1917: From Afterthought to Awards Contender

The deck seemed stacked against Sam Mendes’s 1917 from the get go. The trailer for the World War I thriller bared a heavy resemblance to Christopher Nolan’s recent time-centric WWII thriller, Dunkirk, and the big marketing buzz focused on the fact that Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins made the film to appear as if it were all in one continuous shot. The gimmickry of this idea, combined with the focus on the importance of the clock and the anonymity of the lead actors all made 1917 feel like a derivative imitation of other, likely better, war films.

There are stock elements to the story, about two British soldiers tasked with getting across a dangerous stretch of enemy-occupied countryside in France in order to deliver a message that could save thousands of allied troops, but Mendes manages to rise above the cliches. He delivers an immediate, compelling story that is definitely driven by plot, but elevated beyond its undeniable technical merits by the humanity of it all, and a breathless central performance from George MacKay.

MacKay plays Lance Corporal Schofield, who is unwittingly pulled into the story by his friend, LC Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake and Schofield are summoned to the desk of General Erinmore, played in a beefy cameo by Colin Firth. General Erinmore orders the two young men to deliver a message to a battalion preparing to invade the German enemy some ten miles away: they’re walking into a trap set by the Huns, and if they don’t stand down then there will be untold casualties. For an added bit of motivation, Blake’s older brother is among the men who will be sent to their certain death. They have until morning to get there, and the ten miles between them and the battalion is beyond treacherous.

The clock is ticking, and the plot is in motion, and now we are with these two men as they traverse trenches full of tired soldiers, and a wide-open landscape littered with dead men, dead cattle, and buildings destroyed by explosion and gunfire. They are exposed, and you can feel the looming possibility of death lurking around every ridge. It’s a bleak stretch of land, one Mendes and Deakins show with great detail and texture. Decomposing bodies jut out from muddy craters, rats feast, and razor-wire fences add severity to what was certainly beautiful French countryside before the Great War destroyed the earth with bombs and blood.

Anyone who knows this movie exists has seen the virtuoso shot of MacKay running across an open field as bombs explode at his back and bodies fall, but 1917 is so much more than technical wizardry. A great deal of the film’s first two acts work efficiently to give our grunt soldiers depth and humanity. Through brief, mundane conversations, mentions of family, of duty, we get a sense that these are three-dimensional human beings in unimaginable circumstances. World War I is generations removed from modern society, over 100-years in the past now, and Mendes captures the foreign nature of this world in every frame.

As for the one-shot decision, it is far more than just technical schadenfreude. The tracking shot, which is clearly broken up at certain points and movements, lends an immediacy to the mission at hand, and makes everything feel more urgent than it already is. Personally, I forgot about the tracking shot, or trying to spot the cuts only a few minutes in. That’s the power of 1917. What stands out more than any cinematography – which is great, make no mistake – is the performance of MacKay, the heart and soul of the story. The wide eyed young man, whose largest role prior to this was playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in the silly Captain Fantastic, is a strong presence at the core of this exhausting journey. He may not get an Oscar nomination, but he will absolutely start to show up in bigger roles, in bigger films moving forward.

The confounding thing about 1917 is that just a week ago, the film felt like a whiff. It was an afterthought, “Mendes copying Nolan,” et al., and nobody really gave it a chance. Then it won best picture at the Golden Globes, and it opened some eyes. Not that the Globes are any indicator of how the Oscar nominations will shake out this Monday since the voting bodies for the two awards are different, but it’s definitely an indicator than general audiences slept on this film and it’s almost a shoe in for a half-dozen nominations, including Best Picture. After last weekend’s success, and a likely nomination this Monday morning, 1917 has become a deserving Oscar frontrunner.

My 50 Favorite Movies of The Decade

This was an impossible task, one where great films likely didn’t make the cut, and personal films triumphed. As I reached the top ten, I could feel the personal connection to the films I was discussing growing stronger, so I can attest this is definitely a favorites list more than some line drawn in the sand definitive Best Of. Some years in the decade rose above, some were hard to remember (2012 seems particularly lean in hindsight). I worked on this for a few weeks, films moved up, moved down, disappeared and reappeared, and tough choices had to be made. Here goes nothing…

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50. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – Richard Linklater lowest of low-key hangout movies is nothing but a delight to sit back and watch. There isn’t much substance here, which is exactly the point, because what sort of substantive material would exist in the lives of Texas college baseball players in the 1980s beyond the diamond?

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49. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) – Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 melodrama Blue Valentine somehow gathered more awards buzz than his sprawling, lo-fi family epic follow up. This is a strange, flawed, fascinating movie that takes supreme risks time and time again, and for that it should be recognized.

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48. American Honey (2016) – Easily the better of Shia LeBeouf’s Honey films from this decade, American Honey is a meandering mess of a film, full of love and ambition and anchored by marvelous performances from LeBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane.

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47. Force Majeure (2014) – An avalanche, or at least the very real threat of an avalanche, approaches a deck outside a ski resort, where a family is eating. In a panic, the father jumps up and flees, leaving both children and wife behind. The rest of the picture is the fallout from this decision, told with wonderful humor and sadness and regret. See this before you see the Will Ferrell/Julia Louis-Dreyfus American remake.

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46. Spring Breakers (2012) – It took yours truly several years to come around on Harmony Korine’s obtuse, impressionistic, neon-bathed crime thriller, but there is no denying James Franco’s hypnotic performance, or the work from the three girls caught in his web. “Look at all my shit.”

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45. The Nice Guys (2016) – The most Shane Black movie ever made, thanks to the fact he not only wrote it, but directed it as well. Gosling and Crowe are a perfect mismatching pair of PIs, the sight gags are top tier, and the twisting noir plot is fun and just as breezy as LA in the 70s.

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44. Green Room (2015) – A punk band must fight their way out of a Nazi bar, led by a sadistic neo Nazi played by… Patrick Stewart? Yes, that Patrick Stewart, who is a block of bloodthirsty ice in Jeremy Saulnier’s unforgiving thriller, sadly one of the last performances from the late Anton Yelchin.

