film

Worst Best Picture: Is CODA Better or Worse Than Crash?

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2022 winner CODA. Is it better than Crash?

I assumed this would be about The Power of the Dog, so much so that it’s been what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks as I watched the final nominated films I hadn’t seen yet. Every year I try to watch everything nominated for the big awards just for the heck of it, but also to be sure that no matter how big a surprise the winner is I can be ready to compare it to Crash. As we do each year, once.

I’ve been updating this list yearly since 2014, when I watched all 86 existing Best Picture winners in the same year. CODA is not the biggest surprise, but I do want to note for posterity that The Power of the Dog really seemed like the choice. Before we talk about all that, let’s talk about the Oscars themselves.

Will Smith and Chris Rock will, rightfully, I guess, dominate the discussion of the ceremony, but it’s worth noting how weird and slow this year’s event was before the one moment everyone will remember. Only three movies won more than one award all night, and even those were under unique circumstances. Dune won six technical awards, The Eyes of Tammy Faye won for makeup in addition to Jessica Chastain, and CODA took home a screenplay award in addition to the supporting award for Troy Kotsur and the big prize. There wasn’t much of a theme to the evening, beyond the Academy’s desperate, awkward attempts to get people to like them with audience polls that allowed them to show clips from movies they have absolutely no interest in discussing otherwise. This does not bode well, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Of the ten movies nominated for Best Picture this year, only three made money in theaters: Belfast (on a relatively small budget and thanks to the subject matter), Drive My Car (thanks to the smallest budget of anything nominated), and Dune. There’s really no comparing everything else to Dune, which cost as much as the cheapest five of them but made twice as much as everything else combined. There’s also no real use for metrics like this in 2022, but I mention it because it’s one of the few comparison points we have left. Critical scores are equally challenging, for similar reasons. Audiences universally loved King Richard and West Side Story, but they were mostly seen on streaming services. Almost everything lost money this year, but that’s just the way of all things, now.

I mention all this because it brings us to the state of the Oscars in 2022. The criticism has always been that “Oscar movies” aren’t what people really go see and they aren’t really representative of film in general. The discussions of superhero movies and streaming replacing theaters got extra complicated in a world where people didn’t go outside for months, and now the Oscars are left with the same old criticisms, but even more complicated reasoning behind them. I don’t know what this whole thing looks like in ten years, but it certainly does not not look promising.

I think the best movie of the year was The Worst Person in the World, which was nominated for two awards and lost both. It’s depressing and difficult, but it stuck with me and it will be what I remember from this year. I liked The Power of the Dog and expected it to win and I thought Drive My Car and even Nightmare Alley were great. I thought all ten performances in the lead acting categories were great, even if I didn’t like the movies universally. But as I look over the list of eighteen movies that got nominations in the categories for screenplay, acting, directing, and the main one, I feel like the story of this year is a much lower ceiling, though a much higher floor, than most years.

The problems with Don’t Look Up are well documented elsewhere and outside of the lead performances, I didn’t really like The Lost DaughterSpencerKing Richard, or, and maybe especially, Being the Ricardos. But even those films have charms or magic to them, in their way, and they deserve your time. There’s nothing truly, solely bad nominated this year, which sounds like a low bar, but is one the Academy does not always clear. But on the other hand, I think only a few films at the top of the list are really essential. West Side Story is fine. Most of these are fine.

That’s the year that CODA should win Best Picture. There’s nothing on the list that demands your vote, so you, as a voter, end up thinking about how everything made you feel. CODA is sweet, which helps, and it’s a story you probably haven’t heard before. It’s the story of a Child Of Deaf Adults, or CODA, named Ruby, whose parents and brother work full-time fishing and selling what they catch. Ruby loves her family but she wants to be more than their interpreter. She wants them to be independent, but also to live as a unit. She wants to fit in, but also to find something unique that’s hers. It’s a relatable story hidden within something totally new.

Troy Kotsur won an Oscar for playing Ruby’s father and Marlee Matlin, certainly the most famous deaf actor I can name, is great as Ruby’s mother. The couple drives more of the film than Ruby does, honestly, as we see them as full human portrayals of a married couple and a working couple, rather than just as characters to show us how the deaf community engages with the world. Ruby’s brother is also deaf, but the scenes where he goes to a bar and tries to fit in but also be himself feel more like what you expect to happen in a movie like this. CODA is most effective when it’s surprising, including a loud off-screen sex scene that embarrasses Ruby and becomes an even more ridiculous discussion in front of her friend from school.

Ruby wants to learn to sing. There’s really no way to say this without being a little mean, but this is really all done poorly. Her mother asks her if she only wants to sing because her family is deaf. Her choir director tells Ruby she needs to be dedicated and decide between her family and her art. She is too shy to sing but wants to do it, just to show the world her voice. Almost all of this is said, explicitly, and sometimes more than once. Several reviews of CODA make reference to the fact that there are two separate culminating concert moments. You constantly feel as a viewer that you’ve seen this story before, which gets away from what makes CODA an interesting choice and a unique story.

Audiences and critics largely loved CODA, but it’s hard to get away from the parts that feel like a TV movie. The sum of the parts is worth it and it’s not a bad choice, given how much there is to love about the performances and the view it grants to a world unfamiliar to a lot of us, but I feel like this one will not age well. There are so many moments that are in so many movies you’ve seen, down to the moment the teens realize they are ready for adult life as they jump off a rock into water, that it feels weird to give this the award they gave The Godfather. I think some risks would have made this a way better movie, but not one as many people would have liked. Overall I think it’s a net positive to hear this story and to elevate it, even though I think I’d like to see the same thing with a little bit fewer stock story beats. They probably did the right thing here, which reflects more about the direction the Academy is headed than any number of viewer polls ever could.

The Best Part: The performances here are excellent. Matlin and Kotsur will get all the attention and probably should, but no one is bad in this. The choir teacher has a really thankless part here, just exactly what this role would be in a Hallmark movie, but Eugenio Derbez does a great job with it.

