Best of Comic TV 2020: The Rankings!

Remember that time John Oliver did a deep-dive into the US bail system, and how it’s weaponized to keep lower-income people, especially African-Americans, in jail? The best way to combat that right now is The Bail Project, a charity committed to paying the bail of those who can’t afford it, so that, say, being arrested for protesting police brutality doesn’t financially cripple you. Visit them at https://bailproject.org/, spread the word, and if you can spare a donation, they can always use it.

Back to it.

Okay, here we go… 21 shows ranked! And let me say… this might have been the highest-quality season since I started doing this. Shows that would have made the top ten easily in previous years, if not the top five, are down where we used to find shows I’d make fun of. There are some very high highs, but none of the low lows that marred previous years. No Iron Fists or Inhumans, or even bland Cloak and Daggers or wildly inconsistent Gothams. The worst we have is “Okay, but not nearly their best work.”

But first, press F to show respect to the following fallen shows.

In Memorium

  • Arrow. How crazy is it that the grand mack-daddy of all superhero crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths, got adapted on network television all because of the success of a show about Green Arrow, of all people? Arrow wasn’t always the best Arrowverse show… actually according to these annual rankings, it wasn’t ever the best Arrowverse show from the first year there were other options… but, as the name suggests, without it, there wouldn’t be an Arrowverse. No duelling speedsters, no spaceship full of time travelling misfits, no annual crossovers putting Defenders to shame over and over… no Beebo. You did good, Arrow.
  • iZombie. In the general scheme of things, five seasons was pretty much just right for their overarching storyline of the zombie outbreak and subsequent conflict with humanity. In another sense, five seasons was never going to be enough time to spend with Liv, Ravi, Clive, Major, Payton, and even ne’er-do-wells Blaine and Don E. This show was a delight, and I’ll miss its core cast for a long time. You were the least faithful to your source material of any show I’ve covered, lacking even a character in common with the comics, but you were special while you lasted.
  • Krypton. I admire Krypton’s dedication to self-improvement. From halfway through the first season, they did their best to find more interesting takes on their story. And they delivered a decent Lobo, a solid General Zod, and by second season a really interesting Brainiac. They were just way too confident they’d have as much time as they wanted to tell the story, and that was not the case. So… are we done with shows about the pasts of famous heroes named after the place they’re from? Smallville lasted a decade, sure, and Gotham made it half that, but Krypton is over after twenty episodes and Metropolis seems to have died in development. So… we’re done?
  • Legion. Some shows can’t run indefinitely. Some shows need a set plan. And Legion was one of those. Noah Hawley brought us a three-act story told over twenty-seven mesmerizing episodes, with a stellar cast and visual flair like nothing else. There has never been a show like Legion. There may never be again, because you can’t be Legion if you’re trying to be like something else.
  • Preacher. To my chagrin, I think Preacher’s legacy will be how weirdly unbalanced the pacing was. The slow-burn first season and the final season’s race for the finish line almost feel like different shows. They spent three years really digging into key moments from the comic run, then when AMC said they had one year to wrap it up, they had to slam on the gas to get to the climax. Still… they delivered an amazing, gonzo yet character-driven adaptation, one which provided some key lessons (including not taking your time in early seasons) for the even-less-probable Garth Ennis adaptation The Boys. I wish it had run another four years, but I’m glad I had it while it lasted.
  • Swamp Thing. We hardly knew ye, Swamp Thing. You delivered the exact Swamp Thing series we needed, a perfect fit to the R-rated tone of every other DC Universe show they’d made (prior to Stargirl). You had great takes on a lot of DC’s magic characters, characters I’m mad I won’t get to see again. Apparently, the only people who didn’t think a dark, horror-themed Swamp Thing was the way to go were the people running your network. Idjits. Here’s hoping the CW reairing it in a desperate bid for fall programming leads to a revival.
  • Watchmen. Series creator Damon Lindelof brought us a collision of the dark side of America’s history and the possible future of Alan Moore’s world of masked crimefighters, twisted masterminds, and one living god with a broken view of time, mixing real-life atrocities and racial tensions with the aftermath of the Watchmen graphic novel, and it was great. He poured every idea he had into this one season… meaning he had nothing left in the tank to keep it going. Like Alan Moore before him, he never envisioned a follow-up. So for now at least, Watchmen ends again as one self-contained story, and we should be thankful we got it.
  • Marvel TV as we knew it. For the past half-decade, there were two sides to live-action Marvel entertainment… Marvel Studios, as run by Kevin Feige, reporting directly to Disney; and Marvel TV, run by Jeph Loeb, reporting to Feige’s former boss Ike Perlmutter. And while fanboys clung to the hope that the Marvel TV characters would appear, or at least be referenced, in any of the movies, people paying attention (such as me, hello) could tell they were very clearly separate worlds that would never mingle. But now Feige has been put in charge of the movies, TV and comics, so Marvel TV as we knew it now yields to Feige’s empire, and everything from before is cancelled. And maybe that’s for the best, because while we might lose the smaller, street-level stories like Daredevil or Runaways, frankly Jeph Loeb brought too much of Smallville’s old “No flights, no tights” aesthetic to Marvel TV, leading to an apparent fear of seeming “comic-booky” that made the whole franchise a little… bland. Basic. Routinely embarrassed of their source material. (Google, find a supercut of Marvel Netflix characters hating their costumes from the comics–no? Damn it.) The fanboys are waiting for the Defenders, Runaways, Agents of SHIELD, and Inhumans to find their way to new seasons on Disney+ or Hulu, but… I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Expect, at best, reboots. Eventually. Probably best to say goodbye to them all now and beat the rush later. So farewell, Cloak and Dagger; bon voyage, Runaways; via con Dios, Agents of– what’s that? Still on? For how many weeks? Huh. First to arrive, last to leave, I guess.

Honourable mention: I don’t include animated series in these things because a) that feels like a hole with no bottom and there are already 21 shows on the list… again…; b) I don’t know how to find most of them; c) I’d mostly be comparing cartoon shows made for pre-teens to Preacher and how do you even do that, even Riverdale was a stretch. But all of that said, if you can find a way to watch Harley Quinn, then do it, because oh my god it’s so hilarious, and also weirdly heartfelt. Do what you have to, but check it out.

Now let’s do this thing.

Next page: The Also-Rans

Best of Comic TV 2020: The Best Characters!

Apparently YouTube videos whose ads donate to BLM charities are a moving target, as YouTube pulled the last one right after I posted it. I’ve replaced it with this one, which hopefully also works, so give it a spin, and while you’re doing that, check out this list of ways you can help fight racism. Find something that works for you, then meet me in the next paragraph.

No, really, I’ll wait, go do that. Done? Okay, let’s get going.

Alright nerds, we’re through the technicals, into the performances. Some of the most brutal, hard to call categories coming at you, ’cause there was some talent this season.

Let’s see if I can do them in a sensible order for once.

The Wentworth Miller Award For Best Guest Star

Putting aside series regulars and major recurring characters, who brought something special to their limited appearances, as Wentworth Miller did on The Flash as Captain Cold?

These people did!

Honourable mentions: Haley Joel Osment as a formerly famous child hero on The Boys was just perfect casting; Neal McDonough made one last appearance as Damien Darhk on Legends of Tomorrow, and was delightful as always; and of all the alumni they brought back for Arrow’s final season (damn near all of them), the one who most reminded us what they brought to the show, and how much they’re missed, was Paul Blackthorne as Quentin Lance. His brief reunion with Oliver and Earth-2’s Laurel Lance was particularly emotional.

Bronze: The Crisis Cameos, Crisis On Infinite Earths

And that’s just episode one.
Images: CW

Really all I can do here is present a complete list, except for the dozen and change that were pretty clearly recycled footage from DC Universe streaming shows.

Robert Wuhl reprising Knox the reporter from 1989’s Batman; Burt goddamn Ward reprising Adam West’s sidekick Dick Grayson; Wil Wheaton as a doomsayer; The Tick’s Griffin Newman hosting a trivia night; Erica Durance as both Supergirl’s Alura and Smallville’s Lois Lane; Johnathon Schaech reprising Jonah Hex; Tom Welling back as Smallville’s Clark Kent (punching out Lex Luthor, no less); Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series bringing his iconic Batman voice to live-action for the first time; patron saint of this category, Wentworth Miller, as the voice of Leonard Snart on an alternate-Earth Waverider; Tom Ellis bringing Lucifer Morningstar to the Arrowverse, face to face with John Constantine; Ashley Scott back in costume as the Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series; John Wesley Shipp reprising his 1990 Flash one last time; Black Lightning finally joining the crew; Ezra Miller giving us a brief meeting of the cinematic and television Flashes; and original Crisis author Marv Wolfman hitting Flash and Supergirl up for autographs (he loves the team-ups, you see).

Is that everyone? I think so? And each one delightful.

(If I had to pick one, it’d be Tom Ellis by a nose, but I don’t so I won’t.)

