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what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 10.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

I watched 82 movies last year, which is quite a total ... approximately one every five days. But for whatever reason, my viewing was way down from recent years. For instance, in 2015 I watched 136 movies. I have no explanation for this. It’s not like I “got a life” in 2016. Suffice to say, the sample size is smaller this year.

Which doesn’t change the results. My average rating this year was 7.4 ... last year, 7.1 ... two years ago, 7.4.

Here we go:

My Darling Clementine
Richard Pryor Live in Concert

Beauty and the Beast
The Kid
Last Day of Freedom
Late Spring
Odd Man Out

About Elly
Amanda Knox
The Asphalt Jungle
Blue Is the Warmest Color
City Lights
City of Hope
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Ex Machina
The Gleaners & I
Mind Game
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Pather Panchali
The Phantom Carriage
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Secret Sunshine   
World of Tomorrow
Zazie dans le métro

2001: A Space Odyssey
Advise & Consent
The Americanization of Emily
The Barbarian Invasions
The Blue Angel
Bridge of Spies
Bridget Jones's Diary
Captain America: Civil War
Cartel Land
Chau, beyond the lines
East Side Sushi
Edge of Tomorrow
Eye in the Sky
The Great Escape
The Gunfighter
Hannah and Her Sisters
Hot Fuzz
Licence to Kill
The Martian
Obvious Child
Only Lovers Left Alive
Rogue One
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton
We Need to Talk About Kevin
What Happened, Miss Simone?
When Marnie Was There
Winter Light
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Night Catches Us
Star Trek Beyond

Guardians of the Galaxy
The Last Five Years
O Lucky Man!


best films of 2015

It’s something of a tradition for me to post a Top Ten list of year-old films, because I’m always behind on my movie watching. I’m going to keep it down to a Top Six this time ... there are too many tied-for-7ths to include. Obviously, this only includes what I’ve seen.

Best film of 2015: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Next five, in no particular order:

Least favorite movie of 2015: Survivor

only lovers left alive (jim jarmusch, 2013)

The IMDB trivia page for Only Lovers Left Alive includes this perhaps apocryphal story. “There was some action in the film at first. But when Jim Jarmusch was asked to add more he instead removed all of it.” This stands as a warning to anyone thinking, “Oh boy, a vampire movie! I bet a lot happens!”

There are elements of Performance (Tom Hiddleston plays a reclusive rocker) and The Hunger (Tilda Swinton is an even whiter version of Catherine Deneuve). Eve (Swinton ... Hiddleston is Adam) at one point chastises Adam for not taking advantage of everything eternal life has to offer. “How can you've lived for so long and still not get it? This self obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent in surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing.” Adam, the recluse, gives the impression he could stay home every day for a hundred years. Even when Adam’s loneliness draws him to be closer to Eve, he won’t leave his home in Detroit, forcing her to come from Tangiers. Eve and Adam are in love with aesthetics, as is Jarmusch in this film. They get their blood from sources that resemble drug dealers ... no messy biting of humans. Much of Only Lovers Left Alive is, ironically, rather bloodless.

Mia Wasikowska turns up as Eve’s “sister” Ava. The “family” resemblance is clear: Wasikowska may be even whiter than Swinton. Ava brings an energetic abandon to Adam, Eve, and the movie, and it’s a welcome change of pace, even if it’s obvious from the start that Ava will turn out to be nothing but trouble. She takes Eve’s advice to survive and appreciate to an extreme (while not bothering with kindness and friendship ... she shares self obsession with Adam).

Swinton was born to play a vampire. Hiddleston’s Adam may remind us of Mick Jagger’s Turner in Performance, but he looks more like 1970s Jimmy Page. John Hurt is a scene-stealer as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that’s what I said). The late Anton Yelchin makes his mark, and Jeffrey Wright is always welcome.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow-moving tale that seems doomed, but the ending is hopeful, at least on Adam and Eve’s terms. This is the third Jim Jarmusch film I have seen (along with Down by Law and Broken Flowers), and I react to all of them on the same level. They are intriguing, but I never fall in love with them, which I imagine is by design. #247 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

hannah and her sisters (woody allen, 1986)

This is the movie I chose in honor of the passing of Carrie Fisher. I didn’t want to watch a Star Wars movie. I wish I’d hunted down Shampoo. Fisher does not play Hannah or her sisters, so her part is limited. She’s OK, although I wouldn’t say she was a scene-stealer.