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43. Moonlight (2016) – Barry Jenkins’ dreamy exploration into the sexual evolution and personal struggles of a young, gay, black man is documented over three points in time in the protagonists life. All three of the actors do great work with the section they’re given, and all three of them are surrounded by a variety of heartfelt supporting performances.

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42. You Were Never Really Here (2017) – When I first saw this, I dismissed it. Then I was drawn back to it and began to love it. Then, I couldn’t avoid a third glance, and it evolved even more. This is a slow, simmering nightmare unfolding in front of our eyes, regardless of how you interpret the story’s end result.

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41. The Favourite (2018) – Yorgos Lanthimos’s cool detachment is right at home in this odd victorian chamber piece, a story of sexual obsession and power struggles among three women, each of varying degrees of intelligence, ambition, and desire. Like a horny  Barry Lyndon with more rabbits.

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40. What We Do in The Shadows (2014) – Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s Real World Transylvania is so much fun, and each time I watch it something different makes me laugh the most. The idea is so simple and the execution so practical, that it allows room for the jokes to build all the way through, never losing steam.

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39. Spotlight (2015) – Speaking of practical execution, Tom McCarthy’s journalism procedural is a brilliant step-by-step dive into an investigation that shook the foundations of Catholicism across New England, it’s oldest home in this country. All performances are excellent, muted and real, and able to draw you in with precious few words or a sideways glance.

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38. The Revenant (2015) – It’s amazing how much backlash this film accumulated during Awards Season, 2015. There’s not room for a full defense here, but DiCaprio deserved the Oscar and Tom Hardy is wonderfully weird and this is a captivating, physical film that seems to be knocked down a peg for its physicality, and the pretentiousness of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. Whatever, he might be a tool, but this is still a terrific frontier thriller.

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37. Phantom Thread (2017) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of an obsessive dressmaker and his latest, most challenging muse, is a surprising romantic comedy at its core. More funny than intense, more charming than cynical, the chemistry between Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps (brilliant here) is offbeat and never saccharine.

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36. Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele’s social horror landed like a stick of dynamite in the winter of 2017. The timing was perfect, and the surprise of Peele’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker supercharged audiences. This announced both Peele’s arrival, and the introduction of Daniel Kaluuya as a sturdy leading man.

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35. Melancholia (2011) – There’s no better filmmaker to portray the end of the world in a way that is somehow more depressing than the actual end of the world would be, than Lars Von Trier. Kirsten Dunst is an absolute force, a black hole of resignation and despair absorbing all the lives around her in a beautiful, apocalyptic symphony.

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34. Upstream Color (2013) – No film in the decade kept me off balance and upended in quite the same way as Shane Carruth’s labyrinthine thriller, about an organism a thief uses to manipulate a young woman (Amy Seimetz) into turning over all her wealth. Her story, and the story of Carruth’s character, begin to intertwine in one of the most unique films of the 21st century.

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33. Under the Skin (2013) – The alien stalks its prey, unflinching and without remorse, pulling them into a black pit of… nothing? But then, morality finds its way into her brain, and everything falls apart. Jonathan Glazer is a brilliant filmmaker who is 3 for 3 after this, Sexy Beast, and Birth, and Scarlett Johansson delivers easily the most unique performance of her career.

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32. The Tree of Life (2011) – Terrence Malick’s oblique meditation on his own Central Texas upbringing, on fathers and mothers and their place in our own lives, was a strange new way of storytelling in 2011. Spanning from the beginning of time to the edge of the afterlife, Malick’s film never bows to convention. His drifting style has since turned into self parody, but The Tree of Life is where it still worked, and worked well.

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31. Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle’s 2014 tale of obsession and precision is fierce and surprisingly emotional. Miles Teller and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons have an electric chemistry, like opposite poles meeting in the battle ground that is an elite jazz-band ensemble.

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30. Dragged Across Concrete (2019) – One of the great new surprises of the decade was the arrival of S. Craig Zahler, courtesy of Dallas-based Cinestate. After Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (more on that later), Zahler took us deep into the bowels of street-level crime, crooked cops, murderers and thieves, all in a sparse, stylized world of nastiness. The cast is superb, and Zahler’s words are deliciously noir-ish.

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29. First Reformed (2018) – All of Paul Schrader’s lifelong anxiety about the future, about relationships, about loneliness and God and everything on his busy brain spills out in Ethan Hawke’s biggest, boldest performance of his career. Fears of the environment compound for Hawke’s anxious priest, and the final moments are equal parts daring and shocking.

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28. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) – And right back to Zahler we go. This second film from the new provocateur remains his best, a thrilling adventure into the depths of hell, bolstered by Vince Vaughn’s most interesting performance to date. It’s shocking and gruesome, but it also deftly sells the emotional weight of Vaughn’s plight as the put upon Bradley Thomas.

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27. Inception (2010) – Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time shaped one of the most inventive blockbusters of the 21st century. Ironically enough, it’s time that has lessened the pictures impact, but there is still a brilliant cerebral heist film at its core, and the visual effects were greatly influential for the rest of the decade.

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26. John Wick (2014) – As much fun as the sequels are, the original John Wick remains the best because of it’s free-wheeling, anonymous existence. Nobody much cared about Chad Stahelski’s balletic action spectacle in the weeks leading up to its release. Fast forward a few years, and John Wick is now one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood. The original still has the best baddie of the bunch too in Michael Nyqvist.

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25. Good Time (2017) – Ever since Robert Pattinson played the glittery vampire, he’s been trying to shed that matinee idol skin and transform into the rarest of birds: the character actor as leading man. Here, Pattinson disappears into the Safdie Brothers’ breakout picture, a breathless, nerve-frying chase through the sweatiest, scummiest neighborhoods in the Big Apple. It is mounting dread of the highest order.