Silver: Thomas Lennon as Mr. Mxyzptlk, Supergirl

The mischievous imp, less travel-size than the classics.
Image: CW

A quick lampshade-hang about why they’ve swapped out the original actor for someone less dreamy, and Mr. Mxyzptlk came back to Supergirl, and he came back doing what Mxy does best… being an adorable trickster and screwing with the fourth wall. And Thomas Lennon excelled, always finding the humour in Supergirl’s 100th-episode trip backwards through the past four seasons, as Mxy and Kara tried to find a moment to tell Lena Luthor the truth about Kara that maybe wouldn’t destroy either their relationship or the world. Some of them destroyed the world.

I could really go for an annual Mxyzptlk appearance, if that’s an option.

Gold: Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukis as Oliver Bird and the Big Bad Wolf, Legion

Legends square off.
Image: FX

I feel like we discussed this episode and it’s rhythmic climax plenty last time. So for now I’ll just say that it was an immense delight seeing Jemaine Clement back, and the only thing that improved it was having Jason Manzoukis show up as the (symbolic) Big Bad Wolf, shouting to Oliver not to wait before teaching the baby about syphilis.

And then they rap battled. Come on.

Such a great episode, and these two (with help from Jean Smart) really anchored it.

The Tricia Helfer Award for Rookie of the Year

What new characters on an established show really brought something special, like the way Tricia Helfer’s Goddess Charlotte kicked Lucifer up to the next level?

Honourable mentions: Switch on Legion made the entire season three story possible, but she sometimes felt like more of a device than a character; Connor/Superboy was a fun addition to Titans, but he more created his own subplot than added to what had been the main story; Natalie Dreyfuss was great fun as Ralph Dibny’s long-awaited true-love-to-be Sue Dearbon on The Flash, but was only in three episodes, and due to reasons probably won’t be back.

Read on!

Bronze: Iain Glen as Bruce Wayne, Titans

He’s a dark knight but a silver fox.
Image: DCU

I’m not a big fan of “middle-aged Batman” in general, and I’m not sure what Glen was going for with that Brooklyn accent… sometimes it seems “neutral American” is too tricky an accent, so actors from, in this case, Scotland, aim for something more regional… but damn having Bruce Wayne around was a good and necessary addition to this show. Given how much of Titans revolves around Dick’s difficult history with his complicated surrogate father, never seeing him throughout season one was kind of awkward. Whether Bruce was there in person, or an illusion created by Raven, or a hallucination brought on by Dick’s guilty conscience*, Bruce added a lot to the season, and if you could roll with the accent, Glen was kinda killing it.

*That last one was actually pretty great, and involved Bruce Wayne doing the Batusi with burlesque dancers, and it was amazing.

Silver: Naomi Ackie as Bonnie, The End of the F***ing World

There aren’t many stalkers on TV this enjoyable to watch.
Image Netflix

Series one of The End of the F***ing World was about James and Alyssa running from their traumas; series two was about having to confront the consequences. And so it made sense to have the consequences of their crime-ridden road trip personified in Bonnie.

The End of the F***ing World has always been about broken people finding inadvisable ways to face their traumas, and series two brought a new style of trauma to the mix in angry, confused, vengeful Bonnie. “I learned about punishment from a young age,” she tells us. Bonnie was raised with abuse and discipline instead of love, and now she has them mixed up in her head. Led astray by what she thought was love, she was personally wronged by the events of series one, and has come to deliver punishment to James and Alyssa. Poorly thought-out, at times hilariously inept punishment. Bonnie makes our road-tripping duo into a trio, and was a welcome addition.

Gold: Shayan Sobhian as Behrad Tarazi, Legends of Tomorrow

Sure he’s been in the gang for two years, but… had he been in the gang for two years yesterday?
Image: CW

In the third season finale, hacker and freedom fighter from the future Zari Tomaz finally altered her past/our present enough that her dystopia never happens… which means that her family was never hunted by a government that hated metahumans and also Muslims (I think we know any fascist American regime, fictional or currently-in-progress, is gonna come at Muslims), so her brother Behrad was never killed by ARGUS agents, so she never inherited the Zambesi air totem from him… and never joined the Legends. And also her last name is Tarazi now? Don’t fully get that last bit. But anyway, the last moments of the previous finale saw Zari erased from the team’s history… and replaced by Behrad.

So that left Shayan Sobhian with a bit of a trick to pull off… make this new character feel like a long term part of the team, make his relationships with the other Legends feel lived-in, and make us like him enough that we’d be invested in him sticking around instead of checking our watches wondering when “Internet Celebrity Zari” was going to blow over and things would go back to the way they were last season.

And damned if he didn’t nail it.

Behrad instantly felt like an old friend. Whether he was being best bros with Nate and Ray, or revealing that he’d had a secret tryst with Charlie the shapeshifter (which they probably kept on the DL since her primary form looks exactly like Nate’s ex), or dealing with his vain, shallow older sister Zari finding out he’s a time traveller, Behrad was a welcome addition from episode one, and I was quickly frightened something bad was gonna happen to him since he was only credited as a guest star.

And his presence let them do something fun and new with Zari, which was neat.

Next page: The supporting players

Best of Comic TV 2020: Here we GO!

Before we get started… I’ve been sitting on these blogs for a week, because given all of the everything… this felt horribly frivolous. But as protests continue, we all need an occasional break, so I’m taking a piece of advice from someone more knowledgeable than I am in these matters (keep listening, keep learning)… release your art, but also take a moment to point people to ways they can keep helping ensure that Black Lives Matter. Today, I present this: this playlist is a way to support bail funds if you can’t afford to donate. Just throw this video on while you read, and make sure you’re not blocking ads because the ad revenue is going to a good cause.

And now, on with the show.

Another TV season comes to an end, and once again I’ve spent twelve months devouring all (well, many) forms of comic book TV, and I’m here to share with you what my exhaustive research tells us is the best of the best! Who had the best fights, elicited the biggest sobs, featured the best casts, and many more!

Specifically of shows that ended their seasons between July 1st of 2019 and June 3rd, 2020. With these specific exceptions.

Walking Dead: I don’t wanna and you can’t make me.

The Riverdale of it all: I am not the target audience of Riverdale. That’s fine. I don’t have to be. There is so much media that is geared specifically towards me that it’s fine that some of it isn’t. But it hardly seems fair to rank shows meant for a younger female audience against shows weirdly targeted right exactly at me, so I’m leaving out all of the Riverdales. That includes Riverdale Prime, Spooky Riverdale (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), and Sex And The City Riverdale (Katy Keene, which could not be less targeted to me).

With that in mind, here’s what we are covering, with links to reviews where they exist.

Sadly, due to Plague Times (or lack of vision by the DC streaming service), a few of those shows didn’t get proper season finales. Which I’m trying my best not to hold against them, but maybe they had a lot of plots going on and maybe I was really eager to get to the point where they started connecting in a more clear way and I don’t know I would have liked to see how they stuck the landing.

Anyhoo, let’s get into the technical awards, starting with what I keep telling you is one of my favourites.

Next page: Biff! Sock! Kapow!

Dan’s Quarantine Theatre, Vol. 3: Electric Boogaloo

So we’re still doing this, huh? Well, glad that the closest I’ve come to self-harm is a very strong urge to give myself what would no doubt be a disastrous haircut. My shaggy-ass hair is legit driving me crazy.

While society has begun to tentatively reopen enough for me to see friends in open spaces while two metres apart, 90% of Lockdown Life is still finding stuff to watch, and I, your Pop Culture Sin Eater (why isn’t that the name of my blog…), am here with recommendations and maybe some cautionary tales.

Keeping it a little shorter this time. And once again, here’s a Table of Contents, in case you want to pick and choose.

Hide and Seek of DOOM
Adios, Runaways
Forget your troubles, come on get Happy!
Speed Round

Next page: Like I said, Hide and Seek of DOOM

My Quarantine Watchlist 2: Secret of the Ooze

Well, it’s May, and the world is still closed. My GPA in hospitality management remains high, though I do catch myself wondering if hospitality is an industry that will actually still exist or have sufficient openings this time next year. My place of employment, which I worked at for over six years, longer than I’ve worked anywhere, has shut its doors permanently thanks to five weeks of no revenue and no rent relief. Every movie I want to see has been delayed, and “new TV” is a soft maybe. I find myself only moderately more annoyed at anti-lockdown protesters than I am at people saying “Lockdown isn’t a big deal, stop whining.”

So let’s lose ourselves in entertainment, while there’s still entertainment to be had!

Here are some things I’ve been watching. You can too, unless I say you shouldn’t. I will definitely say you shouldn’t at least once.

Here are some shortcuts in case you want to pick and choose topics:
The International Murder Model
The Phantom of the B-Grade Brooklyn Burlesque Show
The Quarantine Rewatch Playlist
The Bayformers
The Alfred That F*cks
Groundhog Day… of MURDER

Next page: Murder model!

