who captured jaw-dropping landscapes from angles I couldn’t fathom.


5.) Mission Impossible: Fallout

Rarely does the sixth installment in a franchise stand out as perhaps the strongest. At this point the line between Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt has become blurred. Does Tom hang off of the side of helicopters for fun? Maybe. It wouldn’t shock me. Director Christopher McQuarrie just signed a deal to direct the next TWO installments in the franchise. That’s not shocking either. What he, cinematographer Rob Hardy, and editor Eddie Hamilton put together is a truly cinematic, adrenaline pumping, barn burner of an action film. It has it all… stunning locations, outrageous stunts, and a stellar cast that includes franchise stalwarts Cruise, Rhames, Pegg, and Ferguson and newbies Cavill, Kirby and Bassett. The visceral bathroom fight and the final act helicopter sequence are worth the price of admission all on their own.


4.) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Like most, I have vivid memories of the cardigans and the trolley and the many lessons espoused by Mr. Rogers over the years. He was very much a fixture of my childhood. That constant, positive force for understanding, compassion and learning. Even today you’ll find flashes of him everywhere. Videos of his commencement addresses circulate every May on Facebook walls. That song sneaks its way into your head now and again. College kids pass around a joint and tell you how he was secretly a sniper in Vietnam (patently not true, of course). But as legendary as Mr. Rogers has become over the last 60 years, it is the lessons he taught his viewers that are the greatest reflection of his time with us. Those things we don’t notice. They just became part of us. This documentary seeks to tell the story of the man behind those lessons. As you watch his journey laid out openly and honestly, you begin to understand what drove him and that makes you thankful. Thankful he existed. Sad he isn’t here today. Because after the catharsis of watching Morgan Neville’s excellent documentary, you’ll agree that our modern world badly needs a dose of Mr. Rogers.


3.) First Man

Make that three for three for director Damien Chazelle. I’ve been rather baffled at the lack of award buzz around this film. It is a compelling story about an American hero. Not propagandized, but honest and often painful. It’s the story of a country with big dreams and the grit and determination to achieve them. Despite being a bit of a history nerd, I was shocked to learn how little I truly knew about NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. Sure, I knew the sound bites, but being born long after it was front page news, I never learned of the loss and strife with which the endeavor was marked. Maybe we need to expand those chapters in our high school history books. Since watching the film, I’ve read a good bit about the cooperation filmmakers received from NASA so that the tiniest of details would ring with authenticity. And beyond that, it is a beautiful film. The cinematography, production design, costuming, special effects, and sound design are unmatched. Gosling gives an understated and moving performance as an iconic American figure about whom the public has always known so little. Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and the rest of the cast are also terrific. Tying it all together was a powerful score by Justin Hurwitz which was stirring when the moment demanded and delicate in all of the right places. Do yourself a favor and go relive an important chapter in history.


2.) Green Book

There has been an incredible amount of controversy surrounding this film. Whether it is dredging up old stories about the director or idiotic tweets by the writer, it all adds up to a sad distraction from an excellent film. This is the story of a classical pianist named Don Shirley who is accompanied on a performance tour in the south in the 1960s by an uneducated, rough-around-the-edges bouncer and driver named Tony Vallelonga. It’s a story about ignorance, understanding, and ultimately friendship. The deep south at the time is of course riddled with challenges and dangers for a man like Dr. Shirley. He knows this. Tony, despite his own prejudices, is unaware of the extent to what they will find when they leave the confines of New York City and head below the Mason Dixon line. Their journey together, and the friendship born of it, is moving. Not because it seeks to provide answers to large, systemic problems, but because it reminds us that a human connection and a willing heart is a powerful tool in scaling what divides us. Green Book has a light touch. It doesn’t ignore the realities of the time, but remains hopeful. And it’s funny. In a warm and inviting way. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are both incredibly dynamic from start to finish. I left this film feeling inspired and joyful. You can’t really ask for much more than that.


1.) Shoplifters

It was raining. I headed to Glendale to see a foreign film double feature. The afternoon kicked off with Burning. A very good film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong. It was a beautifully shot, fascinating twist on the mystery thriller genre. But it was also two and a half hours long. Laemmle theaters are fantastic, but rather generous on trailers. So three hours after arriving I stepped outside for a break. I enjoyed Burning, but after such a long run time was my mind up for another subtitled feature? I debated it. Lucky for me, I headed back inside and sat down to watch Shoplifters. This excellent drama from director Hirokazu Kore-eda, quickly grabbed hold of my mind and heart. If you haven’t heard of it, the film is a drama about an impoverished family in Tokyo who shoplift to survive. It’s a drama, but one filled with warmth and humor in buckets. The ensemble is composed of a cast of colorful characters, all of whom are shrouded in a bit of mystery. We know who we think they all are. But do we really? The plot picks up as the family finds a badly neglected little girl and brings her home to give offer food and shelter. They decide that she’s better off with them than her selfish parents. It is a decision that will upset their already precarious reality. Each member of this misfit family is so beautifully rendered that you can’t help but be drawn into their bittersweet search for meaning and for survival. As events unfold and truths are revealed, the film never loses its center; family doesn’t have a single definition. When the credits began to roll, I knew immediately that this film was perhaps my favorite of the year. Even after watching dozens of other very impressive pictures, there was nothing that made me question its spot at the top of the heap. And there it shall stay.



So that’s a wrap. Thanks for taking time to read one man’s unqualified opinions. I’m always happy to discuss and debate the merits of movies, so if you have thoughts on anything I said, please reach out. If you have a recommendation for a flick I missed, send it my way. If you see any typos above, point them out. Here’s hoping for more memorable films in 2019.

Until next January…




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2017 Cinema Review & Top 25

Top 25 Title Image

Here we are again. Another year of cinema has come to a close. In my humble opinion, 2017 was one hell of a year at the movies. We had big budget tentpoles that delivered and a wave of excellent specialty flicks that flooded theaters in the late months. So for those of you that still have some interest in my thoughts (of course you do), here is my 12th annual year in review.

The swell of excellent television continues to impact my movie viewing habits. I saw 70 new releases this year either in the theater or at home. That’s down slightly from last year, though the quality of films I saw top to bottom increased. As always, this list represents my favorite movies of the previous year. It is not an intricate review of the filmmaking craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies.

Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2017. From the Top 50 at the Box Office I missed Despicable Me 3, Justice League, The Fate of the Furious, Cars 3, Transformers: The Last Knight, Wonder, Fifty Shades Darker, The Greatest Showman, Annabelle: Creation, Pitch Perfect 3, John Wick: Chapter Two, The Emoji Movie, The Mummy, Captain Underpants, A Dog’s Purpose, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, The Shack, and Happy Death Day.  I’ll be honest, I’m not all that sad to have missed these. A few might be worth viewing in the coming months.

Of the critical and award darlings, I have missed Mudbound, The Beguiled, Breathe, Detroit, First They Killed My Father, The Glass Castle, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Hostiles, Killing of a Sacred Dear, Marshall, Okja, Roman J Israel Esq, Stronger, Victoria and Abdul, Wind River, Wonderstruck, and Columbus. I had planned to watch many of these, but simply couldn’t find the time.

Here are a few special awards before I dive into my list.

Special Awards

Award for Reminding Us How Hard It Is To Make Comedy Sequels

Daddy’s Home 2 and Bad Moms Christmas

Scoff if you want, but the first installment of each of these was pretty darn funny. Granted, these sequels had a couple chuckle-worthy moments, but recapturing the consistent humor proved impossible.


Award for Most Pleasant Surprise

Power Rangers

This could have been a disaster. Admittedly I expected it would be. I went in ready to make snide comments and hate watch. Cheesy? Sure. But it was fun. I am of the age that I was squarely in demo for the first wave of Power Rangers TV in the early 90s. The campiness of the rubber suits and underwhelming effects is replaced with slick visuals and a more brooding group of teens. But the spirit of it remains and they manage to strike the perfect balance between silly and serious.


Award for Creativity in Offing Someone

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The first Kingsman film was one of my favorites when it was released. The sequel left something to be desired, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. The sound of wet human ground meat flopping out of a giant meat grinder… that sticks with you.


Award for Character Who’s Death Deserved More Heft

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve had arguments about this with friends. I will not back down. Admiral Ackbar deserved better than a throwaway line. Sure, everyone was a little preoccupied with space-cicle Leia floating to safety, but the ADMIRAL who has a 30+ year career leading this Rebel fleet gets bounced with not so much a tear. Come on. Everyone’s favorite Mon Calamari was due more respect.


Award for Supporting Role that Deserves Recognition, but Won’t Get It


I get it. We don’t give awards for people in superhero flicks. But Patrick Stewart’s foul-mouthed, dementia-laden unstable WMD version of Professor X was incredible. Seeing this polished and proper character reduced to falling out of a wheel chair and struggling with the boundless weight of loss was truly gripping.


Award for Uncomfortable Sexual Sequences

Call Me By Your Name and Shape of Water

I’m all for unique explorations of love and how it manifests between two folks. Truly. But first off… I will probably never eat a peach again without giving it a thorough examination. Second… I hope never to spend another minute considering the biological realities of an amphibian-man mating with a human lady.


Award for Most Likely to Have Been Conceived When High


Chances are you missed this one. Now go back and fix that. A playground in some random American small town acts as mystical remote platform for controlling giant monsters that are terrorizing South Korea. It’s bonkers. It seems like a healthy dose of bud was involved in cooking up this Anne Hathaway vehicle.


Award for Ok, Already. Maybe You Should Stop.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Here’s the thing. It wasn’t as bad as the last one. But that’s not exactly the kind of quote you want to print on your poster. You had your moment, Jack Sparrow. Thank you for the adventures. Now move along and free us from this franchise. Besides, we have to gear up for the Jungle Cruise movie (this is a real thing).


Award for Musical Moment in Cinema

Patti Cake$

 This Sundance darling didn’t make much of a box office impact, but it was a fascinating watch. I won’t pretend to be a hip hop aficionado. That being said, I have no idea if what I witnessed was on any level “good.” But watching this rag tag cast come together with passion, attitude and conviction was entertaining and made my head bounce.  


Award for Funniest Use of Bodily Fluids

Girls Trip

Bathroom humor is generally most effective with children and late 90s Adam Sandler fans. When I see it, I sigh and roll my eyes. But smack dab in the fast paced comedy of Girls Trip, they got me. Maybe it was the fury with which it came. Maybe it was the second beat where it went from accidental to intentional. I’m not sure. But I’ll never look at the revelry of Bourbon Street the same again.


Award for Breakout Stars

Dafne Keen (Logan)

Hong Chau (Downsizing)

Sophia Lillis (It)

Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project)

Mckenna Grace (Gifted)

Keen’s Laura had such an intensity that she made Jackman’s Logan pale in comparison. Hong Chau elevated an okay movie with incredible sincerity. Lillis’ brought balance to the boys club. Prince’s performance was vividly simple and sad. Grace showed she had the chops to hang with the adults.


Top 25

So let’s get to my list. Before I dive into the Top 25, here is a quick look at what nearly made the cut.

45.) Murder on the Orient Express  44.) Last Flag Flying  43.) Colossal  42.) Battle of the Sexes  41.) It  40.) Ingrid Goes West  39.) Power Rangers  38.) Logan Lucky  37.) Kingsman: The Golden Circle  36.) Landline 35.) Wonder Woman  34.) Kong: Skull Island  33.) The Meyerowitz Stories  32.) American Made  31.) Downsizing  30.) The Darkest Hour  29.) Blade Runner 2049  28.) Phantom Thread  27.)  Split  26.) The LEGO Batman Movie. And so here we go…


  1. Table 19

There is a little “indie paint by numbers” here. I won’t deny it. But there’s the right dose of physical comedy, situational comedy and heart that it stuck with me. Anna Kendrick’s standard rom com heroine is elevated by a weird and wonderful supporting cast.


  1. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

The first trailer left me cautiously optimistic. But how could I embrace this new incarnation? They took a sacred gem from my childhood which starred the incomparable Robin Williams and they decided to spin it off into a Rock / Hart buddy comedy. Say what? I was wrong. It was fun. More so, it was clever. The filmmakers included several smile-inducing tips of the hat to the original while building an adventurous new world.


  1. Dunkirk

I’ve described Dunkirk as an “experience” more than it is a film. Nolan’s powerful visuals and a thundering sound mix vividly pull you in to the chaos. There isn’t much time to breathe as you wing back and forth in time, gripping your armrest as a bomb falls or shadows linger overhead. It’s the type of film that deserves to be seen in a theater.


  1. Disaster Artist

Seeing The Room would probably be a solid move before jumping down this particular rabbit hole. However, the bizarre (and spot on) performance by James Franco shines even for those not familiar with the subject matter. This odd and eccentric tale of Hollywood dreams is as funny as The Room is dreadful.


