As bad as 2016 was for so many, it was also a nightmare for me on a personal level. I’m still grappling with the deaths of my mom and grandmother. The despair I fell into caused huge setbacks for my mental health. Simply put, there’s been sadness to spare.
But my mom wouldn’t have that. She did not allow hopelessness. That was ironclad with her. Never did she waver from her belief that there was always hope, no matter how bad the situation. Her personal mantra, one I hear her say countless times in my life, was “lean into gratitude”. Clinging to that without her here to help has been my greatest test. I waver constantly. My family helps. My friends help. And, well, so does art.
An odd irony of this year: as grief sapped my will and desire to consume art, especially films, at my usual speed, I did all the more appreciate the art that I did love. I wanted badly to write a summary of my favorite films of this year, as I did last year, but simply put: I haven’t seen enough. Instead, I’m going to write about art across the spectrum that lifted me in my darkest hours, that gave me hope when I was most in need of it. These are the artists and works of art of 2016 that I’m grateful for.
Coloring Book, by Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book came out almost exactly two weeks after my mom died. Listening to it gave me the first real sense of joy I’d felt since that day, from Chance breaking into laughter with gratitude for how good his life is in record’s first few seconds to the literal come to Jesus moment in the final track as he sings with a chorus, over and over again “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”
Never had I needed to hear words like that so badly. For a solid month, I listened to Coloring Book in its entirety, every day. It’s one of the most joyful, earnestly spiritual albums I’ve ever heard, and I’m so grateful that Chance the Rapper dropped it when he did.
In June, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I watched the Tony Awards. In my younger, theatre kid days, the Tonys were required viewing. They were an invaluable way of keeping up with the year’s notable Broadway productions. As I got older, I sort of fell out of keeping up with theatre and the Tonys fell to the wayside as well. But last year, I was caught with my whole family in the spell of Hamilton, the megahit musical that needs no more explanation from me. So we were all gathered in the living room to watch the Tonys, to watch a show we loved win awards, and to see the cast perform. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Hamilton swept the night, and their performance of “Yorktown” (one of my favorite tracks from the cast album) lived up to expectations. But the highlight of the evening for me had nothing to do with Hamilton. A tiny woman from London with a voice clear and powerful as a winter wind completely stole the show. Performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo completely captivated my living room and, given the huge ovation she received, everyone watching her live. From the first note she sang I was breathless with astonishment and by the end of her performance there were tears falling down my face. God bless live theatre. No other medium so easily allows one person to level crowds with sheer talent and artistry.
The Invitation, dir. by Karyn Kusama
I didn’t see many movies this year. I’m going to go out of my way to see more in 2017, but I simply lacked the energy most days. One thing no one tells you about grief: it completely drains you of energy, physically and emotionally. But I did see one film in 2016 that is going to stay with me for a long time, and that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s no mistake that it’s a movie that understands that point about grief. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in a long time, a work that shows the emotional scope possible within a genre that is so often unfairly dismissed as trivial. As someone with anxiety and who has spent most of this year grappling with grief, The Invitation was a rare film in any genre to tackle both of those topics head on, with honesty and deftness. It builds to a climax that is genuinely chilling, all the more so because the horror is the logical endgame to this story, and not simply an excuse for wanton bloodletting. The Invitation isn’t simply a scary film, it’s a heartbreaking one.
From a design standpoint, I could endlessly praise Overwatch to high heavens for how thoroughly it eschews everything about the first person shooter genre that I’d grown weary of. It’s so lively, so colorful, so unabashedly goofy and fun. But beyond all that, Overwatch was the perfect distraction for me in a year when I needed one badly. No matter how bad my anxiety would get, no matter how sad I might be on a given day, Overwatch was there to give me a burst of color, a quick endorphin rush, something I could count on to lift my spirits in a year that was so relentlessly trying.