My Quarantine Watchlist: Part One

Welcome to Plague Times! I, like most of you, am sequestered indoors until the infection rate drops enough that we’re willing to risk resuming society, which at time of writing is… at best a strong maybe? Nobody knows. Time has no meaning and we’re all going a little crazy from lack of human contact.

Which makes it a great time to watch stuff! Stuff you’d been meaning to watch but hadn’t found time for! Binge that series, watch that movie, don’t just say “Now’s a good time to finally watch Breaking Bad,” go for the weird stuff! Check out Psych or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or watch Lindsay Ellis’ entire series on film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

(I have not started Breaking Bad. Or even Better Call Saul. I have watched several dozen coffin dancer meme videos.)

So being a non-essential worker (I mean I think my annual comic book TV rankings are essential but I don’t have to leave home to do those), I’ve been home alone nearly 24/7 since March 15th, with only the occasional escape for groceries, alcohol, or just being outside for thirty dang minutes, and I’ve been watching a whole bunch of stuff, and now I want to talk about it. So let me present what will no doubt be the first in a series of My Quarantine Watchlist.

(Not included in this blog: re-watching all six Missions: Impossible. Look, either I do an entire blog on Mission: Impossible, or you all agree to watch Patrick Willems’ video on why they’re great so I don’t have to.)

(Or the fourth season of Nailed It. What on Earth could I have to say about Nailed It that you don’t already know.)

Next page: Heading to the 80s

Locke, Key, and Magical Kid Adventures for Grown-Ups

When Spy Kids came out way on back in 2001, I thought “Man that looks pretty dumb.” And then a wise friend said “Sure, but I’d have watched the heck out of it when I was ten.” And I thought, sure, yeah, me too. That was the sort of story I grew up on. Kids my age (or close to) getting into high-stakes adventures with monsters and pirates and other sci-fi/fantasy/espionage elements. Monster Squad, Time Bandits, The Lost Boys, IT, The Neverending Story, and of course the chairman of the company, The Goonies. Sure Spy Kids wasn’t being aimed at me, but why shouldn’t the next generation have similar movies to latch onto?

(As well as The Goonies, of course, it is for all generations.)

That said… I wasn’t the only one who grew up on these magical kids’ adventure stories. And if there’s one thing the entertainment industry thrives on, it’s milking nostalgia in an attempt to squeeze money from audiences.

And so a new genre seems to be forming… 80s-style magical kids’ adventure stories, but designed to appeal to adults and youths alike.

The very obvious example, one that may have sprung into your mind the second I brought this up, is Stranger Things.

Featuring at least one literal magic kid.
Image: Netflix

Stranger Things is both loved and criticized for the way it weaponizes nostalgia in its narrative, creating a pastiche of the Goonies and the Loser’s Club and having them battle otherworldly monsters alongside a magic girl, using Dungeons and Dragons and sometimes dressing as Ghostbusters. It’s a sci-fi fantasy conspiracy thriller that uses 80s nostalgia to flavour the story the way a fancy cocktail might use simple syrup*, and its a little hacky, but I love it.

(*I did just finish a course on cocktails, why do you ask?)

And on the far side of the spectrum, we have this lot.

Twenty-Something Titans GO!
Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Titans is about literal magic teens being mentored by 20-something former teen heroes. It would be perfectly aligned for a teen audience… except they curse like they’re out of a Tarantino movie, the fight scenes are often brutal and bloody, and yeah, in season one they go to Pound Town (if a non-graphic suburb of Pound Town) more often than any other superhero show save for Watchmen. (Sister Night and her husband have a passionate and fulfilling sex life and good for them.)

Or in other words, they act exactly like young people would in their situation. Hand-to-hand fights aren’t clean, they get in situations that frankly require frequent cursing*, and I’ve been reading comics about Nightwing almost as long as there have been comics about Nightwing to read, and I am here to tell you, Dick Grayson fucks.

(*I’m not mad that the Titans swear, I’m mad that Gotham wasn’t allowed to. Given what happened in an average season, Harvey Bullock should have been dropping F-bombs like it would cure cancer.)

It is… it is still a little weird that they took almost the exact lineup from successful kids’ show Teen Titans GO! (save for Cyborg, last seen hanging with the Doom Patrol) and made a hard-R curse-filled punchfest, instead of saying “All those TT:G fans are teens now, let’s make it a blend of action and YA romance, you know, like the entire Arrowverse, which one of our producers created.” But here we are, magical teens and ex-teen sidekicks in a show clearly aimed at adults that teens probably still watch, I mean it’s not the 80s anymore, teens find stuff.

And in between these two, we find Locke and Key.

Based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke and Key finds the Locke family (mother Nina, high school students Tyler and Kinsey, and kid brother/possible oops-baby Bode, which against all logic is pronounced Boh-dee) moving from Seattle to small-town New England for a fresh start after family patriarch Rendell Locke is killed by a troubled classmate of Tyler’s. They move into the Locke family estate, Key House… a place Rendell and his brother (Smallville’s Fake Jimmy Olsen, Aaron Ashmore, playing a character who maybe will be important in a later season?) have avoided for years.

Tyler meets a girl he likes, but she’s passionate about causes and he’s only passionate about self-destruction; Kinsey meets some new friends who want to make a horror movie; Bode befriends a neurodiverse teen with a similar affinity for GI Joe. That would all be great, except for two little issues. One, Bode discovers that Key House is filled with magical keys (go figure), each with their own power; and two, there’s a sinister woman at the bottom of their well who wants the keys for herself, and it does not seem like it’s for a good reason.

The Locke siblings must find and decipher the keys, unravel their father’s past, and also try not to let their teenage melodramas distract them from the fact that a murder ghost is targeting their family to steal magical keys.

And the result is… good. Quite good. Really gripping. Yes, the leads can be frustrating, but they’re teens (and one pre-teen) coping with a horrifying tragedy, one of whom has some pretty strong PTSD and one of which thinks it’s his fault, you can’t entirely blame them for not being their best selves all the time. It’s close to the kids’ adventures I remember, but felt much darker and less… kiddy.

So let’s look at Locke and Key and how they built an adult-friendly magical kids’ adventure story, with Stranger Things* as our exemplar and also touching on Titans because it’s weirdly thematically similar, and also Titans really upped their game this season and that’s worth noting.

(*We’re three seasons in, either I don’t need to explain Stranger Things to you or you’ve decided you don’t care about Stranger Things and no explanation will matter.)

Geronimo.

Next page: What makes a magical adventure? (Hint: magic)

My Complicated Relationship With Musicals

So, I write plays. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about it much, having, it would appear, so much to say about media and whatnot and no apparent drive to just start a podcast about it my friends can pretend to have heard, but I write plays. Sure I had a dalliance with Sweet Lady Film, but the stage still has that certain magic… and lower start-up capital. Turns out modernizations of Robin Hood aren’t free.

(And also once you’ve had that idea four movie studios might greenlight Robin Hood projects that fail or go nowhere and now you’ll never get yours into Slamdance.)

(Turns out that writing plays is no defense from someone else having an annoyingly similar idea and being first to print, as it were, but that’s another topic.)

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve ever considered writing a musical. They’re fun and popular and I do like them. Musicals are super lucrative. Why wouldn’t I want to write one? Well… it’s actually a simple answer.

I cannot write songs.

No, really, I can’t do it.

It’s not for lack of interest in music as a storytelling tool. I love a subtle manipulation of leitmotifs to use the score to enhance a story. Blake Neely, the composer for the Arrowverse, excels at this. Look at how he scores this fight between the Arrowverse Superman and Brandon Routh’s Superman, blending his own Superman theme with John Williams’. And that doesn’t even include the violins of “Can You Read My Mind,” the love song from Richard Donner’s Superman, playing when Routh’s Superman sees the Arrowverse Lois Lane.

Look this is going to be a topic where I get distracted a lot, and I’m sorry, but oh better example! This scene, where the Twelfth Doctor is about to wipe Bill Potts’ memory. She asks how he’d feel if it happened to him (it did, in the previous series finale), and composer Murray Gold tells us everything we need to know about the Doctor’s inner struggle by reminding us which exact memories he lost, through a sad, quiet, and slightly out-of-tune reprise of Clara’s Theme.

The point is… I really love music as a storytelling tool, buuuut… I can’t write it. I cannot create melodies. Nothing in my brain knows how to do that, certainly not with anything resembling reliability. We can all hum an ad-libbed tune, sure, but coming up with a precise melody that says “They love each other but life won’t let them be together,” and definitely isn’t accidentally from A Nightmare Before Christmas, that’s a whole other thing, and it’s not a thing I can do.

Not that I’m much better at lyrics. A recent show of mine had two musical numbers, one of which was directly modelled off of a specific song. (With stage directions reading “Similar to but legally distinct from [title].”) That one wasn’t so hard, I’m occasionally a B-grade parody lyricist, because if I have a specific meter and rhyme scheme to work from, I do okay. But without that, you probably just get a couple of stanzas of iambic tetrameter, because I don’t know, Willy Shakespeare, sometimes pentameter feels just a hint too long. So when it came time to write the other one, sure I came up with lyrics, but writing a tune for them took five years off the composer’s life.