  1. In the Fade

There’s a quiet intensity about this German import that made my stomach queasy. It unfolds ever so carefully as it examines three distinct phases of Katja’s life following the brutal death of her husband and son in a terrorist attack. Diane Kruger is magnificent as she shifts between horror, despair, and white hot resolve. The exploration of the various themes is strong, though not as intricate as other recent outings, but Kruger is the reason for admission here.


  1. Good Time

I can’t say I have a deep appreciation for Robert Pattinson’s body of work. Most of what I associate with him relates to glittery vampires. But his raw and desperate portrayal in this flick was impressive. The anxiety builds scene by scene as Pattinson’s Connie desperately tries to free his mentally challenged brother after a failed robbery attempt. Mood and lighting and setting bring this tense thriller to life. Each location is detailed, dark and alive. Not conventional and all the better for it.


  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It is incredibly hard to accurately critique a new Star Wars movie. There’s the baggage that comes with revering the original trilogy and being massively disappointed by the prequels. There’s The Force Awakens, which was fun and exciting, but admittedly a plot re-hash of A New Hope. So how does this one fit into all of that? The truth is, we as fans have too many specific boxes we want checked or experiences that we want repeated (but not to feel repetitive). The Last Jedi has some loose plot issues and a few unnecessary characters. Logic leaps occur here and there, but it’s a space opera not a Neil deGrasse Tyson documentary. Overall the first 2/3 was solid and entertaining and the final 1/3 was pretty damn good. Let’s just soak in the incredible light saber battle with the Praetorian guards and stop being such nitpickers.


  1. Call Me By Your Name

Set in the Italian countryside and shot on 35mm, this page to screen adaptation is a beautiful film to watch. It makes you nostalgic for lazy European summers that you never actually experienced. But aside from the pleasant appeal of the visuals, the film is a showcase for nuanced and evocative performances by Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Both men excelled at making the intimate seem authentic and honest. It’s a breakout for Hammer after years of muddling through big studio duds and a star-making turn for Chalamet. Michael Stuhlbarg, always excellent, pops up here as well (one of his three appearances in award favorite flicks in 2017). It’s a coming of age story. It’s a romance. It’s a snapshot of a very different time.


  1. All the Money in the World

I have no idea how much time Christopher Plummer had to prep for these reshoots, but he seems to have had the spirit of J Paul Getty simmering in his head for a lifetime. He commands the frame when he’s in it, regardless of his sparring partner. Kudos to Ridley Scott for being so swift and efficient in updating this picture after the Spacey fallout. Wahlberg and Williams are both perfectly cast in this drama thriller as well, but special appreciation should be saved for Romain Duris. His Cinquanta feels immensely lived in and his arc within the film is perhaps the most distinct and memorable.


  1. Molly’s Game

We all knew Sorkin could write. Now we know he can direct as well. This fast paced and stylized telling of Molly Bloom’s rise, fall and survival is as fun as it is fascinating. Jessica Chastain plays out all of the shades of Molly’s self; vulnerability, cunning, gumption, fear, and drive. It’s a complex portrait of a flawed, but relatable woman in the modern era of celebrity and sensationalism. Idris Elba is perfect as the smooth and sensible rock on which the tale is anchored.


  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

It was always going to be impossible to capture the thrill and surprise of the first outing in director James Gunn’s cosmic adventure. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of fun to be had. Getting back into the sandbox with Star Lord and Gamora and the rest brought more of what we loved and a few new surprises. Baby Groot was a hoot. The soundtrack kicked ass… again. Kurt Russell was trippy and then terrifying. Pom Klementieff’s Mantis and her interactions with Drax were pretty rad. There was a lot of sound and fury without any cosmic consequences. But we all knew that was coming. This was the calm before the Infinity War storm.


  1. A Ghost Story

This particular gem is unlike any other on my list. Quite frankly, I was disturbed and distressed after watching it. An existential crisis ensued. It’s a hard film to put into a category. It’s about the afterlife. Or the static limbo before the afterlife, more precisely. It’s about pain and grief and loss. It’s about time. The speed and insignificance of time. The circular nature of time. There’s very little dialogue. It’s tight and tense. I think the reason I have it rated so high is because of how affecting it was. Even if that impact wasn’t necessarily pleasant.


  1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has been a mainstay of the indie scene for a number of years and she’s appeared in many of my top films during that time. Now she steps behind the camera and weaves a tale that is unmistakably hers. On the surface, Lady Bird seems like a traditional coming of age story. Disgruntled teen struggles with their place in the world, fights with their parents about control, has dating mishaps, and gets in trouble at school. All of that is here. But the prism through which it’s told is unique and fresh in many important and relevant ways. Class is dissected and debated. The desperate hopes of a fading middle class and the aspirations of spirited youth crash together courtesy of memorable performances from Saoirse Ronan, the understated Tracy Letts, and the scene-stealing Laurie Metcalf. Chances are, no matter who you are, you’ll find someone to relate to in this picture.


  1. The Post

You have a confidence when you walk into a Spielberg movie. A confidence that you won’t be toyed with or cheated or disappointed. One way or another, he will deliver the goods. He continues this tradition with The Post. There are a number of reasons why this recounting of the Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers is relevant today. The press is under attack from economic forces, political agendas, and the big sloppy void that is the internet. Truth is somehow relative. Principle is passé. It’s refreshing and recharging to delve back into a time when that wasn’t true. Especially when that world is brought to life by an eye as skilled as Spielberg and talents as undeniable as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, and so many others.


  1. Baby Driver

In a summer overflowing with sequels, this Edgar Wright flick proved to be the perfect antidote. Part heist film. Part music video. Part comedy. There’s no real reason to try to shoehorn it into any particular mold. At the end of the day, Baby Driver was a fast, fun ride. Ansel Elgort’s Baby remains cool and collected despite the chaos that explodes around him courtesy of a madcap cast that includes Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal and Jamie Foxx. This must have been a major trip to work on in the editing bay.


  1. Spider-man: Homecoming

Aging Peter Parker down a bit and dropping him into the agony of daily high school life proved to be the refreshing formula we needed. Multiple misfires over the last ten years had Spidey fans red in the face. But bringing him into the fold of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe quickly erased the memories of those less than stellar attempts. Tom Holland built on his introductory performance in Captain America: Civil War and had just the right mix of angst and crack’n wise. Michael Keaton shined as one of the better Marvel villains in recent years and Iron Man’s cameo appearances were fun, not distracting (as they easily could have been).


  1. I, Tonya

This dark and twisted tale of ambition was one of the best surprises of this award season. Margot Robbie completely transforms herself into the rough and ready Tonya Harding. She goes all in and is equally as memorizing as a young Tonya struggling to find acceptance and as an older Tonya recalling her story in a cloud of smoke. Allison Janey is a standout as her abusive, vitriolic mother. The scenes with the two of them are fascinating to watch. Sebastian Stan does an admirable job keeping pace with the two women, though this is clearly their show. There are plenty of laughs. Uncomfortable laughs, to be sure. And at its core there are some real questions that linger about class in America and how socio-economic experiences can shape our perception of reality.


  1. War for the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves introduced his unique take on the Ape lore way back in 2011 with Rise. At the time, we were taken aback by the stunning visual effects and the impressive performance underneath by Andy Serkis. Six years later, as the trilogy comes to a close, I remain in awe of the technical accomplishments of these films. Without the uncanny realism that the visual effects team conjures, it would be easy to write this off as another science fiction genre piece. But you can’t do that with these films. These apes feel shockingly alive. And as such, we are drawn into the emotional heartbeat of Caesar’s journey. War for the Planet of the Apes is the culmination of a carefully crafted narrative journey. It asks big questions about humanity and family and sacrifice. Call it science fiction if you will, but this was one of my favorite dramas in recent memory.


  1. Thor: Ragnarok

More Marvel… I know. I am unapologetic in my fandom. I know there are detractors to this particular film. Yes, it is silly. Yes, it is a bit all over the place. Yes, it has logical plot holes as big as Kia. But it was so much damn fun. It took gumption for the Marvel machine to hand over one of their franchises to an indie comedy filmmaker from New Zealand. Thank god they did. Taika Waititi’s energy and exuberance oozes out of every scene in this film. And how much fun are these scenes? Hulk v Thor. Awesome. Jeff Goldblum. Ridiculous and awesome. Cate Blanchett. Badass and awesome. The 80s inspired soundtrack made me want to pump my fist in the air. This isn’t my most cleverly crafted commentary, but the truth is I just had a blast watching this one.


  1. Logan

I promise, this is the last comic book related entry in my Top 25. And it is as different from those that came before it as you possibly can be. James Mangold and Hugh Jackman came together and said, “Let’s do something different.” It’s easy to say that, but the studio machines and the need to maximize revenues can quickly cloud such sentiments. But they did it. Yes, the very end of the picture does lean a little too heavy on convention, but for the most part, Logan is an exercise in growing up. Set aside the mansions and jet planes and fancy costumes. Pour on the wrinkles and the aches and the painful memories. I mentioned earlier how striking Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of Professor Xavier is in this film. Hugh’s battered Wolverine is equally as powerful. It’s his moments of restraint and fear when interacting with young Laura that make the performance iconic. You don’t need to be a comic fan to enjoy this picture. In fact, not carrying that baggage with you may be a plus.


  1. Coco

Animation is a fascinating medium. It allows for limitless imagination, but is often forced into a very specific box. Usually that means something zany and loud and full of easily licensed characters. But Pixar continues to march to the beat of their own drum. Heart is their north star. They aren’t constrained by convention. They aren’t afraid to take chances. Whether it’s a movie about a rat chef or a lonely robot or the Day of the Dead, they look for the stories and characters that will leave an impression. Coco embodies that mission. The incredible music is not the only thing that will follow you after watching this film. A sense of family, memory, tradition, and culture all echo far beyond the runtime. I was entranced by the stunning visuals of each and every frame. Miguel’s journey of discovery is one that will resonate with children and adults long into the future.


  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri

This is divisive film. It forces a spotlight on uncomfortable issues including institutionalized racism, police brutality, and domestic abuse. It lightens up the mood with a dash of cancer and suicide and vandalism. Some might argue that the exploration of these topics is handled roughly without the level of sensitivity they deserve. Maybe that’s true. And maybe the fictional setting in the middle of America is a cop out; an attempt at universality that overreaches. But as a piece of cinematic art, Martin McDonagh takes harsh realities and pushes them through his absurd, and sometimes vulgar, brain and creates something highly entertaining. There’s catharsis in here for those that feel frustrated or forgotten or just irritated with acceptable levels of shitiness in our society. Much like in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh’s greatest strength is in crafting characters that leap off the screen. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell all bring their A-game as they help to give life to the farcical town of Ebbings, Missouri.


  1. Get Out

There are a lot of reasons to like this flick. It’s poignant, for sure. It’s a stark and brutal look at the realities of race and liberalism and identity. It’s genre bending. It slides back and forth from psychological thriller to something resembling comedy without ever crossing the line into silliness. What Jordan Peele pulls off is nothing short of brilliant. It’s one of those movies that deserves to be watched with a crowd. The collective gasps and laughs are like a secondary soundtrack. Daniel Kaluuya is fantastic as he maneuvers through the odd and ever-changing hellscape. Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are at the top of their game. Calm and creepy. It’s a film that grabs you quickly and doesn’t let you go until you hear her scream “Grandma!”


  1. Shape of Water

There hasn’t been something like Shape of Water in a very long time. The muted tones and magical score are intoxicating. Beautiful and horrible all at once. It’s equal parts monster movie and classic Hollywood romance. The visual effects aren’t just top notch, but carry a unique spirit that could only be born in the mind of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Sally Hawkins finds a way to convey a level of emotion in a smile or gesture that is unexpected and affecting. The challenge of a performance where you don’t speak can’t be undersold. And her cast mates that do get to speak are brilliant in their own right. Octavia Spencer continues the streak of excellence that she’s been on for several years. Richard Jenkins proves once again how adept he is at giving a character unnatural depth through performance. Michael Shannon, decaying fingers and all, broods and fumes his way into our memories yet again. This film is magical and dark around the edges in a way that ensures you can’t easily forget it.


  1. The Big Sick

I debated a great deal on the final order of my top 5. I could make an argument why each of them should hold my top spot. But upon reflection, I couldn’t deny that The Big Sick not only made me laugh long and hard, but it touched me as well. Kumail Nanjiani showcases his biting wit and wry observations on a platform more moving than his role on Silicon Valley. He doesn’t mince words or shy away from the uncomfortable. That’s where the real comedy lives. The fact that the story is autobiographical is equal parts fascinating, heart breaking, and uplifting. The performances by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as terrified parents who can’t escape their own baggage in the midst of dealing with their daughter’s illness is understated and powerful. And while Kumail, Ray, Holly and Zoe have received much deserved credit for the success of this picture, I tip my hat to Michael Showalter for his focused and nuanced direction. It’s a far cry from Wet Hot American Summer (though don’t get me wrong, I love that movie). This film is about a lot of things. Goals and aspirations. Family responsibility. Cultural expectations. Sickness. Family. Love. And because of how well it weaves those threads together, it is my favorite movie of 2017.