The Worst Part: I really, really do not like how much this feels like a quickly turned-out holiday classic movie, like a Netflix original or a Hallmark film. That’s overstated and it’s not that bad, but something about the cheery, plucky vibe of the whole thing just really lives in that space for me.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The family feels real. The performances feel genuine. This should feel even better to me than it does, but I have trouble getting there. I think this is a middle-of-the-pack film in the available choices this year and I think it’s probably in the bottom half of the full list of winners. That said, it’s miles better than Crash, as was everything nominated this year. Part of me was rooting for Don’t Look Up (only for this post), because at least that comparison is interesting, but I’m glad that CODA won. I think most people liked it more than me and it’s generally a fun watch. And above all else, there’s something really cool about seeing a story that’s genuinely, real-deal new, even if the beats of the hero’s journey there could use a little bit of polishing.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite | Nomadland | CODA

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

2021 in Review: Every Movie I Watched, Ranked

Welcome to my review of 2021, where I have ranked all 53 movies I watched for the first time this year. This excludes about two dozen movies I rewatched, which feels like cheating, in some way. The Third Man is still my favorite movie of all time and I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service twice this year. Both are great, but I’ve seen them lots of times. This is about movies, new and old, that I experienced for the very first time in 2021.

For those I wrote about as part of my series where I look for the Best Movie of All Time or, in the case of Nomadland, as part of my series about comparing every single Best Picture Oscar winner to Crash, I have linked to the corresponding post. For all of them I have provided some reasoning for their placement.

1Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

The conclusion to Neon Genesis Evangelion has been in production for so long that it felt like the end would never actually happen. The fact that the critical and fan response was almost universally positive to the final piece of a revered cornerstone of a strange subculture is a marvel in itself, especially when you consider how often the reverse happens. It’s become expected that the ending to anything will disappoint, to the degree that even if this was just okay, that might be enough.

It’s far better than okay, though I couldn’t recommend it to anyone that doesn’t already know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever been even mildly curious as to what Evangelion is, this final part of a four-part film remake of the original show is absolutely worth your time. If not, this is too weird for me to suggest you start here. That said, I could not have dared to believe the ending would deliver the way this one does. I’ve come back to it four times this year and I find something new every time. When placed against “normal” cinema, it’s hard to say what to make of this, but as a singular thing it is almost remarkable beyond description.
2Persona

Still sticks with me. One of the greatest movies ever made. I also can’t imagine enduring it again right now, for what that’s worth. Whew.
3Stalker

This one’s grown on me. I loved it, obviously, but I like it even more when I think about it offhandedly. I really recommend this one but I also get that it may not be for everyone.
4In the Mood for Love

The sequel is much, much lower on this list.
5Dune

One of the only new movies I saw this year, somehow. Excellent, though it really will depend ultimately on how part two works out.
6Weathering With You

I need to watch this again. It’s forever tied to Your Name, one of the single most successful animated movies of all time, and I think that comparison puts it in weird space. I watched Your Name again this year and it’s certainly a better movie, and an all-time film, but I love the charm of this one.
7Nomadland

Still agree this was the right call for Best Picture and it’s rare that the feeling persists through the year.
8Starship Troopers

Almost hard to watch this during the Trump years and what’s come after, but worth the experience. Do you want to know more?
9Mystery Train

I want to watch more Jim Jarmusch films in 2022. What’s your favorite?
10Another Round

It’s rare that you just know you’ll never watch a movie again and still love it. The experience of this one is too trying to revisit it, but one time through I think it’s really worth anyone’s time.
11Le Samourai

I recommended this one to a few people and I watched it twice this year, which is not common for me. Maybe the most approachable movie on this list, which feels weird to say but may be true.
12The Father

Will forever be remembered for the dumb Oscars ceremony this year, but should be remembered for a haunting performance by Anthony Hopkins.
13Solaris (1972)

I prefer Stalker, by the same director with similar themes, but the ending here will knock you out.
14Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

I never hear anyone talking about this one, but the experience of being in a weird bar with weird people, especially as we spend time at home and lose this sort of strange experience, feels very novel now.
15Dick Johnson is Dead

I don’t agree with some of the approach of this movie but I love what they made. You don’t have to 100% love everything about a movie to respect it and to marvel at it.
16Sound of Metal

I read Drew Magary’s book about having a traumatic brain injury this month and it made me appreciate this movie even more. Highly recommend both.
17No Sudden Move

I watched this again on a whim. Loved it even more the second time. There’s not really all that much to it, it’s just a great watch. Matt Damon’s performance here deserves more love, too.
18Uncut Gems

I could never watch this again, but what an experience to do once.
19Johnny Guitar

I do love Sterling Hayden, but this is already fading from my memory. That first 30 minutes is great, though.
20First Cow

Feels even more slight now than it did when I finished it. The perfect example of a fine film but not one that’s going to set anyone on fire. I think that’s fine, though, right?
21Opening Night

I watched several interviews about the ending to this one. I really recommend it just to see where it goes.
22Minari

I’m really glad Youn Yuh-jung won the Oscar for this one. It would have been a tough year for it to win anything beyond that, but that’s still something.
23Bande à part

I don’t even know if I recommend this one, but this feels like the right spot on the list. This isn’t the actual middle, but there’s a big difference above and below this line.
24Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I stand by my review of this as a film. There’s much more going on here than in the first one. It feels crazy to say that, but I really believe it.
25Promising Young Woman

I don’t think I nailed this review. This is a daring movie about a daring subject and it’s really fantastic. I think as a man in America, this one’s important not just to see, but to consider deeply. The surface is obvious, but there’s even more than that.
26Vivre sa Vie

I love the parts I love, and this one’s a classic, but the chunk towards the end is emblematic of how people feel when you say “well, it’s a French classic, and…”
27Judas and the Black Messiah

This is a great example of asking you to go deeper on what you think you know about a real story. The performances are great, but I especially love LaKeith Stanfield. I think this is his best role other than Sorry to Bother You, which is a masterpiece.
28Snowpiercer

I’d never seen it and watched it on a whim. Even better than I expected. Tilda Swinton is something else.
29The Death of Stalin

I loved it, but not as much as In the Loop. I think In the Loop is one of the five best comedies ever made. This one’s much darker and almost as funny, but I couldn’t help comparing the two.
30The Seventh Seal

A classic for a reason. Better than you’d expect, especially if you’re worried it’ll feel detached and snooty.
31RoboCop