Which… okay, that was mostly about me saying “I need an Elizabethan love duet, a song that is in no way suitable for a rap breakdown so that when it does have a rap breakdown, it’s hilarious.” That’s probably what did it. More than there being a disconnect in meter between the verses and the chorus.

It was funny, though.

So I can’t write songs. I can, at best, come up with a framework for a song that has in no way considered what a composer might have to do to make it work. That said… like Dinosaur Comics proved that you can make a popular, long-running comic despite no ability to draw, there is a genre of musical that requires no songwriting ability whatsoever.

Next Page: Jukebox “Heroes,” Question Mark?

Ranking the Best Pictures, 2020 edition!

The Academy is back on their bullshit and so am I.

Okay, so, after ranking every best picture nominee for an entire decade, ranking this year’s crop should be easy, yeah?

Let’s see, gimmicks, gimmicks, what are this year’s gimmicks… well, let’s bring back some Out of Context Mulaneys, in protest of the fact that the Oscars have no host for a second year running when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were an option…

Better than every Ricky Gervais Golden Globes monologue combined.

…but in place of last year’s Hot Takes, I’m-a do something more positive. You see, a few of the better movies I saw last year didn’t get best picture nominations, which would mean I can’t talk about them in a Best Picture ranking blog… but I’m going to. I’m throwing in some “Things that got snubbed” sections. Plus one little question that kept coming up while watching these… in terms of rewatchability (not necessarily vital for a best picture, he said, nodding at 12 Years a Slave), how does this movie stack up to 2019’s most fascinating utter trainwreck? Simply put… Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?

It should have been a much easier bar to clear.

Allons-y!

9. DullFellas

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Frank Sheeran has a long, long career with the mob, during which he had a close friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa… right up until Hoffa and the mob’s relationship sours. And then there’s still about 45 minutes of movie left as he gets old and contemplates mortality. Damn this movie’s long.

Here’s what you need to know about The Irishman. Two hours and forty minutes in, the central character and two others go to pick Jimmy Hoffa up for a drive because the mob has decided he has to go. The back seat of the car is damp because Hoffa’s son had transported a fish earlier, but didn’t know what kind it was. They discuss this for about five minutes. It should be a turning point of the movie but we’re talking about this fish for way longer than is warranted.

Every scene is like that.

This movie is easily an hour too long, and I know this because nearly every scene feels padded. A screenwriter was never told to reign in the filler dialogue, Martin Scorcese was obviously never told to bring down the run time. It’s languidly paced, overly indulgent in its bland dialogue riffs, it somehow feels longer than it is, and while the CG effects can make Robert Deniro’s face look younger, they skipped his hands and arms and it cannot make him walk or move like he isn’t over 70… there are elements of Scorcese’s better works in here but it’s all too long and too slow. About two hours in I was desperate for a cat to pop in and sing about how much he loves trains for seven minutes.

There’s a recurring bit where the film introduces characters, then pauses for a caption explaining how they died. In all but two cases, they died violently in 1979 or 1980, and I eventually kept thinking… where’s that movie? Clearly some shit went down between ’79 and ’80, and it sounds way more interesting than what we’re actually watching.

At least this year’s faux-Scorcese movie was faster and more eventful.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I could rewatch Cats twice in the amount of time it takes to watch The Irishman, and I goddamn would.

Snubbed: So Get Out gets a bunch of Oscar nominations but Us gets ignored? It’s like that, Academy? Mm-hm. So noted.

8. Worse Taxi Driver

Image: Warner Bros.
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Arthur Fleck suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, but dreams of being a comedian. The world treats him poorly, however, and he eventually finds that hitting back is the one thing that grants him true satisfaction… setting him on a road to becoming Gotham’s greatest villain. Or he made the whole thing up, I don’t know, it’s not entirely clear. If you’re going to go the “unreliable narrator” route, you should have some visual storytelling tricks up your sleeve to help sell it.

It’s… fine, in places. It’s gorgeously shot, very well acted… but it’s… it’s a souffle. It’s a bunch of pretty cinematography and good performance fluffed up with “This Is Important” music beats and Scorcese references so that it looks filling but is mostly just air. You can’t dissect it, because there’s nothing to it. Like a souffle, it will collapse if you poke at it. So instead of trying to pick it apart, here is a brief list of movies I saw in 2019 that I think deserve a best picture nominee more than this… Knives Out. Dolemite Is My Name. Rocketman. John Wick: Chapter Three Parabellum. Shazam! Yeah I said it, Joker wasn’t even the best DC Comics movie of 2019. Movies I’m assured I would think deserve the nomination more: Uncut Gems. The Lighthouse. Booksmart. The Farewell, apparently?

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? You know what, there are stretches of both movies where I think “This is the fever dream of a madman and nothing is happening for a reason,” stretches where I think “Why didn’t society stop this scene from happening,” and moments where I think “This bit’s actually okay if you don’t think about it much or at all.” Sure Cats leans more often into full-blown nightmare territory, so if I could replace Joker dancing down the stairs to Rock and Roll Part 2 (I’m not kidding, that was a weird choice that they definitely made) with Skimbleshanks*, it’d be Joker, but as it is… well, it depends a little on mood, but odds favour us grabbing a bottle of Jameson’s and watching Ian McKellan go HAM on a bowl of milk.

*The Railway Cat.**

**The Cat of the Raaaaiiiilwaaaaay Traaaaaiiiiiin

Snubbed: That Todd Philips has an Oscar nomination for this mediocrity and Greta Gerwig doesn’t for her sublime work on Little Women is a travesty. Her framing, sense of timing, visual storytelling, use of colour palette and saturation, and ability to create divine, beautiful chaos out of the four March sisters talking all over each other speak to a gift for directing that a bargain-bin Scorcese simulacrum just doesn’t.

7. Fast and Furious: Origins

Image: 20th Century Fox
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford Jr. that to end a sales slump, Ford Motors needs to win Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, one typically dominated by Enzo Ferrari. And so former champion driver Carroll Shelby and current low-tier, non-professional champion driver Ken Miles set out to build Ford a car that can bring down Ferrari… if only those damn suits would get out of their way.

This one hadn’t been getting much buzz, but it seemed right in the wheelhouse of voters who gave the top prize to Green Book, so I liked its odds.

This is a solid little movie, anchored around strong performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Sure asking us to see Ford Motors as a scrappy underdog is a bit of a stretch, but they get around that by making the actual scrappy underdogs Shelby (Damon) and Miles (Bale), whose attempts to win Le Mans for Ford are constantly held back by interference from a weaselly VP played by A-grade (if C-list) weasel character actor Less Likeable Aaron Eckhart Josh Lucas. Which… the whole “men of action held back by the suits at corporate” is a little paint-by-numbers, even if it is accurate.

Bale and Damon and are good, the racing scenes are very well done… but when actual “great” is on the table, “good” ends up back here, a notch over “fine.”

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I’d probably pick this one, unless I was in a mood for copious whiskey and self-destruction.

Snubbed: Imagine if The Disaster Artist was about making a movie that, while low budget and cheesy as all hell, people legitimately enjoyed and were proud to work on. Imagine if the attempt to make this weird, low-budget, ridiculous movie was actually uplifting and moving while also really funny to watch. That, friends, is Dolemite is My Name. Eddie Murphy plays comedian and “godfather of rap” Rudy Ray Moore, depicting how he rose to comedy stardom via his Dolemite character, and his attempts to forge his own Hollywood career by self-financing a Dolemite movie. I don’t necessarily want to be the guy shouting “The Academy doesn’t care about black people,” but Eddie Murphy shines in what’s probably the year’s best biopic which is also about movies, which they normally love, and yet nothing, so…

I guess you can’t be a movie about black people and on a streaming service and get award love.

6. Oscar Season’s Most Ironic Title

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Actress Nicole and director Charlie were married, and collaborators in Charlie’s beloved Brooklyn theatre company, but the marriage has ended. A process complicated by the fact that Nicole wants to move back to LA to get back into film and television (and landed a lead role in a pilot to help make that happen), Charlie thinks they’re a New York family and expects everyone to keep living there divorced or not, and their son can’t live in both places at once. Throw in some lawyers who see the divorce proceedings as a battle to be won, and what had been a sad but amicable split turns vicious.

Noah Baumbach has created a moving story here, with amazing performances from Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver as the collapsing couple, and Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as the various lawyers brought in to the process. Baumbach also does a great job of showing both sides… we see how Charlie can be self-centred and how Nicole is fed up with being just an extension of his ambitions; we also see how Charlie feels ambushed when the divorce process turns into a vicious street fight over custody, and it seems like Nicole has been laying groundwork for this fight for weeks, engineering the process to force him to choose between his life and career in New York and actually getting to see his son ever. And while it’s an inherently sad story, it’s also funny in places, mostly thanks to the lawyers. I also love that Baumbach trusted his cast enough to go with some long takes, really let the monologues play out, rather than fill scenes with quick cuts. It’s a very well done and engaging character piece that only occasionally made me worry one of these people would be dead before it was over. (Maybe one of them is, I ain’t telling.)