I remember liking Hannah and Her Sisters, and even today, in the post-creepy-Woody era, it’s a good movie (although the presence of a teenaged Soon-Yi Previn is startling). It is not, however, a classic, not as good as I recalled. My connection to Allen’s films is full of holes. Hannah comes during a decent period for Allen, the late-80s, but after Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989, I don’t think I saw another Woody Allen movie until Vicky Christina Barcelona in 2008. Annie Hall (1976) remains my favorite, Stardust Memories (1980) is by far my least favorite. Of his more recent pictures, I liked Midnight in Paris a lot. But that gap between 1989 and 2008 probably tells the story ... it’s been a long time since I had a burning desire to see what Woody Allen is up to.

Even here, I watched Hannah and Her Sisters because Carrie Fisher was in it.

There are reasons Hannah is an improvement on his other movies of that time. His character is not the main character, and at this point, a little of Woody goes a long way. (One good thing about Midnight in Paris is that Allen uses another actor, Owen Wilson, to play the Woody character.) Hannah and her sisters resemble actual women, and the performances are excellent (Dianne Wiest won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, with Michael Caine winning the Supporting Actor award). I’m partial to Barbara Hershey, and she shines, as well.

But there is something of a “so what” to the movie. I suppose it is relatively optimistic for the Allen World, for what that’s worth. But watching it every 30 years seems about right. #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (My three favorite films from 1986: A Better Tomorrow, Sid and Nancy, and Aliens.)

licence to kill (john glen, 1989)

It’s been a tradition for a few years now, to watch a James Bond movie soon after Xmas. The reason is that I always put a 007 movie in Robin’s stocking. The tradition may be ending. We’ve done all the Sean Connerys (and Lazenby), and we already own several of the Brosnans and Craigs. And owning Blu-rays in the streaming era is more and more passé (when we opened her Blu-ray player to load in Licence to Kill, Diamonds Are Forever was still there from last year). Once in the VHS days, we watched every Bond movie, including the 60s Casino Royale, and we’ve kept that streak up ... there are none we haven’t seen, unless you count the TV episode back in the 50s. So I knew it wasn’t much of a present to get her one of the Roger Moores, which left the two Timothy Dalton movies. I like Licence to Kill best of those two, so that’s what she got this year, and I’ll just have to figure out something else for her stocking in 2017.

I remembered liking Dalton as Bond ... he reminded me more of the Bond of the books than his predecessors. And my memory of Licence to Kill was that it was more brutal, with a rogue 007 single-mindedly out to get revenge for his friend who had lost a leg to a shark. And indeed, it was the first one to get a PG-13 rating in the USA, although that’s a bit misleading, since the PG-13 rating was only introduced in 1984, and there had only been two Bonds since that time.

Watching it now, I didn’t feel it was particularly PG-13ish. Of course, our tolerance for violence has risen since 1989. Also, Dalton was certainly more brutal than Roger Moore, but Daniel Craig has since taken that throne away. Licence to Kill is one of the Bonds that tries to move away from the formula, but the truth is, the film is occasionally boring because of that. Licence to Kill isn’t intense enough to overcome the lack of goofiness.

Still, the action set pieces are strong, Dalton does a good job, and if Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto aren’t the best Bond Girls, at least they aren’t the worst. Robert Davi is fine as the villain, but his part suffers from its distance from the formula ... he doesn’t want to take over the world, he just wants to run his drug trade. A young Benicio Del Toro is good as the henchman, and Wayne Newton has fun with his bit part. It’s better than anything with Roger Moore, with the possible exception of The Spy Who Loved Me. 7/10.

My favorite Bonds: From Russia with Love and Goldfinger (9/10),  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale 2006, and Skyfall (8/10).

xmas with félix 2016

I am a curmudgeon when it comes to Xmas. But this year was different, because I spent it with a four-year-old.