Another one I’d somehow never seen all the way through. I watched this because of how much I loved Starship Troopers. This feels equally relevant now, which is not a new take on my part, but it isn’t quite as interesting to me personally.
32Once Upon a Time in the West

A classic western with some classic performances, but it drags a lot and it’s hard to not view the problems with it through a modern lens. This is too low objectively, but it’s the right spot for me personally.
33Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This is probably controversial and it’s not intended as a slight, I just had my expectations set wrong for this one. It’s a pretty perfect piece of filmmaking and it deserves the reputation it has. Some element of every person’s rankings is personal preference and I’d still say everyone, regardless of who they are, should see this.
34After Hours

Uncut Gems for another generation. Exhausting, but intentionally. Makes me tired just to think of it.
35Blowup

I do not like Blowup as much as other people. I’m fine with that.
36PlayTime

I think the first segment of PlayTime is a true marvel. It’s pretty shaggy, though, and it makes the same point over and over. I get why it’s a masterpiece, but watching it now the enjoyment graph goes in the wrong direction: I loved it, then I thought it was fine, then I liked it.
37Licorice Pizza

The newest film on this list. I think there’s a lot to like here, but I never really got over the central conceit. It’s going to be interesting to rewatch this and to see what people think when it goes into wider release.
38Across the Pacific

A racist movie from a racist period. Some pretty good Bogart stuff. You can probably skip it.
39The Trial of the Chicago 7

Sorkin at his most Sorkin.
40Minnie and Moskowitz

Someday I picture myself being cornered in a conversation by someone explaining to me why the love story in this one is actually magical. I’d welcome that conversation, sorta, because I love little pieces of this one but I really just do not like the love story. I get it that problem is part of what you’re supposed to want, but no thanks.
41Mank

I said all I’ve got to say in my review, but the core is that this is not the story of Citizen Kane, even if it’s pretty interesting to watch one man fall apart.
42Bringing Up Baby

One of the 100 greatest movies ever made on almost every list, but just doesn’t hit me right. I need to see it again and will, eventually.
43Wonder Woman 1984

I also watched the first one again this year and loved it, again. I just don’t think the sequel works, largely for the reasons everyone else does.
442046

The sci-fi pieces of this one are unwatchable, both boring and off-putting. I really, really love the other segments, but the thing doesn’t stich together for me.
45 Un chien andalou

I don’t even know where to put this. It’s central to film history but it’s also exactly what it is. It feels like a cheat to put it anywhere. It’s either the best or worst movie ever, I guess, though I do think you should watch it if you haven’t.
46The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The central performance is excellent, but that’s it. The story is a mess and it’s not very interesting to watch. The reviews were negative. It’s just not a very good movie, as simple as that.
47I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I am more interested in this movie than almost anything down here at the bottom of the list. Jesse Plemons was on WTF with Marc Maron recently and admitted that the whole cast had to ask, during filming, what the movie was about. All of them, not just a few, had no idea what the purpose of what they were making was or what to make of the ideas. I really do not like the final product, but how interesting is that? There’s a lot in here that is worth getting out of it, which is why it’s usually better to make a weird failure than it is to make a boring success, but I really just get a sour taste in my mouth when I think about it.
48Titane

This is going to win a million more awards this year and maybe it should. It’s not terrible, but I really feel like there is an Emperor’s New Clothes element to this. It is possible to not like something strange for reasons beyond not getting it.
49The Nowhere Inn

I love everyone involved here, but this would work better as a short than it does as a movie.
50Solaris (2002)

The remake robs the original of everything that makes it worth seeing. Not even worth watching this, even if you love or hate the original.
51Last Year at Marienbad

The ultimate Emperor’s New Clothes movie, to borrow the line from above. Some reviewers seem to think anyone who loves this is kidding and I can see that. It’s possible to read even the positive reviews as negative, given the way they have to talk about the sparseness and ambiguity. It’s an interesting movie, but I hated it.
52RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio

I watched all of the anime RahXephon this year because people compare it to other things I like. It is terrible and the movie connected to it is even worse. It is barely possible to parse this as a story. I would not recommend this to anyone, for any reason.
53Hillbilly Elegy

The worst movie I saw this year and worse than anything I can remember in recent years. A strong contender for the worst film I’ve ever seen. A dark, terrible message delivered poorly. It is a negative force in the world that this exists, which makes it worse than movies that are constructed more poorly. Meandering, internally conflicting, and intentionally dishonest, with a brutal, cruel ending. I would recommend you watch any other movie, no matter what, twice, instead of this once.

In 2022 we’ll be doing some different stuff around here, likely some larger discussions of film with fewer Best Movie reviews. We’ll watch the Oscar nominees when they come around, as we always do. We may try some new stuff, too.

Hope to see you in the new year!

Is Across the Pacific the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I watched Across the Pacific entirely cold. I’d never even heard of it, but I love John Huston and there’s some part of me that wants to eventually watch every single Humphrey Bogart movie. There’s an extremely comprehensive blog here about this film if you want another take or if you really, really love Bogart. Beyond that, interestingly, there isn’t as much to read as you’d expect for a film with this pedigree. Why is that?

There are two significant reasons that Across the Pacific feels like a strange movie in retrospect. First off, Huston left the movie unfinished when he enlisted in military service and it was completed by another director. Second, the film’s climax was outdone by reality as real life events forced a change in the plot. The original story hinges on an attack on Pearl Harbor that was changed to Panama, but the “Pacific” in the title stuck despite the change in geography. The shift isn’t something you’d necessarily notice except for the title and one dramatic hold on a newspaper that shows the day before the real events at Pearl Harbor.

Bogart opens the film being discharged in disgrace and we don’t wait nearly long enough to learn that was a work to allow him to infiltrate worlds that the military wants to know more about. This is one of the most impactful storytelling choices here and I think it’s the wrong one, but we spend just a few scenes thinking this is a picture where Bogart really is a bit of a scoundrel. It’s a really specific choice to let that feeling sink in so long but not to chase it to the end. Much of the success of a film like this depends on how confident you are about everyone’s motivations and how the director can play with that confidence, and the choice to reveal Bogart speaks to the need for this to feel patriotic more than anything else.