And that’s that. If you have any thoughts on my thoughts, feel free to express them. If you have a recommendation for a flick I missed, I’m all ears. If you see any typos above, point them out. Thanks for taking the time to read my musings. I love movies and I love talking about them. I look forward to what 2018 will bring. Until next January…


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2016 Cinema Review & Top 25


Come one. Come all. Okay, more likely one. It’s time for my semi-vain, self-indulgent Top 25 films list release. Year 11 of my new release film tracking proved to possibly be the best one yet on average. As I have over the past few years, the volume of flicks has held in that 75 to 95 range. This year clocked in at 80 total new releases viewed.

As always, this list represents my favorite movies of the previous year. It is not an intricate review of the filmmaking craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies.

Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2016. From the Top 50 at the Box Office I missed Sing, Jason Bourne, Trolls, The Legend of Tarzan, The Angry Birds Movie, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Conjuring 2, The Magnificent Seven, Ride Along 2, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Accountant, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Purge: The Election Year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Boo! A Madea Halloween, Storks, Lights Out, Allegiant, Now You See Me 2, and Ice Age: Collision Course. Any of those make the top of your list? Doubt it.

Of the critical and award darlings… Loving, Elle, Nocturnal Animals, My Life as a Zucchini, Silence, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Deepwater Horizon, I Daniel Blake, Julieta, Fire at Sea, Certain Women, A Monster Calls, Love & Friendship, Birth of a Nation, Midnight Special, and Cameraperson all eluded me this year. Some of those I really wish I had seen. Others… eh.

Here are a few special awards before I dive into my list.


Award for Somehow Exceeding My Expectations of Awfulness

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Jesse Eisenberg’s baffling (and grating) take on Lex Luthor. The homicidal Batman with zero context. The cartoony video game showdown with Doomsday. The hokey computer insert scene mid-action to tease Flash/Aquadrunk/Cybore. The DCU hallmark dark, brooding, and humorless slog. The murderous-enemy-to-best-buds turn mid-film over the name Martha. I thought it would be “eh” and it turned out to be offensively bad.


Award for Most Memorable Moments in CGI

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Central Intelligence (tie)

The first is obvious. Although we still aren’t quite to the point of completely fooling the eye, the incredible realism used to breathe life into Moff Tarkin and Leia was pretty amazing.

Almost as amazing… turning the brick house that is The Rock into a dancing, singing, and very plump Robbie Weirdicht.


Award for Being Pretty Darn Rad Until the Last Fifteen Minutes

10 Cloverfield Lane

I’ll avoid spoiler territory here, but John Goodman was creepily great for the majority of this film. Then we get… well… the last fifteen minutes.


Award for Excellence in Featuring Awkward Sexuality

Sausage Party / Deadpool / Bad Moms / Weiner / The Meddler (tie)

Food orgies. Check. Ryan Reynolds getting pegged. Check. Kathryn Hahn turning Kristen Bell into an uncircumcised penis. Check. Anything and everything having to do with Anthony Weiner. Check. But maybe the best and most awkward of all… Susan Sarandon nearly achieving orgasm from eating a fresh chicken egg.


Award for Missteps in Makeup and Practical Effects

Suicide Squad / X-Men Apocalypse / Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (tie)

Leto Joker is not only silly and far less interesting than Ledger Joker, but he looks ridiculous. I get it. You thought it was edgy. You were very wrong.

Apocalypse cannot be frightening or be taken seriously when he looks like a Power Rangers villain. What was the budget of this film?

Whether you liked the way Johnny Depp was used in Fantastic Beasts or not, you can just imagine him standing in the makeup room saying, “I need some weird contacts.” “No you don’t, Johnny.” “Yes I do! Yes I do! Yes I do! Give em to me! Now! It’ll be grrrreat!”


Award for Most Inspirational Flicks to Watch with Your Whole Family

Hidden Figures / Eddie the Eagle (tie)

Rarely are there films you feel good about screening for the whole family. From Little Timmy to Grandma Tammy. But both of these films fit the bill. Inspiring stories of hard work, determination, and spirit.


Award for Most Bizarre B-Roll in a Documentary


There were many terrific documentaries this year and several included disturbing, hysterical or moving B-roll. But nothing touched that weird nerve that makes you uncomfortable more than the competitive tickling footage in Tickled.


Award for Most Terrible and Mentally Scarring Use of a Prop

Don’t Breathe

Turkey baster. Jesus lord almighty.


Award for Musical Moment in Cinema

The Jungle Book

Yes, La La Land is an incredible achievement. “City of Stars” follows you for days or weeks after viewing. Sing Street is a rocking good time. Moana has a bright and original soundtrack that will make you smile. Even Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping material is pretty funny. But it was the moment, no matter how out of tune, when Bill Murray starts belting out the “Bear Necessities” that takes the cake.


Award for Entertainers of the Year 2016

Mahershala Ali and Kate McKinnon

This is cheating a little bit. Both of their resumes include some incredible TV work in 2016. Mahershala not only gave an incredible performance in Moonlight and a memorable turn in Hidden Figures, but he dominated our small screens as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Remy Danton in House of Cards. Add to that his incredibly authentic and powerful acceptance speech at the SAG Awards as a cherry on top. Kate McKinnon found herself climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Her SNL work (Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Olya Povlatsky, Angela Merkel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mrs. Rafferty, Debette Goldry, Shelia Sovage) continues to get better and better. On top of that she was the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian Ghostbusters effort, a scene stealer in the otherwise disappointing Masterminds, and the understated gem in the underrated (thought admittedly sophomoric) Office Christmas Party.


Award for Breakout Newbees

Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)

Sunny Pawar (Lion)

Sasha Lane (American Honey)

Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)

Whether it was Ricky giving Hec that perfect stare or young Saroo running for his life or Star making every decision seem truly spontaneous or Patrick verbally battling his uncle, all of these newcomers gave stellar and memorable performances this year.


Award for Most Exciting 60 Seconds of the Year

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

If you haven’t seen this yet, stop reading now. When you-know-who starts storming through that ship and he’s swinging around his you-know-what and using his powers like the badass villain supreme that he is… that was everything. It was… pure joy.




And now we arrive at the meat and potatoes. Before I dive into the Top 25, here is a quick look at what nearly made the cut.

45.) Bad Moms  44.) Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them  43.) Allied  42.) Café Society  41.) The Lobster  40.) Star Trek: Beyond  39.) Weiner  38.) Sausage Party  37.) Patriots Day  36.) Eddie the Eagle  35.) Everybody Wants Some  34.) Jackie  33.) The Founder  32.) Swiss Army Man  31.) Little Men  30.) American Honey  29.) Tickled  28.) Captain Fantastic  27.) The Meddler  26.) The Edge of Seventeen

Drumroll, please.


  1. Green Room

Brutal, unsettling and creatively thrilling. Anton Yelchin is pitch perfect in one of his final films. Patrick Stewart as a ruthless neo-Nazi leader is alone worth the price of admission. The cold, calculated movement through Saulnier’s tight and trippy script is punctuated by gasps throughout. Also, Alia Shawkat needs to be in more movies. She rocks. Literally and figuratively in this flick.

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

Setting aside commentary on the filmmaker, the film itself is an incredible achievement. A war story that is not about taking life but saving it. Andrew Garfield draws you in with a dose of the “aw shucks,” but gradually pulls you deeper into the mind and spirit of this incredibly principled character. The supporting cast is aces across the board including a rare dramatic role for Vince Vaughn.

  1. The Jungle Book

Disney’s quest to create live action adaptations from their deep animated library has been relatively successful in both quality and reception. However, this updated retelling of Mowgli’s adventures is a marvel. The visual effects are stunning. Young Neel Sethi bears the mantle of the boy cub with ease. Jon Favreau proves yet again that he’s a master at crafting a fun and frenetic adventure while hitting all the right comedic notes.

  1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I’m a huge fan of What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords. Taika Waititi has an unmatched eye for the awkward and a truly unique sensibility. Sam Neil’s nuanced performance as Hec and the tumultuous but heartfelt relationship with Julian Dennison’s Ricky provides all kinds of laughs and “feels.” I can’t wait to see what Taika does with Thor.

  1. Fences

While the film sometimes feels like it has one foot on the stage and one on the screen, the sheer power of the performances in this August Wilson adaptation washes away any imperfections. Denzel and Viola are unstoppable. You come to viscerally know this family. The hopes. The dreams. The broken dreams. This acting master class is framed by a minimal, yet lived-in set design and vividly present but not overbearing camera work.

  1. Eye in the Sky

The moral and ethical questions raised by this film are all the more stirring in our current political climate. The deftly woven strands of tension will have you gripping your seat or drink or whatever is closest to you. Gavin Hood bounces back from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to tackle the challenging geo-political elephants in the room as he did in 2007 with Rendition. Aiding the effort this time around is a formidable cast that includes Helen Mirren at her best and the incomparable Alan Rickman in his last on screen role.

  1. OJ: Made in America

I faced a mental barrier before watching this film. As a kid I had lived through the hysteria. I can still remember watching the Bronco chase on TV and the seemingly endless coverage of the courtroom madness. But after hearing such positive reviews I figured it was worth a go. What’s a couple of hours? Little did I realize that it would end up being a nearly eight hour journey down the rabbit hole. And what a journey it is. This documentary is not just a re-telling of the OJ trial (see The People vs OJ Simpson). It’s not just a look at the birth of modern sensationalism in cable news. It’s a cultural dissection. A series of mirrors held up in all directions. A striking look under the hood at the history of Los Angeles, race relations, police policy, the judicial system, celebrity and scandal. It weaves the narrative from each chillingly relevant topic to the next while using OJ Simpson’s rise as a sports star, pitch man, actor, accused murderer, and “innocent” pariah as the through line. Gripping from beginning to end.

  1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes of this movie were excellent. The freedom to carve out a completely original corner of the Star Wars universe allowed for an incredible level of creativity. The darker tone and more serious approach to the subject matter was a refreshing detour from the Saga. The visual effects are stunning. Watching setups from 1977 being paid off in 2016 were grin-inducing. The commitment to a bold, uncompromising ending is worth praise. And that last ten minutes… holy heck. So. Damn. Good. All that said, the middle sagged a good bit and lost its footing. The performances were all solid, though most of the characters portrayed were at best briefly entertaining. None had the lasting impression you walked out of the theater with in 2015 after meeting Rey, Finn, Poe and the others for the first time. All-in-all though a fun ride and a promising start to the “Star Wars Story” brand.

  1. 20th Century Women

“Slice of life” films are only elevated when you match unique characters with unforgettable performances. This glance back at a non-conventional family of outcasts and dreamers in 1970s Santa Barbara features just such a recipe. Top to bottom the cast is perfect. Billy Crudup’s helpful but hopeless handyman. Greta Gerwig’s scarred but passionate photographer. Elle Fanning’s blunt but vulnerable teen. Annette Bening’s brilliantly complex matriarch, Dorothea. She simultaneously projects confidence, progressiveness, and intellectualism while struggling just under the surface with heaps of regret, doubt, and isolation. Standing in the middle of that twister of heart and hysteria is Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie. Just an adolescent trying to become a good man. His own man. Whatever that means. Some clever editing and voice over techniques add additional color. Production design is spot on and pulls you effortlessly into another time in America. Way to go, Waleed.

  1. Arrival

I know many friends who were blown away upon watching this modern science fiction tale. Some even gushed on social media that it was life-changing. Or was it life-affirming? I can’t quite remember. I did not have such an extreme reaction. That said, it was one of the stronger, more original outings in the genre in the last decade or so. The often bizarre tropes of the extraterrestrial story are softened and smoothed out by an incredibly authentic drama about family and loss. The film is simultaneously stark and stylish. Thrilling and uplifting. Amy Adams does some of her best, most subtle work as Louise Banks the linguist and mother. If it wasn’t for the inevitable logical traps and snags that come along with time travel, this film would be even higher on my list.

  1. Moana

Vibrant, inventive and exciting. Turning the traditional princess tale on its head, Disney Animation notches yet another victory on their belt. Moana’s call to adventure and determined struggle to protect her island and her people is built from the word go on strength, smarts and faith. Looking for a role model for your daughter or niece or goddaughter? Look no further. Auli’I Cravalho is excellent. Meanwhile, The Rock continues his domination of every genre by bringing Maui to life and showing off his surprisingly strong vocal skills. The animation is rich and textured. The music is addictive. I have a feeling kids will be joyfully going along on this journey for years to come.