Our grandson, Félix, has reached the age where he really understands what’s up with Xmas. He knows there are presents ... he knows there’s Santa ... he probably knows he is the center of attention. Watching his joy made Xmas more than bearable, it made it enjoyable.

He handed out the presents. He can’t really read yet, but he knows his own name, and “Mom” and “Dad”. So he could look at a wrapped present and tell if it was for him when he saw his name. He got thrown off a bit when he’d see the word “From”, because once he saw “F” he hopefully assumed the rest of the word was “élix” and he’d announce it was for him. So it wasn’t perfect, but he did pretty good. And he was dedicated ... even after he opened something for himself that he really liked, he’d put it down to grab another present for someone else.

I usually say he wants to be a DJ when he grows up, but that’s not really accurate. He thinks he is a DJ now. He loves playing DJ, plugging in various things (or “plugging” them in, since in many cases, they aren’t working so he won’t electrocute himself). One of the presents he got on Xmas Eve was DJ Lights ... disco lights, really ... it sends colored lights across the room and the ceiling, makes for a festive atmosphere. His dad helped him mount it on a wall, so we got to watch his lights most of the night. On Xmas morning, he found that Santa had brought a kid’s DJ board, with a pretend turntable for scratching, and a keyboard, and lots of sliders and preset drum beats. He loved it.

félix dj

Like many middle-class Americans, Sara and Ray got an Amazon Echo for the holiday (Ray’s boss gave them to employees). Later, it turned out I’d gotten TWO, and then we went to my sister’s, and she had one, too (her’s was the big model ... the rest of us had Echo Dots). This meant all of us spent a lot of time asking Alexa questions, smart and stupid. Félix was once again the star. He took to the AI machine instantly. They called theirs “Echo” because he has a brother named Lex, and they worried saying “Lex” all the time might set Alexa off. Félix took a nap with Robin ... she said when he woke up, he quietly whispered, “Echo, play ...” (she didn’t catch what). He already expects the Echo to be ready and responsive to his every beck and call. He was so cute ... if he asked a question that didn’t get answered, he’d walk over to the Echo and talk into it directly, as if that would help.

And at one point, apropos of nothing we could figure, he said something like, “Echo, what can we do for homeless people so they won’t be homeless anymore?”

So, yes, this was a good Xmas.

félix santa

Meanwhile, 2016 sucked, as everyone knows. Our family survived, at least. We haven’t seen Neal and Sonia yet this holiday, but hopefully we will very soon. Oh, and Spot made it through another year:


by request: rogue one (gareth edwards, 2016)

On the one hand, there’s the Star Wars franchise. I’m neither here nor there with it. The better ones all blend together, although like many, I’ll name The Empire Strikes Back if I’m asked to pick a favorite. And the worst ones (easy to identify, they are episodes I, II, and III) all seem the same, too. I liked the most recent “episode”, The Force Awakens, better than most. But I’ve never given a Star Wars movie more than 7/10.

On the other hand, there’s Gareth Edwards. I thought his debut, the cheapie Monsters, was good and encouraging. I thought the big-budget Godzilla was an improvement, and thus even more encouraging.

And now we have Gareth Edwards directing a Star Wars movie.

I think it’s a step back from Godzilla, but on a par with the other good Star Wars movies. I noted in my comments on Godzilla that Edwards was “using a big budget not to knock us on our asses a la Michael Bay but instead to make a better film.” And sure enough, one of the things I liked best about Rogue One was its lack of Michael Bay-ishness. The action scenes are coherent, which in 2016 means they are old-fashioned, but when it comes to action, I’m old-fashioned, too. I always knew who was where in the action scenes, which didn’t used to be that hard to pull off. I was often confused during the film, but that came not because the action was jumbled, but because I don’t have Star Wars embedded in my brain. So I didn’t understand where this movie is placed in the Star Wars timeline until it was explained to me after the show. I never remember if the good guys fly those x-shaped planes or the h-shaped planes (they are different, aren’t they?), so I’m behind from the start. And I didn’t much care about the characters, beyond their basic function ... that is, I liked Felicity Jones kicking ass, but have no thoughts on Jyn Erso (heck, I had to look the character’s name up before I typed that).