Across the Pacific deals heavily in stereotypes. There’s really no avoiding this and there’s no need to say it any other way. There are many smaller roles for Japanese characters (played by Chinese actors) that are one-note racist jokes about how Americans perceive Asian accents. There’s even a gasp line that the characters gasp at, in 1942, when Mary Astor’s character Alberta Marlow, supposedly a Canadian from Medicine Hat, Alberta, expresses surprise that Japanese people “have emotions.” She quickly explains that she meant that she’s used to seeing more reserved attitudes from the Japanese people she’s met, which another character says is part of how they’ve chosen to engage with society. It’s both horrific, how her character brings it up, but also surprisingly open as a topic in how the cast engages with it. No one would ever accuse this of being a progressive story, but it’s an interesting choice to have characters express racist ideas and then contend with them among the cast.

It’s all a bit of a mess. It’s a movie about countries at war in reality and in fiction and about people who are willing to buy and sell information regardless of impact or morality. The twists and turns, especially towards the end as the masks start to come off, are worth it, but the core of the film is a little too rotten to feel good about the journey. The choice to have in-scene responses to racist ideas, including one discussion about if a man has been replaced by another man being met with a “Asians all look alike” comment, is a flimsy defense. We can feel in these moments that the script is arguing with itself. It obviously feels bad now, but these reveal something else.

Much has been made of the connection to The Maltese Falcon, given the three leads are in both films. Sydney Greenstreet gets a lot more to do here than he usually does and is fantastic as the mysterious Dr. Lorenz. Bogart is who he always is, a little grimy but ultimately suave and compelling as Rich Leland. Mary Astor has some great jokes and is obviously stronger as a character than the typical love interest. The performances are strong and the film is best during tense or romantic moments when this trio is at the center of what’s happening. Some of the roles for the side characters are more interesting than others, but most of them are stereotypes or so small they aren’t worth noting.

It’s a film about the lead up to a military action that was released during wartime. It’s a little unfair to expect certain things here, but I think Across the Pacific feels odd enough now and clearly would have, then, that you have to comment on it. It’s a worthy journey for Bogart alone and the Pearl Harbor connection is supremely bizarre, but ultimately, I don’t know that it’s possible to love this one. There are too many things that will take you out of it, either racist jokes or just plain weird moments (the character claiming to be from Alberta is named Alberta?) that detract from what is ultimately a pretty good mystery with a lot of twists.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. In the last week there has been some interesting “discourse” about Dune, but I’ve grown stronger in my position that it’s an excellent adaptation and it’s a worthy way to present the story. Most of what I’ve read from people who didn’t love it seem to take issue with things that I feel are unfair, including arguments that it should include things from books that aren’t part of the story or that it should rethink the source material more. It’s hard to not feel like people are engaging in contrarianism with those criticisms.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It is not exactly radical to say that Bogart is incredible, but I think he even saves this one. The story here is fairly great, though I really do not like that they feel the need to insist that Bogart’s character is a true-blue good guy so early in the narrative. The problems with Across the Pacific may feel like a modern audience insisting a previous generation have different beliefs, but the consistency with which characters within the story comment on it feels like reason enough to wonder why it was told this way.

You can watch Across the Pacific on multiple streaming services, including YouTube and Apple TV ($2.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Dune the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I was always intimidated by Dune, the book, even though I assumed I would like it. It has a glossary of terms to explain the confusing language that’s used early and often. It has a million sequels that people will passionately tell you are either essential or terrible. When I finally read it, I saw what people were talking about but I also couldn’t believe I’d let that make my decision for me. The book is great. It’s a tough read and, yes, the language is dense, but it pays off consistently and the result is incredible.

I feel like every review has to walk the reader through the history of Dune as a cinematic property. David Lynch made a version that no one (especially Lynch himself, who still talks about it as a terrible experience even decades later) seems to like, though I will offer the hot take that it’s not anywhere near the disaster people claim it is. It’s a fairly decent adaptation of the novel, though it’s confusing to audiences with no context and it tries to be all things to all people. Especially towards the end, you may wonder why certain conflicts are either beginning or resolving. I do not mean to suggest we need to rethink David Lynch’s Dune. The director and the masses are right and it is a mess. I saw someone today say it’s better than the 2021 version, so we clearly need to pump the brakes very hard.

There are other versions, but we don’t need to go any more in depth. Denis Villeneuve has adapted it again, and anyone who knows the history knows the challenge and the reputation that he was up against. The 2021 version is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it might be even more so because of how famously the other major attempt failed.

Dune is a story about heroes. Central character Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, who nails the part but we’ll get back to that) is thrust into a need for heroics when a conflict between two royal families gets him lost in the desert on a hostile planet. If you know anything about Dune, you probably know the giant sandworms or the race of native people to the desert planet itself. These are the lasting images from the novel, but the film walks right up to this part and ends. Lynch covered the whole story and lost the audience, even with some distracting exposition techniques, and Villeneuve’s choice to tell this in (hopefully) two parts works very well. It just might not be the story you’re expecting to see.

The choice to make it two parts is obviously the right one, but it does divide the audience. If you don’t know anything about Dune it may not matter to you, because I think you have to know what you’re missing to miss it here, but it robs Chalamet of the chance to do a lot. Paul as a character has no real arc in the first half of the story of Dune, which makes him feel a little like a cipher here. Chalamet’s performance works for that and it’s not a criticism at all, it just stands out because of where the film has to cut to divide the narrative in two. But even by mentioning this I’m nitpicking, because this isn’t even a problem. It’s just what happens when you watch half of a movie.

I think Villeneuve’s Dune will probably work for you whether you know Dune or not. Criticisms of Dune always say that it’s too confusing, but I think this version shows some of the creative ways you can explain a world to people without having someone barrel down the camera and tell you a story. Some of these are less subtle, like when Paul watches a video that explains the planet they’re going to, but some of them are just the context of the character conversations. When one person tells another they will inform the Landsraad about a betrayal, they don’t tell them what that is because the character would already know. The audience doesn’t need to know. If you do, from the book, that’s great, but if you don’t, you still follow what’s happening. There are dozens of examples of this trust in the viewer that Villeneuve displays and they make the difference between a pretty good epic and a great piece of storytelling and worldbuilding.