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Whoof. Hard to say. Marriage Story is demonstrably better but was a rough ride in places. Not “Aaaah no why is Judi Dench singing right at me about cats not being dogs” rough, no, but still…

Snubbed: You know what else is a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking? Knives Out. A whodunnit with multiple perfectly executed twists, a stellar cast, and every-frame-a-painting direction from writer Rian Johnson. And the twists are honest: the clues are all there if you can piece them together. It’s an original mystery in every sense that revels in the classic tropes, subverts whichever ones it feels like, and is even more satisfying the second time. Knives Out was a treasure of a movie, and while I’m sure it’ll lose Original Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino, I’m just glad that it exists. See it immediately. Find a way.

5. Obligatory Hollywood Handjob Movie

Image: Columbia Pictures
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Another character study that, in its closing act, ventures into Tarantino’s historical-revenge-fantasy territory. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) used to be big in television and movies, but times are changing. Rick’s gone from leading man to special guest star villain-of-the-week, and Cliff’s barely getting by as Rick’s driver and general assistant, since some… allegations about his past have made it tricky to get work. Also that time he picked a fight with Bruce Lee. Rick’s trying to hold his career together, Cliff’s trying to put a calm face on a lot of anger and frustration… and they and their famous neighbour Sharon Tate are on a collision course with a cult that’s taken up residence in an abandoned backlot, a cult following one Charlie Manson.

They say that the Manson Family murders, most notably Sharon Tate, were the end of an era for Hollywood, an era that’s clearly one of Tarantino’s favourites given this lavish tribute to it… but does it really need a historical revenge flick as much as slavery or the holocaust? No, obviously not, but that’s not a big problem. The bulk of the movie is two men facing the end of an era, and wondering where if anywhere they fit in what’s to come, and that works very well. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent, Cliff’s run-in with the Manson Family (answering in Charlie’s absence to Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme) is perfectly tense. The movie takes some flak for not really giving Margot Robbie all that much to do as Sharon Tate, but she accomplishes her most important task… make Tate seem lovable enough that her fate matters, and the climax has some stakes to it. We don’t need to be told why slavery is bad* and Django is right to get all Unchained on it, but while every death is a tragedy, “Doesn’t it suck that someone murdered Sharon Tate” needed a little push.

Just a couple notes… why did Quentin think Bruce Lee needed to be taken down a notch; I get that this particular Manson girl is using her sexuality to honeytrap possible rides around town and/or recruits for the family, but once you tell us she’s a minor it’s very uncomfortable how aggressively horny the camerawork around her is; and wow Tarantino was filming feet like it was his last chance to do it this time, I mean even for Tarantino it was just a lot.

Still… good flick overall. It might win and you know what, fine, whatever, that is very Oscars.

*Well, most of us… well, some of us… less than I’d like.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Given how much my opinion of this film improved after I let it marinate in my brain for a while, I’d like to give it a second watch at some point.

Snubbed: I have not seen Hustlers or The Farewell so I can’t speak to their exclusion from the awards, but if you’re looking for POC who deserved acting nominations, Dolemite is My Name (yeah we’re back on that one) has some obvious picks. Eddie Murphy was great as Rudy Ray Moore, sure, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brought a lot of heart to the movie as Lady Reed, a single mother that Rudy makes his partner in comedy. She, above even Rudy Ray himself, sells why making Dolemite was such a worthy endeavour… “I’m so grateful for what you did for me, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Inclusion matters. Also Wesley Snipes gives probably his best performance in… I want to say over twenty years.

4. The Help 2: The Revenge

Image: Curzon
Image: Netflix

We are now into “Any of these would make a good Best Picture choice” territory.

The Basics: In South Korea, a poor family gradually infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family through a series of forged identities and grifts, figuring “Why eat the rich like a lion when you can just subtly feed off their resources like a tapeworm.” Hence the title. And just when you’re thinking “Hey, maybe this is gonna work out,” things take a turn. But not the one you’d expect.

Am I the only one who gets the song “Parasite” by 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door stuck in my head when I hear this title?

Am I the only one who’s actually heard of 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door?

Because the song in general is a bit of an up-tempo incel anthem but the chorus is weirdly somewhat germane to this–stop talking about 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door now? Yeah, you bet.

So. Parasite. First, I refuse to allow the fact that my inability to parse other languages keep me from praising the cast, who deliver a bunch of compelling characters that, for the first half to two thirds of the movie, make it hard to say that either the rich or poor characters are inherently good or bad. Anxiety-ridden wealthy mother Park Yeon-kyo is just as interesting as grifter patriarch Kim Ki-taek. Although if I had to pick a favourite… the cool, commanding confidence that actress Park So-dam brings to Ki-taek’s daughter Kim Ki-jung makes her my new favourite con artist this side of the Ocean siblings.

And it all goes chaotic and it’s still great.

It’s very clever, and juxtaposes the lives of the rich and poor in a really effective way (the two families experience very different inconveniences during a torrential rainfall). There are elements of good con movies, farces, and suspense thrillers here. Absolutely worth your time.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? This times fifty.

Snubbed? What the hell did they have against Frozen 2? I mean I don’t want to complain about lesser-known animated films getting a nod, but if the third (fourth? I lost count) How to Train Your Dragon was good enough, why not the return of Elsa, Anna, and company? It was emotional, funny, inventive, and delightfully anti-imperialist. Even if you could kind of see the seams from where “Let’s give Elsa a girlfriend” was yanked out of the story.

3. A Walk to Remember

Image: Universal
Image: Netflix

The Basics: In spring of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to deliver orders calling off an impending attack before the battalion (including one of the soldiers’ older brother) charges into a German trap and is slaughtered. It does not go smoothly.

Alternate Mulaney:

Image: Netflix

Anyone who’s read my choices for Best Fight Scene in the annual comic TV awards knows I love a good long shot. So an entire movie crafted to imitate a single, unbroken shot? That has my attention. It’s not a new gimmick, it was done as recently as Birdman, but 1917 doesn’t have any of Birdman’s fantasy elements or unreliable narration or time jumps (okay, one time jump) to give us distance from what’s happening. What we have is a (mostly) real-time trek through the horrors of No Man’s Land that manages a perfect amount of tension, only somewhat broken by the quintet of Notable British Actors doing cameos along the way (also Mr. Young from Good Omens). Every swing of the camera (and the camera movement alone is masterful) seems to reveal some new terror, either a horror that was or a menace yet to come. George MacKay does a perfect job conveying how the weight of everything he sees and experiences during the mission is gradually crushing him, until all that’s left of him is the need to see the mission through, an ember of duty glowing in eyes deadened by trauma. It’s an incredible, gripping ride on top of being an amazing achievement in technical film making.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I mean… it’s bound to be less tense now that I know exactly what happens to who and when and how hard, like how no rewatch of The Fugitive ever matched that first time when it felt like I’d been holding my breath for two straight hours, but I might want to give it a second look just to appreciate the technical skill of the staging and camerawork. And that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Tom “Digital Fur Technology” Hooper film.

Snubbed: With Bombshell,the screenwriter of previous best picture nominee The Big Short tackles another infamous scandal… the sexual harassment accusations that managed to dethrone the head of the anti-feminist right-wing-propaganda engine Fox News. Sure it’s not as narratively clever as The Big Short or its director’s follow-up Vice, both of which used fourth wall breaks and meta-elements as a chocolate coating for their difficult messages… moreso Big Short, which was the best of the three… maybe director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph work better together than apart on this subject matter, I don’t know. McKay seemed to have a livelier style withThe Big Short and Vice than Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, does here. Still, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon are quite powerful, and it’s very engaging… another year I might say “Sure, I can see not nominating it for best picture,” but… [gestures emphatically at the bottom of the list]

2. The One Where Women Have Thoughts and Feelings and Also Dialogue

Image: Columbia Pictures
Image: Netflix

The Basics: In case I’m not the only one who didn’t read the book… At the tail end of the US Civil War, the four March sisters juggle their dreams, responsibilities, and the harsh sting of reality. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy wants to marry rich, Meg wants love and family but would also love not to be poor, and Beth just wants to do right by the world and maybe play the piano when she can. And their rich neighbour Laurie just wants to be part of the gang… especially if it gets him closer to Jo. Things go bad, things go well, and it’s all so delightful.

Elephant in the room… at this point if Greta Gerwig were directing Cats 2: Way More Creepy Milk Parties and cast Saoirse Ronan in the lead I’d be there opening night.

That said.