But I often find character development superfluous in action movies. Not if it is done well, not if the film makers actually care about those characters. But when we find out that Betty Jo had a hard relationship with her father, or that Bill never got over losing his best friend, and that is the sum total of what we learn about the characters, I wish they just wouldn’t bother.

So for me, the last part of Rogue One is the best, because it’s mostly pure action. And based on his last two movies, Gareth Edwards appears to know how to do action.

I'd also like to mention Donnie Yen. Yen is now in his early-50s. He deserves a good paycheck more than most people. And he can't keep on doing his martial arts magic forever. But he was wasted in Rogue One. Many of his (few) fights were against CGI opponents. I was reminded of The Tuxedo, made when Jackie Chan was pushing 50. Chan had special powers when he wore this magic suit ... but Jackie Chan doesn't need a magic suit to do miraculous things. And Donnie Yen doesn't need CGI. So check him out in Ip Man, or working with Michelle Yeoh in Wing Chun.

OK ... I’m willing to call Rogue One a better-than-average Star Wars movie. Which means 7/10. But if you want to know where I’m coming from, I gave both The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road 10/10.

tv 2016: final notes

You won’t find a Top Ten here, but I did want one more post to summarize all of those previous posts.

I don’t have a #1, nor do I have a #2. But my two favorite shows of 2016 are The Americans and Rectify. The latter in particular is ready for streaming, as it finished its run last week.

The following are shows that would make a Top Ten (or whatever) if I did such a thing. They aren’t as good as the top two, but good enough (the ones in bold are particular favorites):

Atlanta, Fleabag, Happy Valley, Jane the Virgin, Mr. Robot, Orange Is the New Black, Outlander, Penny Dreadful, Shameless, Soundbreaking, Stranger Things.

That's 13 shows, and none of them were on HBO. It's not that HBO is no longer the home of good TV, but they aren't the only place to find things in 2016. Netflix had the most shows among the 13, with 3.

Special mention goes to The 100. This was a series with great promise, and I don’t think it has squandered it all (some have given up). I look forward to the upcoming season as much as I do any other show. But they made a crucial, tin-eared mistake midway through last season, and while the end of the season did a bit to mend things, the screw-up made the fix bittersweet at best.

This video is the epitome of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched through Season 3 but intend to at some time, do not watch this video. This observation is completely unscientific: the video below has 53,262 as I type this. A similar fan reaction video for Season 3 Episode 7 has three times as many views. (Among other problems with this conclusion, there are multiple reaction videos for both scenes). It should also be noted that after Season 3 Episode 7, many hardcore fans were vehement in claiming they would never watch again. So it is quite possible that many people who would have locked in to the following scene were no longer watching.

return of the karen sisco award

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), and Luck (2012).

And then I stopped. There weren’t any proper candidates in 2013. I attributed this in part to the emergence of mini-series that were always intended to have a short run. To take a recent example, The Night Of on HBO was always only going to last for one short season. Shows like this could not be Sisco-ed, because they never stuck around long enough.

I have not given a Karen Sisco Award since 2012. But I think I’m going to pull it out of the closet again in 2016, while breaking one of the rules of the award.

Peggy Carter is one of the bazillion characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She first appeared in 2011 in the film Captain America: The First Avenger. (In comic books, I believe the character dates back to the 1960s.) An aging Carter makes brief appearances in two other MCU films, and then, in 2015, she got her own TV series, Agent Carter. The first season was shown during a mid-season break for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and lasted just eight episodes. It received good reviews, and returned for a second season, also during a break for Agents of SHIELD, in 2016. This time there were ten episodes, bringing the total to eighteen. Critics still liked it, but ratings were low, and Agent Carter was cancelled after those eighteen episodes.

Agent Carter had some similarities to Karen Sisco, far more than previous winners of the award did. The title character first appeared in (comic) books and then movies. Gugino, who I called “ridiculously hot”, was in her early-30s during Karen Sisco ... Hayley Atwell, who played the title character in Agent Carter, was in her early-30s and, yes, is an eye-popping knockout.