I played all of Inside in one late night rush, finishing at about 5 in the morning. Although there were many points where I thought time to go to sleep, I couldn’t pull away. Developers Playdead took the basic mechanics of their first game, Limbo and refined them beautifully. They also crafted a haunting world in which the game takes place. Inside is a thrilling, disturbing, altogether astonishing experience. Its gameplay is fluid and intuitive; the puzzles are ingeniously designed so that we understand immediately what we need to do without breaking the narrative flow. The story is wordless and captivating, saying all it needs to say with what we can see. Inside is an unforgettable experience, the sort of game that will inspire future developers to continue to seek increasingly creative ways to use games to tell original, beautiful stories.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
I wanted to keep this post to things released in 2016, but I’m making an exception for this extraordinary book, which was published in August 2015. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel as original as this one, which takes place in one of the most extraordinarily realized worlds that I’ve read in fiction. The Stillness (the planet the novel takes place in) is a chaotic wilderness dotted with cities of astonishing architectural detail that Jenisin describes vividly while never slowing down its propulsive narrative. Once every few centuries, the world is struck by apocalyptic events called Seasons, which are prevented by beings called Orogenes, who have the power to control the earth at a tectonic level. The Fifth Season is inspiring reading, and I can’t wait to begin on its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which came out this August.
“8 (circle)”, by Bon Iver
22, A Million is a splendid album, but sometimes the power of one song is worth highlighting. Bon Iver has long been one of my go to musicians for meditation and calm. No matter the period of my life, there seems to be something in their music that reaches into my soul and connects at a level that is almost spiritual. This plaintive, gorgeous song aches with uncertainty, sadness, and a desire of hope. It is the most simply beautiful song I heard this year.
As I said, I didn’t see many films this year. But I felt like I couldn’t miss this one. There is something still pure and healing about the animated musical to me. The way it transports me back to my childhood, when nothing could be more enchanting than a darkened theatre and a Disney movie. Moana delivered as much as I hoped it would, which is to say that its music made me cheerful, its story made me smile, and I got easily caught up in the sweep of it. Its simplicity was a welcome relief from the more madcap plotting of recent Disney films, whose plots often seem to be playing catchup to their worldbuilding. Moana didn’t reinvent the Disney musical, but as the holidays approached and I prepared for a series of firsts without my mom and grandmother, watching something simple and joyful with my siblings was what I needed. For that, I think I’ll always be particularly grateful for this film.
Hey all, it’s been a while.
The reason for that is simple: grief is overwhelming in ways nothing prepares you for. I’m at a place where my day to day life approaches normality, but my energy to watch and write about movies isn’t quite back yet. I’ve been pouring the energy to write that I do have into a new manuscript. I don’t know where this project will take me, but hopefully, it’s the lift I’ll need to get back to tending to this blog, which has been such a wonderful place for me these last five years.
In the meantime, keep watching and loving movies. I’d love to have lots to talk about when I return.
This is a movie that understands grief and anxiety, how they exacerbate each other, how they leave your nerves perpetually frayed, how they leave you perpetually on guard. This is a movie that knows how much more chilling a thriller can be when the primary scare is uncertainty, the sense that something is wrong but you can’t put a finger on it. This is the root fear of anxiety, after all: not that something horrible is happening, but that something horrible is going to happen, you just don’t know when or why or where.
The Invitation defies simple genre categorization. It’s a drama about grief and some of the most understandable human fear. It’s also a horror film about when that fear mingles with fear of something more sinister, and when there are just enough clues, nerves, and odd strangers that that shadow begins to grow into a shape both distinct and terrifying.
The film opens on Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to a dinner party. It’s at his ex-wife Eden’s place. Eden (Tammy Blanchard) has been out of touch with everyone she knows for two years. Her marriage with Will fell apart after their son’s death. She disappeared into Mexico and emerged with a new boyfriend, David (Michael Huisman) in tow. She has invited Will, Kira, and several of their closest friends to a dinner party in her home in the Hollywood Hills. On the way to the party, Will hits a coyote with his car. Rather than leave it to die, he kills with it a tire iron. His nerves won’t be any less frayed the rest of the night.
The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama. She knows how to film anxiety. Will is jittery and uncomfortable from the moment he arrives at Eden’s home, which they once shared. Every room triggers memories of his son, or of the aftermath of his son’s death, when he and Eden were at their lowest. In the present, Eden emerges, smiling widely, talking serenely, looking angelic in a flowing white dress as she talks proudly of how she has completely overcome her grief. This needles Will. He doesn’t seem to believe her, and fears immediately that she has come under the influence of some sort of cult. But the script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is smarter than to rely on fear of a religious cult as the main narrative thread. That would be the stuff of a conventional thriller. The Invitation is more invested in its characters, more curious about them, than convention would allow.