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24. Her Smell (2019) – Alex Ross Perry is not a household name, but his uniquely structured tale of a rock star (Elisabeth Moss, as brilliant as ever) falling apart and trying to pick up the pieces again is episodic, difficult to stomach at times, but engrossing from start to finish.

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23. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – This Best Picture winner has fallen out of the zeitgeist these last few years, but Steve McQueen’s tale of a kidnapped free man sold into slavery is emotionally devastating, emotionally draining, and ultimately an inspiring look at the triumph of the human spirit.

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22. The Master (2013) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s not-so-subtle sideways biopic of L. Ron Hubbard and his mass of cult members is less an indictment on Scientology than it is the portrait of two men falling in love. It’s unconventional and disturbing because of the two men in question, and this enigmatic exploration into damaged people is spearheaded by two remarkable performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.

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21. Dunkirk (2017) – This is Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time pared down to its most primal elements, a Swiss Watch of a thriller placed in a very real, very tense setting. It’s one of the rare modern motion pictures that could honestly work as a silent film, and it’s the second best mostly-masked performance from Tom Hardy of the decade.

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20. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers second “commercial” film, or their second “mainstream” film, for lack of a better term, is a dreamlike journey into an era that seems like it barely exists anymore: 2012. Adam Sandler is great, and Julia Fox is truly special as his mistress. She could have been a dumb annoying character, but she is the exact opposite, because the Safdie Bothers know how to tell honest tales.

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19. Black Swan (2010) – Darren Aronofsky’s new-age riff on The Red Shoes is still one of Natalie Portman’s best, most dedicated performances. It is, much like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, more physically demanding than anything else, and Portman puts her thin frame through the ringer. Where have you gone, Vincent Cassel?

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18. Gone Girl (2014) – An electrifying mystery novel becomes the ultimate trash masterpiece for David Fincher, in a marriage of material and director that is off the charts perfect. Ben Affleck is perfectly tuned into the doughy midwestern doofus hubby, and Rosamund Pike has an uncanny ability to switch from entering to icy cold in an instant. A salacious story right up Fincher’s dark-heart satirical alley.

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17. Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout picture has endured endless cycles of backlash, then backlash to the backlash, for almost a decade now. I don’t much care for what “the important people” online think about Refn’s loose adaptation of Walter Hill’s The Driver, I just know what I like. And I still like this, for all its pretentiousness and weird detours. Make fun of people wearing the scorpion jacket online all you want, the movie still rules.

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16. Before Midnight (2013) – The finale to a trilogy spanning three decades is also the best entry in three incredible achievements. The fact that Richard Linklater assembled roughly six hours of people walking and talking, and pulled us into this summative picture so deftly, is a true testament to his ability to find fascinating points of discussion all around us, in every aspect of our lives. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feel like this married couple, through and through.

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15. Arrival (2016) – It was a busy decade for Denis Villeneuve, a new auteur breakout with an impressive stretch of films. Arrival is probably his quietest film, but it’s also powerful and moving to levels I never expected an alien-invasion film to be able to reach. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are sturdy hands at the wheel, and the final moments are transcendent.

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14. Ford v Ferrari (2019) – James Mangold’s ultimate dad movie is a throwback to an era not long ago: the 90s. These kind of men-doing-car-things movies used to have their place in Hollywood, in the last fruitful decade, and maybe the incredible effort from Mangold, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and a superb ensemble will prove there is room going forward. It’s certainly a great sign.

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13. Hell or High Water (2016) – This delicious Texas noir snuck up on just about everyone in 2016. The cast couldn’t be better, all the way down to the salty old waitress asking “what dontcha want.” David Mackenzie’s direction is sound, and Taylor Sheridan screenplay tapped into a certain rural American anxiety in 2016, which may have been a subtle indicator as to the fate of… future events… in 2016.

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12. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) – There are three… THREE… incredible candidates for this list across the 2010s. Ghost Protocol is awesome, as is Rogue Nation, but perhaps a mixture of recency bias and wanting to celebrate the entire run of M:I sequels by recognizing the capstone to an incredible decade of action spectacle steered me towards Fallout. That, and the fact it’s probably the best one of the group.

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11. Annihilation (2018) – It is well known that Alex Garland took incredible liberties with his loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel; rumor is he read it once, then wrote the screenplay from memory some years later. This makes the film all that more fascinating, a blend of VanderMeer’s intent and Garland’s own kaleidoscopic brain. The collaboration works like The Shining, but with an even more terrifying humanoid bear thrown into the mix, and a hypnotic supporting turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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10. The Irishman (2019) – Even though he isn’t going anywhere any time soon, Martin Scorsese’s latest – a three-and-a-half hour eulogy of the crooks and killers he gave us over the decades – feels like a farewell to a part of his professional life. The meta quality to De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all teaming up for one last run in a film about dying off and what sort of legacy you do or don’t leave behind is too much to deny.

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9. The Invitation (2015) – It takes a great deal for a movie to surprise me anymore, but Karyn Kusama’s intense, disarming exploration into grief and what it can do to otherwise sane people takes a dark and sinister turn with a final shot that’s an all timer. Logan Marshall-Green is revelatory in the role that showed me he was more than just a Tom Hardy clone.

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8. Sicario (2015) – Denis Villeneuve is back in the fold with what is my favorite movie in his filmography, a searing thriller that is exciting and bleak and scary and sobering, sometimes all within the same scene. Villeneuve tapped into what makes Emily Blunt such a terrific female action star, and her pushback against Brolin and del Toro is a crucial part of an all around brilliant border crime drama.

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7. Boyhood (2014) – Setting aside the mind-blowing risk of filming the same movie with the same actors over more than a decade, Richard Linklater’s epic ode to growing up is rich in details and emotions, contemplative and honest in its emotions. I never consider Richard Linklater one of my favorite directors, but here we are, discussing his third film of the decade.

