Worst Best Picture: Is Everything Everywhere All at Once 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 2023 winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. Is it better than Crash?

The discourse around the Oscars hasn’t changed all that much in my lifetime and it doesn’t look to change all that much. The problem, as I see it, is the Oscars only matter if they are relevant to the average viewer and they only stay relevant if they are both an indicator of greatness and a reward for it. That means you need to have some level of trust in their consensus but also you need to think their nominator process is a barometer in the first place.

The folks behind this whole thing showed their cards recently with a play at making a category for movies people actually watch, which is an old-school criticism tied in with the whole “Oscar bait” discussion. They walked that back because that’s a dumb idea and it makes them look dumb, but it does speak to a world where all ten of the top ten grossing films of 2022 in America were superhero movies, sequels, or both.

A24, the production company behind Everything Everywhere All at Once released exactly one movie, that one, in the top 50 grossing films of last year. That puts them one behind Crunchyroll, the anime streaming service. The world has changed. None of this matters. It still is part of the larger Oscar conversation, but it muddies the waters enough that the Oscars cannot seem to figure out what they want to be or for whom they want to put on a broadcast.

This year’s broadcast was, compared to the last decade or so, smoother, and, I think, better than it usually is. Almost everything you’d expect to happen more or less happened. The surprises were minimal and, in retrospect, make sense. All Quiet on the Western Front won a bunch of (deserved) technical or smaller awards. Brendan Fraser and the team behind his makeup won for The Whale. Other than that, Everything Everywhere All at Once essentially won everything majorly significant it could and people more or less seemed to both see that coming and accept it.

The point of this series was originally to drag Crash, which is a movie I have always found frustrating, but also to try to find a better understanding of what the Oscars do for us as a film audience. There are movies nominated every year that I would not otherwise see that I see only because of this process. I have that to thank for some surprising experiences this year, like the very weird Elvis biopic that I mostly liked and the atrocious, vile Blonde which I think was far and away the worst movie of the year and a low point for this entire endeavor.

I think this is the function of the Oscars in 2023. Your life probably looks pretty different than it did five years ago, when you might have gone to see more movies out in the world and taken some chances on different fare. Maybe I’m projecting, but that was true for me, and now I’m not as likely to turn on The Fablemans on a Tuesday. I appreciate the nomination process as a shortlisting of things to maybe try, if nothing else.

I think this year they got it right, too. My personal favorite movie nominated was The Banshees of Inisherin, but that’s not the kind of movie that wins this award. With the power of hindsight the last decade or so looks a little shaky, but there are also some all-time greats among Best Picture winners. How will we remember this one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once was such a sweep and so consistently a frontrunner that I don’t know how much I need to say here. Everyone said to see it cold and they were right, so I may take the lazy path here and tell you that’s the right recommendation. I think the odds of you reading this but not knowing more about it are slim, but if that’s you, just go watch it.

I’ll focus more on the place it occupies in film than the plot. Essentially everyone I know who saw it loved it and the critical consensus is near absolute. The New Yorker called it cynical, which in the context of their review makes sense but is akin to calling water dry. It’s a movie about optimism, or at least finding a way to cope with the inherent difficulties and failings around us. It’s a movie about a lot more things than I have space to talk about, which is part of why so many people loved it. It feels like it can be all things to all people, which gives it a sense that it’s talking to you no matter what you need to hear it say. That universality and that blank-slate quality of the main cast as they switch back and forth across multiple universes and different versions of themselves is what that single reviewer found alienating. In the larger world, it’s what people have grabbed onto and it’s how a really weird, specific movie feels like a slam dunk for a such a usually traditional award.

We’re only a few years removed from the fish monster love story movie winning, but it helps to remember that the Oscars have been very safe for most of their history. There are surprises, even going way back, but usually it’s a movie for everyone. Arguably, the real success of Everything Everywhere All at Once is that still being true and reflecting the world we actually live in even with visuals and experiences that are impossible and fantastical.

Will this seem weird ten years from now? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. The Oscars are at their best when they reflect the times accurately and it would be impossible to imagine anything else winning this year. I can’t even come up with what the contender would be, though I’m not saying this won by default. It deserves to be “the movie” of 2022, which is what the Oscars should be doing. Sometimes that’ll mean it’s a big deal to people who don’t care about the Oscars, but sometimes it doesn’t. Nomadland was the right choice two years ago, but did anyone ever mention it after that? I think we’re in for a different experience with this one.

The Best Part: The boldness of the whole thing is an easy choice here, as is the cast. This is the first movie in decades to win three of the four big acting awards in the same year. Everyone in it, down to the minor characters, is notably great. Couldn’t pick just one.