Logan Marshall-Green is splendid in a role that demands a lot from him. His face is open and earnest. Hiding behind long hair and a full beard, his eyes convey his deep personal wounds. Watch how he conveys Will’s agitation, his profound discomfort at being in this house that fills him with pain. It’s a beautiful performance. Blanchard is excellent too, selling a role that could easily devolve into camp with a less measured performance. It’s essential for us to believe that Eden believes completely in her transformation. More than that, we need to be able to at least consider for a moment the possibility that whatever she did in Mexico actually helped her.
That moment doesn’t have to last, however, and soon David shows the party a video that spells out his and Eden’s beliefs in ways that discomfort everyone at the party to varying degrees. Will is deeply unsettled. Some of his friends laugh it off, attempting to comfort Will, insisting that Eden and David are simply the sort of harmless New Agers who are dime a dozen in a city like Los Angeles. And yet around every corner Will senses that something is deeply wrong in his old house. David and Eden have two friends from their group at the party. Both are quite odd, casually saying things that make everyone deeply uncomfortable. David insists on locking the doors of the house. Expensive wine flows freely. Will refuses to partake.
Kusama deftly handles the audience’s wavering sense of discomfort with the party. This is not an action-packed film, but it is a tense one. It never reveals its hand until the precise moment it needs to. Until that point, it uses Will’s skyrocketing anxiety as a main source of tension. As an anxious person, I would absolutely want to check out of the party early. And yet we can never quite shake the possibility that his anxiety- amplified exponentially by his grief, by seeing his ex-wife for the first time in so long, by the fact that she seems to have moved on completely from their tragedy- is warping his view.
All this makes The Invitation sound like a heavy drama. How is it, then, a horror film? I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say: it drips with realistic, sweaty dread. Its depictions of how all-consuming grief and anxiety are at times chilling. It swerves into territory that is deeply unsettling, even disturbing. By the end, The Invitation scared me. Like the best horror films, its scares come from places in the psyche that every person has. It is the fear that comes from a soul that is grieving and raw. A fear that can only be coaxed out with skill and empathy. The Invitation is one of the best films of the year.
Hey all! I hadn’t watched any horror this month, so to catch up I’m trying to watch two films a day, preferably movies I haven’t yet seen. I signed up for Shudder to help me along, and yesterday I started off with Angst (1983) and Hush (2016).
Angst (1983) dir. Gerard Kargl
This Austrian thriller comes with a history of controversy and a devoted cult following. It is considered a predecessor of films that look unflinchingly at serial killers, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Funny Games. Unfortunately, Angst doesn’t hold up nearly as well as either of those films. It opens with a long explanation of the history of its protagonist, a man who has just been released from prison and who immediately sets out to kill again. As he terrorizes a family, we hear his nonstop internal monologue, as he uses his present-day murders to find release from the traumas from his past. It’s all profoundly heavy-handed; as he commits a murder, he describes precisely the event or person from his past that he blames for making him do it. Angst lacks both the gravitas to simply be about the horror it depicts (like Henry succeeds at doing) and the wit to provide some sort of insight into the killer’s mind without being relentlessly on the nose. Extremely disappointing.
Hush (2016) dir. Mike Flanagan
In this indie horror film from earlier this year, Maddie (Kate Siegel) a deaf writer living in a remote, woodland house, is terrorized by a masked stalker (John Gallagher Jr.). Hush feels at first like a conventional home invasion thriller, with the characters going through the expected motions of the genre. We know the beats well at this point: the introduction of the villain, the standoff, the heroine making questionable decisions regarding self-preservation, the villain’s hubris leading to his downfall, supporting characters bumbling into their doom, etc. Two-thirds of the way into Hush I was ready to accept it as a decent movie that I’d not likely revisit again. But then, the last act propels the movie into a breathless finale that gets deeply inside Maddie’s head as she faces the extreme likelihood that she won’t survive the night. Hush doesn’t reinvent the genre, but the script (written by Siegel and Flanagan) finds its footing beautifully in the last act, and the film charges into its conclusion on the strength of its characters and story. Despite its imperfections (even at 81 minutes the story still spins its wheels at times) Hush is a surprising and genuinely suspenseful film, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
This was much harder than I thought it’d be; I haven’t attempted a comprehensive list like this in about a decade. There are at least 55 films I could likely swap with the bottom third of the list and not feel bad about.