We won’t really know if this all works until we get the rest. The ending to Dune is convoluted in ways the rest isn’t and the middle includes a lot of wandering around in the sand. Can Villeneuve weave all that together in a way audiences will follow and enjoy? I think you have to assume yes based on this version, but the degree of difficulty gets much higher when you get into the arc of who Paul must become. I hope we get to see it, which I don’t think many people would have said ten years ago.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, I don’t think it is better than The Third Man, though it’s a weird choice for me to have made here. The Third Man is one of my all time favorite films and I think it changed cinema, where Dune feels in the moment more like a culmination of what a ton of other “big” films have done decently well but never this cohesively. Obviously I am hamstrung here by my own premise because Dune is a totally different kind of movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it certainly has a chance to be. Almost all of the reviews focus on how it’s an incomplete film, which is not a legitimate criticism of a film that is very literally incomplete. It will be interesting to see how the whole thing lands in the end, but for what Dune is, today, it’s a staggering success that accomplishes a nearly impossible feat of being both an interesting movie to watch on a whim and an effective visualization of a world nerds really want to see on a big screen. We can quibble with specifics, but folks calling this “slow” watched a different movie than I did or wanted something that is not possible to deliver. You have to watch movies for what they actually are, not what you want them to be, and if you’re able to do that, you will really love this.

You can watch Dune on HBO Max until November 21, but Villeneuve would really rather you go see it in the theater. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Third Man the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

What’s your favorite movie? Think about it for a second, not just what it is but why it occupies that space for you. Is it a comedy you love or a love story you identify with or a drama that shocked you so much that it stuck with you forever? I have found it’s a difficult question that gets marginally easier if you give people multiple answers. If you have room for a few you can cover all kinds of bases, but what if you have to pick just one?

If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said The Killing, but today my answer is The Third Man. It’s a big thing to say something is your favorite movie. Maybe it isn’t to everyone, but when I started this I asked a dozen people to tell me their absolute favorite one. Most people can’t really do it, they need to tell you a few. I am going to spend five minutes of your day to make the case for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Carol Reed is perhaps best known for Oliver!, which won him an Oscar, but The Third Man is hardly unknown. It’s frequently listed among the greatest films of all time, which I of course take no issue with. What makes it astounding is hard to pinpoint. Most people call out Orson Welles, because it’s very hard to ignore him no matter what his involvement looks like, but you really do have to start with Reed. History remembers Welles, the director, and thus it’s easy to assume that a movie he acted in was “his,” but the style is so important here. There’s so much more going on here.

The film opens with a monologue from Reed himself, explaining the state of the world and the centrality of counterfeit as a reality of post-war Europe. “I never knew the old Vienna before the war,” Reed tells us casually, but he also says of the world “a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know they can’t stay the course like a professional.” This gives way to a straightforward lead in for Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten’s bumbling American who has been invited to Vienna on pretense of a job but finds his friend Harry Lime (Welles) has recently died.

It is not really a spoiler to say that Harry Lime is not really dead, but watching Joseph Cotten loudly, absurdly wander his way through an unfamiliar world as he tries to discover the truth is an astounding thing to behold. Cotten plays Martins as an idiot, but not in the way you’d expect. He does not know this world and isn’t really interested in learning it, insisting on his native tongue and barging his way through even government or military controlled areas. It’s undeniably a statement about the American disposition, but we don’t have enough time to focus on that as we wonder the same thing he does: What happened to Harry Lime?

Welles gives the performance of a lifetime when he finally appears. It’s shockingly late in the film, of course, but the ghost of Harry Lime is all through the narrative. Martins keeps finding people who tell him versions of the story, including his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli, haunting and distant, always unclear about her true motives even as more is revealed) and his associates. On rewatches, these characters really pop, especially the “Baron” Kurtz and the Romanian Popescu. What do these people want? What do they stand to gain? Why do they want to help Holly Martins, even obliquely?

This is why I love The Third Man. The story itself is fairly simple, but the complicating elements make it so worthy of further thought. If that’s all it was, it would be a marvel, but it also has so much damn style. The score is done on a zither, which makes it hyper-specific but undeniable. The cinematography is disorienting to match Martins’ confusing journey. The supporting cast again and again reinforces that there is a world to figure out here, but Martins just is unwilling and unable to do so. The more you watch it the further it gets away from feeling like a mystery. The real picture here is always available, but Martins as a force changes the alchemy of how people work and what they try to accomplish. It’s an incredible statement about America without feeling preachy or obvious.

The most famous bit of The Third Man comes during a speech Welles gives to Cotten as their characters finally reunite on a Ferris wheel. The scene deserves to be seen, but in summary it is a discussion of morality and how much of your personal faith you’d be willing to put aside to get ahead. It recalls Reed’s original monologue and takes it drastically further. It’s unlikely you’ll agree with Harry Lime here and you’re not intended to, but the choice to give him space to make his case is a fascinating one. The choice to have it steal the show, well, that’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Titane has soured even more with distance for me, and while I am still in awe of the risk, I just didn’t like the result.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, I think so. It feels a little like cheating to pick my favorite film, but a reproduction played at the theater near our house and I was struck by it once again. Welles steals the show and typically gets (maybe too much) credit for The Third Man, but I really loved Cotten’s performance this time. It only works if he feels like a buffoon but also oddly capable, which comes through when you’ve seen the film enough to really pay attention. This is a true masterpiece, worthy not only of your time but also of deeper consideration. Persona is excellent and I’m glad to have seen it and considered it so many weeks in a row, but now I want something to really change my mind and surprise me. What do you suggest?

You can watch The Third Man on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Titane the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In a recent interview piece for Vulture, director Julia Ducournau discussed her new film Titane. She specifically described a gruesome scene where a character has to disfigure themselves to avoid being recognized by the police and said “you actually don’t see anything. You think you see something, but you don’t. When you anticipate something, somehow it makes it worse in your head.” That may be true in the very specific context of that moment in that scene, but it very much misrepresents the film as a whole. Titane is, maybe, the most explicit film I’ve ever seen in a theater.