  1. The Nice Guys

While Ryan Gosling may be getting heaped in praise for his work in that little musical picture, I personally think he was at his best in this absurd, action-packed, hysterical buddy cop picture. His wily and unpredictable PI is the perfect counterpunch to Crowe’s gruff and matter-of-fact enforcer. Shane Black’s evolution from iconic writer of 80s/90s comedic action to damn good writer AND director of the genre is in full bloom here. Building on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, Black has all the parts humming. It’s cleverly plotted. The action feels fresh. The comedy is biting and unexpected. Two thumbs up.

  1. Zootopia

Following in the footsteps of Wreck-it-Ralph and Big Hero 6, Disney Animation delivers yet another colorful and imaginative world to sit back, breathe in, and enjoy. Hopps and Wilde are that classic scoundrel / straight-and-narrow team-up that provides not only big laughs and heart-warming character arcs, but the perfect dual lens through which to explore this rich and detailed universe. The bootleg dvds of Wrangled and Floatzen 2. The hamster tubing transportation system. The detailed map that includes lands like Outback Island and The Meadowlands that we don’t even have time to see in the movie. There’s even someone playing a “CAT-SIO” keyboard (Casio… get it?). The layers of detail that Disney’s animators weave throughout is astounding. And who doesn’t love a good underdog story? And sloths. Who doesn’t love DMV sloths?

  1. Doctor Strange

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the talk of a Disney/Marvel formula, I’ve been more than encouraged by the unique spin they’ve managed to give many of their recent films. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Winter Soldier all felt like they were staking claim to a different corner of the vast superhero landscape. Doctor Strange may have accomplished this better than any of the others. The indulgence in the visually weird and psychedelic made this a wild ride from start to finish. The trademark MCU humor was on display, holding at bay a darkness that could have snuffed out the fun. Benedict Cumberbatch quickly made me forget about all those years of alternative casting rumors. He is Doctor Strange. The unconventional ending avoided the big blowout battles that some feel are repetitious in these save-the-world flicks. Connections to the wider MCU were present enough to satisfy but not forced to the point of distraction.   

  1. Hidden Figures

Unfortunately it is rare these days to find a clean, heartfelt, inspiring movie that doesn’t rely on melodrama or heavy-handed faith tones to connect to a wide audience. That’s why this film is all the more welcome. A smart and sincere script is brought to life by stellar performances from Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae (a revelation). The supporting cast pulls their weight in understated, yet powerful ways. It always amazes me when a story like this is finally told in such a wide-reaching forum. How on earth did I not know about the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary? It’s a reminder to all writers, directors, actors, novelists, and artists of every variety that we should be elevating these stories to the public consciousness through our work. Buy a copy when it’s available so your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews can watch for years to come.

  1. Lion

Lion is essentially two films reflecting back on one another. The first half is a beautifully composed portrait of a five-year-old boy lost in a great city. If I didn’t know any better I would have believed they just dropped Sunny Pawar off alone in Calcutta and secretly followed him around. That’s how incredibly authentic I found his portrayal despite his young age. You can’t help but to become instantly invested in the harrowing and heart-breaking journey. You cringe. You chew on your lip. You want to yell out to him. And then suddenly you find yourself in the second chapter. Thankfully safe from the many dangers he faced, Saroo’s life becomes not dissimilar to yours or mine. Dev Patel continues to demonstrate his growing chops. His one-on-one scenes with Nicole Kidman are quite brilliant. You won’t find a better story about hope, determination and the many forms love can take.

  1. Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest offering from Laika is the most beautiful and wondrous yet. The meticulous attention to visual detail is stunning. Whether to differentiate from the standard 3D flicks or simply an organic byproduct of the stop-motion medium, the creative flare brought to each sequence is pure candy for the eyes. It’s quite frankly intoxicating. But rest assured, it isn’t superfluous. Kubo invites you on an epic journey of self-discovery and identity. In the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, this tale avoids most common fantasy tropes in favor of something more original. A giant samurai beetle. A wooden monkey. An origami warrior. All of them brought to life in a dream-like visual feast. The addictive score accentuates everything that unfolds on screen so that your ears can get in on the action. Ultimately, the honest, and quite frankly brave, way in which the film addresses loss is refreshing in a genre where 3rd acts are almost categorically saccharine.

  1. Moonlight

The world that Little is born into is not one you would ever wish upon a child. It’s the sort of place where the trials and tribulations of coming-of-age are compounded by dangers big and small. It’s a community and a time where stigmas ran deeper than perhaps we remember. Whether it’s the struggle of a mother incapable of providing the care a young boy needs because of her addiction or the internal struggles over the meaning of friendship and one’s sexuality. Watching Little become Chiron and then Black is heart-breaking. We watch as he’s forced to live life in a corner; either cowering or lashing out in order to find room to breathe. Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris have all been praised for their incredible performances. Deservedly so. But it is the earnest (Alex Hibbert), transformative (Ashton Sanders), and nuanced (Trevante Rhodes) performances that truly bring this boy’s story to life.

  1. Finding Dory

It may be sacrilegious to say it, but there’s a chance Finding Dory is better than Finding Nemo. It’s another near perfect offering from Pixar that makes you wonder why it took so long to be made. That means stunning imagery, clever comedy, and an oceanful of heart. The touch pool “Hands!” sequence illustrates their knack for bringing all three together. The explosions as the pudgy little hands plow into the water. The scrambling of the various creatures to take cover. Dory’s insistence to leave no man behind as she drags Hank to safety. It’s a brilliant action set piece that is so much more than just an action set piece. And the folks at Pixar know how to find nuggets of comedy in every supporting character. Whether it’s Marlin and Nemo or newcomers like Destiny, Fluke or Rudder, they all have a meaningful part to play in making you grin. But more than the comedic chops, it’s the heartstrings where they get you. I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t seen the movie, but I’m quite certain there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater.

  1. Captain America: Civil War

Back to Marvel we go. I’ve explained several times in the past why I find these movies to be such fun rides so I won’t revisit here. What I will say is why specifically I had such a damn good time watching the third installment of Captain America. First – New characters shined. The introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was excellent. Tom Holland’s Spider-man surpasses Toby and Andrew in less than 15 minutes of screen time. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo was a refreshing change of pace as a villain. His personal vendetta, and not world domination/destruction, felt more grounded and interesting. Sure there were a few logical leaps in the plotting, but sometimes you just need to spackle over that sort of thing. Second – the airport sequence. Outside of the greatest 60 seconds of cinema this year that I mentioned earlier in this post, the airport sequence in Civil War was the highlight of my year. It wasn’t non-descript buildings exploding. It wasn’t nameless city blocks being leveled. It wasn’t nameless aliens or robots invading. It was our favorite heroes in an elaborate and most excellent battle dance. If you didn’t find joy in that, you must’ve snuffed out your inner child long ago.

  1. Sing Street

Another home run from director John Carney (Once and Begin Again). Let’s cut to the chase and start with the heartbeat of this film. The music. The original music composed for the film fits seamlessly with the actual 80s rock tracks throughout. It’s that unflappable passion for music… for meaningful music… that saves Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) from the unpleasantness of his daily life. The wicked headmaster at his new school. The unrelenting bullies that populate the schoolyard. A mother and father whose dysfunctional marriage is seeping out and causing chaos. All of this is drowned out by the music. But let’s not fool ourselves… the music arrives because of the girl. It’s always a girl. The film doesn’t shy away from challenging material, but there is a joy to the whole endeavor. The young love. The formation of the band. The visual flare of their music videos. All is wrapped together with heart and a lot of Irish wit.

  1. La La Land

To say that creating an original movie musical about folks in Hollywood is a gamble would be an understatement. Rarely do films about this town resonate outside its borders. Musicals in general? Lukewarm track record. Musicals not based on a Broadway hit or a series of very familiar pop songs? Ha. So the commitment of the studio (Lionsgate) and director (Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame) is impressive. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rekindle that seemingly effortless chemistry they previously showcased in Crazy Stupid Love. Try if you want, but the music sticks to you like maple syrup. Sweet and dreamy. While the Mia and Sebastian may live in Hollywood and be in search of success in acting and jazz, their story is universal. The dreams. The loves. The what if’s. We can all relate. We just don’t have the soundtrack or the dancing.

  1. Deadpool

Within a few years we will have been bombarded with a slew of knock offs and rated-R wannabes. Most of them will be pretty awful. That’s because they will have missed the point. Deadpool wasn’t a smash hit because it was rated-R or was crude. It was a hit because it was fresh, fun and loose with the rules. Ryan Reynolds clawed and scratched and chewed his way into making this picture and I’m sure glad he did. I saw Deadpool on three continents; among very different crowds. The reactions were universal. The action isn’t just violent or brutal – it’s creative. The language isn’t just foul – it’s funny. Your favorite superhero clichés are here both to be made fun of AND to be relished in. I have no idea if the meta comments and breaking the fourth wall will feel as fun and fresh in the sequel, but I’m sure glad they’re keeping it a tight budget and avoiding Part 2 bloat. Here’s to Captain Dead Pool!

  1. Manchester by the Sea

Think back to most of the non-genre dramas you’ve seen over the last ten or fifteen years. Cross off the period films. Now cross off those that indulge in melodrama. Finally, scribble over top of the ones that are “quirky.” From where I’m sitting there aren’t many left. A contemporary drama that embraces the real, raw emotions of the story and refuses to sensationalize or lean on eccentricities. That’s Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan crafted a painful, affecting, and redemptive story. Jody Lee Lipes’ eye made the ordinary cinematic. Editor Jennifer Lame guided movement through time and space when the story called for it and without a phony device shoehorned in. And the performances were rich and authentic. Kyle Chandler, CJ Wilson, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges were outstanding. Casey Affleck, setting aside any evaluations of the man, put together the performance of his career without the need to be bombastic or showy. It’s not an easy watch. The pain is contagious. But it’s well worth the journey.

  1. Hell or High Water

As I reflected on cinema in 2016, I had a few films at the top of my list that I knew would be there, but I wasn’t entirely sure of the order. Upon careful thought, my mind rested on one scene in one film. A conversation between a hunter and the hunted. It’s thick with subtext and tension. It’s carefully framed. The performances are steady, with heat simmering just under the surface. Reflecting on that scene solidified the film as my top choice for the year. The scene’s ending is ambiguous. Not in the frustrating way. It’s a satisfying ambiguity. That’s what you’d expect from a story of outlaws and lawmen. A story where you find yourself rooting for both. That credit goes to director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario – #14 film on my 2015 list). A film like this only works if you create a balance between the light and the dark. These folks managed to pull forward the gritty, morally ambiguous energy of the Old West and breathe 21st century life into it. The story is tightly and cleverly plotted; keeping both characters and audience members guessing. Kudos to Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges. They all gave stellar performances and made it seem like their cowboy boots were mighty worn in.


And with that the books are closed on 2016. As always, if you don’t see your favorite on here feel free to call me out. If you think my choices are nuts, you know where to find me. Here’s hoping 2017 holds a whole crop of amazing new films. Until next January…


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2015 Cinema Review & Top 25


For the six or seven of you that have any interest in my opinions on film, it’s that time again. My tenth annual Top 25 list. Way back in 2006 I started keeping track of every new release I saw each year (either in the theater or via home entertainment). This year I saw a total of 95 new releases. That’s actually the highest total since 2011.

My annual disclaimer – these are my favorite movies this year. The movies that entertained or affected me the most. If I made an “academy” style list it would likely look very different.

Since I don’t have endless free time or money, there were plenty of films I missed this year. Those in the top 50 highest grossing at the domestic box office that I missed included Home, Hotel Transylvania 2, Fifty Shades of Grey, Spongebob, Taken 3, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, Goosebumps, Alvin and the Chipmunks 4, Paddington, The Intern, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, War Room, Magic Mike XXL, The Visit, and The Perfect Guy. I’ll admit, there aren’t many on that list I’m sad that I missed.

From a critical perspective I also didn’t get a chance to see several well-liked films such as Mistress America, Anomalisa, The Walk, Grandma, Youth, MacBeth, Diary of a Teenage Girl, I Smile Back, Truth, Southpaw, Son of Saul, 45 Years, Woman in Gold, Infinitely Polar Bear, Tangerine, Mustang, and others. So if you are looking for them in my Top 25 their absence is easy to explain.

This year, before I get to my Top 25, I thought I’d give out some special awards.


Award for Crushing Childhood Memories of Wonder

Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys (tie)

For anyone who witnessed the power and awe of Jurassic Park back in 1993, the box office monstrosity that was Jurassic World represented a complete purging of all heart, magic and majesty. The fact the masses seemed to like it (based on $1.6 billion dollars in box office), is a twist of the knife.

Although holding a less lofty place in my heart, the latest depressing entry in the Terminator franchise made me want to reach for a pillow to put it out of its misery.