The Worst Part: I have not found that anyone shares my feelings on this, but some of the more extreme elements of slapstick fell flat for me. I think it says more about me than the movie, though, as that’s what a lot of people loved the most.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, by a huge margin. I legitimately am not sure if Blonde is, and honestly it probably is worse, if I’m on the spot. Nothing nominated for the big award comes close this year, but it’s comforting, in a way, to see the Academy still does love to nominate something that flat out sucks every single year. Refreshing to see that even as they want to build a big tent, they stick with their roots.

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 | Everything Everywhere All at Once

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

2022 in Review: Every Movie I Watched, Ranked

Over the last near-decade, this site has been a place for me to talk about movies as I watch “the canon,” whatever that means, and 2022 was the first time since I started doing this that we got a release of the Sight and Sound list of director and critic top films of the decade. I’ve seen most of the list and I’ll try to see the rest in 2023. We’ll go over the relevant ones here, probably.

Last year I said I’d write a lot more in 2022 and I didn’t. Let’s try again. What more can you do? The only post here in 2022 was my annual review of the Best Picture winner, which this year was Coda. I thought it was fine. It’s probably in the middle of the pack, which hits strangely because the majority of recent choices were so strong. This year, who knows? We’ll review it when it happens, in addition to probably some other Oscar stuff when we get closer to it.

I saw 48 movies for the first time this year (some are new, some are just new to me). I didn’t write about most of these, so this is as much as I have to say, for now. Some of these will make the Oscar nominations, so we’ll revisit some then, as well as some of them in the context of the Sight and Sound list. For now, some brief thoughts.

As is tradition, here they are, ranked:

1The Worst Person in the World

This movie lost the two Oscars it was nominated for to Drive My Car and Belfast and I think, for my money, it’s significantly better than both of them. I also think that’s not going to be most people’s experience and I don’t think it’s really fair, but it is what I feel. When I walked out of Lady Bird five years ago I felt the same way I did after The Worst Person in the World. This is a story that’s not about my experience and a character whose background doesn’t look all that much like my background, but there are human, undeniable elements that I’ve never seen told this way. I don’t know if everyone who sees it will love it or identify with it or admire it or anything else you need to do in order to rank a movie like this as the best film of the year, but there’s nothing on this list I loved more.
2Everything Everywhere All at Once

This will be most people’s top film of the year and I think it deserves it. I don’t have anything to add that you don’t already know. It’s great, but statistically, you already know that. Not all of the slapstick worked for me, but the structure and the tone really make that a minor complaint, and a personal one. What will be interesting is to see if it makes waves at the Oscars. I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll be curious to see if the hype can carry a strange film through our most resistant-to-strange critics. That said, a few years ago they gave Best Picture to a movie about a fish monster love story, so who knows?
3Decision to Leave

I saw this with three people who disliked it. I don’t think “divisive” is the right word, but more “alienating.” There’s not a lot happening in Decision to Leave and the motivations of the characters, specifically, can be frustrating. People don’t act like this in real life, but they also aren’t homicide detectives, usually, so their personal stakes are lower. I think what I love about Decision to Leave is it shows the people around the two central characters and how they frustrated, lost, left to their own conclusions, about two people who become fixated on what they see as how the world works. What’s on the screen in Decision to Leave might be too sparse to be a truly great film for everyone, but I took away something I really liked.
4Nightmare Alley

I struggle to explain why I liked Nightmare Alley so much. It lost all four Oscars it was nominated for, flopped at the box office, and seems to be mostly forgotten already, but I thought it was such a fantastic noir. Maybe I’m a sucker for the genre, but even once you see the ending coming, the knot it leaves in your stomach feels so well-earned. It’s too long, but it feels like that could be said about a lot of movies, and it’s not for everybody, but that definitely feels like it could be said for everything now. If you want something haunting with some strong performances, this is it.
5The Asphalt Jungle

Sterling Hayden is my favorite actor and John Huston is one of my favorite directors, but I’d somehow never seen the classic The Asphalt Jungle until this summer. It’s just a perfect film about a heist gone wrong. There are a half-dozen of these on the list of top films, depending on your list, but this is one of the best and it works just as well today.
6The Wonder

I would rank The Wonder in the top half of my list regardless, but it makes my top ten because of a device I don’t really want to spoil. It’s the story of a religious “wonder” who doesn’t need to eat because of faith and a community that wants to believe versus a world that wants to debunk. The story is worth your time, but it turns over in my head because of a structural choice that I want to leave undescribed. You can’t miss it. Why tell your story that way? And do you believe the simple answer, or is that something more?
7Drive My Car