It would be impossible to discuss Titane without starting here and it is really important to lead with the fact that a half-dozen (mostly) blameless people are brutally murdered, on screen, in the first fifteen minutes of Titane. Our main character mostly wordlessly and emotionlessly murders everyone they meet, which really challenges you to find a foothold. It’s not impossible to make a film with a sociopath as the central character, but it does really ask a great deal of the audience. We get a brief introduction where we learn that Alexia was in a car accident as a girl and it resulted in a titanium plate in her head and a fascination for cars, but that is 100% of the backstory. After that, it’s almost immediate deliberately disgusting shock violence.

I’m not a prude and I do respect Ducournau for making a very specific, insistent piece of art. This is violence for violence’s sake, but it’s not necessarily praising it. Without motive or introduction, however, you are more or less just thrown into a murderer’s day-to-day. Alexia barely speaks in the film and we get only slight glimpses into her feelings. Ducournau said in that same Vulture interview that the cars in Titane are “obviously symbolic” and by using the word obviously she makes clear that she will not explain it. There are definitely ways to take this and there are lenses of isolation, feminism, and more, but I really do not think it’s obvious. I’m willing to be on the outside here, but the audience scores on review sites suggest that about half the people that saw this did not like it. The shock of the violence is probably to blame there, but the theater I was in definitely laughed at scenes that are not supposed to be funny.

I really did not enjoy this, but I don’t think I was supposed to enjoy it. I know I’m harping on it, but it’s important that you understand if you plan to see this that the violence is extreme, no matter what your baseline for that is. It’s also not giving the game away to say Alexia has sex with and becomes pregnant by a car, also within the first few minutes. The car “knocks” on her door to summon her and then she sleeps with it. I can’t go there with Titane, and you have to if you’re going to do this one.

The bright spots are the performances, with newcomer Agathe Rousselle playing Alexia as a nearly mute, stranger in her own skin and Vincent Lindon as the fire chief who takes her in under odd circumstances. Lindon especially makes the film and I do think if you’re interested enough in the bizarre to see this you will be rewarded with what he brings to it. He has such a strange role here, both paternal and slightly off, and what does work only works because he nails a very specific performance.

It feels a little unfair to say that the body horror, hyperviolent movie about a murderer who has sex with cars is too weird. It is exactly what it says it will be, so it feels a little bit like taking issue with all the wars in the stars in a Star Wars movie. That said, it left me hollow the entire way through and I liked it even less after the ending and in retrospect. I think if you’re the sort of person who would see this based on the description, you may enjoy it, but if you’re on the fence let me push you to one side. I really struggle to find what this is all in service of beyond the shock of it, and while it is among the most shocking things I’ve ever seen, that alone is not enough.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It’s certainly more memorable than 2046. As a viewer, I tend to give extra credit to messy but fascinating films rather than safe successes, but I can’t do that here. I really did not enjoy Titane as an experience even though I do begrudgingly tip my cap to the sheer gall of it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. There are a lot of ways to discuss Persona through the lens of Titane, but it would spoil some of what I want to leave unspoiled. See if, you must, but I will always remember my fiancé turning to me during a particularly extreme scene and asking, fairly, “why did you want to see this?”

You can watch Titane in select theaters, as it’s not currently streaming (yet). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is 2046 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Seven years ago I watched every move that had ever won Best Picture at the Oscars. I wrote about them all here; not everything on there is something I stand by, but it was an interesting journey through film. The self-imposed timeline of one year kept it fresh and forced me to often watch movies when I didn’t really want to, which may not be the best way to watch nearly a century of iconic films. I had to watch 2046 because it was going to leave The Criterion Channel, but I really wanted to see it. It’s a sequel to In the Mood for Love, a movie I once called the Best Movie of All Time on this very dumb series.

It’s just not very good. I feel a tremendous amount of shame for saying that because it’s a celebrated masterpiece and because In the Mood for Love was so excellent. The New York Times called it an “unqualified triumph,” which is crazy praise. I tend to side more with Roger Ebert’s review where he said “I wonder what it could possibly mean to anyone not familiar with Wong’s work and style.” Director Wong Kar-Wai is obviously a master and it feels crazy to criticize a movie like this from where I sit, but I don’t think 2046 is very good and I don’t think you should watch it.

Think about whatever cultural touchstone you don’t like. I met someone years ago who said they couldn’t understand why Parks and Recreation was funny and I still think about that person. It’s not a perfect show, but they were deliberate in saying they couldn’t even access whatever made it a comedy to other people. It read like an alien text to them, just shut off completely. 2046 isn’t that, but it is equally hard to approach something with near-universal appeal and say it isn’t good. You feel like it’s you. It probably is, statistically speaking, you.

2046 is a sequel in that the main character continues into this text, but it’s largely a different thing. The main character is jaded now, so he resists the emotional trappings of love and relationships. We watch him have meaningless sex and label it as such, even as other people try to connect with him. He monologues in voiceover about how these are mistakes but also how they are the only way he can see the world. It’s not really as bad as all that, but he definitely becomes hard to root for and that lends a certain Cassavetes vibe to the whole thing. These are sad people who wish they could behave differently, but we are wired how we are wired.

There is a science fiction story draped on top of 2046, where supposedly humanity tries to go to a specific place in the future to realize their true desires. This is a story that is written and I mean this when I say that it is not interesting at all. The main thrust of 2046 is about how we deal with the fallout of lost love. That part, truly, is interesting, if not necessarily explored in a way that fills a full feature film. The futuristic elements of 2046 are not worth watching and they are not worth discussing here.

I did not hate this movie. I really like about 60% of it and I think those parts are a worthy story to tell. They are interspersed with a story that is absolutely not worth watching and I have spent a few days trying to find a way to talk about that and I have not found it. There’s just a lot here that I don’t think anyone could like. I have to say, from where I sit, that much of 2046 is poorly wasted time.

That’s the whole of it, right? The only purpose of talking about a movie here is to tell you if it’s worth your time. Most people would tell you this is. I am breaking from those ranks. The problem seems to be with me, as I watched the trailer again and the comments are from people who count this among their favorite films.