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6. Interstellar (2014) – Reception to Christopher Nolan’s heady space adventure was surprisingly middling in 2014. Perhaps there are warts on Interstellar, but it really feels like you have to do a back bend to point them out. If you let this story in, it’s easily Nolan’s most emotionally devastating picture, and McConaughey is a fascinating cypher for the Brit filmmaker.

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5. A Quiet Place (2018) – John Krasinski’s directorial debut benefited from having his wife, the amazing and versatile Emily Blunt, on board. Beyond the peak tension and suspense, this is a film about a family, any family, thrown into the most extreme of circumstances, and it never loses sight of the familial drama that makes the film more than what it could have been in lesser hands.

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4. A Star is Born (2018) – This is easily my most unexpected entry on the entire list, at least it was before I saw Bradley Cooper’s sublime remake of one of the most familiar stories in Hollywood. It’s a stunning film, the fact that it even exists and is executed with such perfection is unlikely. Emotional, exciting, funny, and ultimately sad, this was the biggest eye-opening cinematic experience of the decade.

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3. The Social Network (2010) – The best movie of the decade almost came out right off the top. David Fincher’s dead-serious examination into the egos that fueled the earliest days of Facebook and social media is perfect craftsmanship. It just so happens to be paired with a story of a total scumbag cyborg human who create a cultural mess with a website people can’t seem to shake. More fascinating now that it was then, and the performances are still top tier.

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2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – Claim recency bias, that’s fine, but in two more decades I seriously doubt my position will change on Tarantino’s love letter to late-’60s Hollywood. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio are sublime, two best friends whose relationship somehow feels authentic from the moment they appear. This is a dream of a film, one with an happier ending than the reality in which it was initially placed. Brandy is a good puppy dog.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – This was never supposed to work. George Miller hadn’t been to the world of Max Rockatansky in thirty years, and the last visit was a Tina Turner-infused mess. Production on the new one seemed troubled from the start, it went on for ages, all signs pointing towards disaster. But then, George Miller pulled off the rarest of Hollywood miracles, because when all the bad buzz and feuds and delays were over, he’d made a modern masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2019

Recency bias is a tough firewall to fight through, but even if you keep your wits about you when digesting the year that was 2019, curbing your desire to be superlative about things you’ve just seen, it sure seems like this is a special year and a capstone on a strange, transitional decade of film. It feels like the perfect end-of-a-decade year, like ’89 and ’99, specifically. Big movies wobbled, adult movies surged, and it appears some sense of balance may be returning to the theaters as the Avengers and the Skywalker’s exit stage left… for a little while, anyway. It’s not all doom and gloom, especially when I consider my ten favorite movies of the year and have to make some tough cuts. A lot of years, especially recent years, getting to ten has been a chore. 2019, however, seems to have just about anything for anyone; here are my ten favorites…


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10. Ad Astra – Sad Brad Ad Astra may not be able to pull itself free of James Gray’s dour tone, but it has a tremendous amount going for it. Brad Pitt’s performance is, honestly, more than just looking downtrodden; his son-of-a-legend, Roy McBride, is barely keeping it together. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left him behind, and pursued intelligent life beyond Neptune, and it clearly isn’t setting well with him. The business of Roy’s journey from the commercialized moon to the eerily occupied Mars is hypnotic, and the best part of the film.

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9Richard Jewell – Once again, Clint Eastwood has expertly snuck openhearted empathy into his story of a common citizen under threat of authoritative power. This time, it’s Paul Walter Hauser playing Eastwood’s unlikely hero, a law enforcement bootlicker we all recognize from times in our own life. The difference here is, Hauser and Eastwood work hard to earn Jewell’s sympathy, and it works in a film that is frustrating and emotionally upsetting from start to finish.

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8. The Lighthouse – Dirty and messy and short and noisy, Robert Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is another period specific journey into hell. Eggers whips up a Herman Melville fever dream swirling around our two stars (and the only people in the movie) Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the latter of whom totally disappears into the role so deftly you almost feel as if the actor himself was left stranded in a lighthouse at the edge of the world for three months leading up to filming.

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7. Dragged Across Concrete – S. Craig Zahler’s provocative cop noir has much to say, and says it at its own pace. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are perfectly paired as a couple of detectives who find themselves suspended after a video of them roughing up a suspect goes viral. They decide, then, to track down some illegal funds from a criminal enterprise and make up for their lost wages. Of course, things go oh-so-very wrong, but they go wrong in that sick and twisted Zahler way, with rich dialogue and shocking moments of violence.

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6. Parasite – So many films aspire to be what Parasite truly is, which is a film that totally changes pace, tone, and arguably changes genre on the audience right in the middle, upending everything and starting anew. Any general description of the film cannot prepare an audience for the twists and turns that lie within. It’s the most surprising film of the year, one of the best, and should be recognized as such this spring.

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5. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers have officially become the fresh new Big Apple Auteurs with Uncut Gems. Much like Parasite, The Safdie’s film keeps the audience off balance, never able to predict the direction it’s going, or why.  Daniel Lopatin’s score, a mixture of melodic and low-buzzing techno, is serene, and as good as Adam Sandler is as the shifty jeweler Howard, Julia Fox is better. She deserves a supporting actress nomination as Howard’s devoted and disarmingly intelligent Julia.

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4. The Irishman – It seems that Martin Scorsese’s entire career – or perhaps more specifically his career of directing gangster stories – had led to this. The Irishman captures an epic scope, but tells a devastatingly human tale of obligations on a much smaller scale, and the meta quality of these acting legends all joining forces – probably for one last time – cannot be overlooked. De Niro and Pacino are brilliant, but Joe Pesci’s quiet turn as Russell Bufalino is a complete about face from everything he’s done with Scorsese in the past, and it should be recognized as one of the best performances of the year.