Award for Being a Surprisingly Very Good Film When It Easily Could Have Been Crap


This could have been a twisted, soulless hybrid of Identity Thief and Johnny English. Instead, we got a very funny, fresh movie with solid supporting performances all around an equally in-form Melissa McCarthy. It had surprisingly entertaining action sequences to boot. A real surprise gem.


Award for Most Head-Shaking in Disbelief

Finders Keepers

There’s very little I can mention about this documentary without unintentionally twisting expectations. All I will say is that it epitomizes that old Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” And as ludicrous as the premise may seem, the film ultimately digs down to a place of deep human emotional understanding. Watch it. But don’t eat any jerky while you do.


Award for Longest Scene During Which I Had to Hold My Breath

Room – The pickup truck scene

I won’t say anything here for fear of spoiling it. But you’ll know what I mean once you’ve watched.


Award for Best Genre Refresher

It Follows

I am not generally a fan of modern horror. It’s either incredibly generic, overly disgusting, or completely soulless. I prefer the campy 80s fare of Jason and Freddy. My favorite horror film in recent years was Drag Me to Hell, a throwback to those romps. It Follows isn’t campy, but I enjoyed it regardless. It felt fresh. It felt inventive. Unsettling, yet entertaining.


Award for Dangerously Overhyped That May Have Lessened the Experience of Watching

Mad Max: Fury Road

It’s a good movie. It is. But the level of hype and hyperbole that I was hit with before finally seeing it made sure that any viewing experience was compromised long before the opening credits.


Award for Most Unfairly Damned by Critics

Pan, Pixels, and Victor Frankenstein (tie)

Stop! I am not saying that any of these movies were great or even good. But they also weren’t terrible. Pan clocked a 26% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, the modern music infusions fell flat. Yes, Jackman’s wigs looked ridiculous. But there were some very inventive reimagined elements of the Peter Pan legend in here. Dare I say some of the sequences were even fun?

Pixels clawed itself up to a mere 17% fresh and received a slew of Razzie nominations just the other day. Could this have been waaaay better? Absolutely. Is it the worst thing Sandler has released in recent years? Hell no. Some of it is downright stupid. But I chuckled here and there and the visual approach to giant invading video games was intriguing.

Victor Frankenstein only brought 26% of critics to life. This obviously wasn’t the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes emulation it intended to be, but it wasn’t as ghastly as many critics made it out to be. It suffered more from bad timing. After it lost its prime pre-Halloween date to The Martian, it was relegated to go up against The Hunger Games over Thanksgiving. And then no one saw it. But still not as terrible as some would have you believe.


Award for Most Groan-Worthy Oscar Baiting

The Danish Girl

I know this may be one of those films that I’m not supposed to say was drivel, but it was. It felt like every moment was scripted intently with one goal… give me an Oscar. I couldn’t stop looking at my phone to see how much longer was left as the overly melodramatic tale went on and on and on. I won’t deny that the performance by Eddie Redmayne is bold and nuanced. Good for him. But truly Alicia Vikander is the one bright spot in this otherwise “contrived for award season” dreck.


Award for Busiest Star of the Year

Domnhall Gleeson

Did you notice that red-head that was in everything this year? He looks vaguely familiar but you don’t know his name. Or if you do know his name you don’t know how to pronounce it? That’s Domhnall Gleeson. This son of Brendan kicked off 2015 in the excellent sci fi thriller Ex Machina. He then went on to play one of two love interests in Brooklyn. Finally, he wrapped up the year by starring in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (biggest film ever in the US) and The Revenant (12 Oscar nominations just yesterday – the most of any film). Not a bad year.


Award for Great Performances in Underwhelming Movies

Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl

Will Smith in Concussion

Isabella Rossellini in Joy

None of these films had that spark. In fact, most felt like they were meandering through their run time rudderless. But just because the sum didn’t equal excellence, that doesn’t mean some of the parts weren’t great. Johnny Depp perfectly embodied the rage and unpredictability of Whitey Bulger. As mentioned before, Vikander was the only refreshing element of The Danish Girl, building on her other top notch performance in Ex Machina. Will Smith returned to form in Concussion, but the film itself lacked an internal engine and fell flat. And despite David O Russell’s latest outing Joy being a bit of a schizophrenic mess without a proper third act, Isabella Rossellini entertained every moment she appeared on screen.


Award for Franchise Getting Better With Age

Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation

There was a misstep with Mission: Impossible 2 way back in 2000. It could have left the franchise sputtering. Instead, the third film clawed back some of the fun of the first and then they didn’t look back. Ghost Protocol was excellent a few years ago and Rogue Nation delivered the goods yet again in 2015. I don’t know how long Tom Cruise will continue hanging off of the sides of airplanes, but hopefully he’s got another one or two left in the tank.


Award for Blockbuster with Most Successful Tug at the Heartstrings

Furious 7

My first memory of this franchise involves everyone heading out to the parking lot after the credits and revving the engines of their underpowered sedans and oversized SUVs. We’ve come a long way. Sure, this series is still ultimately about thrills and stunts. I don’t go in expecting great insight or loads of emotional depth. These are broad-appealing popcorn films at their finest. However, the latest installment managed to hit me right between the ribs. It was partially the tragedy of Paul Walker’s death and a hint of nostalgia realizing how far away we’ve come from that day in the Laurel Mall parking lot. It got me. And it is criminal that “See You Again” wasn’t nominated for Best Song by the Academy.


The Thank God It’s Over Award

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Has a franchise ever started with such promise and vigor only to end with a big, dull thud? The first two films, setting aside the whole “children killing each other” debate, were stylish and exciting. Then there was Mockingjay. It is incredibly clear to anyone with eyes and ears that Lionsgate’s money grab by splitting the final film in two was a horrible idea. Even so, had they smashed them together and edited down to an appropriate length, I still think this would have been a depressing, soulless end for all involved. In 2016 you have one thing to be thankful for at Thanksgiving… no more of these films.


Award for Holy Shit Scene of the Year

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Church Service Gone Awry

If you abhor violence… you probably weren’t watching Kingsman to begin with. However, if someone tricked you, it was this point where you promptly lost your lunch. Wicked choreography. Brutal stylization. Hilarity. This whole sequence was nuts. In a good way (depending on your perspective).


Award for Most Exciting 6 Seconds of the Year

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – First appearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca

This was cheapened a bit by the reveal in the trailer, but even so. The moment you first see that smuggler’s mug and his hairy pal… over the moon. That feeling multiplied as the film went on, as Harrison Ford was the highlight of the latest space opera installment.


I’ll Admit It I Almost Cried… Maybe Kinda Cried… You’ll Never Know Award

Inside Out, Amy, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (tie)

Pixar was back in form with Inside Out. It’s been 5 years since they used my tear ducts as punching bags with Toy Story 3. We muddled through Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. Then came this film. Cue the Kleenex.

Likewise, watching the tragic story of Amy Winehouse unfold in the impeccably crafted documentary Amy made my heart break. It was hard to watch those early personal videos as she set out on a journey to make music, only to have fame and neglect and poisonous relationships drive her to an early grave.

Finally there was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The personal experiences I carried into this film made it crushing. Even without that, I think you’d have to be pretty cold inside to not fall to pieces in the last ten minutes.


Award for Favorite Musical Experience

Hateful Eight, Ant-Man, Dope, and Love & Mercy (tie)

If there was one thing that kept Tarantino’s epic western from coming unraveled it was the score. Morricone’s approach was simultaneously nostalgic, explosive, nuanced, catchy, and poignant. It helped compress the longer, more self-indulgent sequences. It sticks with you long after the last 70mm reel.

Then there was the Ant-Man score. To this point, you would be hard-pressed to remember a musical theme from any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks. I believe that changed with this score. It’s sneaky. Fun. Catchy. Most importantly… memorable.

“Hip Hop Hooray,” “The Humpty Dance,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” are just a few of the entries in Dope’s soundtrack. It’s a perfect cocktail of 90s hip hop throwbacks and new music curated by the talented Pharrell Williams.

Love & Mercy is a musical homerun by merely existing. The Beach Boys tunes that populate the film are as excellent and engaging as when they were first released. Watching that music get built from the ground up was an added bonus.


Award for Surprisingly Awesome Comedic Performance

Jason Statham in Spy

I already mentioned what a pleasant surprise Spy turned out to be. If you’ve seen it, you know that a large chunk of credit goes to the comedic turn of perennial badass Jason Statham. Sure, he’s always brought a gruff, sarcastic sense of humor to his roles (see Snatch, The Italian Job, Crank, The Expendables, etc), but here he breaks out his all-in, go big or go home comedy chops.


Award for Personal Disappointment

A Walk in the Woods

This wasn’t a bad movie. It was a blah movie. Which wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t based on one of my absolute favorite books of all time. Bill Bryson’s autobiographical tale was full of wit and discovery and emotion. This adaptation, featuring albeit incredible actors, lacked all of that. Instead of a tale of a man in his mid-forties reconnecting with his home country, nature, an old friend, and who he is as a person, we got aged up 70-year-old characters who in essence learn they aren’t quite ready to die yet. Everything plays false in this tightly contrived plot. And legendary performers seem uncomfortable in their characters’ skins. It wasn’t a disaster. Just a huge personal letdown.


Still with me? Did you abandon your efforts back when I argued for you to give Victor Frankenstein a chance? I figured.

Here’s a quick look at what didn’t make my Top 25, but could easily have done so. It was a struggle wrangling the list this year. Left just beyond the cut line (in no particular order) were Spotlight, The End of the Tour, Trainwreck, Hateful Eight, Stanford Prison Experiment, Beasts of No Nation, Spy, Love & Mercy, Straight Outta Compton, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, MI 5, Spectre, The Wolfpack, Digging for Fire, The Overnight, Finders Keepers, The Gift, Welcome to Me, and several others.

Nowhere near the cut line (meaning waaaay at the bottom) were Self/Less, Jupiter Ascending, Chappie, Jurassic World, Seventh Son, Entourage, Fantastic Four, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension, Unfinished Business, and this year’s bottom dweller… Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

For the three of you left reading at this point… my Top 25 of 2015.


25.) 99 Homes

Another wickedly intense performance from Michael Shannon is nearly overshadowed by an equally intense turn from Andrew Garfield. With Spider-man in his rearview mirror, Garfield tackles a heavy subject with the kind of nuance we haven’t seen to this point in his career. The film itself is a look at the economic crisis America faced nearly a decade ago, but through a unique and personal prism.


24.) Ant-Man

With a ridiculous name and a less than prime position following The Avengers: Age of Ultron, many were writing this flick off as Marvel’s first potential stumble. They ended up being wrong on many levels. A global box office success, Ant-Man provided fans with a unique standalone tale in the fashion of a heist film. All in, it was funny and it was fun – thanks to Paul Rudd, Michael Peña, and a Thomas the Train Engine.


23.) Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller returns to the franchise he launched over thirty years ago and brings with him a shit ton of explosive action and jaw-dropping stunts. Rusty hues, surging flames, and a healthy slathering of white paint set the stage for a tense, adrenaline-fueled chase picture through what is left of human civilization. It’s a helluva ride, for sure. Hardy is great in an understated role, but Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult own the show.


22.) Amy

 As I mentioned previously, this one hit me hard. I knew very little about Amy Winehouse before watching this doc outside of the chorus of “Rehab” and a vague memory of mascara and big hair. This incredibly personal look into the making of an international superstar and her tragic fall from grace uses home videos to pull you uncomfortably close. The film is immensely effective at making you feel directly connected to the bright-eyed, sixteen-year-old girl who liked to scribble lyrics in her notebook and enjoyed Tony Bennett records. That made her untimely death all the more affecting.


21.) Mississippi Grind

You may have missed this one. Which is a shame. Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis showcases the actor at his charming best, but it is the down-on-his-luck Gerry, played to perfection by Ben Mendelsohn, that makes this a must see. A story of the luck we make and the choices that derail us, this flick is an excellent portrait of raw, desperate humanity.


20.) It Follows

Director David Robert Mitchell achieved something with his second feature that many directors never do in their careers… he created a fresh take on a cliché-heavy genre film. It Follows has an intensity and sense of claustrophobia that will keep your hair at attention for the entire 100-minute runtime. It’s visceral without being gruesome. No quiet moment is safe from the unrelenting suspense.


19.) Steve Jobs

 There was a time when the first trailer dropped for this film that I was certain it would be a top five film. The dialogue is as snappy as anything Sorkin has written. The cast from top to bottom delivers electric performances. Even Danny Boyle’s familiar kinetic pacing and visual flare is utilized as effectively as possible. However, the anticipated gravitas that would push it further up this list was in shorter supply than expected. Yet still it remains a bold portrait of one of the most important personalities of the last half-century.