Drive My Car starts with an incredible opening hour that, over time, becomes a satisfying, but less interesting, conclusion. I loved it, obviously, but I can’t immediately think of another movie with an arc like that. It’s worth seeing and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, but it’s really, really fascinating, it’s just slow.
8Do the Right Thing

This is too low on this list for a timeless masterpiece, but that’s why this isn’t an objective list. There are probably only one or two movies on this list that rival this for “importance” and if you see one thing here you haven’t seen, it ought to be this one. I don’t know why I’d never sat down to watch the whole thing and I’m glad I took a Tuesday night and just did it.
9The Thin Man

The origin of the Nick and Nora that give their names to the famous cocktail glasses, The Thin Man is a screwball detective story that’s still funny almost a century after release. I really encourage people to check this out, as it’s breezy and funny and silly and it will really surprise you.
10Sweet Smell of Success

This is one of those movies that’s on every list of essential films and I’d always thought I’d seen it, but I hadn’t. It’s a story about the press and celebrity, but it’s mostly a masterclass in dialogue. It’s snappy and funny but it doesn’t require the caveat a lot of pre-60s “snappy” films do in that you’ll follow it with today’s sensibilities. This is the quintessential version of the form for “biting” dialogue and Burt Lancaster gives an unforgettable performance.
11Blue Velvet

I love Twin Peaks more than I love David Lynch’s film work, so I drug my feet on watching Blue Velvet. I’m sorry I did, because I think it’s really something, as dumb as that is to say in 2022 about one of the best-loved “horror-adjacent” films of our time. Why are people like this, you’ll be forced to ask, but more than that, what could possibly happen next?
12The Power of the Dog

It’s a shame that most of the discussion of The Power of the Dog is wrapped up in a dumb culture war discussion, because I think there’s a more interesting discussion to be had about it. It’s another tortured, understandable, but frustrating protagonist who offers us a glimpse into darkness. There’s something to be learned from why we seek stories like that.
13The Northman

Speaking of the above, The Northman is a similar story with a shocking twist. The visuals and the brutality of The Northman will get all the play, but that twist is worth admission twice over. See it, if you can handle the blood, and see it cold.
14The French Dispatch

Your interest in and your patience for Wes Anderson will determine how much you like this. I think that’s overstated, usually, as most of them have a more universal appeal than the style suggests, but this one is definitely extreme. I liked it and I recommend it, but it will try your patience if you struggle with Anderson’s whole deal in the slightest.
15Putney Swope

I was inspired to watch Putney Swope by the comparisons to one of the final episodes of Atlanta that aired this year and to the excellent Sorry to Bother You. It’s obviously inspirational to both, but it’s also fascinating to watch it for what it was at the time. It’s breezy — honestly, a little exhausting to watch, it clips along so quickly — and it’s worth your time, especially if you don’t know what it is.

I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it yet. It’s cute! I know! Get off my back!

I liked Belfast, charming, wistful, brutal, hard, and all. I found I didn’t have anything else to say about it, immediately as it ended, but I think it nails what it aims to do, which is a huge accomplishment for any movie.
18Blade Runner 2049

I love Blade Runner, the original, but I have learned over time that it’s less important to me than it is to other people who like movies I like. I really, truly love it, but I don’t find myself coming back to it or obsessing over the universe. I think that leaves the door open for me to enjoy this sequel more than the average person. It’s flawed and I think someone hating it has room to do so, obviously, but I enjoyed it for what it is.
19La Jetée

La Jetée is twenty-eight minutes long. Go watch it. Don’t read a thing about it. I think this is realistically too low and in the future, this will only go higher on my list. I can’t stop thinking about it.
20The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Bob’s Burgers is the only non-serialized show that I still watch on regular television. I love the world and I thought this movie did a good job with it. There’s really not much more to say than that.
21Bullet Train

I struggle sometimes with movies like Bullet Train. I saw Logan Lucky a few years ago and genuinely felt like it might have been the best movie of the year. It’s obviously not, with shaggy elements that take away from the heist, but it made me feel the same way Bullet Train did. The parts that work end up working so well that it hides all the mess. I realize this isn’t a very good movie, really, but it’s an effective one, which is important for a genre flick.
22West Side Story

I don’t know that we needed a remake of West Side Story, but it’s a fine one.
23The Tragedy of Macbeth

I didn’t intend for this to be the middle point or so, but it feels right. There’s enough here that it’s an interesting version that feels classic and modern at the same time, but I can’t imagine ever watching this again or wanting anything else out of it.