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3. Her Smell – I didn’t expect much of anything when I sat down to watch Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s intimate, structured look at the evolution of a troubled rock star. Two plus hours later, I think I finally blinked. Elisabeth Moss is transcendent as Becky Something, in a role that should, one day, in a fair and just world, become a grunge pop icon among certain circles. From exhaustive to upsetting, to eventually hopeful yet hesitant, every emotion has its chance to shine through in Moss’s dominant performance.

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2. Ford v Ferrari – Yes, it is a dad movie, so I’m predisposed to fall in love with the pure mid-century American nostalgia that is coursing through the very alive, very thrilling veins of James Mangold Hollywood throwback. Both Damon and Bale are so great, you take them for granted, and you’re swept up into the propulsive action from the opening shot. Beyond our two very strong leads, though, is easily the second best supporting cast of the year, with stellar turns from Tracy Letts as Henry Ford (Just the second), Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, and Caitriona Balfe breaking up the boys club marvelously as the strong Mollie Miles.

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1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – We begin and end with Pitt. When I walked out of the theater in late July, I knew no matter what came out down the road, it wouldn’t top Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist ode to late ’60s Tinseltown. It’s a lived in movie, a “love letter” for lack of a better term; but Tarantino is more equipped to pen this letter for this era than just about any filmmaker out there with the desire to reach back into their childhood and honor the cinema and television that shaped their lives. Pitt and DiCaprio are special, and everyone in this endless roster of talents old and new is absolutely in sync with the special, textured world of Tarantino’s world. It’s a landmark achievement.

Goodbye Stranger: MAGNOLIA at 20

“I know this sounds silly… like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get ahold of the long-lost son, you know… but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know? Because they really happen. See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.” 

                                             – Phil Parma

Magnolia begins as if it were shot out of a cannon. The three outlandish historical accounts spill right over into a rolling montage, set to Aimee Mann’s melancholy rendition of “One,” where we meet all of our players in varying degrees of distress or confidence. The busy mind of a then 30-years young Paul Thomas Anderson explodes into a symphony of sadness, regret, and an exploration into the damage fathers can cause on their children. It’s all very heavy, and immediate, but once the story settles in, and despite its continuous messy tangents into the surreal, Anderson’s follow up to his flashy porn opus Boogie Nights is an energetic look at heartbreak in all its forms, and one that caught me at the right place in my own life.

Time has lessened the impact of Anderson’s three-hour tour of the outskirts of Los Angeles, maybe just a little. Cracks have begun to show… it happens… and the narrative goes for the big reaction at times when a subtler provocation would do; Anderson would probably be the first to tell you Magnolia would be an entirely different movie if he made it now, pushing fifty, but witnessing this idiosyncratic journey into emotional depths unknown, watching in amazement as frogs rained down from the sky, there was no other film from that magical year of 1999 that stirred my soul the same way.

It’s difficult to list or rank any of the performances, because whenever any of the characters are on the screen you’re easily convinced it is them who is the best part of the picture, even if their story has been collecting warts these last two decades. There is John C. Reilly, one of the moral centers of the film, as the just-okay cop with a gaping hole in his heart; there is Claudia (played with an aching, angry sadness by Melora Walters), the troubled daughter of game-show legend Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a scumbag celebrity host trying to right the wrongs in his life after a terminal cancer diagnosis; there is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the genius kid contestant on Gator’s What Do Kids Know? program, and his terrible exploitative father (Michael Bowen); preceding Stanley in the game show’s lore was “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, who took the game by storm as a kid before also being exploited by his parents, losing his fortune, being struck by lightning, and falling into a pit of personal despair as an adult. Donnie Smith has become a hapless loser now, an alcoholic teeming over with love to give, played by William H. Macy in an intentionally bad dye job and red glasses.

These are the stories swirling all around us in Magnolia, and each of these peripheral tales have their moments, but these sections are also where the film shows its age. So much of Macy’s story is meandering and driven by raw emotion that the scenes inside the bar sometimes lose focus. Reilly and Walters’ calmer scenes together are quite touching, but the investigation Reilly’s Jim Curran takes on – and the subsequent gun loss – never really worked from the start.

Where Magnolia still retains its impact after all these years, where it makes up for all the youthful misgivings, is in (arguably) the central plot, involving TV icon Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a man in his very last moments of life, his unhinged younger (former trophy) wife, Lily, played by Julianne Moore as a desperately regretful harlot too deep in the throes of pill addiction to fix her clouded mind, and Phil Parma, his nurse, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film’s most touching and humane performance. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is tasked with locating Earl’s estranged son, Frank, who became Frank “T.J.” Mackey, a misogynistic self-help guru for lonely men.

Tom Cruise plays Frank Mackey as a hardened, sexist shell of a human being whose teenage trauma has informed the rest of his cynical existence, the long flowing locks exposing a feminine side he’s always resented. Only gradually, through interview scenes with a plucky female reporter, do we see the layers of confidence stripped away from Frank, piece by agonizing piece. It’s incredible to see him shrink and wilt throughout the picture. 1999 was quite a year for Cruise; he released two features in ’99, this and Eyes Wide Shut, and both deconstructed the superstar’s heroic persona that had helped him define an entire decade of cinema. The nineties belonged to Cruise, and here he was, tearing all that machismo apart with wonderful complexity and depth. It’s a remarkably vulnerable performance, unlike anything we would ever see again from Cruise, and it should have culminated in an Oscar victory.

The frogs. The frogs still work, and the event was one of the more stunning left turns in cinematic history at the time. After almost three hours of watching these hopeless, lost souls careen off one another over the span of one long Los Angeles day, everything everywhere stops. It’s a moment of confusion and bewilderment, but it’s an event that seems to allow us – and the characters – to add perspective to the situation in which they find themselves. It’s a hard reset, a bombastic move from a young filmmaker with final cut and so much love and energy bottled up inside him he couldn’t help but pour it all out into his LA opus.