The premise of this series is to challenge the author, me, to experience every film as if it is trying to achieve an impossible standard. I thought In the Mood for Love achieved that. I don’t think 2046 does. Does that mean it’s terrible? Of course not. Should you watch it? I think it depends on your love of the last one. This is a big drop off, mostly because I don’t think the synthesis of ideas works, but if you found yourself hoping for more then you will find some of it here. Some of it is even beautiful. It just tries your patience in a way that greatness probably shouldn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, this is better than The Nowhere Inn. I don’t really like either movie, but this one has pieces I do enjoy.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s not as good as the original film and it’s not as good as Persona. I think you owe any movie that anyone loves a chance. I asked people to tell me their favorite movies before I started this and I’ve watched almost everything everyone mentioned. I do not mean to discount anyone who loves 2046, but it doesn’t do for me what it does for those folks.

You can watch 2046 on Tubi or Pluto TV. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Nowhere Inn the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Nobody seems to have hated The Nowhere Inn, but no one seems like they loved it, either. It’s uncommon for a movie to generate this kind of response because people’s tastes tend to be so extreme. Just glance through the “rotten” section of Rotten Tomatoes and you won’t find anyone saying anything too terrible, but people didn’t like it. Reverse that page to the positive reviews and you’ll see the same story. It’s pretty remarkable. The audience ratings are in line, as well, no matter what site you look at.

The Nowhere Inn is a concert movie, but it’s also a parody of concert movies. Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, plays herself as a director filming a concert movie about Annie Clark, known in the film and real life as St. Vincent. The movie’s success really depends on your interest in the layers. They’re really Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein, but here they are playing versions of those people who are not real but also are very real. The movie opens with a few jokes about how St. Vincent is a name but Annie Clark both is St. Vincent and is not St. Vincent. It’s not really that confusing, but that’s only true if you’re already familiar with everyone involved.

But you are, aren’t you? If you’re not, there’s less than nothing here for you. If the above paragraph was even a little confusing to you or if you don’t intimately know every proper noun I’ve used so far, you can safely skip this one entirely. That’s the thing, though, if you do know all of this, there is only slightly more here for you. You can anticipate the premise and probably most of the beats. The main criticisms people seem to lay are that it’s predictable and repetitive, and boy, is it ever.

Brownstein joins Clark on a tour and aims to do a behind-the-scenes look at “the real St. Vincent,” who plays a sexual character on a tour about a sexual album. The idea seems promising to both of them, until a pivotal scene where the musician pulls out a Nintendo Switch and plays it on camera. We take from this that she’s actually not as interesting, at least all the time, as would justify a movie. It’s a fun scene and it sets up a conflict, but then we see dozens of scenes that both show and tell us the same idea. This is a recurring problem with The Nowhere Inn, and the crew behind it seems deathly afraid that we’re missing the really obvious and really clear point.

As a concert movie, it’s actually pretty cool. St. Vincent is one of my favorite artists and this album is one of my favorites of hers, and we get to see enough actual footage that it does feel mostly like the movie the fake Carrie Brownstein is trying to make. This is the most interesting thing going on in The Nowhere Inn: they made an actual version of the thing the movie is about making.

As a story about making a concert movie, it drags on and on. I think there’s enough here for a huge fan of both stars, but even they will feel the strain of the narrative chugging. Clark makes a heel turn when she realizes that Brownstein wants her to be the arrogant, hypersexual star that the audience thinks she is, but even this is telegraphed so strongly before it happens and emphasized so consistently after it happens that it isn’t that interesting to watch. There are a handful of great scenes, including one where Brownstein pulls in a fan to share their experience with Clark in a perfectly painful exchange, but they are surrounded with padding that feels like padding even in the moment.

There’s a pretty good movie in here, it’s just not enough to sustain a feature. If you’re a big fan of St. Vincent and/or you like the comedy of Carrie Brownstein, I think it’s probably worth the investment, but I really can’t recommend it too strongly. I think the consensus here exists for a good reason. The ending offers some interesting closure and it does take a risk with the way the whole thing is presented, but even that leaves you wondering what that whole experience was about.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? There’s no comparing Akira and The Nowhere Inn, though I suppose they both aim to reinvent a genre. Even that is a stretch. Akira is more worth your time, though both films have pacing issues.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s not. I do think it’s a really interesting idea that would have worked well as a thirty-minute short film. The resulting product says the same thing over and over and the great moments get lost in the weeds. We’re sticking with Persona again.

You can watch The Nowhere Inn on YouTube ($6.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Akira the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Criterion Collection numbers the movies that it releases, so it’s easy to find that the first animated film they released was number 700, Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are only five others and none of them are what you’d call “anime,” though that descriptor is losing meaning in a changing landscape. I saw Akira, which Criterion has released but does not consider part of the main numbered line, this weekend and it got me thinking about what we’re willing to honor.

I saw Akira as part of a midnight showing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The place was nearly packed, even at midnight, for a movie that is now more than three decades old. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and enjoyed this viewing, with a 4K print that I’m not sure necessarily adds that much to an animated movie but was a nice experience all the same. What struck me this time was how much it hits the same way every time, with a first half that draws me in and mesmerizes me and then loses me a little before a stunning climax.

Akira is “the” anime, I think, and especially for Western audiences it was the first one to really click. It was advertised in America as “not for kids” on late-night commercials back in the days when you would send in payment over the mail and get a VHS tape. This predated Sailor Moon and was contemporary with the earliest versions of Dragon Ball, so those ads had to educate viewers about what they were even offering, much less why you should want this version of it. The exoticism of anime to the West is still very much a part of it, and why there were so many people in that theater in the wee hours watching it all these years later, and the climax of Akira probably did more to build that up than any one piece of media.

Testuo and Kaneda are part of a bike gang in a futuristic, but ruined, Tokyo. Tetsuo has an encounter with a mystical glowing child and becomes both very powerful and very sick. The government shows up and wants to reign in and explain his power, but Tetsuo sees the opportunity to finally get out of Kaneda’s shadow and rebels in the only way he sees available. We get smatterings of what life is like in this world in the background, with protests and street fires and government control gone mad, but mostly we follow these two kids as they advance towards a conflict. Kaneda is his friend, but he wants Tetsuo to calm down and be reasonable.