Gerwig has written a superb adaptation of a classic novel, cutting back and forth between past and future (well, slightly more recent past, to us), and giving Jo an incredible new ending that I don’t want to spoil. The young cast playing the four sisters are all so good that I occasionally forget that Meryl Streep is also in this movie. Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep all came to play, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen still own every scene… fine, also Timothée Chalamet. The four sisters bounce off each other magnificently, their individual arcs are all touching in different ways… this movie is a delight.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Not even a choice. Not even Skimbleshanks (who, you might recall, is The Railway Cat, which is to say The Cat of The Railway Trains) can compete with this one.

Snubbed: Look. Obviously a lot of people, including every award show, seriously overvalued Bohemian Rhapsody last year. No question. That paint-by-numbers toothless biopic hit every worn-out trope of the genre you could name, we all know that now. But Rocketman didn’t deserve the bill for that. Rocketman, a warts-and-all biography of Elton John, succeeds in every way that Bohemian Rhapsody fell flat. It’s visually gorgeous, uses Elton’s hits to turn the story into a musical rather than a way to pad a soundtrack; has a much better framing device than “Don’t you know that before he sings, Dewey Cox Freddie Mercury has to remember his entire life?” as Elton tells his story to a support group, gradually stripping away the glitz and glamour of Elton until all that’s left is a man grappling with his pain; star Taron Egerton actually sings and sings well (Rami Malek’s big clip for last year’s ceremony was a scene of him lip syncing, what the hell); and the movie has a gripping central theme. To paraphrase The End of the F***ing World… when a person is raised without love, they don’t know what it looks like… and that makes them easy to trick. Elton is chasing the love that he’s never known, and in its place he finds a lot of bad choices, and it can be heartbreaking to watch.

1. Calvin and Hitler

Image: Fox
Image: Netflix

The Basics: It’s 1945 in Berlin, and young Johann, Jojo to his mother and one close friend, is excited for his first day in the Nazi Youth, with hopes of making it into Hitler’s personal guard and being best friends… just like he is with his imaginary friend Hitler (writer/director Taika Waititi). But when a… mishap with a grenade demotes him to poster duty, his loving mother tries to nudge him away from Nazi life… just in time for him to discover there’s a Jewish girl secretly living in their walls. Jojo and Imaginary Hitler are in quite the pickle, and it’s hilarious right until it very much isn’t, it’s incredibly moving and I’m mad that I’m not watching it right now.

Jojo Rabbit is basically perfect. As a satire of the Nazis and other dictatorships, it’s spot-on, insightful, and hilarious. Taika Waiti expertly juggles amazing comedy, genuine suspense, powerful emotions, and perfectly shoots the scene where young Jojo meets his secret houseguest like a horror movie. Also the cast is phenomenal, from leads Roman Griffith Davies and Thomasin McKenzie, to Scarlett Johansson killing it as Jojo’s kindhearted but energetic mother, Sam Rockwell’s hilarious turn as the one Nazi soldier who seems to know he’s on the losing side (strategically and, perhaps, morally), Stephen Merchant’s simultaneously funny and terrifying appearance as an SS agent, and Taika Waititi’s amazing work as Imaginary Hitler. It’s great, it’s just great, I could watch this one over and over, I love it so much.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? If I’ve pulled out the Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray I will inevitably own, and you say “Or we could watch Cats instead,” I’ll punch you in your face. Well, no, but I’d be real tempted. I’m definitely not giving you any of the good whiskey.

Snubbed: I got so spun up about Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for best director, it took me all that morning to notice that Taika Waititi didn’t get nominated either, and that is also a shame. Jojo Rabbit is phenomenally put together. There is more artistry in the scene were Jojo discovers his houseguest than all of Joker put together.

So that’s the rankings for this year. Once again, my personal favourite is unlikely to take the top trophy, but I guess I’m just more into new, different, and interesting movies than the Academy. Also I like female directors and dislike “Yay for this white dude from history” biopics and for some reason the Academy just won’t get on board with the former or give up the latter.

It’s disappointing that my Big Annual Event Thing that I get excited about the way other people get excited about sports has to have such a narrow idea of what Good Film looks like, but…

Image: Netflix

You’re right of course, John.

Catch you next time.

Ranking the "Best Pictures" of the 2010s

I’ve been ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars each year for about as long as I’ve been doing this blog. Sure, they’re a flawed process… their tastes are out of date; they lean way too white, male, and heteronormative; they prefer films that tick their specific boxes to films of lasting merit and influence; acting awards are often given out based on who’s “due” rather than merit. With time and perspective, some of their picks for “best picture of the year” seem like terrible misfires, and that goes at the least as far back as the time they let William Randolph Hearst turn them against Citizen Kane. But they’re still my Super Bowl, my Stanley Cup, my [insert thing you, the reader, cares about], so I keep tuning in and keep watching all the nominees.

So as the decade has come to a close*, and the first Oscars of the 20s (well, the second first Oscars of the 20s) is on the horizon I thought now was a good time to rank all the nominees from the past ten years.

Because I clearly like writing more than I like myself.

We’re talking close to 100 movies here so don’t expect a lot of chit-chat about why this is ranked over that, we have too much ground to cover for even medium-lengthed reviews. Also I am not rewatching them all before I do this (or in many cases, ever ever again), so… gonna be some gut calls.

But it’s my blog and I do what I want. Warning… I am kind of a snob about narrative. Sure I care about cinematography and performance and all of that, but mostly I really want to be told a story.

Let’s go, worst to best. Allons-y.

(*One word about “Actually the next decade starts in 2021” and I will scorn you to the ends of the Earth. If you’re going to pedantic, at least be right.)

The Bad

88. American Sniper (2015). Not just bad, it’s actively evil. Releasing a movie connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror, celebrating a man who kills brown people while calling them “savages,” while the man who killed said lead character was still on trial for that killing, was criminally irresponsible. Also it’s not good.

87. Fences (2017). A quick list of characters I find more sympathetic and less purely loathable than Troy Maxon of Fences… Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Raoul Silva in Skyfall, Killmonger in Black Panther, Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Captain Klenzendorf the literal Nazi from Jojo Rabbit, the racist cop from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kylo Ren, Ultron, Thanos, General Huxx, basically everyone from Wolf of Wall Street, and Arthur Fleck in Joker. Spending two hours watching Denzel Washington chew scenery while spewing Troy’s endless stream of toxic hatred, disdain, abuse, and entitlement was excruciating. To Hell with this movie and to Hell with whoever gave the play it’s based on a Tony.

86. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012). Do I have to explain why “Young boy who misses his dead father but gives zero fucks about his living mother uses his magical autism powers to heal 9/11” wasn’t very good? Is it obvious? This nonsense is not what they told us they expanded the category from five to “up to ten” for.

85. The Theory of Everything (2015). There is an entire genre of movie, biopics mostly if not exclusively, that exists for the sole purpose of getting its (typically white and male) star an Oscar nomination for acting. They present no message, no larger point, no challenge to the subject’s legacy, just a showcase for acting. This is one of the worst examples. This movie has no reason to exist outside of getting Eddie Redmayne an Oscar.

84. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019). See above but Rami Malek. Bohemian Rhapsody is almost beat-for-beat the musical biopic parody movie Walk Hard, only with no jokes and terrible editing. It’s a demonstrable whitewash and glamourization of the still-living members of Queen, and its only purpose is to make Rocketman look that much better in comparison.

83. The Imitation Game (2015). See above but Benedict Cumberbatch. There was a legitimately important story to tell about Alan Turing, specifically about how he played a huge role in defeating the Nazis then his government destroyed his life for being gay, but they only made that a footnote to a story about Turing overcoming (fictional) resistance to develop an early computer to break the German codes, because that one’s more heartwarming.

82. The Darkest Hour (2018). See above but Gary Oldman. “Winston Churchill was just as good as you’ve always thought! Look at him defying those weak-willed ninnies in Parliament to stand up to Hitler! Can Gary Oldman have an Oscar now?” Pointless. This genre needs to end.

81. The Blind Side (2010). Another white saviour tale that skates by for at least three-quarters of its run time with no discernable conflict then invents the dumbest possible conflict to give the last act stakes.

80. Zero Dark Thirty (2013). Dull, dull, dull, oh God it was dull. In the third act, the protagonist gets increasingly frustrated at the CIA’s lack of action on her intel regarding Bin Laden, and I was like “Sister, I’m right there with you.”

The “Meh”

79. The Tree of Life (2012). Bet you thought I’d rank this one lower, didn’tcha? Well, a wise critic showed me what people like about Terrence Malik, so I now admit that his tone-poem, cinematic-ballet style isn’t necessarily without merit… just isn’t my thing. I prefer movies where I don’t have to check Wikipedia to figure out what the plot was. And what the flipping heck was up with the Big Bang and the damned dinosaur? What was that?

78. Green Book (2019). How the actual fuck did this thoroughly mediocre Hallmark movie about a white man learning to be less racist make the shortlist, let alone actually win? Who got paid to vote for this nothing-burger of a feel-good whitewashed biopic? I want names.