There is much to be learned from Godard’s sci-fi-nightmare-world of Alphaville and it’s a classic piece of the genre’s history, but at times it feels more like a piece of history than a film to watch today. I suggest everyone see it, but it falls into a category with films like Playtime to me, where the lessons of the originals have been somewhat usurped by the generations that came after it if you see them first.
25A Woman Under the Influence

Fans almost always list A Woman Under the Influence as the best Cassavetes film, but I don’t think so. I think it shows the worst of the director (overlong scenes that accomplish the same thing again and again, improvised-or-hopefully-improvised inane small talk) as well as the best (two central performances that drive the whole thing, strange-but-memorable side characters). Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands are excellent, but this is so, so long, and critics at the time thought it was a lot. Over time the tone on Cassavetes has settled on “genius” and I do think his films are worth a watch, you will feel the weight of the cruft that people tend to explain away.
26The Rules of the Game

This is frequently listed as one of the best, if not the best, movies of all time. That urges one to put a movie very high on a personal list, but at the risk of sounding dim, I found it a little slow for a modern audience. You have to step outside of your current world and you have to view a movie like this for what it was when it came out, but realistically it’s a much more interesting movie to study and to learn from than it is to watch.

This is the only one I wrote about at length this year, which you can read above. As I’ve said before, and with some distance now, it’s a fine film. It still feels “safe” to me, which is not really a fair criticism, and you could do significantly worse.
28See How They Run

A forgettable, but funny, little mystery we watched on a whim one weeknight. It’s fun, but you don’t need to see it.

Ali came out the same year as Training Day, so Will Smith was never going to win his Oscar for this one, but it’s also interesting to see the choices made around Smith’s performance. Roger Ebert said this film lacks what made the real Ali so fascinating and maybe that’s true. Ultimately I think there’s too little of the best parts of Smith’s performance here, but it’s not a bad biopic.
30Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I’ve always wanted to see this one because the premise is so weird. At the end of the day, too many people have to say “Ghost Dog” with sincerity for it to not feel a little silly and most of the supporting performances are distractingly bad. There’s an incredible character and performance at the center, however.
31Hour of the Wolf

A lot of the reviews of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf sum up how I feel about it: difficult, stark, and a regression. It’s very scary and very weird, but I don’t think it accomplishes in me what it sets out to, which may be a personal problem, but doesn’t seem to be based on the response.
32Parallel Mothers

I can’t really justify putting this as low as I have. It’s a fine film. I need to see more Almodóvar films.
33Licorice Pizza

I don’t think Licorice Pizza ever accomplishes getting you to forget the premise and it needs to in order to feel charming. I liked parts of it but it just feels very weird all the way through.

I know it’s a classic and it’s a sin to put this below many of the movies above it, but you don’t get points for influence on this list. It’s a fine watch in 2022.
35Night on Earth

The thing about a movie that’s made up of vignettes is you have to like all of them. The Helsinki segment of Night on Earth was one of my favorite things I saw this year and the Rome one was one of my least favorite. The average here isn’t as high as the high points, which leaves the film feeling uneven to me.

I liked a lot about this one, especially Andrew Garfield’s performance, but I found a lot of this really exhausting to watch.
37The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Most people seem to be on the same page about The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and I agree that the central performance is interesting and the movie is not.
38Being the Ricardos

Some of the absolute worst Aaron Sorkin moments you’ll ever see are in Being the Ricardos, including a number of scenes where characters talk to each other in ways people do not talk to each other, again. I think I have a higher tolerance for this than most people but even I was just overwhelmed by this one. I think the performances are fine, and J.K. Simmons is incredible, even for him, but it’s just not enough to make this one worth overcoming the frustrating script.
39King Richard

It is not worth going into again, but the choice to tell this larger story about this character was always going to be a hard hurdle to clear, and I don’t think this movie clears it.

There’s a scene in the middle of Spencer where two characters explain themselves to each other and I found it exhausting and on-the-nose. I love the visuals and the weird, Rebecca-esque haunted nature of Spencer, but I don’t think it makes good use of screen time.
41The Dead

John Huston’s last movie views largely as a filmed play about a holiday dinner party on a snowy night. The shocking reveal and final moments are the emotional core of the story and I have to say they don’t hit me as hard as they seem to hit other viewers. I think there’s a lot of little set pieces here I liked, but I walked away a little unsatisfied.

I have watched almost all of Cassavetes’ films for this website at this point and I think Faces is the true test of if you like his work or not. I loved a few scenes but struggled during moments like a lengthy song where Seymour Cassel sings various lines about meat. A lot of Faces reminded me of Husbands, which also feels indulgent and long, but I’d compare this more directly to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s a key difference, but they’re both stories about strife in the home and where it leads on a single night.
43Sans Soleil

Sans Soleil is frequently cited as one of the best films of all time. I found it tremendously boring and repetitive and I cannot come up with something nice to say. I’ll have to see it again, given the legacy, but I bounced off this almost entirely.
44The Matrix: Resurrection

A bold choice up top that never really pays off. If the point is that making more Matrix movies for an audience that wants a very specific Matrix movie is a fool’s errand, what’s the possible justification for the second half? Even if it’s a joke within a joke, which I choose to think it is, watching that joke is not worth your time.