Critics mostly adored Magnolia when it hit theaters, though general audiences were scratching their heads about the frogs in the final act, as well as everyone in the cast pausing inside their respective stories to sing along with Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song, “Save Me.” The singing scene is a powerful moment of respite amid the chaos of these people lives, a unifying voice of reason, albeit fleeting. Anderson’s bombastic choices don’t feel as absurd in our postmodern world, but in the final days of the 20th century they were fresh and exciting for some, confusing and alienating for others.

With the help of overseas box office numbers and the momentum generated by Boogie Nights, Anderson’s picture gathered almost $50 million against a $37 million budget as it finished out the year and the decade. Mann’s song, Cruise, and Anderson’s original screenplay were all nominated for Academy Awards, though none would win.

Sometimes, it’s the flawed movies that make an impact on us most. Not because they are “Perfect” or timeless, not because they are a certain filmmaker’s bona fide masterpiece, but because they grab ahold of our emotions in a unique way, and they linger in our mind for some time after. Or maybe they even help us; because their flaws feel like the imperfections in our own lives, and we can see through the style to the human. Magnolia touched me in 1999, as an 18-year old set loose in the world, unable to control my impulses, veering dangerously close to a path of addiction and failure. When I saw Magnolia for the first time I felt at home in the chaotic mental space of so many of these people, even though I never experienced such trauma in my own life. Nevertheless, my life felt out of control at the time, and Anderson’s film gave me an unexpected avenue for catharsis.

It’s no surprise, then, that a film about truly broken people in legitimately dangerous situations reset my brain, and helped redirect my priorities. It helped fix me. Just as Phil Parma says in the movie, “this is where you help me out,” these three hours of messy melodrama will forever stick with me, no matter how strange or clumsy it may seem in another twenty years.

Ignore The Bad Takes, Anna Paquin is a Crucial Part of THE IRISHMAN

The bigger the movie, it seems, the worse the think pieces. It certainly seems to be the case in 2019, with everyone able to voice their opinions on a film at a moment’s notice. This fall, once the (mostly positive) Tarantino discourse died down after Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, it was time for the social media hive to descend on Martin Scorsese, his thoughts on Marvel movies and the state of cinema, and his latest epic film, The Irishman. Scorsese’s latest gangster epic, a mournful meditation on death and duty, on family and business, on love and isolation, has been met with almost universal praise, save for a few complaints from philistines about the film’s 3.5 hour run time or – what is arguably the weakest, most feeble take on the peripheral elements of the picture – criticism of Anna Paquin’s role.

In The Irishman, Paquin plays Peggy Sheeran, the adult daughter of Robert De Niro’s Frank, the Irishman in question. We see Peggy through the years, at different ages, and as the film unfolds at its languid, deliberate pace, laying out all the criminal activity of its three main stars (De Niro, Joe Pesci in an absolutely remarkable, restrained performance as Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino as the firebrand teamster leader of lore, Jimmy Hoffa), we witness Peggy, witnessing these men. Peggy has very different reactions to Russell and Hoffa, and is mostly silent as a youngster in the film. Roughly halfway through, we meet Paquin as an adult Peggy. And yes, her role is mostly silent. This is where some fools looking for clicks and not bothering to properly engage with art and what it’s trying to say decided to pounce on the Paquin role, and its very deliberate lack of dialogue.

Most of the controversy is drummed up out of bad-faith arguments, like Ira Madison, the absolute king of trash opinions based solely on wokester double talk. But the issue, that Paquin has only seven lines of dialogue, has been kicked around enough to garner responses from the likes of De Niro and a handful of major entertainment outlets, al positioning the story as if Paquin should be upset and amazingly, she is not. Writers are taking the bait, sadly giving this disingenuous discourse on one of the best films of the year more oxygen than it ever deserved.

Lucy Gallina, who plays the younger Peggy in the film, has very little dialogue and much more screen time than Paquin. It is her interpretation of the character we see giving Russell the cold shoulder and warming to Hoffa immediately. We see Peggy on the sidelines, like the wives of our trio of power-hungry killers and thieves, an afterthought for men who are so consumed by their evil work that they ignore their loved ones along the way. That’s what some may call… the point.

Seeing that Paquin has seven lines of dialogue is surprising because it feels like less. But, the trick, and part of the reason Scorsese is a master storyteller, is that with almost no dialogue he can make her moments on screen drive home the entire emotional resonance of the story. Anna Paquin was hired for her black-eyed stare, one that can go cold and cut right through even the most hardened killer. This is the stare in Paquin’s most critical moment in the film, which also happens to be the biggest catalyst for the final act. For those who haven’t seen it, I will say no more; for those who have seen it, they know exactly the moment to which I am referring, not because of anything else other than the way Paquin plays the scene.

Anna Paquin is not only great in a limited role in The Irishman, she is essential to the success of the story. Like all of the women in the lives of these cursed men, they are relegated to the background of life, a mere witness to their powerful husbands and the ruin they bring on everyone in their lives. They are important because they are portrayed as precisely not important. the very point of their roles is to seem marginalized, so when they do speak up against the patriarchal poison, their words matter. Seeing Paquin’s face go cold and ask a simple question of her father, “why?”, packs more of a punch than any Danial Day-Lewis monologue. This is a deliberate criticism of the corrupted men in this world, and a harsher criticism of their sordid lives than any murder scene could convey.

Once again, however, a minimal facet of The Internet reacts in bad faith to something permeating the culture, and stirs up idiotic talking points to try and create controversy from nothing. Anyone who has ever seen a film, or a television show, or a play, or understands the basics of dramatic storytelling, could likely figure out Scorsese’s intention with the Peggy character. Unfortunately, showing off your depth of intelligence on a subject isn’t as important as getting the woke points. And yet, even pausing for a moment to consider that side of the argument, it doesn’t hold water either. You are defending Paquin against evil patriarch Scorsese because she doesn’t have any lines? That seems to be minimizing the work she’s doing in the role, as if she only has value if she speaks, and her physical performance isn’t good enough for YOU to understand.

Perhaps the culture warriors should take a page from Steven Zaillian’s brilliant screenplay and cut their own dialogue; let the rest of us engage with art in an honest way, and stop cluttering up the discourse with useless garbage.