77. War Horse (2012). Spielberg doesn’t make bad movies, typically, but… Who is War Horse for? Who is the story of a horse suffering its way through World War One possibly for?

76. Precious (2010). Maybe I’m getting my white privilege all over this, but acting aside, I just don’t see what the big deal was, I really don’t.

75. Hugo (2012). A story about a child trying to connect with his late father via a robot gets completely thrown out at the halfway point so that Martin Scorcese can give a handjob to one of the pioneers of cinema. What a weird bait-and-switch this movie was.

74. Call Me by Your Name (2018). One of those old school picturesque coming-of-age-in-Europe romance movies, only this time it’s male-male romance. A sluggish, low-stakes male-male romance with a slightly questionable age gap, and a poor peach loses its innocence.

73. The King’s Speech (2011). The King’s Speech is a perfect case study in how to tick the boxes of an Oscar-bait picture. A biopic (ding) about a friendship between upper and lower class men (ding) one of whom overcomes a disability (ding) to defeat the Nazis (ding ding ding). It’s little remembered, save for a few increasingly obscure references in the seventh season of The Office.

72. A Serious Man (2010). If a subtle, slow-paced statement on how life is ultimately unknowable, and God or the universe don’t owe us and won’t provide us definitive answers about it is your jam, hey this is the movie for you. If it’s not… the way I put it when a friend I was watching it with fell asleep for a while, then asked what happened when he was out, is “This isn’t really a movie where things happen.”

71. 127 Hours (2011). A great performance from James Franco but it does drag a bit, especially given we know exactly where it’s going.

70. Boyhood (2015). How do you spend 12 years making one movie and forget to give it any sort of story, or manage to make it about something? How do you not at least check the footage and make sure you haven’t already done “mother’s boyfriend can’t handle his booze, becomes abusive?” I guess it’s an impressive thing to attempt, filming one movie over 12 years, but as it ended on the central character spouting white-boy wank philosophy on his first day at college, I couldn’t help but think “What was the goddamn point of that?” Still don’t know.

69. Avatar (2010). The special effects were a next-level achievement, sure. You could see every cent of the $200 million they spent on the effects… and the $10 they spent on the script. It’s 45 minutes too long, its white saviour-ism hasn’t aged well, and if you play it on a high-def TV it looks like a dated video game. It made record amounts of money but left no cultural impact, and that second thing’s for a reason.

68. Les Miserables (2013). A better musical than Cats on the stage, somehow worse in the theatre? All those damned extreme close-ups. Tom Hooper’s direction is bad and he should feel bad.

67. The Phantom Thread (2018). I feel like if this weren’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ theoretical retirement movie, the Academy would have given it a miss. It’s a somewhat interesting look at a deeply dysfunctional relationship but that’s about it.

66. A Star is Born (2019). The performances are great, including several Alias vets their old castmate Bradley Cooper snuck in, but once Lady Gaga’s career takes off, it’s a long, gradual wait for her rising star and his spiral into self-destruction to hit a breaking point. There’s not a lot of gas left in this tank. Thankfully civilization should be reduced to embers before we get another remake starring Zac Efron and Billie Eilish.

The Good

65. Philomena (2014). A perfectly adequate and charming movie that regardless has no place in a “Best Picture” race. The World’s End deserved a nod more than this one, you jags.

64. Nebraska (2014). I think this one got nominated for “Best Comedy/Musical” at the Golden Globes because they saw Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in the credits and made an assumption. I kid, it’s because they didn’t want to compete with 12 Years a Slave. It’s got charm. Their dismissal of Mount Rushmore was amusing.

63. Manchester by the Sea (2017). Great performances, and I’ve come to have greater respect for its central thesis of “pain and grief don’t stop the world and all of its petty inconveniences, no matter how much it feels like they should.” But it’s also quite slow and just drifts to a close rather than coming to a point. And Zeus in a swan suit is it ever a downer…

62. Moneyball (2012). I mean it works overall, there’s a lot of good moments, but it’s really slow-paced, especially for a Sorkin script.

61. The Revenant (2016). Incredibly well shot and acted (save for the fact that if Leonardo DiCaprio authentically threw up after eating raw bison liver, and you filmed it, that isn’t acting), just a little… hollow.

60. Life of Pi (2013). …It’s fine. It’s visually impressive but aside from that, I’m hard-pressed to recall something remarkable about it.

59. Hacksaw Ridge (2017). The first act was really charming, the third act thrilling, but the second act, where the army tries to beat pacifist Desmond Doss into either quitting boot camp or agreeing to use a gun, drags it down.

58. Selma (2015) At least one 2015 biopic managed to say something.

57. The Kids Are Alright (2011). I remember very little about this story of a family tossed into chaos when a lesbian couple’s kids meet their biological father, but I do remember it being pretty darn good.

56. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013). I remember it being very well made… when I remember that it exists. Which is… not often.

55. District 9 (2010). A better look at apartheid than the movie about Nelson Mandella that came out the same year. A solid sci-fi adventure.

54. The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Quite well made, but I feel it was a little too flattering to a real-life piece of filth, who definitely made money off this film existing.

53. The Help (2010). Kinda white saviour-y, but a decent exploration of America’s ongoing struggles to be cool about the legacy of slavery. Oh, the South. You so racist.

52. An Education (2010). A sweet if weird coming-of-age romance anchored by an excellent performance from Carey Mulligan.

51. Amour (2013). Aging sucks and mortality is some bullshit. This is a very well acted movie I would not want to watch a second time.

50. The Hurt Locker (2010). A better examination of how a person can get hooked on combat than American Sniper could ever have been. With some excellently staged suspense sequences.

49. The Fighter (2011). A very well done biopic from David O. Russell, filled with great performances, especially Christian Bale and the majestic Amy Adams.

48. Dallas Buyers Club (2014). Probably should have found a trans actress to play the trans character but overall it was decent. 2014 was really the year Matthew McConaughey reminded us he’s got game.

47. The Post (2018). Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, and an all-star supporting cast (what a weird place for a Mr. Show reunion) reminding us of when journalism used to accomplish things, like proving that the Vietnam war was fought on false pretense.

46. True Grit (2011). What a great debut for Hailee Steinfeld. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin all came to play, and she still stole the movie from them.

45. Captain Phillips (2014). A solid suspense flick that doesn’t have a great deal to say. An excellent depiction of shock in the denouement, though.

44. Lion (2017). A very moving story about a lost child trying to find his way home as an adult, but each story beat lasts about five to ten minutes too long, given there is no suspense about where this might go.

43. Gravity (2014). Don’t think too hard about the science or how the premise means that Earth is kind of screwed for years if not decades, and you’ve got an exciting adventure about a desperate bid for survival in the least hospitable circumstances possible.

42. Up (2010). Man, that first 10 minutes is a burst of heartbreak. Then some pretty solid Pixar fun.

41. The Descendants (2012). George Clooney and a really impressive Shailene Woodley anchor this story of complicated grief and family struggles. And it led to this amazing tweet…

40. Midnight in Paris (2012). Look, maybe it’s the writer in me being vulnerable to stories about writers, but I found this one incredibly charming. Even if liking Woody Allen movies has become problematic.

39. Roma (2019). The unique direction style really helps elevate this slice-of-life story of an indigenous Mexican maid and the collapsing middle-class family she works for, set against the backdrop of early-70s Mexico. It’s shot to feel like a memory, which is fitting, being inspired by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood.

38. Room (2016). An incredible performance by Brie Larson, and the latter two acts tell a great story of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, following the most uncomfortable first act this side of 12 Years a Slave.

37. Vice (2019). Knockout, unrecognizable performance by Christian Bale aside, I appreciate this look into Dick Cheney’s rise to an extremely troubling amount and type of power for how it revealed the core value of the Republican party… they want to win. That’s all. They have no moral centre, they just like being in power, and will do whatever they need to do to keep it.

36. Her (2014). This improbable romance between a man and the AI that runs his phone and computer is surprisingly sweet and moving. And a crackerjack cast doing great work. I don’t know, it got to me.

35. Moonlight (2017). The struggles of a gay youth in the ghetto make for compelling if occasionally sluggish viewing. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris have star turns, and the arc of the central character’s life is interesting. Then it just sort of… stops. Look, I warned you I was gonna be a stickler for quality of the narrative, and that includes “having an ending.”

34. La La Land (2017). Okay, yes, preferring La La Land to Moonlight is an embarrassingly white thing to do, as Big Mouth hilariously pointed out last season. But the visuals are incredible, the way they use colour is impressive, the songs are mostly good, and it has a lot to say about relationships. And maybe Ryan Gosling arguing with John Legend about how jazz works is a little offputting (if you assume Gosling is right, anyway) but still. It’s a hot pile of white person problems but an enjoyable one. (“City of Stars” should not have won Best Song that year, it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land. But they almost always get that category wrong.)