Cassavetes’ first film is only for the truly devoted. There’s an interesting story about race, but it’s a tough watch compared to his later works.
46Don’t Look Up

A lot of people really hated Don’t Look Up. It feels like a continuation of Vice to me, where there’s a political message that is muddied by some intense “choices” and some sanctimony that makes it hard to take the thing seriously as a work of art.
47The Lost Daughter

I struggle to explain why I rank this so low. I found it so joyless, so odious, so negative, but I also understand those aren’t really criticisms of the movie. It’s a bit like saying you don’t like all the war in Saving Private Ryan. I think it requires a second watch at some point because I feel like I’m grasping at straws somewhat, but I just was so defeated by my first viewing that I cannot recommend anyone spend time with this.
48Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena

I’m mostly a lapsed anime fan from my teenage years. There are a few “foundational” shows from my youth that I always meant to make time for and this year that was Utena, a groundbreaking work and a beautiful, complex story about growing up and sexuality. The movie is a bizarre disaster, nearly unwatchable and unfollowable. The show is a sprawling story with a million things to unpack and explore, but the movie is just so supremely strange and divorced from what makes the show worth your time that I have to put it dead last. There are people who feel it’s essential, but it left a sour taste with me after a show I really got a lot out of.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 Tropic Thunder 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.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast is a TV show that needs a lot of explaining. The original Space Ghost was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 60s that came and went. In the 90s, Mike Lazzo and Williams Street used the characters and settings from Space Ghost to create a faux late-night talk show where these ridiculous characters hosted an otherwise normal interview show. That version is Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which aired for years on Cartoon Network and eventually became part of Adult Swim, the nighttime block of “adult” programming that arguably gave way to what animation on television has become for the last several decades.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with it, all of that introduction probably still doesn’t help. Space Ghost the character is a bombastic idiot, a Falstaff figure if you really want to stretch the importance of a silly double-joke cartoon from the 90s, and his crew are all villains he’s imprisoned to work on this talk show. The internal reality of the show is ridiculous, but it is complete. Some of the guests (all real celebrities or cult figures) engage with it straight and some seem to have not been briefed on the premise at all. It works because both versions are consistent. It’s not “random,” a word that dogs comedy that had the guts to be anything other than the primary form at the time, but it is unexpected. In one episode Bjork plays Space Ghost’s wife, but it’s not clear how much she is in on the joke. It doesn’t really matter, they write the show around what the guest does, which allows for it all to spiral out.

I mention all of this because I was thinking of these several lenses you need to view that show through to even start to like it when I watched Tropic Thunder recently. I certainly think Ben Stiller’s war movie parody is more approachable than Space Ghost Coast to Coast, but the quality of both pieces of media is almost secondary. First, you have to buy in to the premise. You have to be willing to say “okay, it’s a talk show in space with cartoons, but everyone pretends they’re real” or “it’s a fake movie about a fake movie that’s mocking real movies that sometimes were also premised on real things that were misunderstood by real people.” The war in Vietnam was already complicated, that’s the premise that the original media about it always took, anyway, so abstracting it three more times is a hard place to start.

Tropic Thunder is about the filming of a movie called Tropic Thunder, where a cast of actor stereotypes goes to the jungle to film a serious war movie. Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and others play as types that you’ll recognize even if the exact source material isn’t always all that important. We see Jack Black’s character’s success in The Fatties: Fart 2 and you know what, you get it. Ben Stiller’s character runs towards the camera and is shot in the back in slow motion several times as he extends his arms and yes, that’s Platoon. It’s all Apocalypse Now. I don’t think we need to run down where everything is “from” to appreciate this. It’s a broad parody but also has specific jokes. That part all lands and I am not going to spend any more time explaining why the funny movie is funny.

Roger Ebert said Tropic Thunder is “the kind of summer comedy that rolls in, makes a lot of people laugh and rolls on to video.” Obvious the “video” reference there dates this a little bit, but it’s as relevant a commentary overall today as it was in 2008. Comedy can feel disposable as it often requires you to understand cultural subtext that changes over time. Shakespeare feels inaccessible at times because the jokes are about a society that’s very different than our own. People call some comedy “timeless” but at the very least, the meaning changes even if it doesn’t diminish. Things that are funny will remain funny, but if you watch a comedy from more than fifty years ago today, you will hear at least one reference that you have no chance of understanding. There are so many of these examples in old Hollywood, where an aside from Cary Grant about a specific cigarette ad or a bon mot about a political figure of the time just sails over the viewer’s head. It’s just how this stuff works.