18.) Mr. Holmes

Has there ever been more perfect casting? Sir Ian McKellen disappears into the role of a 90-year-old, retired Sherlock Holmes. The fading icon’s desire to tie up his one incomplete case before his mind leaves him is powerful and somber. The picturesque English countryside provides a beautiful, portrait-like backdrop for a tale of mystery, humanity, and friendship.


17.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

There are many movies that deal with tragedy of illness and its affect on loved ones. What makes this film stand out is perspective. Unlike many films of this sub-genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t sugarcoat or infuse melodrama. It’s told from the perspective of a teenage guy making his way through the world that isn’t asking for a friend with cancer. He resists it altogether. The honesty present in that slowly developing friendship sucks you in for the good and the painful.


16.) Ex Machina

Who doesn’t love a fresh psychological sci fi flick? Stylish and cool, Ex Machina gives us a look at the filmmaker’s version of the not-too-distant future. That future includes incredibly complex human-like robots. No Robbie the Robots here. This line-blurring vision of advanced machines comes in the stunning form of Alicia Vikander. Oscaar Isaacs and Domnhall Gleeson are both excellent and only get better as each mind-bending curtain is drawn back.


15.) Legend

 Another picture you may have missed, Legend tells the “true” tale of the notorious Kray brothers as they build their criminal empire in London in the 1960s. Tom Hardy breathes life into two very different brothers – the smooth operating Reggie and the hotheaded Ronnie. What was surely a complicated shoot is invisible to the audience as you almost instantly forget that you’re watching the same actor in two roles. The production design is top notch. Supporting cast is impeccable. An entertaining and fascinating ride.


14.) Sicario

It’s gritty. It’s dark. It’s intense. And hell, it may be more representative of reality than any of us would like to admit. Emily Blunt continues to show her range, while Benicio Del Toro slips into his quiet, terrifying role like a confident hand into a well-worn glove. Visually blunt (no pun intended), it draws you in and drags you through the rocky tunnels, gang-riddled streets, and dark bureaucratic corners with no reprieve.


13.) What We Do In the Shadows

Even I’m mildly surprised this film made its way this high on my list. But I can’t deny it. The team behind Flight of the Conchords brings us the vampire tale we’ve been missing. I think I needed to apply Icy Hot to my ribs after I was done watching this one. Four vampires, each turned at a different point in history, live together as roommates. It’s that simple. And its simplicity is what leads to its brilliance. Jermaine Clement kills it from start to finish. Watch this.


12.) Inside Out

There is little more that needs to be said than this is Pixar back in true form. The animation is colorful and inventive. The characters are lively and layered. The emotion is authentic and earned. The laughs are legitimate. The voice cast is on point. Its unfortunate The Good Dinosaur couldn’t keep the bar at this level.


11.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Let’s start at the basics. This movie is fun. It’s exciting. It’s familiar – in the best possible way. I’ve described this to folks as a palate cleanser. The original Star Wars films were all incredibly simple when it came to plot. Then along came the prequels and with them the convolution of trade agreements and midi-chlorians and clones. The Force Awakens resets the world. It brings us back to those simple, yet epic space sagas that generations have fallen in love with. Sure it shares plot similarities with its predecessors. Sure it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But it was a blast watching it the first… and the second time. I now care about the new principal characters and look forward to the next chapter of their journeys.


10.) Bridge of Spies

 I believe whole-heartedly that this film is Spielberg’s most complete picture since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Every category of production was excellent, of course. And Tom Hanks put together a performance that shows how age continues to reveal even greater depth to what he can do. Perhaps even more impressive though is how outrageously good Mark Rylance is as the captured KGB spy, Rudolf Abel. There’s magic to Spielberg’s films when he’s at his best and there’s plenty on display here.


9.) Trumbo 

Can a picture about the horrors of the House Un-American Activities Committee be fun? If the incomparable Bryan Cranston plays your lead and you have a supporting cast including Helen Mirren and Louis CK, you sure can. It’s a dark period in American history that frighteningly feels all too familiar. An incredibly smart script, delivered via smart actors, results in a most complete and satisfying film.


8.) The Big Short

Adam McKay stepped out from behind the zany Anchorman/Talladega Nights/Step Brothers curtain to put together a poignant, shocking, and oddly funny portrait of the events preceding the 2008 economic collapse. Strange bedfellows. But it works. He takes an incredibly complicated subject regarding sub prime mortgages and the gradual destabilization of our banking system, filters it through a talented cast and clever exposition mechanisms to make a film you enjoy watching. Yes, you enjoy watching the demise of our economy. You’ll be pissed, no doubt. But entertained on your way there. It’s a strange experience, but one I’d happily go through again.


7.) Brooklyn 

You can’t help but sense something timeless about Brooklyn. It feels like a picture the studios would have made in the 40s or 50s. Epic and romantic and sweeping. Its pace will be too slow for some modern audiences, but they’re missing out on a special film. The writing is honest, the design vivid, and the performances spot on. I highly recommend this classic story that spans the Atlantic and serves up charm by the bucketful.


6.) Dope

I’m a sucker for a movie that makes use of Los Angeles as a character. In Search of a Midnight Kiss, LA Story, Swingers, The Player, and so on. Dope manages to deftly capture the essence of a particular part of this strange and diverse city. It’s overflowing with an assortment of unique characters, explores stylistic boundaries, thumps with an excellent soundtrack, and has a helluva lot of heart. Malcom, Jib, and Diggy are perfect conduits for a classic, yet fresh farcical romp through the City of Angels.


5.) Room 

There is a myriad of reasons I loved Room. Paramount among them was this bizarre sense of world building we witness in this 10 x 10 space. Faced with horrific circumstances, a young mother uses imagination to give her son a strangely sweet and fulfilled life. The psychology of it is striking. Then comes the suspense. Setup, threaded and paced with the skill of a surgeon, you find it gripping every nerve in your body. It moves beyond an emotional response. It becomes deeply physical. The weight of the task would be too much for most actors. However, Brie Larson puts on a master class and the young Jacob Tremblay sweeps through the story with subtlety and skill far beyond his age.


4.) Creed 

This could have easily been put into that “disaster waiting to happen” category. Really? We’re going to keep the Rocky franchise alive? Even Stallone thought it was a bad idea initially. After the middling swan song that was Rocky Balboa, there seemed to be no gas left in this tank. Thank god Ryan Coogler convinced everyone otherwise. Creed was sharply plotted, pumping with energy, stylish, and fun. It had those emotional peaks and valleys that the best sports movies earn through authenticity and character. Michael B Jordan shook off the sludge that was Fantastic Four to give a vulnerable, yet powerful performance. Sly dug deep and found a way to bring new dimensions to a nearly 40-year-old character. Beyond all that… the fight choreography was something to behold. Best Rocky movie since the original.


3.) The Martian

Someone originally described this movie to me as Cast Away on Mars. It’s not inaccurate entirely, but it fails to acknowledge the many differences that make this film a stunning achievement. Yes, the fear, anger, frustration, elation, and paranoia of being isolated in a hostile environment are all clearly on display here. But that’s missing the layers of subplots and characterizations that make this a truly unique and enjoyable journey. The science of it all is fascinating. It can get complicated, but the textbook material is made digestible by the inherently likeable Matt Damon (in arguably his best performance since The Departed). The visual effects are stunning. The production design is slick, but not gaudy. Ridley Scott is once again his old self and weaves a tale of discovery, action, suspense and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.


2.) The Revenant

Visceral. If there’s a better word to sum up this film, it escapes me. If you follow film, you’ve heard the stories of a long and hellish production. Everything shot in natural light. Actors stuck in frigid, painful conditions for hours on end. Scheduling chaos that led to shifting the shoot to an entirely different continent. At every turn this could have turned into a cautionary tale. Instead, the studio’s confidence in Iñárritu and his vision of an art house tale on a grand studio scale didn’t waver. We as the audience bear the fruits of that commitment. You feel every piece of the scenery. The snow. The dirt. The blood. Danger lurks around every corner – natural and man-fueled. You can see DiCaprio pour his heart and soul into every look. Every movement of his broken body. It seems inconceivable that his efforts aren’t rewarded with something made of gold. Supporting cast is at the top of their game. Great turns from Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter. If I were making an “academy” style top 25 list, this would be number one.


1.) Kingsman: The Secret Service

But since this is a “favorite” style list, one film comes out a hair above The Revenant. It’s a surprising pick. I get that. It has sat at the top of my list every day since I first saw it back in February of 2015. I thought about it from every angle. Tried to convince myself that maybe I should slide it down the list a little. But no. That wouldn’t be an honest reflection of how I feel. Despite seeing 40 or 50 movies I would deem good, great, enjoyable, or affecting, this is the one that gave me the most complete cinematic experience of the year. It avoids the pitfalls of a spoof (not an easy task when making a British spy movie). It delivers equal helpings action and comedy. It is voguish and hip. It is refreshing. Colin Firth is a badass, which is beyond bizarre. Taron Egerton bursts onto the Hollywood scene as that rare likeable rogue (think Harrison Ford early in his career). Sure, silliness abounds. But that’s part of the fun. It actually takes some of the fun campy elements of the older Bond films and manages to reshape them for a new era. Judgments be damned, Kingsman was the most fun I had watching a movie this year.


So that’s that. Another year in the books. A ton of great films across the entire spectrum of genres and budgets. If you’re wondering why your favorite isn’t on here… ask. If you want to cruelly make fun of my choices… go for it. I’m always up for a good debate. Here’s hoping 2016 can keep up the pace. Until next January…


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Re-designing College Football for the Modern Era

How excited are we for the college football season to begin? While you wait for kickoff, read this essay I put together with another football-obsessed pal

Our take on how to modernize college football.

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2013 Cinema Review and Top 25 Films

It’s the time again. The eighth annual unveiling of my Favorite Films of the Year. A time to reflect on the new films I saw in 2013 and how they stacked up. A reminder – this list is comprised of my favorite films of the year. Interpret that how you will.


It was another “relatively” low viewing total this year. Although I exceeded the 92 films I saw last year, I didn’t beat the total by much. I saw 94 new releases in 2013 – my second lowest total since I began keeping track in 2006. 51 of those were in the theater and 43 via home entertainment. I’ll admit, Apple TV has changed my life. It’s pretty damn easy to decide to watch something, flip on the TV, and rent it from Apple in five minutes flat.

I have missed a few of the films garnering awards buzz this year (Lone Survivor, All is Lost, Rush, Dallas Buyers Club, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and about a dozen of the top 50 grossers (The Conjuring, Epic, Planes, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, etc), but managed to take in large number of quality films.

Some of the movies that I truly enjoyed this year just missed the cut (Kings of Summer, Warm Bodies, Much Ado About Nothing, Disconnect, Place Beyond the Pines, Enough Said, Iron Man 3, etc). And then there were those that I wish I hadn’t seen. Some truly awful fare (Prince Avalanche, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, A Good Day to Die Hard, Burt Wonderstone, Only God Forgives).

With all that said, it was a pretty darn good year for movies. Here’s my 25 Favorite. Feel free to disagree. I’d expect nothing less.


25.) The Way, Way Back

A cast of excellent actors brought heart and humor to a fun-filled, coming-of-age story. A fresh and funny take on the “summer of discovery” tale.

24.) World War Z

I’m not a zombie fan. I had low expectations. However, I was pleasantly surprised. This was an interesting and engaging alternative take on the zombie apocalypse genre.

23.) Captain Philips

Simultaneously a powerful and quietly, nuanced performance by Tom Hanks. Claustrophobic camera work and strikingly believable supporting players made this an entertaining flick.

22.) Don Jon

I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed watching JGL’s resurgence since Brick. His directorial debut is clever, but doesn’t try too hard. It’s crude, but not off-putting. There’s a great deal of heart in this film about an internet porn addict.

21.) Side Effects

A well-crafted adult thriller is hard to come by nowadays. This film put together a stellar cast and a tight script with a healthy dose of suspense. It’s a shame it didn’t get a wider theatrical run.

20.) Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’ve never read these books, but I became a franchise fan after the release of the first movie. The second film ups the stakes, maintains the fun, and continues to deftly build the world.

19.) The Spectacular Now

Most teen dramedies spin melodrama in the hopes of snagging an emotional connection. This film avoids those pitfalls and draws you in with realistically sculpted characters, excellent performances, and a surprisingly excellent score.

18.) Before Midnight

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this film would have incredibly fluid, crackling dialogue. Nor should I have been shocked that Hawke and Delpy would slip so seamlessly into these characters. It was smart, sharp, and emotionally honest.

17.) The Book Thief

It took me some time to get around to this film. I knew it would be good, but kept delaying my commitment to a two and a half hour WWII drama. I’m glad I didn’t delay any longer. It is beautifully shot, scored, directed and written. The performances from top to bottom are above board. Especially Geoffrey Rush.