COP LAND, James Mangold’s Breakout Film, Only Gets Better With Age

Looking back on Cop Land, James Mangold’s breakout 1997 police drama that helped fortify the Miramax stronghold on independent cinema throughout the decade, what’s most striking is the cast. It’s incredible. These faces and these bodies, ones of movie stars at different points in their career, seem to have gone back in time and lived as these characters for decades before we see them crash into each other in Mangold’s story. It lends even more authenticity to a near-perfect thriller that has truth and conviction in its bones.

James Mangold couldn’t have assembled the cast he did without selling his screenplay to Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The brash brothers from Buffalo, New York had transformed Miramax Films into the newest kings of tinseltown, thanks to the culture-shifting success of Pulp Fiction. Just about every young star – and a number of fading legends – were eager to find their Pulp Fiction and propel or resurrect their career, so when the Weinstein’s showed up with Mangold’s Cop Land, the producer was able to convince the majority of the impressive cast – Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Annabella Sciorra, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg, De Niro, Keitel, the list goes on – to work for scale.

The one holdout on that front was John Travolta, whom Harvey wanted to bring back this time to play the hero of the picture, Freddy Heflin, the downtrodden doormat sheriff of a city full of cops, deaf in one in because of an ear injury that kept him out of the NYPD. A lifetime of regret hangs heavy on Heflin. Weinstein argued that Travolta owed him for the windfall of Pulp Fiction, but Travolta felt he may have had something to do with the success of the movie, and he wasn’t so willing to reduce his asking price right in the middle of his new hot streak. Travolta didn’t fit in the mold of Cop Land anyway; he’d become a star again, and was too big a personality for this intimate drama. Mangold and Miramax needed to find someone on the downslope, the way Travolta was before 1994. Sylvester Stallone fit that description.

In 1993, Sly Stallone had a pair of solid hits – and two terrific films to boot – in Cliffhanger and the gleefully insane Demolition Man. Since that magical year, the well had run dry for the now aging ’80s icon: The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight were four consecutive bombs, so Stallone was all too willing to roll the dice and take the part for a minimal fee. It was a return to Stallone’s roots as a performer, as he added forty pounds to his petite muscular frame and tackled the most crucial performance in an imposing ensemble of actors, all with “bigger” moments than Freddy throughout the film. Stallone could not be more perfect in a role that was advertised at the time as his indie throwback attempt at “real acting” again. His Freddy Heflin begins in the pool hall of Garrison, NJ, drunk and virtually mute, and must slowly stir his soul awake and pull himself out of the fog as the story begins to evolve and sprawl out of control. Stallone does wonderful physical work as Freddy slowly wakes up to the evil all around him, and his dull eyes are shining and clear by the time he decides to stand up for himself, and for the honor of the badge he’s wearing – even if it isn’t that shining tin star of the NYPD.

The fact that Stallone is able to hold the screen against the likes of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and the manic energy of Ray Liotta and a mustachioed Robert Patrick, speaks volumes to his performance. Both Keitel and De Niro are right at home as opposing powers facing off over an investigation into the sudden disappearance of Murray “Wonder Kid” Babbitch (Michael Rapaport), who shoots an unarmed black man one night and promptly vanishes into thin air. The rest of these actors all inhabit different variations of the beaten down, alcoholic drecks that many of these hard-nosed policemen morph into over years of working the beat, and Cathy Moriarty and Annabella Sciorra admirably fill the thankless, hapless roles of the wives in the background, themselves hapless and minimized by the toxic world all around them.

Mangold executes the labyrinthine plot and emotional beats of Cop Land like a seasoned veteran, with an inspirational touch of Sidney Lumet or Clint Eastwood in his directing prime. The film is patient and intimate, but still manages to hit big action notes and ratchet up the tension at just the right times. I have always admired Cop Land since seeing it in the theater, but the deliberate pacing and distinct lack of visual flourish, which befell so many Pulp Fiction copycats in the back half of the decade, has allowed the film to appreciate on its own humanistic merit. It’s the performances that grow stronger throughout the years, first and foremost, as we look back on this roster of talent and see just how great it turned out to be.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Tries Hard, But it Can’t Escape the Past

For the better part of two decades, ever since its perfect farewell in 1991, studios and directors and producers and creators have been trying to reboot or continue or reimagine the Terminator franchise. Whether it’s going back in time, or into the future, or frivolously fixing the present, this is the franchise that’s felt tired for a long time. Terminator: Dark Fate almost course corrects the entire IP.

Almost.

None of these post ’91 Terminator movies have “worked,” not in the way anyone involved had hoped.  In 2003, the studio asked Jonathan Mostow to pick up where JAMES CAMERON left off, and Rise of The Machines was, at the very least, fun. Terminator Salvation was nothing of the sort; McG’s attempt to revive the franchise was more well known for Christian Bale’s on-set rant than any single moment in his dour, lifeless, aggressively brown movie. Then, in 2015, legendary filmmaker… (checks notes) Alan Taylor… gave us Terminator Genisys, which I can confirm was a movie that existed. Don’t press me for details.

Surely, the failure of Genisys was proof that the franchise was dead, and should have died with that final thumbs up in the molten steel. But, much like its titular T-101, this revisionist universe won’t be stopped. Enter Deadpool director Tim Miller, with a mercifully un-funny return to the basics in Dark Fate. Don’t expect the sitcom vibes of T3 or the crude humor of Deadpool, this film sticks to the action, which is an admirable approach in these days of self-referential humor and postmodern nostalgia trips that serve as nothing more than fan service.