Tropic Thunder bridges enough gaps that it’s not exactly like that, but a lot of it is definitely “of the moment.” It’s still very funny over a decade later, and it’s especially crazy that this seemed like the peak of Robert Downey Jr. but absolutely was not. He was nominated for an Oscar for this, which really seems wild now, and was just a few months into his forever-job as Iron Man. That seemed big then, of course, but who could have possibly predicted that it would essentially alter popular film entirely from the ground up. I think arguments about that being good or bad are something else entirely, but imagine how much bigger a deal all this is now than in 2008.

Robert Downey Jr. plays his role in blackface as a character who is so oblivious he doesn’t see why that would be offensive. IndieWire wrote what appears to be a summary of a podcast appearance here where Downey said recently that he doesn’t regret the choice. Ben Stiller’s character in the film recently made an Oscar-bait film called Simple Jack which involves all of the characters repeatedly using a slur to discuss his character’s condition. The sum of these two parts, and a lot of other details, really, should add up to a movie that’s impossible to watch even a few years later, but that’s not the case. Ben Stiller said at the time that none of it needed defending because it’s all in service of mocking an industry that does this stuff all the time. Your views on that defense are your own, but I think it mostly holds up. You don’t have a movie here if you cut back on the envelope pushing, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like it was all too much.

I didn’t know how I’d feel about revisiting this one, but I expected it to age poorly and it mostly hasn’t. The movie industry is still self-important and all of the “heightened” fake films still honestly feel like things you could see happen today. It’s not timeless comedy, but it’s at least comedy that sticks around. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on how little the industry and war films have changed, but even so, all the more credit to the film for knowing not just how it was in 2008 but how it would remain.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The one bit of Tropic Thunder that has changed meaning in the last decade is the central slimy, evil executive character. It’s supposedly a parody of Scott Rudin, who at the time most of the audience may not have recognized. A few months ago his life exploded when several prominent stars came out with stories of his abusive behavior. The parody is still funny, but it’s a different kind of funny now. Things like that make this feel like a movie you can keep coming back to, which I think I can’t necessarily say of Weathering With You.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but can a comedy be the best movie? My favorite comedy is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but even that requires so much cultural understanding that it feels like a tough sell as a universal best movie. This will stay Persona for now, but then again, there are different situations for a war movie parody and a complex, terrifying look at identity and the soul. You might want Tropic Thunder most nights.

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

Is The Seventh Seal 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.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

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

The Heaven of Enough: Black Mirror, Season 3, Episode 1 “Nosedive”

one full point

Jonathan May

“Nosedive” explores an unforgiving world built on an ethic principle of personal and social perfection. Lacie, played deftly by Bryce Dallas Howard, smiles at every availing opportunity. She performs her smile for her ultimate audience: herself. Her main foible is her inability to discover an objective audience outside of herself because she confuses objectivity with authenticity. In a world where courtesy is social currency, Lacie hinges her self-worth on her proximity to enough, a concept explored later in the episode with the always-brilliant Cherry Jones, who plays the truck-driving Susan, dispenser of sagacity and rough charm in equal measure. Lacie’s inevitable fall into self-destruction plays out so horrifically because every action she chose in relation to self-regard. The solipsism she so closely builds dissolves at the episode’s end, to surprising and delightful effect. That the episode can be so disarming and yet end so coyly celebrates the talents of the writing team, Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, who initially wrote different halves of the script which they then coalesced into a gestalt. “Nosedive” triumphs as an existential drama of the soul, wherein Lacie redeems herself through positive disintegration. She must fall apart in order to escape herself and the perfect heaven of her creation.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at

Dracula Untold: Should You See It?

image source: ign

image source: ign

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Dracula Untold?

October has finally rolled around and with it comes the ghouls and ghosts of the season in movie form. Living out in South Korea, I rarely have information about new releases beyond “Oh, this is in English, so I can watch it.” That being the case, I had been itching to see something in theaters for about a week and this looked like it would be a passable movie to quell that urge. The movie follows Vlad the Impaler, who was taken by the Turkish as a boy and then rose back to power in his hometown of Transylvania to resist their power. Vlad is well-known as a badass in this universe for his ruthless habit of impaling folks in fields. The story picks up with Vlad having retired from the shish kebab business and becoming a family man. The Dracula element is kinda thrown in as the Turkish legion wants 1,000 boys to join the Turkish army, including Vlad’s son. Vlad obviously says “eff dat noise” and decides to make a deal with a vampire. This vampire has been chilling in a cave for a long time and a trade is made where Vlad gets the vampire’s powers for three days but if he drinks human blood he becomes a permanent vampire and “something” happens with the original vampire. I know that last part is vague, but for the life of me I did not understand what the point of the cave vampire was other than the magical element. He gives up the powers and then is a complete non-factor for the remainder of the movie.