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Three Colors: Red (1994)
- Children of Men (2006)
- Millennium Actress (2001)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- Tree of Life (2011)
- 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
- Spirited Away (2002)
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- The Bicycle Thief (1948)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- The Lion King (1994)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
- Ran (1985)
- The Princess Bride (1987)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
- Yojimbo (1961)
- Psycho (1960)
- Late Spring (1949)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Taxi Driver (1976)
- The Fall (2006)
- Dark City (1998)
- Suspiria (1977)
- The Shining (1980)
- A Little Princess (1995)
- Casablanca (1942)
- Inglourious Basterds (2009)
- Rear Window (1954)
- The Vanishing (1988)
- Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Brooklyn (2015)
- Alien (1979)
- On the Waterfront (1954)
- All About Eve (1950)
- Departures (2008)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
- Summer Wars (2009)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- The Thing (1982)
- Jaws (1975)
- The Apartment (1960)
My little blog turned 5 years old today. On one hand, I haven’t been the most prolific blogger. It has had numerous fallow periods. But it has always been here for me when I need it. Writing about movies is therapeutic for me. It does me a lot of good to have a place where I can write what I want, when I want, at my own pace.
That I have picked up some followers along the way amazes me. Again, I’m not a full-time or even part-time blogger. My output leaves a lot to be desired. But every comment, every view I get makes me happy. That my writing has an audience of any size makes me happy.
So here’s a little present from me to my readers, to celebrate today, a few things to commemorate my blog’s 5th anniversary. Below are some top 5 lists: five posts that I’m proud of, five great blogs I love, and later tonight, my 55 favorite films of all-time.
Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to what the next five years will bring!
Five posts of mine I’m proud of
I was still figuring out what this blog was going to be when I tried a just-for-fun experiment: seeing what I could learn about movies I loved by looking at the opening shots. It was the first time I realized just how much fun writing about movies could be. After that, I tried to keep writing only pieces I could really enjoy writing.
In which I make the case for one of my most deeply-held beliefs about movies: that adapting books to the letter is much less important than capturing their spirit.
I sometimes dabble in writing about TV shows, and Game of Thrones is a favorite of mine. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from criticizing it when I think it’s merited. I do feel vindicated by this piece, though: the show’s sixth season was widely praised as one of its best, and it dialed back much of the empty shock value that nearly made me give up on the show in favor of the intrigue and epic sweep that made it so gripping in the first place.
I was going through a bout with depression when I wrote this piece, about another mental illness I’ve been grappling with my entire life. I was extremely nervous about hitting “Publish” on this piece, but I’m so glad I did.
This one means a lot to me for so many reasons. As an American, it’s important for me to remember what I love about my country in an election season that has so often given a megaphone to those who would enforce the worst, most narrow-minded instincts upon the entire populace. Brooklyn is a beautiful film that reflects a country that I can be proud of.
This piece also meant a lot to my mom. It is as much a tribute to her as it is to the movie. After she read it she told me with tears in her eyes how much it meant to her. Four months later, she passed away. I don’t think I have it in me to watch Brooklyn again now. But it is a special movie to me for that reason, and this review will always have a special place in my heart.
Five blogs I love
Anna over at Film Grimoire hasn’t posted in a couple of weeks, which means I haven’t been able to read her lovely writing about movies as often as I’d like. Her reviews are straightforward, honest, and excellent. She is also a tireless promoter of other excellent bloggers; her monthly favorites lists are required reading.
They really aren’t assholes, try as they might to convince you otherwise. Matt, Jay, and Sean are passionate cinephiles whose love for movies and writing about them is so infectious, that even if they were assholes I’d still love their site.
Rob at MovieRob watches so many movies, half the fun is simply seeing what he’s watching next. His monthly Genre Grandeur blogathons are always a lot of fun as well, to both participate in and to read when they’re finished.
Horror is my favorite genre, and horror writer Michael Thomas-Knight runs a superb site that covers horror from all angles: films, fiction, interesting attractions, and more. I always know I’ll find something fun whenever I visit.