16.) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Granted there were some tonal shifts that seemed a bit choppy, but the spirit of this film hooked me from the word go. Ben Stiller used his cinematic canvas to skillfully capture a quirky, “find yourself” adventure framed by incredibly vivid cinematography and an energy that is infectious.

15.) Saving Mr. Banks

I’m a sucker for Hollywood history. That alone would have been enough for me to enjoy this film, featuring another excellent turn by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. However, what I initially thought would be a saccharine, whitewashed Disney origin movie turned out to have several fascinating rough edges and a truly emotional core.

14.) American Hustle

I know this film has its detractors. Some felt it lacked structure or momentum. It was a little manic. Chaotic. I don’t disagree with any of that, but it is also part of the reason I enjoyed it. David O Russell takes talented actors, hands them outrageous characters, and lets the madness ensue. I, for one, am a big fan.

13.) Star Trek Into Darkness

The cast is perfect. I’ve believed that since the initial reboot was released a few years ago. This film only confirms it. Top-notch effects and the right balance of action and humor made this one of the most fun and entertaining films of the year.

12.) This is the End

Outrageous. Self-indulgent. Offensive. Silly. All accurate descriptions. The best word to describe this film, however, is hysterical. I laughed even harder the second time I saw it. I’m not sure who had more fun… the audience watching it or the guys making it.

11.) Nebraska

Bruce Dern is in top form. He brilliantly delivers a nuanced performance full of frailty, strength, pain, hope and resilience. Shockingly, Will Forte is pretty darn good too. Go figure. June Squibb is a raunchy revelation. Well done, Mr. Payne.

10.) Blue is the Warmest Color

Yes, there are a couple of insanely graphic (nearly pornographic) sex scenes in this French import. Yes, that garnered more press than the film itself. Yes, I felt incredibly uncomfortable watching this in a full theater. But the film is an emotional triumph in every way. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos give incredible performances. Truly. The writing is honest and heart felt. The production values are all excellent. And honestly, there’s something pleasant about hearing two women speak French for two and a half hours.

9.) The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

While I liked the first Hobbit movie, I didn’t love it. Although not up to the grand level of the LOTR, this second installment does a much better job of capturing the energy, action, and adventure of Jackson’s first film trilogy. I had a lot of fun watching the comings and goings of Middle Earth. Most of all though, the Bilbo / Smaug sequence was fiendishly entertaining.

8.) Gravity

You can’t say enough about the technical mastery and visual accomplishments of this film. It truly stood as a unique film in a year of unique films. On top of that, I held my breath for at least half of this movie. While I’m not a Bullock fan (and felt any number of actresses could have been easily plugged into this role), it was the guttural, sensory tight rope act that made me a sucker for this one It represents an astonishing lesson in suspense and tension.

7.) Inside Llewyn Davis

It’s best to describe this film as a portrait. The colors. The music. The dialogue. The emotion of the central characters radiated from each glance. While the story lacked a high-powered engine, it didn’t need one. I was quite happy to be carried along with Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn at his own pace. To see the world through his eyes as he stumbled along. An impressive character piece from two of the best directors in the business.

6.) Fruitvale Station

Hard to watch. Very hard to watch. Director Ryan Coogler skillfully builds the character of Oscar Grant layer by layer. Michael B Jordan, in a role highly unappreciated in my opinion, breathes life into this tragic figure. There’s an inevitability to the film from the get go, but you find yourself hoping you’re wrong. Chilling and powerful.

5.) Blue Jasmine

I love Woody Allen flicks. How he continues to do what he does at this point in his career is beyond belief. While this film is entertaining on many levels, it is the tour de force performance from Cate Blanchett that makes it truly special. Jasmine, in her hands, is wickedly funny, terribly tragic, and obscenely awful all at once.

4.) Mud

If you ever looked out into the unknown as a young kid and fantasized about adventure just over the horizon, you must watch Mud. This story of two boys who encounter a fugitive on an island and make a deal to help him repair an old boat for his escape captured my imagination from the first scene. Matthew McConaughey delivers a stellar supporting performance that only adds to his public transformation from surfer dude action/comedy star to an incredibly accomplished, talented actor.

3.) Twelve Years a Slave

I may never be able to watch this film again. It really is that intense. It is a deep, unflinching view of slavery as seen through the eyes of a free black man tricked, captured and sold. Every technical aspect of this film is superb. The music. The cinematography. The editing. The production design. The writing is powerful and moving. But what makes this film a true juggernaut are the actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o offer performances so raw and true that they are hard to watch. Undoubtedly one of the best-made films of the year.

2.) Her

The concept makes some people uncomfortable. It’s odd. Frightening. Foreign. A man falls in love with an AI operating system. While it isn’t a traditional Billy Wilder love story, it’s relevant and thought provoking in a world and time where the “norm” is evolving at light speed. For all of his personal madness, Joaquin Phoenix sure can act. He gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance. Scarlett Johansson, though she never appears on screen, gives an equally moving performance with nothing more than her voice. It’s a story of love, loss, loneliness and humanity. Spike Jonze is one of my favorite directors on the scene today. I thank him for another gem.

1.) The Wolf of Wall Street

However… While Spike Jonze is one of my favorites, this man sits at the top of the heap. Marty delivers a manic, morally ambiguous cinematic goldmine with The Wolf of Wall Street. For those saying the film glorifies excess… you didn’t see the same film I did. Like Goodfellas (my favorite film of all time), Scorsese showcases a vile world, full of despicable acts, conducted by mostly terrible people. But how do they get to that point? How do we as a society address these characters? More often than not… we celebrate them or, at the very least, look the other way. I think Marty does a great job of forcing us to evaluate that sad truth as we watch the madness ensue. Jonah Hill… you’re an actor. A very good one. I’ll push Superbad out of my head and see you for what you are now. Leo… I’ve never been your biggest fan. However, you’re performance in this film is Oscar-worthy. You held nothing back. You poured every emotional and physical bit of yourself into this portrayal. Well done.


That’s that. My favorite 25 films of 2013. If you’re curious where other films fell in my list of 94 just ask.

Here’s hoping 2014 is full to the brim with more great films. I’m looking at you, Ninja Turtles.

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2012 Cinema Review and Top 25 Films

filmThis is the seventh year that I have maintained a list of all of the new releases that I have had the opportunity to watch over the past twelve months. Some years have been thin in quality. Others, like this year, are full of exceptional films that make my annual rankings all the more difficult.

Before I jump into my Top 25 Films of 2012, I would like to acknowledge those films that I missed. My overall viewership was down this year for a number of reasons. In fact, this year represents my lowest total number of new release films viewed since I began tracking in 2006. I saw 92 new releases in 2012 (77 of them in the theater and 15 via home entertainment). It was my second lowest in-theater total and tied for my lowest home entertainment total.

Let’s start with the box office hits that I missed. Reviewing this past year’s top 25 grossers, I failed to see Madagascar 3, Ice Age 4, Hotel Transylvania, and Magic Mike. Turning to the recently announced Oscar nominations, there were a good number of films receiving either multiple nominations or significant nominations that I missed this year. That includes Amour (5 noms), Anna Karenina (4 noms), The Master (3 noms), Flight (2 noms), The impossible (Best Actress), The Sessions (Best Supporting Actress), The Pirates! (Best Animated) and ParaNorman (Best Animated).

I also have yet to see No, an Oscar-nominated film produced by a friend and fellow AFI Conservatory graduate (Daniel Dreifuss). I’ve heard nothing but good things, but unfortunately haven’t had a chance to view it before the close out of my yearly rankings.

I’ll take a look at where other top box office performers and nominated films landed in my overall list of 92 at the end of this post. So without further delay, here’s my Top 25 Films of 2012.


25. Zero Dark Thirty
A very well-constructed film with an excellently crafted climax. However, I left the theater a bit less moved than many. A good film, but not a great film.

24. Arbitrage
This is the only title in my Top 25 that I viewed at home. Richard Gere gives an intense performance in this thrilling tale of greed, lust, and desperation.

23. Robot & Frank
Frank Langella seems to deliver a knock out performance whenever he appears on screen. This film is no exception. Driven by a high concept, it remains exceptionally intimate and personal.

22. Hitchcock
I’m an old Hollywood nut and a big fan of Mr. Hopkins. His portrayal of A.H. is exceptional, but ultimately overshadowed by the powerful screen presence of Helen Mirren as the auteur’s far less known wife.

21. Rise of the Guardians
The soft box office returns may have hurt perceptions of this film, but it was an action-packed adventure accentuated by superb animation and an amazing score.

20. The Avengers
Logical fallacies and soft plotting be damned. Maybe it’s the kid in me, but this summer juggernaut provided the right dose of humor and adrenaline.

19. Argo
Another film I thought was very good, but not great. I commend Affleck for the project, but the suspense often felt either redundant or convenient. Affleck’s direction deserves props, but I felt his performance was a bit pedestrian.

18. Frankenweenie
This film reaffirms my Tim Burton theory. Budgets $50 mil or under… good Burton. Over $50 mil… bad Burton. A somewhat simple childhood tale is brought to life with heart and imagination.

17. Chronicle
A new filmmaker with a fresh take on an overexposed genre and generally tacky story-telling format. I never expected a found footage superhero film to be this unique and entertaining.

16. The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight was my favorite film of 2008 and one of my favorites of all time. I desperately wanted this film to hit that level. Unfortunately, too many plot holes and logical smudges prevented it from elevating to the previous installment’s heights.

15. Life of Pi
Visually stunning. That’s the headline for this title. I normally loathe 3D, but this is one of those rare films I recommend throwing down the extra few bucks. The 3D is part of an incredible visual pallet created by director Ang Lee.

14. Casa De Mi Padre
This little-seen picture starring Will Ferrell provided me with some of the biggest belly laughs in a long time. I’ve rarely seen an audience so engaged. It’s outrageous. It’s over-the-top. It’s hilarious.

13. Ruby Sparks
Paul Dano plays a writer dealing with a major creative block and a series of personal neuroses. That said… I have no idea why I identified with this movie so much. This picture is built on the foundation of a great screenplay that tackles the logical questions of the story’s premise head on, allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in journey. The ending may be a bit rushed, but the overall piece gets major kudos on this list.

12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Whatever you do… don’t see this in 48 fps. It was a distracting experience that undercut the exemplary work of the production design, costumes, and special effects. Seeing it again in the good old 24 fps was a great pleasure. Very happy to be back in Middle Earth. Lacks the gravitas of the LOTR trilogy, but still an exciting ride.

11. Safety Not Guaranteed
A low budget. A clever concept. A collection of eccentric actors. I came out of this movie once again reassured of what creative people can do when they come together with a purpose… even if they don’t have much money.

10. Ted
I haven’t been a Family Guy fan since college. Mark Wahlberg has never really struck me as an exceptionally watchable actor. But this year Seth Macfarlane teamed the actor up with a digital teddy bear and made me laugh hysterically through multiple viewings. There’s a reason this sucker is now the top grossing R-rated comedy of all time.

9. Lincoln
Spielberg’s mastery of all things cinematic is once again put on display with this thoughtful, passionate examination of a brief period in the life of a beloved president. I left the theater completely convinced that DDL’s portrayal was more Lincoln than the real man must have been. I could have listened to him tell his rambling stories for another hour.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
It took me a while to get around to seeing this one, but I’m very glad that I did. Exceptionally well-written and chalk full of great performances by a cast of young, fresh faces. Simultaneously moving, funny, and challenging.

7. Wreck-It Ralph
Perhaps the best plotted film released in 2012. Impressive animation across multiple worlds. Clever dialogue. Outrageously imaginative. Wreck-It Ralph was a pure crowd pleaser.

6. Looper
I realize this film has its detractors. I’ve heard some complain about the prosthetics used. Others felt the pacing was unbalanced between the first and second half. I won’t address all of that here. What I will say is that I found Looper to be one of the fresher films that I’ve seen in a while. I enjoyed the intricately laid out mythology and the thrilling visuals. Director Rian Johnson’s early portfolio of films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) makes him one of my favorite young filmmakers on the scene.

5. Silver Linings Playbook
I had moderate expectations walking into the theater. But David O Russell’s star-powered dramedy is so exceptionally well-written that I left green with envy. The characters were fascinating. The dialogue was pitch perfect. Combine that with amazing performances by everyone from Cooper to Lawrence to DeNiro and you have one of the best pictures of the year.

4. Skyfall
I’ve always been a Bond fan. Even during the most ridiculous, cheesy installments. Skyfall turned out to be one of the slickest, most cinematic Bond films of all time. Great action set pieces. Fresh perspective on a 60-year-old mythology. Incredible performances. I was pleased to find that Skyfall wasn’t just a great Bond movie… it was a great movie.

3. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes… Oh, sweet Wes. I never tire of your idiosyncratic style and your special visual flare. Your films provide a platform for A+ talent to play out intriguing and often oddball roles. Moonrise Kingdom managed to meet those high expectations set by your prior films. It then managed to exceed most of them by having a sweet, emotional story played out by two superb young actors. In my opinion, this tale of young love was the most emotionally affecting of all of your films.

2. Django Unchained
I’ll say it… Tarantino is the boldest mainstream filmmaker going. Tarantino’s dialogue is some of the snappiest in the business. And Tarantino’s appreciation for cinema is unmatched. All controversy aside, Django was a blast. Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L Jackson were incredible. The musical choices were spot on. The visual style was the perfect canvas for this particular tale. Three thumbs up.

And now, the film that has held the top spot on my list since I saw it in June…

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
From my perspective, BotSW is far more than a movie. It is an experience. I never stopped while watching to comment on the beautiful cinematography (though it was there) or the superb true-to-life performances (which were vivid and emotional) or the imaginative storytelling (unmatched this year). I was too busy being immersed in the experience of this film. It felt like it washed over me. Drew me in emotionally and creatively. It’s all the more impressive when you realize it was Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film. Kudos to him and to the young, very-talented Quvenzhane Wallis. See this film.

==========================================There they are… my Top 25 Films of 2012. Despite my lower viewing total, it was an exceptionally good year for movies. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the films in my Top 25 and many more beyond that.

A quick post-script on where some other major movies this year fell on my list of 92… From the 25 highest grossers – #5 Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II (#77 on my list); #7 The Amazing Spider-man (#52 on my list); #10 The Lorax (#76 on my list); #12 Men in Black III (#61 on my list); #18 Taken 2 (#50 on my list); #19 21 Jump Street (#31 on my list); #20 Prometheus (#48 on my list); #22 The Vow (#74 on my list); #25 Bourne Legacy (#49 on my list).

Other Oscar nominees and where they fall on my list – Les Miserables (#84 on my list); Snow White and the Huntsman (#37 on my list); and Brave (#59 on my list).

Here’s hoping that 2013 will showcase as many quality pictures. Happy viewing!

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Love Must Give Rise


I am torn between fits of heavy, aching grief and an unwieldy anger. From the moment I learned of the unfolding events three thousand miles from my desk, I felt swallowed whole. In the days that have followed, this sense of agony has endured. For the loss of innocents. For the unimaginable pain of a community. For the senseless evil of it all. For the dark, unforgivable trend of violence in this nation I love dearly.

I could not possibly have the slightest inkling of the sorrow and pain the families and friends of the victims in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing. I would gladly bare any portion of it on their behalf if I could. While I have no personal connection to the town or any of its residents, I know I share in the collective sadness of a nation. A nation whose busy and complicated lives have spun sideways at the sight of such terror and loss being laid upon our fellow citizens. What follows may be erratic or a bit unfocused. But there is little hope of clarity in the aftermath of such tragedy.


While I have no children of my own at this time, I’ve been blessed in life to be surrounded by energetic, caring, precious little ones for as long as I can remember. Dozens of cousins who fill my grandmother’s house with laughter and playful romping on Christmas Eve. An adorable nephew who is about to celebrate his first birthday. Two more nieces on the way in just a few months. Three beautiful goddaughters who are talented, intelligent, and full of life. The children of friends old and new who bring a fresh spark to our collective lives.

The thought of any of them being harmed makes my blood boil. The thought of any of them coming face-to-face with such horror and fear makes me want to cry out.

What I came to realize on December 14 is that those same emotions exploded through me for children I didn’t know. For innocent lives in a town that I have never visited. My heart aches for Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison. Lives stolen. Laughter silenced. Bright futures snuffed out.

And to Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, and Victoria, who gave all that they had to give to protect those children in their care, I pray they are given a special place in the next life for their love and sacrifice.

The loss of a child is a tragedy under any circumstances. Whether it is a quiet departure after a valiant fight with illness or a sudden, unspeakable loss in an accident. Losing a child is tragic beyond words. Lives only just begun. So much potential. So many milestones ahead. They represent the best chance for us as relatives, friends, communities, or societies. All of our mistakes can be wiped away by the hope of the next generation. When they aren’t given that chance… we are left with an emptiness.

In this time of reflection, my mind has roamed the far-flung reaches of the human experience for some understanding. Instead, it only widens my sadness. For while this is undoubtedly a time to honor, remember, and pray for those lost in Newtown, ever more senseless pain unfurls across our country and our planet.

Hundreds of children have been killed or injured in Syria since the terrible actions of that government began. At this very hour, more endure pain, suffering and death. Countless children suffer in lands both remote and front-of-mind. Infants dying of hunger in Africa. Toddlers taken by disease in South America. I realize these instances are different in many ways than the aftermath of an unexpected, violent attack. However, my heart tells me they are all connected. They are all preventable. They are all our collective responsibility.

And even here in this country, in this year alone, we’ve watched innocents taken. Not always children, mind you, but innocent lives nonetheless. In Colorado. In Wisconsin. In Oregon. All within one solitary, sad year.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown we have begun to hear, and will undoubtedly continue to hear, commentary from every corner. The answers to how we will stem the tide this time. Gun control, perhaps. Better mental healthcare. More security. I don’t have a blueprint for how to approach any of these topics. I doubt any of them will provide a be-all, end-all answer. But what I fear more than anything is what I’ve seen in the past… inaction. A great deal of talk. Very little progress. It happened after Columbine. It continued in the weeks after Virginia Tech. We even discussed it as we watched the horrific events in Norway unfold from afar. It was the lead on every news program after Tucson and Aurora.

But in each instance, the weeks passed and the conversation shrank. A fresh news cycle begins and we as a society lose sight of that hope for change. We can’t remember the names of the victims. It becomes a terrible footnote, usually highlighted by the name and image of the dark soul who committed the act. All is dormant until another, ultimately preventable, tragedy occurs.

I refuse to mention the perpetrator of last week’s act. His memory should be one of shame and cowardess. While evidence should be examined to help inform us as we move forward, he deserves no air time or press. It serves only to take time away from remembering the victims and moving our society forward. It only feeds other twisted minds that sadistically believe some treacherous notoriety seems appealing.

Instead, I think of those lost. Children and adults. Those who suffered and died for no good reason. For that’s the sad truth. We ask why… Why did this happen? But there is no answer that will bring us peace. Because no diagnosis of a troubled mind will make the pain less real. No understanding of some personal, demented motive will make the loss any less senseless.


I own guns. I don’t have any with me in my current residence, but I do have guns at my childhood home. I grew up around a hunting culture. Around good, responsible men and women who possessed firearms for hunting game or, in some cases, protecting their homes.

Guns are inherently dangerous. Their invention was solely for the infliction of damage. But as we’ve seen in terribly vivid imagery, many inventions can be used to bring about destruction. I’m not here to advocate the seizure and eradication of firearms in broad strokes. Not only is that wildly unfeasible, it is also not a logical solution to our problems.

There are, however, some individuals in this country with inconceivable positions on the issue. While I have no interest in hunting personally, I understand its place in our society and its necessity in some areas of our country and beyond. While I believe guns owned for protection of person or property are more likely to inflict accidental tragedy, I can bring myself to see the perspective of those who adamantly support this practice.

What I cannot reasonably come to terms with is the twisted logic of holding up the Second Amendment as an infallible, un-evolving proclamation. It is ludicrous for anyone to deny the obvious truth that this amendment to our Constitution was written in a radically different time. Circumstances of property and society were so very different than today that it is outrageous to suggest our interpretation of this right should not evolve as well.

In my humble opinion, there is no reason whatsoever for a private citizen to own an automatic or semi-automatic firearm. The sheer violence of which these weapons are capable should mandate that they only be possessed by the appropriate, active members of our nation’s military. And only then in scenarios of righteous action, under careful observation. You do not need an automatic weapon to hunt. You do not need an automatic weapon to protect your home.

They should be eliminated from the private homes and businesses of this country or any country. All other firearms should be regulated. Safety devices required. Detailed background checks a necessity.

Will this solve our problems? No. The sad truth is that it won’t. But if these actions can even marginally reduce the risk of violence, why do we avoid them? It seems some skewed perception of freedom overrules logic, reason, and righteousness.

But again, it isn’t the complete solution. Those with the intention of inflicting harm on others will find a way. It’s terrible but true. We as a society need to find a way to stave off that impulse before individuals find themselves on the brink. I will preface this by saying that I believe in evil. I believe in true, unapologetic, uncomplicated evil. In those cases, preventative measures to affect the impulses of individuals seems hopeless. However, we know that this isn’t the case in the majority of instances. Perpetrators of heinous acts are all too often lost souls, tormented by an ill mind that has been left untreated.

A couple of years ago we had a great debate in this nation about universal healthcare. There was a significant portion of this country that was adamantly against such a proposition. Generally it had something to do with not wanting to pay for other people’s treatment or some fear that the government’s further involvement in healthcare would mean long lines. To hell with those excuses. This country was founded on the idea that all who live here should have equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Universal healthcare touches all of these. We are a great society who has conquered illnesses and developed technologies the likes of which we could have never imagined. Are we to then say that profits will prevent us from providing care to those in need? That we will attach a stigma to some ailments that prevent those in need from seeking care? That people will be left to suffer, or in some cases die, because they can’t afford treatment?

Mental health is just as important an element in that discussion as is physical health. Providing care to everyone creates a stronger nation. More productive members of society. Less fear. Less hopelessness. Less instances of “nothing left to lose.”

Additionally, can we please agree that prisons are not mental health facilities? No matter how much some would like to say they can be. And clearly, the mental health of all of our citizens can directly impact the freedoms of each of us.

A house is a privilege. A car is a privilege. An iPhone. A steak dinner. Vacations. But healthcare should not be a privilege. Until we as a country understand this, millions of Americans will suffer physical and mental trauma. Their pain can manifest itself tragically in preventable death or horrifically in an assault on their fellow man. This should not be a debate.


All of this would be something. Something real and tangible. Not just the cable news scroll rhetoric. It wouldn’t stop tragic events like Sandy Hook completely. And it surely wouldn’t end the suffering of children in Syria, Africa or around the world. To end all of the senseless violence and pain, we have to think bigger.

We have become a selfish society. The culture of “me” is pervasive. It’s about what I want and what I need and to hell with other people. We create so many divisive lines between us that everyone else can easily be broken down as an “other.”

Why are we here? On this planet. In this time. Whether you believe in the Christian God or worship the infinite Hindu deities or believe in nothing at all… you all wonder now and again, “what’s the point?”

I’m not a theologian by any stretch of the imagination and I certainly don’t have any definitive answers. I can only say what I believe. To me, we all find ourselves on this rock together at this very moment as part of a collective experience. We are a common species. Our biological systems operate in the same way. The instinctual urges of our Id are similar. As much as we devote time to examining our differences, our similarities are all the more striking.

We are all guilty of stumbling from time to time. Greed. Vanity. Envy. Lust. Even the most saintly among us. It’s our position in this world as an evolved species that pushes us to overcome these base urges. At least it should be.

When I leave this world, none of the money I accumulate or selfish pleasures I experience will go with me. They’re fleeting. We as the human race would be better served to focus on how to make the lives of everyone around us better… more complete. It’s a goal that can have a lasting impact not just today, but on generation after generation. It’s something we can accomplish that will last beyond our time here.

We need to focus on revealing value in EVERY member of our society. For only when we look at another human being and see someone who matters can things truly change. If this was the society we fostered, than the ill would be cared for and the desperate would be made whole. The compulsion of those to act out violently could be curtailed before it came to pass. And then, in what would hopefully be the rare instances when it still did come to pass, potential perpetrators couldn’t look coldly on those before them. They would be people, not “others.”

As corny as it sounds, love must rise up. We must love each other so much that we aren’t willing to let someone spiral into darkness. We must love each other so much that we aren’t willing to let innocents suffer needlessly. To starve. To be sick. We must love each other so much that when tragedy occurs, we don’t forget so quickly.

In remembering the tragedies this year alone, we shouldn’t forget those in Colorado… Jonathan Blunk, AJ Bolk, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John Larimer, Matt McQuinn, Micayla Medek, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, Alex Sullivan, Alexander C Teves, and Rebecca Ann Wingo.

Or Wisconsin… Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh, and Satwant Singh Kaleka.

Or Oregon… Cindy Yuille and Steven Forsyth.

Or those innocent souls taken from Newtown, CT this past week… Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachevl Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeleine F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, and Allison N Wyatt.

May all of these lives cut short be at peace. May the families and friends who loved them dearly find comfort in the midst of such darkness. May we do what we can to help them. May we never forget what was lost and how vital it is that we do EVERYTHING possible to prevent these terrible events in the future. And may we as one people, one world, embrace love over ignorance… love over apathy… love over prejudice… love over selfishness.

My prayers and thoughts are with those lost, their families, and a community in need of healing.

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