image source:

image source:

“I am a power piñata”

The movie itself is a complete mess. There are a ton of characters that get no explanation and seem to serve no point other than to patch plot holes. Vlad has decently cool powers, but it is a bit boring watching a one man army destroy normal people (Superman syndrome). The pacing is also a big issue in this movie as there just seems to be too much information to relay to the audience while also trying to be an action movie.

My biggest issues are the action sequences towards the end of the film. Things get ridiculous in a hurry and they stay that way for around 35 minutes. At one point, I turned to my date with my mouth agape at how stupid this all felt and she pushed my head back forward only for us both to see a scene that was even more ridiculous than before. She quietly shook her head and I went from muffled laughter to head-shaking disgust until the credits rolled. We both apologized for the film afterwards and vowed to do a little research before going to see the next movie.

Should You See It?

This movie has the framework of a potential blockbuster but it felt like the screenplay was written by a 10-year old, on set. I do respect it for getting so insanely bad that I wanted to see if it could maintain this level of failure, because it isn’t just mediocre throughout, it gets exponentially worse from start to finish. Watch it if you like films that are unaware that they are terrible, but otherwise steer clear.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

holy motors

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

French film occupies a deserved and jealously defended place in the international consciousness. French film is where you go to see beautiful acting, dialogue, and cinematography fuse to communicate An Important Message. I’m not exactly sure what the message of Holy Motors is, but it is certainly filled with beauty. It might be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so bizarre and different from anything else I’ve seen. This is the part where I give you a general idea what it is, but I don’t even. Alright, the movie starts with you, the audience, watching another audience in a movie theater. A man in a room finds a secret door and enters the movie theater. A little girl and a giant dog are walking down the aisles. After that, the movie switches to the main flow of narrative. This movie’s goal is not linearity or understandable occurrences, but as far as there is any organization, here it is: the main character, Monsieur Oscar, has a job that involves getting in the back of a big white limousine and going from appointment to appointment throughout the day. Each of these appointments requires him to become something different. He leaves his family in a big white house in the suburbs of Paris and talks business on his cell phone on his commute into the city, fulfilling his role as a high-powered banker. As he approaches the city, he pulls a mirror to him, pulls a costume and makeup from the other side of the limo, and starts changing. When he leaves the limousine, he is a crumpled old woman, begging on the streets, caning her way up and down and muttering about how everyone she loves is dead, and how she’s gotten so old that she’s begun to fear she will never die. He goes through many different appointments: gangster with a vendetta, insane violent person running through a graveyard, old man on his deathbed, sharing a final, teary embrace with his niece. The film never explains how these appointments connect, who sets them, or what Oscar’s profession is. As an audience member, you need to just sit back, absorb without question, and enjoy the many benefits of the movie (although not plot. If you want to enjoy plot, you are out of luck).

This trailer makes about as much sense as the movie, but it’s not about making sense, philistine!

The film is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, metafictional paean to the art of cinema. There are little interludes between some of the appointments, during one of which (the only part of the movie that even comes close to explaining what is happening) an old man visits Monsieur Oscar and talks to him about how good a job he’s doing, but he looks a little tired and is he sure he wants to go on? To which he answers, “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste” [I’ll go on as I started: for the sake of beauty (more literally, for the beauty of the gesture)]. The only other tidbit this exchange gives, other than the motivation of the main character, is also the reason this is nominally a science fiction movie. Monsieur Oscar is a little tired and a little nostalgic for the good old days. He talks with the old pro who visits him about how cameras used to weigh more than the actors did, then they were the size of their heads, and now they’re so small you can’t even see them. Does this mean cameras are everywhere, invisible, and this is the future? Does Monsieur Oscar belong to some type of commune, creating art for popular consumption? Is this bizarre semi-scripted reality TV? Impossible to know – it is only possible to theorize. The structure of the film allows it to explore a rich mix of artistic themes without having to pin anything down to plot like a dead butterfly in a collector’s box. Parental disapproval, the intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, the irretrievability of lost love, resignation in the face of duty, the nature of beauty and art, all swirl together onscreen in a beautiful, unhinged hurricane of creativity.

You’re going to want to buy a bottle of French wine (maybe make it a magnum) and enjoy this as part of a cultural night. Some French might take issue with this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more French movie. Screw the audience, screw the narrative, let’s see what we can cobble together as a deep exploration of the methods and techniques of cinema and humanity’s impulse to observe. The result is a resounding success. The lack of explanation might infuriate you, but if you can enjoy the movie simply for la beauté du geste, you will not be disappointed.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Batman: The Animated Series


Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

One of the perennial Batman questions is, “Who played him best?” Do you like Adam West’s camp and goofiness? Maybe Michael Keaton’s slightly nerdy turn did it for you. Perhaps, for some reason, you liked George Clooney and his suit nipples. A lot of people prefer Christian Bale’s elegant Wayne and imposing Batman, but no one has done it better than Kevin Conroy. Pretty much any time you’ve seen a Batman cartoon, Conroy’s been the one doing Bruce Wayne. His stellar voice acting is one of the reasons that Batman: The Animated Series is the best screen interpretation of the Bat. It is an amazing show: beautiful, well-acted, philosophically deep, and highly artistic.

The list of things TAS has done for Batman is long, but foremost among them is steer the public consciousness of Batman away from Adam West’s sunny, hippy, bat-tastic version into the grim persona most are familiar with today. Frank Miller returned grim to the Caped Crusader, but TAS cemented it. Mostly through its action, we went from the hokey, paunchy sixties Batman to the Bale batman who tortures people to get answers and deals with major antagonists by leaving them to die. He didn’t kill people and he didn’t curse (kids show), but he did deal with identity crises, betrayal, and loss, and the art and direction of the show has almost every frame oppressively shadowy.

This is the best intro of all time. It also gives you an idea of the show’s aesthetics.

The art direction of this show is one of the main draws. A lot of cartoons are unimaginative, and the art is just something to throw on the screen to support the sound. Each frame of TAS is original, distinctive, and iconic. Imposing buildings stretch into skylines splashed in ocher and black, the lines are angular and threatening, art deco caught in a Lovecraftian nightmare. The voice acting is another impressive bit of this show. One of the main criticisms of Christian Bale’s interpretation is that his actual Batman voice sounds like a mix between an old bear caught in a trap and the raptor cry from Jurassic Park. It is over the top and ridiculous. Conroy’s Batman voice is deep and threatening, but still within the realm of what humans should sound like. His Bruce Wayne voice is noticeably higher and more friendly. The beautiful thing about Conroy’s Dark Knight is that the Batman voice is the one he uses all the time, with all those close to him, mask on or off. The Wayne voice only comes out if he has to talk to shareholders or reporters, which underlines one of the main keys to Batman’s identity: Bruce Wayne is the mask.

Bruce Wayne’s voice. Chummy and nonthreatening.

Batman’s voice. Small, subtle shift that makes it about 10 times more menacing. Also, as a sidenote for the this-show-is-super-deep-for-kids argument, Batman is dosed with fear toxin, and his biggest phobia is not spiders or heights, but his dead father’s disapproval.

What Faulkner said of whiskey applies to this show. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of Batman: The Animated Series, some episodes just happen to be better than others. There are three key episodes you should watch. “Almost Got ‘Im,” in which many of Batman’s adversaries sit around playing cards and talking about how close they came to finally beating the Caped Crusader. The structure allows for a handful of Batman-kicking-ass vignettes, and the poker game narrative itself is a vital part of the episode. This is a masterful use of frame narrative. You know what else uses frame narrative? The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, and The Canterbury Tales. I wasn’t kidding around when I called it artistic: it shares some techniques with a Greek epic and a foundational text of English literature. Another good one is “I Am the Night,” which starts with a grimmer-than-usual Batman reading an article about yet another criminal’s release from jail. It sends him on a spiral of self-pity and self-doubt, and the focus of the episode is the Bat regaining his confidence and his sense of purpose. This is surprisingly heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon. In this episode, he quotes Santayana, for chrissakes. The last one that I’m listing here, just because it really stuck with me from the time I watched it when I was 12, is “His Silicon Soul.” An impostor Batman is found running around on the rooftops, and of course, an angered Batman explores. The answer to the mystery involves AI, 1950s robotics, and a wonderfully pulpy, flashy plot.

I rewatch these all the time, and they never get old. Watching these is not just about Batman’s gruffness and karate taking you through a rollicking good time. It certainly has that, but it is also visually stimulating and filled with philosophical dissections of who Batman is and what the point of his mission is. The art direction, acting, and intellectual content is much more highbrow than a lot of what is on offer to adults today. It is, always and forever, one of the best things ever to be on television, and now the whole thing is free to stream if you have an Amazon Prime account. Worst case scenario, you will enjoy your nostalgic interaction with a classic 90s afternoon cartoon, but it’s very likely you will be blown away by just how sophisticated it is.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at