This big brother/little brother conflict is almost all of the second act, which I have to say feels hard to watch every time I see it. Part of this is the impact of the rest of the film. The conflict itself, where Kaneda finally confronts Tetsuo and the visuals begin to really go for broke, is what people remember, and for good reason. It’s visually arresting and it’s horrifying, but it’s also largely hand-drawn and beautiful. Even if you know what’s coming, the scale of it and the constant one-upping gets you every time. The artform and the audience came from this moment.

However, it’s the first hour that reverberates through art itself. Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the original Akira manga and directed the film, and it’s his Neo-Tokyo that you see over and over. The bike in Akira is iconic, but it’s the specific way that government control and scientific discovery without ethics and societal collapse is portrayed that became the template for how you show what might happen next. Otomo didn’t invent this, but the synthesis of it in Akira helped define a language for a world that’s advanced, but also failed.

Akira is hyperviolent, even for the genre, and remains a little shocking even today. It’s not for everyone and I say that even as someone that still feels a little hesitant to recommend anime in general to a broad audience. When I talk about movies like Paprika and Weathering With You, I want people to learn what those are and when they should watch them. I think you could put either of those on after dinner on a Tuesday and enjoy it with your friends, roommates, partner, or other weirdos that watch anime with you. Akira is not in that vein. This is a stepping stone to where we are now, but it’s also a pretty watchable version of that. The ending is still surprising and the climax, as we’ve been over, is one of the great visual displays in animated history. Criterion’s hallowed list may still be reserved for when Wes Anderson makes something animated, but if you’re willing to take a chance on anything that’s slightly out there but also very acclaimed, I really can’t recommend anything more highly than this.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It would be fair to say Stalker and Akira are “in conversation” with each other, I think, and I think both of them defined their respective genres for years to come. I’m more interested in the questions Stalker asks, and I think the pacing is a problem in both of them, but I think I have to side with Akira. On this recent watch that first hour really did capture me again, which is an accomplishment for something I’ve seen as much as I’ve seen this, and worthy of note.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona. My vote for the best anime film of all time is probably The End of Evangelion, a film with an undeniable debt to Akira. I also recently watched Megazone 23, another series that’s constantly compared to Akira, though I ran out of space to discuss it above. We’ll revisit all those connections at some point, and while I’m not willing to dethrone our current winner for Akira, if you have any interest in anime at all and haven’t seen it, I’ve gotta say again that you owe it to yourself to correct that error.

You can watch Akira on Hulu (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Stalker the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I watched Stalker because I couldn’t stop thinking about Solaris. Both are films by Andrei Tarkovsky, a legendary filmmaker who feels intimidating to approach. He only made huge, heady epics that are intimidating in scope and scale. He made Solaris in 1972 because he felt that Western sci-fi was not thoughtful enough, which is also part of a disagreement with Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made Stalker for even more complicated reasons than that.

Stalker is the story of a man, known as a Stalker, who can enter a mysterious area called The Zone. The Stalker is not named in the film, and there is a suggestion that there are other Stalkers and that this is more aptly said to be a profession than a name. Most of the other characters are similarly unnamed, including the two men the Stalker brings into The Zone: the Writer and the Professor. Both of them want to go to The Zone for different reasons and the extended action sequence that opens the film shows how tall of a task this is. The military protects The Zone, or at least defends against people entering it. The Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to take another trip to The Zone. The Stalker himself seems resigned to his actions.

The three men drive a military jeep around and evade soldiers, but this is mostly a misdirect. The film takes place almost entirely within The Zone, where the film shifts from sepia-toned black-and-white to full color. Both settings creep along and the pacing is, similar to Solaris, almost unbearably slow. In my review of Solaris I talked about Akira Kurosawa’s commentary on how audiences find Tarkovsky’s films to be difficult because of the pacing and how he tosses off that criticism. Two films may not be enough to speak conclusively about the man’s work, but I have to again disagree. Stalker is almost three hours long and it feels significantly longer. That said, just like Solaris, the runtime is deserved here and you begin to understand what the director wants you to feel as you settle in.

Within The Zone, the two men begin to debate with each other and with the Stalker. They all discuss the dangers of the world around them and the complexities of their lives outside The Zone. They experience otherworldly phenomenon within The Zone, but most of Stalker is about what is inside these three men and what they hope to get out of this trip. There is supposedly a space within the center of The Zone, called The Room, that will grant your greatest desire. The catch, as there is always a catch, is that The Room makes this decision for you. You stand to gain something you could not otherwise achieve, but you also must confront what that means about you. What’s in your Room? Do you really want to know?

The philosophical discussion here is a little more interesting than it is in Solaris and I think it’s a better film as a result. Critical consensus tends to agree, with critics placing Stalker at #29 on the immortal Sight & Sound poll from 2012 that I keep referencing. Tarkovsky has a few films ranked even higher that we’ll get to down the line, but something made me really want to watch Stalker now. The central The Room element is definitely interesting, but there’s so much more to turn over in your head. The film predates the events at Chernobyl, but it’s become tied to the disaster to the degree that people called workers there “stalkers.” The comparisons to various events in Russian history are obvious and become darker as the group progresses through The Zone. The cast and crew famously grew ill as a result of filming near dangerous locations to lend authenticity to the visuals. The bulk of the film was reshot after disagreements between Tarkovsky and his staff and damage to the original film. There’s more to say than we’d ever have space for here.

If you can only pick one, I suggest you pick Stalker instead of Solaris, but you really should watch both. They both depend on your ability to bring something to the picture. There’s a lot of contemplative silence in Stalker and these periods require you to think. Some of these stretches feel repetitive in Solaris but they feel necessary in Stalker. Both films will test your patience, unless you are more like Kurosawa than I am, but they will also reward it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Chinatown is a perfect mystery story and a movie that rewards revisiting. I will certainly see it more often in my life than I will see Stalker. That’s not the only criteria for greatness, though, because I’ll probably see a lot of movies more than both of them. I think Stalker will give you more to think about, and on this particular day, I think that’s more important.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona, though I really thought about this one. Stalker is a special film and it’s one I’m glad I saw. There are only a dozen films on the Sight & Sound list that rank above Persona, so it’s no slight to keep saying that it retains this crown. I’ve seen ten of those twelve, and one of the two I haven’t seen is another Tarkovsky film, Mirror. That’ll be coming up, though I may have to take a break from Russian cinema for a few weeks.

You can watch Stalker on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.