That being said, Linda Hamilton is back, and she’s a sight for sore eyes. This franchise has been adrift since Hamilton’s been gone, with surprisingly little in the way of a strong female presence in any of the subsequent films. This time around, Sarah Connor is tasked with saving a young hispanic girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), from the clutches of a new advanced terminator called the REV-9 (Diego Boneta), who can detach his nano-tech skin/body from his robotic endoskeleton… it’s never really explained. Also in the mix is Grace, a human/terminator hybrid played terrifically by Mackenzie Davis. Grace is in charge of protecting young Dani as well, but that portion of the story is of little consequence, no matter how much Miller and his robust stable of screenwriters try and pull us in.

The problem with every Terminator movie post ’91 has been the same: none of them should exist. Terminator 3′s explanation that the story didn’t end in 1991 was “well, the apocalypse was inevitable, just go with us.” Salvation was in the future, in a story nobody cared about, and even though I am certain I’ve seen Genisys I still don’t know why it haphazardly starts the entire timeline over from the beginning with worse actors in literally every role. Once we get “the explanation” in Dark Fate, which happens in an early exposition dump and is far and away the best justification of any of these newer entries, a certain satisfaction level has been met with the story. “Oh,” you think, “okay, that’s how this movie exists. Fine.”

Dark Fate honestly tries to engage with society’s involvement with – and inevitable replacement by – technology in some fresh new ways early on, but again, once the reason for the story’s existence has been checked off, the movie devolves into little more than a series of CGI action sequences. And then, of course, it figures out a way to squeeze in a little Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s no surprise that Arnie is back as the T-101, and his new backstory is an interesting bit of creativity spilled out by this platoon of screenwriters; but, much like the society/tech angle, his whole scene is pretty much abandoned. Arnie’s presence is a benefit and a hindrance to the series. Since he is still willing, the Terminator franchise must always figure out a way to make his T-101 a part of the story; at the same time, because of Arnie’s dedication to the character they can never make a clean break and concentrate on making central characters we may deeply care about again.

Linda Hamilton is game for her role, and even though her performance is a lot of standing around she still does it with some much-needed gravitas. The best surprise in the new cast is Davis, who is physical and tall and commands your attention. The rest of the new players are basically voids, which is a big problem. As cold and quiet as Robert Patrick was in T2, he was still menacing and even a little scary as he stalked young John Connor across LA. None of that exists with Diego Boneta, who is nonexistent outside of the CGI that’s applied to his body. The same goes for Natalia Reyes, the key to the entire story who is shuffled to the background and practically forgotten at times. Remember that first 45 minutes of The Terminator where we got to know Sarah Connor and pick up on her mannerisms and personality and possible untapped strengths? We are given none of that for Dani, at least not in any meaningful way.

No matter how well the Dark Fate story tries to thread the needle, and even though it gets closer than any film that’s tried it before, it can’t escape the intimidating shadow of James Cameron. This was the best opportunity for the franchise to take a step forward, where an explanation was given and it was something worth embracing. Unfortunately, any of the interesting tidbits dissolve in a blaze of empty gunfire and CGI explosions.

THE LIGHTHOUSE: Melville Gone Mad

Out at the edge of the world, surrounded by an angry ocean, sits The Lighthouse, the subject of Robert Eggers’ captivating new period horror. This titular lighthouse is rude and rickety, craggy and seemingly sinking into the wet earth around it. It’s where we first meet Wake and Winslow (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson), the two forlorn seamen who arrive via ferry and watch as their tugboat taxi disappears into the fog. We are on our own, then, and Eggers uses all the tools in his belt to make this a harrowing showdown between two madmen. Here are two brilliant actors at different personal peaks of their respective careers, crossing paths, and it’s a blast to watch.

Pattinson’s Winslow is a young journeyman with a sketchy past, and he’s paired with Thomas Wake, a brillo-bearded former sea captain with all the grunts and snarls – and all the other body noises – of a sodden mariner gone to seed. Willem Dafoe is always worth seeing, but when he’s deep in the throes of genre the way he is here, there’s nothing quite like the energy he brings to the screen. This is a petrified seaman ripped from the pages of Herman Melville and soured by isolation and a casual sort of madness. Wake is in charge of this lighthouse, and of Winslow, and he treats Winslow like his personal slave, hauling coal, cleaning, repairing the roof, working like a dog while the salty supervisor gets drunk and threatens Winslow with docked pay.

The power struggle is one of several plates The Lighthouse has in the air. Some threads of this fraying knit sweater veer off into the supernatural, with some surprising mermaids and some pesky seagulls. Wake and Winslow bristle, then bond, and the rollercoaster heads into dark and dingy places that are often beautifully garish, thanks to Jarin Blaschke’s high contrast black-and-white photography. The sharp shadows and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio (it cuts off the sides of the screen, giving the film a boxed, early 20th-century look) set the claustrophobic tone. The score consists of moaning and wailing brass horns, and the soundtrack of the picture is heavy and industrial. You can feel the wind cut through these poor men as storms roll over them with little regard, and every belch and fart feels like it could creep into the theater with you.

But The Lighthouse is much more than visual parlor tricks, straightforward horror elements, and a few startling surprises that are best left unsaid. The push and pull between Pattinson – oddly resembling a 1920’s-era Gary Cooper at times – and Dafoe evolves and devolves as these men slip in and out of madness, typically fueled by endless booze. Much like he did with The Witch, Eggers is able to incorporate modern psychology with a classic cinematic setting, in a world that time has since forgotten. It may seem like The Lighthouse would work as a silent film, but that’s anything but the truth. This is a story that thrives on rich dialogue, and some strong monologues, from its dueling leads as they grapple with the gradual dissolution of their sanity. It isn’t as impenetrable as the dialogue in The Witch, but it certainly has its own authentic slang, and the characters have their own dialects that, once again, seem to be pulled from Melville’s nightmares.

The Lighthouse can be interpreted in a number of different ways, which appears to be another one of Eggers’ strength aside from strict attention to period detail. The journey of these two men takes on different shades of insanity if it’s taken at face value, or if it’s taken as an allegory for any number of things… that would potentially spoil the movie. This is a film that sticks to your sides like barnacles. It will be fun to revisit, some dark and stormy night down the road.