Joshua Hoffine’s horror photography has been some of my favorite horror in any medium over the last few years. He doesn’t update his blog very often, but the behind-the-scenes looks at his photography are wonderful. If you love horror like I do, please check his work out!
(Coming later, my 55 favorite movies!)
I haven’t written here for a while. Here are some thoughts I spilled last night to get the gears moving again. Some spoilers below for the movies discussed.
Beauty is something we can all immediately recognize, even as we can never agree to a person what is and isn’t beautiful.
Beauty is one of the aspects of a movie I respond to most of all, even if I can’t exactly define what makes a film beautiful. At least not in a way that I can apply consistently from movie to movie.
For example, I loved Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. But is it beautiful? Dazzling, sure. Visually stunning, absolutely. But I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful. Not as a whole work. There are certainly gorgeous shots, but beautiful shots can’t make a whole film beautiful any more than a few individual words can make a whole poem beautiful. My favorite films often have the same appeal of poetry to me; at their best, they evoke strong, specific emotions.A good poem can transport me into the mind and heart of the poet. Good movies can do the same thing.
What about my favorite film of Cuaron’s, Children of Men? I would call it one of the most beautiful of all films. Yes, it takes place in a grimy, miserable universe. Yes, it tells a story rife with death. But it’s a deeply humanist film, and its visuals are propulsive and actively serve the storytelling. The beauty of the images and the beauty of the story culminate in that tracking shot near the end when a brutal battle is interrupted, for a moment, by the sight of a baby. The moment is Cuaron’s masterpiece, taking an element that could have been mawkish all on its own and building to it with precision until he created a symphony of images and narrative that was as moving as any scene I’ve seen in a movie theatre.
Just as there’s more to making a painting truly beautiful than recreating a beautiful scene, the most beautiful films are always more than the sum of their parts. You know how much I love Hayao Miyazaki, and no one would argue over how beautiful his films are. He is the 21st century standard for imaginative filmmaking. And yet for as much as I love Miyzaki (Princess Mononoke will always be my favorite film) I don’t think he’s responsible for the most beautiful Studio Ghibli movie. That honor goes to Only Yesterday, the bittersweet drama by Isao Takahata. Its visuals aren’t as lush as Miyazaki’s (or even those in Takahata’s lovely The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The story, of a 27 year-old woman looking back on her childhood while casting an uncertain eye to the future, isn’t as obviously moving as the rich, propulsive plots of other Ghibli films. But there’s a quiet beauty constantly humming beneath the surface. Every scene is rich with life, sometimes sadness, sometimes delight, but mostly just everyday familiarities, moments that sing with truth. Sometimes the most beautiful thing an artist can provide is empathy.
Of course, there’s more to beauty in art than humanist affirmation. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor? She specialized in southern Gothic tales of mean people doing cruel things to each other with passages that, out of nowhere, evoke feelings of something divine, even apocalyptic. The beauty in a Flannery O’Connor story is not the type that inspires wistful reflection. It is always at odds with the material, fighting through it, giving you fits because the mere suggestion of a shred of beauty in a story like A Good Man is Hard to Find seems so at odds with the material. And yet it’s undeniably there, made somehow more potent by its suddenness and brevity.
Those moments of beauty are my favorites. They pop up so unexpectedly and have the sort of permanent impact on me that truly inspires. For this reason, there might be no more beautiful film than The Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director tells a tale that is as dark as the woods at night. At times it is demonically sinister. It is filled with cosmic dread. And then, it finds the beauty. The scene where Shelley Winters body is found submerged at the bottom of the lake still retains its horrific power, even as it evokes the same feelings of grand religious paintings. The scene where Robert Mitchum chases the children through the swamps is one of the most deathly frightening chase scenes ever filmed, culminating in his character screaming one of the most fearsome screams in cinema history. The standoff at the end between Mitchum and Lillian Gish’s kindly caretaker of orphaned children is almost literal in its divine imagery, pitting Mitchum’s satanic false preacher against Gish’s guardian angel. It wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the film’s total conviction in its imagery. It wouldn’t be so powerful if it weren’t so convincingly ugly, if it weren’t so divinely beautiful.