33. Black Panther (2019). The first comic book movie to make the best picture list (after The Dark Knight getting snubbed in favour of the thoroughly mediocre The Reader caused the Academy to change the rules to allow more nominees), and yeah, a good choice. Attacks colonialism and isolationism, asks what the best route forward is, and presents one of the few truly great Marvel hero/villain pairings. Sure the villain is just a less benevolent Black Panther but there’s something to it this time, something more compelling than the series of evil arms dealers that take on Iron Man. And then it collapses into B grade CG for the climax but up until then, pretty damn good superhero action.

32. Bridge of Spies (2016). A very solid entry from Steven Spielberg, as Tom Hanks’ James B. Donovan must negotiate Cold War politics to save the life of one air force pilot and one innocent, while facing resentment at home for representing a Soviet spy.

The Great

31. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Revenge, remorse, redemption, all in a tight script from the writer of In Bruges and knockout performances from the cast. It raises some questions about who deserves redemption and how it can be found. Not everyone cares for the answers they present, since it’s the second most hatable character in the whole movie who finds his way to a better path, and not all viewers are on board with that. But is redemption not better than punishment? Or, like the angry, grieving mother at the centre of the story, does our need to see the bad people punished overrule everything?

30. Dunkirk (2018). A tense thrill ride as the British army attempts to escape the advancing German forces. The three perspectives mash up well: the solider just trying to get out, the civilian boat sailing to the rescue, and Tom Hardy trying to provide air support to the very end. Quite the high-wire act.

29. Arrival (2017). Two of my favourite actors headline a gripping and fascinating story of alien first contact, taken from a little-explored linguistic standpoint. How do you communicate with a species whose concept of language evolved completely differently? And then there’s a great twist I never saw coming. That doesn’t happen often.

28. Inglourious Basterds (2010). Once you get past the fact that this is not the Brad Pitt-led action-comedy the marketing sold us, but a tense and nuanced sequence of desperate games of cat-and-mouse , it’s one of Tarantino’s better efforts.

27. Up in the Air (2010). A great look into the economic downturn and a fantastic character study into what happens when your career requires a lack of empathy or connection. The first time I became aware of the amazing talent that is Anna Kendrick, and a subtle, knockout turn from George Clooney.

26. The Big Short (2016). A brilliant way to use comedic devices to trick audiences into learning why the 2008 financial crash happened, and how it could again. The best example of “Art must entertain in order to instruct” I can think of. Shame nobody told Christian Bale what the rest of the movie was like. They could have at least stopped cutting to him once his plotline ran out of things to do.

25. Birdman (2015). An excellent high-wire act about a man’s attempts to stay relevant, centred around amazing performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (as every theatre nightmare anyone’s ever had), and Emma Stone.

24. Silver Linings Playbook (2013). Really funny, sweet, charming, and incredibly acted, and I’d probably find it even more so on a rewatch, when I didn’t spend half the movie unbearably tense that something bad was going to happen to the protagonist. Confirmed what Winter’s Bone had told us: Jennifer Lawrence is an incredible talent.

23. Lincoln (2013). Spielberg does “great man biopic” right, by focusing on one very specific moment… the rush to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery ratified by all states before the Confederacy’s inevitable surrender. Great flick in a genre that tends to half-ass it.

22. Brooklyn (2016). Okay, I’m going to be real with you, there is a definite chance I’m overvaluing this one due to my deep and profound awe of Saoirse Ronan’s acting skills/inherent adorability, but she is magnificent and that made this movie spellbinding. I probably wasn’t supposed to view the second half, where Eilis (perfect storm of unintuitive Irish names right here) must choose between the comforts of home and her new life in New York, as a horror movie, but the choice felt very obvious to me and I kept wanting to scream “Run, Eilis, it’s a trap!” Still. Heckuva movie.

21. BlacKkKlansman (2019). Spike Lee brought us one of his best movies in years with the true(ish) story of black and Jewish detectives working together to infiltrate the KKK, who are portrayed as both a menace and buffoonish clowns. Sadly you don’t need to be smart to be dangerous. This one was a home run, and Green Book beating it for best picture might be the worst blown call since Citizen goddamn Kane lost to cinematic history footnote How Green Was My Valley.

20. The Favourite (2019). An excellent and hilarious power struggle between two cousins vying for position in the court of Queen Anne: one who wields the power of the throne, and tolerates no threat to her position; one whose family fell from grace and will do anything to escape poverty and get back into high society. And between them, an incredible performance by Olivia Colman as the ailing and temperamental queen.

19. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015). Wes Anderson’s best and most Wes Anderson movie. If you like his style even a little, you’ll love this one. Endlessly entertaining, even if it definitely has too many framing devices.

18. Django Unchained (2013). I said Inglourious Basterds was one of Tarantino’s better efforts. As Historical Revenge Porn goes, Django winning a blood-soaked victory over slavery is even better than Shoshanna Dreyfus blowing up a theatre full of Nazis while Eli Roth machine guns Hitler’s face into pulp. And filled with amazing performances.

17. The Social Network (2011). Great script, amazing direction (programming a website plays like a heist sequence) terrific performances, and the idea of the creator of Facebook being lured to the dark side by the creator of Napster is so perfect I don’t even care if it actually happened. It might… in retrospect, it might be too sympathetic towards Mark Zuckerberg.

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). It was damn good to finally see something less Oscar baity on the shortlist, and man this was a thrill ride. For a two hour car chase, this movie was incredible. I still occasionally shout “WITNESS ME!” before doing something daring. Plus Charlize Theron killed it as Furiosa, the real lead of the movie.

15. Inception (2011). Man I love this movie. Works on multiple levels, if you can keep up with how dream layers work. Some people say its a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but you can ignore that. Also, one of the better vague endings in recent memory. (The top wobbled, he’s awake, fight me.)

14. Black Swan (2011). One of the most purely tense film experiences I’ve ever had, with each moment summoning new dreads, thanks to an intense and haunting performance from Natalie Portman.

13. American Hustle (2014). The year “Faux Scorcese” was better than “Actual Scorcese.” Probably David O. Russell’s best, and he has his greatest ensemble acting in it.

12. Argo (2013). Ben Affleck wrote and directed an incredibly effective thriller, even if he did undervalue the contribution of Canadians a little. Despite the ending being public record, the climax had me on the edge of my seat.

11. The Shape of Water (2018). Not only does the fantasy romance really work, but I love how the heroes are a supergroup of marginalized people: a mute, a black woman, an elderly gay man, a communist, and a, well, fish monster, all working together against Michael Shannon’s embodiment of white patriarchy. A delightful adult fairy tale.

10. Lady Bird (2018). I already knew from Brooklyn that Saoirse Ronan was an incredible talent, but Lady Bird is where I learned that Greta Gerwig is an equally incredible writer/director. Lady Bird is a sheer delight.

9. Get Out (2018). Jordan Peele’s excellent debut as a horror auteur is clever, creative, and creepy as Hell. Plus it has a lot to say about race relations, and how racial issues go far beyond simple “Me Klansman, black people bad” racism.

8. The Martian (2016). Sure it’s the textbook example for category fraud at the Golden Globes because I wouldn’t call it a “comedy” yet it was entered as one, but it’s still a delightful movie with an unbeatable cast of familiar faces. And you know what, when it tries to be funny, it nails it.

7. Whiplash (2015). At what price artistic excellence? Is abuse ever justified? An incredible ride that’s probably the only good Miles Teller movie.

6. Winter’s Bone (2011). Jennifer Lawrence burst onto the scene with an incredible performance as a girl with few options in life who must confront her entire backwater, regressive, small-town-if-even-a-“town” “society” in a desperate bid to save her family home.

5. Toy Story 3 (2011). The fourth instalment was better than it deserved to be since this played as a perfect conclusion to the Toy Story saga. Tense, moving, Pixar at its best.

4. Hell or High Water (2017). The least grim movie from the writer of Sicario, which is akin to being the most uplifting season of The Wire or most competent boss from The Office or least autotuned episode of Glee. Hell or High Water is an excellently crafted cops-and-robbers story, a modern-day western in which two brothers try to save their ranch while an aging Texas Ranger hunts for them. I can watch this one over and over. Which is harder to do with the author’s other big films, Sicario or Wind River.

3. Spotlight (2016). An astounding cast takes on the sex scandals of the Catholic church. A reminder of what journalism can accomplish when commerce gets out of its way.

2. Hidden Figures (2017). Sure Kevin Costner de-segregating NASA, at one point literally with a crowbar, and the saintly John Glenn each wandered into White Saviour territory, but overall this true(ish) story of the women of colour who helped get America into space was the whole package.

1. 12 Years a Slave (2014). An amazing achievement in film that digs deep into the horrors of slavery that I never ever want to see again ever. Astounding performances from the cast, even if Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Saviour character was just a little over-the-top righteous.

And there we have it. A ranking of movies that even I didn’t know going into this.

Soon enough, it’ll be time to rank a new crop of best picture nominees, and if there is any justice in this dying ember of a world, expect Jojo Rabbit and Little Women to be up near the top.

Otherwise expect a lot of complaining.