Agent Carter was never a great show, but Atwell was perfect, the show moved along nicely. As is often the case, Maureen Ryan got it, placing Agent Carter among her Top 20 shows for 2016:

Some cancellations you just never get over (“Enlightened,” sob), and this is one of them. “Agent Carter” was a lovely concoction of action-adventure, superhero aspirations and retro delightfulness, and it hit its stride in its second season. Hayley Atwell was always perfect as Peggy Carter, but the show’s supporting cast and storytelling was even more fun in Season Two. This was a show that did everything right and got cancelled anyway, and I’m still sad, partly because I think many people assume it’s easy to create something this joyful and jaunty — but of course, it requires as much or more craft and creativity as bleak and doom-laden fare.

Agent Carter was one of those shows with a small viewership that was nonetheless extremely loyal. It’s all the worse because Atwell quickly signed on for another series, Conviction, which stunk and has already been cancelled. (Come to think of it, 2016 was a bad year for popular characters moving to other shows ... see Lexa/Alycia Debnam-Carey and Fear the Walking Dead.) Agent Carter wasn’t quite doomed in the way of the previous Sisco Award winners ... Terriers should have gotten another season, but at least the final episode gave some closure, same with Lights Out, and Luck lacked everything its title suggested. Meanwhile, Agent Carter got two seasons, even if they were truncated half-seasons. Still, no series in recent years has so much reminded me of why I came up with the Karen Sisco Award in the first place.

And so, the fourth winner of the Karen Sisco Award goes to Agent Carter.

tv 2016: stranger things through westworld

Stranger Things.Stranger Things does a wonderful job of presenting life from a kid’s perspective. There is no condescension, just an acceptance that kids see things their own way. The kids are far from perfect ... their silly squabbles are there for all to see ... but their loyalty is there, as well. It’s not just the kids whose perspective we get ... Winona Ryder’s mom, creeping into near madness, has her own definite way of seeing, and it is among the strongest parts of the show. Stranger Things is full of ominous paranoia and a hearty nostalgia for the period it recreates. It has its ups and down, but then, I never expect cheesy sci-fi horror to be perfect ... I just expect it to be fun. Stranger Things is fun.”

Supergirl. “Mostly harmless, with a fresh performance by Melissa Benoist in the title role. I think it’s mostly froth, although some find more depth. The kind of show where, if I get behind, I’ll probably forget to watch it any more, but so far, I’ve kept up.”

Timeless. “The first few episodes show a decent time-travel drama with a decent cast and decent recreations of the past. Co-showrunner Shawn Ryan’s work is always worth a look, and if you like time-travel stories, this will be right up your alley. Plus, it’s nice to see Abigail Spencer getting work after Rectify. Nothing special, but I’m still watching.”

Transparent. I like it, but I don’t feel obliged to binge, because I don’t like it that much. The Pfeffermans are mostly insufferable, which may be why I can’t watch more than an episode or two at a time. There is some wonderful acting, but very few characters I’d want to spend time with.

The Walking Dead. “As of this writing, I’m only one episode behind, but I’m not sure I’ll continue watching. Six seasons is enough, I guess. I always thought this was a good zombie show that was tarted up with character stories, but it’s true, a few of those characters grew on me over time. But starting last season, the creators starting fucking with the audience, and I don’t feel like being fucked with anymore. Plus, at some point, it’s just ridiculous that this show gets away with so much killing (because the victims are already dead). I’m all for TV violence, but don’t be coy (see Ash vs Evil Dead).” I haven’t watched a single episode since I wrote this, and I don’t miss it.

Westworld. “Gorgeous to look at, with a stellar cast, a bit like Timeless with a budget. The producers are trying for something big, but they are also big fans of keeping viewers in the dark about the ultimate scenario for the show. This is trickier than it used to be, since the Internet allows for hive-mind break downs of every detail. I have a feeling this is a less-than-meets-the-eye show, but it definitely pleases the eye.” After the season finale, I definitely think there is less than meets the eye.

 Stranger Things, The Lights:

Supergirl Season 2 trailer:

Timeless trailer:

Transparent Season 3 trailer:

Westworld trailer: