Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Check Out These Awesome Writing Videos

Once upon a time when my book was coming out, I planned on having a new podcast episode every other week and a new video on the alternate weeks. But now it’s been a year and a half and I’ve only done five podcast episodes and four videos. Multimedia is hard! It’s so much easier to just spit out a few words 3-5 times a week (with some weeks off, of course).

When I started making my videos two years ago, I first watched all the film-clip-based writing videos I could find to understand the genre. But this week I saw a link to a Black Panther video from a series I wasn’t familiar with, because it’s only about two years old: The “Just Write” videos by Sage Hyden (who has an adorably thick Canadian accent.)

And these videos are awesome. Soon I had devoured every one. This is now my favorite example of the genre, certainly far exceeding my own. He has a good mix of negative videos and positive videos. The former are more fun (three videos attacking the Last Airbender movie and five attacking the Hobbit movies) but the latter are more useful. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

The video that led me to the channel is actually one of the few I disagree with. I loved The Black Panther overall, but I think that the greatness of Killmonger as a villain has been overstated. Hyden says that he solves all the previous problems with Marvel villains, but I think he still has a familiar one: an overcomplicated plan. This post by Brian Cronin is an attempt to defend the movie against this criticism, but I think he twists until he hangs himself. Ultimately, there isn’t a good explanation for why Killmonger was working for Klaw.

I particularly liked this video, which isn’t really about Wonder Woman, but is more about bathos (specifically in the Marvel movies), which is a tricky concept I’ve never covered. Again, I don’t entirely agree with him (I preferred Dr. Strange to Wonder Woman) but what he says is very smart and useful.

I’ve been wanting to say something for a while about the overuse of MacGuffins, but never formulated it right. This video nails everything I wanted to say.

Here’s a great one on right wing narratives in traditionally animated movies vs. progressive narratives in computer animated movies.

But really you should check them all out.  They’re great. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Didn’t Make the Best of 2017 List: The Phantom Thread

Now that we’ve finished our list, it occurred to me that I should go back and talk about one last movie, and why it didn’t make the list.

I occasionally get emails from readers of my book asking for a waiver that will allow them to break one of my rules. I always grant them, of course. I did insist in the book, after all, that no story could or should follow every rule, but you just need to be aware that each speaks to a narrative expectation your audience will (consciously or unconsciously) have, and if you’re going to defy some expectations (as we all should) then you need to be aware that will create some friction. There will be a little risk of straining the connection to the audience, so you might have to do it carefully and maybe compensate for the risk.

Specifically, the reader was saying that his character would be greedy for greed’s sake, which was both his motivation and his flaw, whereas I recommended in the book that money wasn’t a strong enough motivation on its own, and the hero (or antihero, or villain) should want to buy something specific (such as Walter White’s medical bills) or impress someone specific (such as Daisy Buchanan).

But the reader brought up the character of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, who is just a psychopathic greed machine, to no larger purpose, and that’s a good counterexample. Daniel Plainview, like a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s heroes, is not easy to understand or identify with, but he’s fascinating and compelling. Anderson has accepted the risk: he knows that he’s creating an uncommonly opaque character, but he’s compensated for it with sheer power. We love Plainview’s forcefulness and intensity. He’s a mystery we want to solve. I would say that the same is true for both men in The Master, a movie that I ranked as the best of its year, but one that even many PTA fans didn’t like.

But that brings us to PTA’s two most recent films, neither of which made my lists. I tried to watch Inherent Vice twice, but gave up on it both times, too confused by the plot and too alienated from the blank hero. Each time I thought, “I really want to stop watching this,” and so I did.

I liked The Phantom Thread a lot more, but not enough. As with There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis again plays an opaque and megalomaniacal character, and, as always, he gives a fully humanized performance, but this time I didn’t find his character as compelling. I was just put off by this jerk, not intrigued by him.

Then we get to the ending: His wife poisons him for a second time, and he reveals that he knows what she’s done (and possibly knew about it the first time?) and doesn’t mind at all. Huh? I was utterly baffled, and not in a compelling way. I realized I didn’t know this character at all, because nothing he had done up until that point prepared me for this bizarre reaction, but, instead of wanting to solve the mystery, I just didn’t buy it.

If you want your audience to “buy” each plot turn (and you do), then you can either “sell it”, or you can play it cool and intrigue your audience into coming to you. This is a tricky proposition. In most of PTA’s movies, I’ve happily met him more than halfway, but when he loses me, he loses me, and that’s a risk he chooses to take.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Best of 2017, #1: Lady Bird

What a wonderful film.  Our top two movies are so similar: Both were created by performers who weren’t known as writers or directors but both turned out to be geniuses in disguise.  It makes you wonder who else is sitting on hidden talents.  Some old rules this reminded me of:

Begin When the Problem Becomes Undeniable, End When It’s Resolved: What is the story of this movie? If I was describing it to someone, I would probably say “It’s the story of a girl’s senior year of high school,” so the most obvious structure would be to begin with an aerial shot of the kids entering school on the first day and end on another aerial shot of her flying off for college, but the movie is smarter than that.

This is a movie with several plotlines, but Gerwig knows she has to choose one storyline to predominate, begin the movie when that problem becomes undeniable, and end when it resolves. Gerwig probably could have structured the movie around Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend, or her attempts to lose her virginity, but she ultimately decided that the conflict with the mom was the emotional heart of the movie, so she begins a little bit before the school year (iirc) with the moment that relationship becomes open warfare, and then she actually keeps the story going a little bit into college to find the moment when that storyline resolves itself, because Lady Bird has to go away to get some perspective on their relationship.

The Trailer Scene: So let’s talk about the opening scene, because it’s a great example of a “Holy Crap” moment that’s necessary to make a trailer work. The movie is a low-key coming of age story, and those are notoriously hard to sell. The trailer does include the best moment in the movie, when Lady Bird asks her mom, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” and her mom gives her that wonderful look, but that’s not really a great trailer moment. Even if your movie is very realistic, it’s good to have one moment that strains that realism to the breaking point to put a moment of outrageousness in the trailer, and jumping out of the car while her mom is driving is a perfect example. It’s not so extreme that it would make the news, but it’s definitely nothing the characters will ever forget.

I know that for me, jumping out got a big laugh when I saw the trailer and made me want to see the movie. It assured me that this wouldn’t be that kind of movie (which is to say, the kind of movie Gerwig usually stars in), too low key to care about, or too cool for school. It assured me: This is going to be a comedy, and you’ll be allowed to laugh.

Reversible reversible behavior. But this is a realistic movie, and it’s going to also score points by undermining our traditional narrative expectations in favor of greater realism. One great little moment: Whenever a character, especially a teen character, insists on an alias, we also await the moment when they drop the fa├žade and admit their real name, because that’s classic reversible behavior, and sure enough this movie delivers that moment when Lady Bird is at her first college party, but then it wonderfully undercuts that breakthrough. She admits her name, but then the boy asks her where she’s from and she panics and lies. One step forward, one step back. This is what we want out of realistic movies: clever subversion of tropes in a way that makes us think, “Finally a movie that’s willing to show how it really is!”

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Best of 2017, #2: Get Out

Not the Way the World Works (but that’s okay): I always have a problem with movies where the hero says, “This guy has framed me for murder, so I’ll just kill him and everything will be okay,” but the most ridiculous example had to be Collateral, because of the racial element. If a black cabbie kills a white man in a nice suit, even if there’s a black woman there to vouch for him, then forget it, he’s getting the chair. This movie doesn’t have the frame element but could be accused of the same “get away with killing white people” problem, and indeed the original ending was Chris getting hauled away, but I think they get away with a happy ending here by simply letting us have that moment of horror when Chris sees the police lights and raises his hands and we suddenly realize how all this will look…but then the relief washes over us when it’s his friend. We know it’s bogus, but at least the movie let us glimpse what would really happen before giving us the less-realistic-but-more-satisfying stand-up-and-cheer ending.

Mystery Plotting: I could rehash them here, but I’ll just point you to this list of Easter eggs showing the movie’s meticulous plotting and imagery. One reason this movie made so much money is because people were watching it twice, and finding it even more satisfying the second time, which usually isn’t the case with “big twist” movies.

National Pain: How do you solve a problem like Trayvon Martin? How do you address that pain in a movie? You can make a movie like Fruitvale Station about the facts of the case, and that would certainly be worth making, or you can make a movie like this, about the growing horror black men feel that they’re not safe in white neighborhoods. Drama is how it is, genre is how it feels, and they’re both equally valid.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Best of 2017, #3: I, Tonya

Two thoughts on this movie:
A new tool: The fake-out redemption scene. This movie has a scene in it that’s very similar to a scene in my play, and I think it works well in both places: Like so many stories that seek to redeem a terrible person, this movie features an even-worse parent. I’ve talked about this before with Kind Hearts and Coronets, Downhill Racer, “The Sopranos”, and Trainwreck: Our hero may be bad, but they come by it honestly, and at least they’re better than their terrible parent.

But these scenes can be just as unsatisfying onscreen as they are in real life. We want some human connection between parent and child. We want a breakthrough and maybe some redemption. But you also want to be true to your character, and if your parent is awful enough to justify terrible behavior, then they may be unredeemable. So you can cheat to sneak in such a scene: You can have the parent finally tell the child what they’ve always wanted to hear, and give the kid some emotional catharsis, but only because the parent is manipulating the child.

In the scene in which Tonya Harding’s mom finally tells her what she wants to hear, my first thought was “I don’t really buy this plot turn”, then I realized that Allison Janney was good enough to sell the scene if it were genuine, so if I wasn’t buying it, there was probably a good reason for that. Then I realized, “Hey, this is just like the scene I wrote!” It was a fake-out and I thought it worked well, putting a nice button on their relationship, even if it was fake.
Tricky tone: The big question with this movie is, “Should a movie with this much domestic violence be this fun?” Is it trivializing the violence? Turning it into entertainment? …Worst of all, does it treat this violence as no big deal because the victim is Tonya Harding?

But ultimately, I would say the movie answers all these questions satisfactorily and pulls off its tricky tone, and it all comes down to one moment: That first out-of-nowhere face-punch. Because of the movie’s fun, rock-fueled uptempo tone, I was totally unprepared for the domestic violence to begin, and it hit me in the face as well. I felt the shock, betrayal and fear that comes with that punch all the more because of the tone, and that’s what you want when you tell stories: to make the audience feel the same pain the hero is feeling.

After that punch, the uptempo and humorous tone continues, despite the violence getting worse, but the friction is maintained. The fun tone kept me thinking, “Surely the violence will end. There will be redemption. This will become a love story again.” And of course, that’s just what Tonya is thinking as she goes back to him over and over. The tricky tone keeps us in her head, keeping the violence continually shocking and painful, specifically because it violates the tone. It thought it was a very effective tool.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Best of 2017, #4: The Disaster Artist

As a general rule, audiences find it hard to care about losers. It’s even worse if it’s a jerk-loser. Our heart might go out to a nice-guy-loser, or we might admire the success of a jerk-winner despite the fact that he’s an asshole, but jerk-losers are the worst of all possible worlds, right?

And yet this movie presents a jerk-loser who is easy to care for, and even admire. How does it do that? There are always way to make characters easier to care about, even if they have a lot of liabilities:

  • He’s passionate. We like Tommy right away when he over-emotes in acting class, then we like him even more when he forces his classmate Greg to act a scene loudly while eating in a restaurant, overcoming his fear of audiences. Passion goes a long way. We admire his daring, even when he dares to do something badly.
  • He’s active. Nevertheless, our admiration for Tommy’s passion peters out before too long as it become clear that he’s talentless, belligerent, and impervious to reality. Just when we can’t take it anymore he earns our admiration back in the most reliable way: He solves his problems by being very, very active. Luckily, he has a mysterious fortune, and decides to use to make his own starring vehicle.
  • He’s ironic. After his horribleness on set, if Tommy succeeded traditionally, we would take offense, because we don’t like to see bad behavior rewarded, but it’s hard to complain when he wins in such an ironic fashion, achieving fame and fortune by making the worst movie of all time.
  • He’s not the POV character. Who is the hero of this movie? Tommy is an active-jerk-loser, whereas Greg is a passive-nice-guy-loser. Neither is ideal, to put it mildly, but together they get the job done. We identify with Greg, but find Tommy to be compelling.

The result is a wonderful stand-up-and-cheer movie about two losers failing so utterly that they make the world a happier place to be.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Best of 2017, #5: The Florida Project

Despite the undeniable raw power of this movie, I was somewhat reluctant to have it on the list, because, as I’ve talked about in past years, the main thing I look for these days at the movies is humanity. Do these characters seem fully human to me? Have the writers found universal humanity in the hearts of their characters? For many of the most acclaimed films these days, the answer is no. 

And at first this seemed like another example. In this bleak look at the lives of a six year old girl and her prostitute mother living in an Orlando hotel room, I feared that the writers were looking at these characters too much from the outside: Look at these wretched lives, and despair!

My fear as I watched was that neither the creators nor the audience were fully inhabiting the movie, frozen out by our ice-hard hero.

But then she finally melts. Just as the movie has rolled the rock uphill for as long as possible, CPS shows up to (finally) take Moonee away from her terrible mom, and at first Moonee barely reacts, then she runs away to a neighboring hotel, finds her one friend, and bursts into some very-well-earned tears. Suddenly, after 100 frozen-out minutes, we’re allowed in, assured that yes, she’s human, heartbreakingly so, and it’s all worth it.
On another note, was I the only once who kept thinking of the documentary Queen of Versailles while watching this? Although one is fiction and the other non-fiction, they make a good pair, both about unloved kids being raised by crooks in the shadow of Disneyworld, with the only difference being that one family is filthy rich and the other is filthy poor.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Best of 2017, Runner-Up #6: Call Me By Your Name

This is a good, old-fashioned coming of age romance. Beautifully shot and acted.  It felt like Truffaut.

Let’s talk about a twist on the “I understand you” scene: Call it the “I don’t understand you but I find that somewhat sexy” scene.

Both of our potential lovers are intellectual Jewish American young men enjoying a lazy summer in Italy, so they have a lot in common, but they’re also separated by temperament and age. They spend most of the movie circling each other and only get together late in the story.

Early on there’s a great scene where the older one, Oliver, begins to be smitten with the younger one, Elio, who plays a Bach composition on the guitar, and then, by request, plays it on the piano a few times.

  • ELIO plays the piece on the piano. OLIVER leans on the door looking in. The music sounds very different from when he played it on his guitar.
  • You changed it. What did you do to it? Is it Bach?
  • ELIO
  • I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he’d jimmied around with it.
  • Just play it again, please!
  • ELIO begins playing the piece again. OLIVER listens, then speaks:
  • I can’t believe you changed it again.
  • ELIO
  • Not by much. That’s how Busoni would've played it if he’d altered Liszt’s version.
  • Can’t you just play the Bach the way Bach wrote it?
  • ELIO
  • Bach never wrote it for guitar. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s Bach at all.
  • OLIVER Forget I asked.
  • ELIO
  • Okay, okay. No need to get so worked up.
  • ELIO begins to play the Bach in its original form. OLIVER, who had turned away, comes back to the door. ELIO says, softly, over his playing:
  • It’s young Bach, he dedicated it to his brother.
  • He plays it beautifully, as if sending it to OLIVER as a gift. 

Oliver isn’t just flirting, he’s genuinely frustrated by Elio’s intellectually-bratty explanations for the changes: He’s annoyed, but he’s also intrigued and bewitched. Elio is now a puzzle he wants to solve.  Crucially, we feel the same way.  Who would not be both repelled and attracted by this brilliant-but-arrogant kid?   The best romances are those in which we can see and feel contradictory reasons for the romance to succeed and not succeed, along with the heroes.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Best of 2017 Runner-Up #7: Dunkirk

I didn’t see this movie until it came out on DVD, and I knew very little about it. All I knew was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had four movie stars in it, and that it told the story of the Dunkirk invasion in many locations: on the beaches, in the air, and on the water. Based on these three facts, I naturally assumed that it was going to be another bloated 3 hour mess, with lots of Churchill speeches, etc.

It wasn’t until I got the DVD in the mail that I was shocked to see a 106 minute runtime. Had Nolan actually made a non-bloated movie?? When I watched it, I discovered that it did have some of Nolan’s usual problems:

  • As usual, the cinematography was too muddy, which meant that I couldn’t tell the two black-haired beach-heroes apart, and I also couldn’t tell whose plane was whose in the aerial dogfights.
  • It’s got yet another overbearing Hans Zimmer score…

But the movie works, and even Zimmer’s score works. Because so many stretches of the movie were dialogue-free, Zimmer had enough room to play, for once. How did Nolan make such a slim, elegant movie, after making so many messes?

  • We have three stories, but they’re all based around the same event. To do this, he mixes up the chronology, creating a gradual realization for the viewer that the three locations are on slightly different timelines. One storyline happens over the course of two days, one over a day, and one over an hour or two. I’m not crazy about this, because I never fully understood it, but it undeniably makes for an exciting movie. Each storyline gets a nice mix of action and silent stretches in a hypnotic pattern.
  • He’s tapping into modern-day national pain, both in England and America. Once again, it feels like the Nazis are winning, making it all the more terrifying to see the moment they seemed to win the war in the last century.  It’s a timely reminder that the Nazis weren’t destined to lose by the tide of history: They almost won, and in the end they only lost because a bunch of people fought really hard.  
  • Almost every Nolan movie before this had its fair share of ludicrous plotting (which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.) I didn’t think he could handle reality. He must have found it very liberating to have a movie where didn’t have to constantly ask himself, “will they buy this next plot turn?” He’s not selling anything, so he’s not falling all over himself. He knows we’ll accept it, so he relaxes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Best of 2017: Runners Up #10, 9, and 8

Spoilers Abound!
#10: The Post. I don’t have much to say about it. Spielberg, Hanks and Streep are all somewhat on auto-pilot, but each is very talented, so that’s not the worst thing. Longtime readers will know that I have my problems with Spielberg, but he’s got good meaty material here and makes the most out of it.
#9: The Big Sick. Again, not much to say. A very moving, very funny film. I will say that Still’s Disease is one of many that I’ve had. I didn’t go into a coma but it was very unpleasant .
#8: The Shape of Water. An overpraised movie, but still a lot of fun, gorgeous to look at, and a welcome showcase for the talents of Sally Hawkins. It reminds me of this recent rule:

The Value of the Baby in the Basket: Will audiences accept a movie in which a janitor enters into a sexual relationship with a fish-creature? Yes and no. This movie plays with the idea of interspecies sex, but then reveals at the end that no, she’s actually a merperson herself, so it’s cool. It turns out that she’s a literal baby in a basket: She was found on the shore, and those marks on her neck everybody assumed were scratches were actually gills. At first she just seems like a random everywoman, but then we find out she’s got a benighted destiny that the movie is fulfilling. Like all baby in a basket stories, the movie is having it both ways, letting us identify with an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, then, when that’s stretched credibility too far, assuring us that no, this is an extraordinary person merely fulfilling her destiny. It’s also a cheat that allows our star-crossed lovers to be together after all. It works in a fairy-tale-ish sort of way, but not as drama, because it’s too neat.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Didn’t Make the Best of 2017 List: Logan, Blade Runner 2049, and The Last Jedi

Warning: Spoilers abound!
Time for a confession: James and I actually recorded a podcast episode where we debated the merits of The Last Jedi, but I sounded way too sour and inarticulate so I shelved it. I feel bad about that, because James was very passionate and well-spoken in his praise for the movie, but the episode was ultimately off-brand: Just 90 minutes of me saying “shitty” over and over, without any discussion of writing advice. But let me admit now that I was really bowled over by his enthusiasm. I just kept saying “I wish I’d seen the movie you saw.”

As for the movie I saw, it seemed to fit in with two other acclaimed sci-fi sequels this year, and I pretty much loathed all three. The three movies shared three unforgivable sins:

Too damn long: Logan was 137 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 was 164, The Last Jedi was 152. There was no reason for any of these movies to be longer than two hours. Both Logan and The Last Jedi came to a logical end around the 100 minute mark and then just kept going and going. The Last Jedi had two massive subplots (the casino planet and the mutiny) that just fizzled out and had no effect on the story.

Too disrespectful of the original: It was bizarre how similar Logan and The Last Jedi were:

  • Both were the ninth movies in their respective sagas.
  • Both undid everything good that had happened in the previous eight movies.
  • Both had the hero of the first three movies die miserably.
  • Both had a very specific plot point in common: A beloved character from the previous movies was running a school for superpowered teens but saw that school destroyed when he turned murderous towards his own student(s), so now he lives as a secluded hermit.

Ultimately, this is what all discussions of The Last Jedi come down to. Does a new writer/director have the right to come in for movie #9 and ruin all the happiness of the previous 8 movies? There were a lot of reasons to dislike this movie, but I think this was the biggest reason for the backlash. For a lot of viewers, including me, the answer is simply no. The easiest thing to do is take something that someone else has built up and tear it down. If you want to destroy value, destroy your own value, not someone else’s.

(These three movies made me appreciate Gene Luen Yang’s brilliant “Avatar: The Last Airbender” sequel graphic novels even more. He seems to have set himself the rule that he couldn’t in any way undo the happy ending of the series: The couples can’t break up, the villains can’t escape, evil can’t rise again, etc. So how do you tell good stories with those constraints? Well, it’s hard, but Yang is a great writer, so he pulls it off beautifully.)

No fun: Reading the glowing reviews of these movies was a pretty baffling experience for me. Doesn’t anybody want to have any fun anymore? The previous movies in these series were enjoyable. (Okay, not the previous two Wolverine movies, but this was more of a sequel to X2 or Days of Future Past, both of which were fun). These three movies were grim, airless slogs, especially Blade Runner 2049. I wasn’t just checking my watch because they were too long, but because all three bored me out of my mind. Even The Force Awakens, which I had a lot of problems with, was at least lively and buoyant. Empire Strikes Back was dark, but Yoda was delightful. There was nothing to love about these three movies, which is a problem, because there was a lot to dislike.

So just as I was loath to post the podcast, I’m loath to post this post, because my goal is never to just be sour and complain-y, especially about things that other people loved, but boy oh boy I disliked these movies. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Interview on the "On Grit" Podcast

Hi guys, let’s delay the post that was going to go up today until tomorrow, because we have something neat instead. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly gritty guy, but Rigel Patterson at the podcast “On Grit” read my book and wanted to talk to me about my advice and my experiences. I talk too fast and I’m (as always) too negative about some things, but Rigel’s a good interviewer and we have some good discussions. Give it a listen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Best of 2017 Introduction, and Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hi guys! So it was a pretty good year for movies. Unlike previous years, where my list had lots of idiosyncratic choices, my list is mostly Oscar nominees this year. I don’t know if this means that I’m changing or the Oscars are, but I suspect it’s the latter. My top two probably wouldn’t have been nominees in previous years.

As usual, I’ll mention the movies I haven’t seen first: The Darkest HourIt, Atomic Blonde, Logan Lucky, MotherDownsizing, and others I’m not thinking of.

How we’re going to do it this year is first we’re going to talk about four movies that didn’t make the list (one today, three tomorrow), then I’ll talk about five runners-up (for three days), then I’ll do my top five (with maybe a couple of days on #1). So let’s start with:
Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Frances McDormand’s fierce and funny performance, but boy oh boy did it fall apart. Here are three problems:

Moral murkiness: People have been saying that this is a prescient “MeToo” movie, but is it? Going in, I only knew that this was a movie about a righteous mother who was upset that the police had made no arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter. Based on that, I assumed that this was going to be the case where everybody knew a rich man’s son did it, but the cops wouldn’t arrest him for political reasons. Instead it was a very different movie, where it quickly became clear that a good cop had really exhausted every angle of the case and just came up short.

This is in some ways a braver choice, but it means that the movie actually feels more emblematic of the MeToo backlash: A woman is so upset about a rape that (according to one conversation in the movie) she wants to throw civil rights and due process out the window and now she’s lashing out at her own allies and hurting her own cause! Not surprisingly, this is a movie written by a man.

Not the way the world works: There’s nothing inherently wrong with wading into morally murky territory like that, but it’s a tricky line to walk, and this movie drunkenly veers all over it. McDormand’s character starts off with the notion that this police department is too scared to make arrests, but soon she’s taking advantage of that to a ludicrous degree. The first hint is when she viciously hurts the dentist and the police let her go, but then she firebombs the police station and the cops don’t care! (A cop later confirms that they knew she did it, as of course they would.)  That’s not the way the world works. Not to mention that one of the cops engages in an assault so egregious that it’s crazy he doesn’t get arrested, even in a corrupt town. It’s ludicrously over the top.

The Sorkin Stammer: But this is what I most dislike about the movie. The movie is in some ways critical of McDormand’s self-righteousness, but at other times it indulges it to an annoying degree, pitting her against stammering straw men in a way that’s supposed to make us stand up and cheer but just made me roll my eyes. Nothing is worse that her denunciation of the priest, who just sits there sputtering, letting her score all the points. Here’s the thing about priests: they love to be denounced. That’s their comfort zone. They’ve trained their whole lives for that.  I didn’t buy it.  Always avoid the Sorkin stammer.

Tomorrow: Three acclaimed sci-fi movies

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Best of the Year: The Archive

So here I am back, but now before we get to another book it’s time for my seventh annual round up of the best movies of the year and what can be learned from each. When I was archiving old posts last year, I never archived these, partly because I’m a little embarrassed by some of the old choices.

At first I was focused on Hollywood movies and preferably those based on spec scripts, because the site was primarily for spec script writers. Eventually I lamented that the spec market had died, and then finally I gave up on the idea of focusing on just Hollywood movies and started including indies too, which meant that my lists started closely resembling the Oscar nominees. As is my bent, however, I kept favoring fun Hollywood fare above grim indie features, which made me look like a heartless chucklehead at times.

As a result, there are a lot of Hollywood comedies here that are justifiably forgotten today (Date Night? The Campaign??) and a lot of beloved indie movies that I look like an asshole for not putting at number one in their respective years (in some cases, I specifically look like a racist asshole). But what can I say, folks, I called ‘em like I saw ‘em! Feel free to make fun of me for some of these...

Best of 2010:
Best of 2011:
I didn’t write up 3 and 2 because Cedar Rapids had already been an underrated movie, and I'd already done a week of posts about Apes:
Best of 2012:
Best of 2013: 
For my #1 movie, American Hustle, I started off with a series of posts comparing the movie to the truly awful screenplay that originally sold, before I finally wrote it up:
Best of 2014:
Best of 2015: I did something new this year, I compared the top three movies to their books, giving me a chance to talk about the nature of prose and adaptation.
I followed that up with three more pieces about The Martian:
Then I finally got to the first movie: 
I followed that with two more rules gleaned from The Big Short
Best of 2016:
I followed that up with a series on the plotting in Zootopia: