Movie List Monday: It Was a Graveyard Smash

My favorite monster movies

I’m usually a hard-line no-talk-of-Halloween-before-October person, but all the horror nights videos and monster cereals have won me over. Aggressive marketing wins again!

So to stay in the spirit of the season, here’s a list of my favorite movies about monsters, and why I like them.

Aliens
Possibly the best monster movie ever made. When I first saw it, I already felt like it was going to quickly feel dated, but somehow, every time I’ve seen it over the years, it’s felt contemporary. I’ve always liked Aliens more than Alien, but I’ve gone back and forth over which is “the better movie,” as if that matters. At the moment, I think that Alien ramps up conceptually — alien ship to eggs to chest-bursters to Ash to MOTHER to the climax — while Aliens recognizes early on it can’t surprise audiences in the same way, so it ramps up in tension and plot stakes.

The Beast Must Die
I mention this 1970s British werewolf mystery every chance I get, because it’s got so much style. It looks like a Hammer horror, but was produced by a company that had a similar aesthetic and the ability to attract some remarkable talent to gimmicky schlock. This one is a mash-up of And Then There Were None, The Most Dangerous Game, and a monster movie. It’s got the wonderful “werewolf break,” in which the movie stops at the climax to let you reconsider the clues and decide once and for all who the werewolf is.1The climax of the last episode of Sam & Max was a shameless rip-off of this gimmick. The only thing keeping this movie from being a classic is that it’s not very good, but I still love it.

Cloverfield
All the Bad Robot easter eggs are kind of insufferable now, but you can ignore that they’re there, and this is still the best modern take on a kaiju movie (I say confidently, having never seen Shin Godzilla). At the time, I was eager to find more depth in it, by pointing at all the things it said about video games and first-person perspectives and our dependence on smart phones and excessively documenting everything that happens, but all that ignores the simple fact that it does an amazing job being a movie about a giant monster attacking a city. The scene with Marlena behind the curtain is still one of the most memorable in any movie.

Kong: Skull Island
I’m still confused by a job interview I had where they mentioned my review of this movie as if I’d trashed it, because I thought I was pretty positive. It’s not deep, and it feels aggressively focus-grouped, but it’s got a cast over-full of super-talented actors and an art direction that is unstoppable. I do think that it would’ve been better if it had been its own weird outlier, instead of part of such an orchestrated attempt at franchise-building, because it’s got so many good concepts and such great style. It just feels like a bunch of great ideas got sanded down to the point where it was clever and entertaining but fell just short of being classic.

Deep Rising
The credits for this include “Famke Janssen as Trillian St. James” and “Leanne Adachi as Toilet Lady,” which tells you 90% of what you need to know about this movie’s tone. It’s the movie Stephen Sommers released the year before he hit it big with The Mummy, and it’s got much of the same tone without the same budget. This is another one that I have a hard time calling “camp” because it doesn’t seem to care whether the audience knows it’s in on the joke. But it is deeply, unapologetically silly. If you’ve forgotten (or never saw) the trailers, this is the movie where the aforementioned Toilet Lady gets sucked right down through the toilet by the monster.

Tremors
All the promotion around the new Dune movie made me realize that I haven’t seen Tremors since the 1990s. While I’m still such a huge fanboy of Star Wars and the MCU, I am conflicted that blockbuster franchises have made it harder for movies like Tremors to exist — goofy, fun, outliers that still have enough passion behind them that they don’t feel like throwaways. SciFi original movies2Or was it already “SyFy” by that point? were always trying to make the next Tremors, but it was the perfect example of trying to catch lightning in a bottle. (And it’s discouraging that the franchise itself has had the same problem, as far as I can tell). I feel like the only way you’d see a project with this level of commitment these days is as a Netflix movie, and while I’m sure it would be well-produced and entertaining, assuming you could find it in the first place, I’m skeptical we’d still be thinking of it 30 years later.

The Thing
Speaking of movies that I haven’t seen in too long, I’m overdue for a rewatch of The Thing. This has long been my go-to example of a movie that I love but can’t watch again, because the gore was too much for me. (I own a copy in at least two formats by this point). I see clips now, though, and it’s perfectly 1982-level effects: truly horrible in a way that makes you admire their creativity, but far enough removed from reality that I’m able to remember “it’s only a movie.” My mind still boggles at the kind of imagination that could come up with the defibrillator scene.

Movie List Monday: Spooky! Scary!

Scary movies I enjoyed, because I’m a very brave person

Coming to terms with the fact that I’m bad at horror movies, I wanted to think of the ones I’ve seen that worked as intended: scary fun. That means no mention of The Cabin in the Woods or Drag Me to Hell, because as much as I love them, they didn’t scare me. It also doesn’t include The Exorcist, which even as a Protestant, I think is the outright scariest movie I’ve seen, but is the opposite of fun.

And I should probably acknowledge again that I’m absolutely not a connoisseur of horror movies, if only because I avoid anything that seems to emphasize gore, sadism, or torture. But I did enjoy these, at least!

Scream
The sequels went too far in the self-aware direction, but I think the first one hit exactly the right balance between deconstruction and old-fashioned teen horror movie. The opening is perfect, because it’s genuinely scary at a level that the rest of the movie couldn’t possibly maintain — but of course, you spend the rest of the movie wondering if maybe it could. I’ve mentioned a few times that I saw this in Novato, CA at a theater running a “tightwad Tuesday” discount night, so the theater was jam-packed, mostly with teenagers. It was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve ever had, the audience screaming and yelling at the screen at exactly the right times.

The Others
A throwback to classic ghost stories that just nailed the tone. I remember being creeped out from beginning to end, even though I could tell pretty early on what was going to happen. This one deserves classic status.

Final Destination
This was originally pitched as an X-Files episode, which is apparent from the tone and the structure; it feels very reminiscent of the best standalone episodes. The inclusion of the unintentionally creepy song “Turn Around, Look at Me” was a brilliant touch. Really, the entire series of movies is based on a gimmick, but what a fantastic gimmick: show the audience a dozen different ways a person can be killed, and then spend minutes letting them imagine all the different scenarios, letting them all play out in their head. The first and third in the series — the ones with Glen Morgan and James Wong’s direct involvement — are still the best, and extremely underrated as clever suspense movies.

Resident Evil
I’m not a big fan of the rest of the series, and I’ve been critical of Paul W.S. Anderson’s other movies enough that I think I might have been unfair. But I unapologetically love just about everything in this one. The laser murder hallway is my favorite, a sequence that set up a threat and then kept raising the stakes brilliantly. It set the tone not just for the rest of the movie, but for what I expect from horror/action movies going forward.

Ghost Ship
Let’s be honest: this is not a very good movie. It’s not even particularly scary; I remember there being a couple of good moments, but the bulk of it is kind of a slog. But that opening sequence is fantastic. It felt like they were setting the bar for how far this movie was going to go, in terms of how many people they’d kill off at once. The CG wasn’t at all convincing, but it still did exactly what it needed to do. I wonder if part of the disappointment of the movie is due to the fact that it can’t possibly live up to the beginning.

10 Cloverfield Lane
I’m not sure if this one is technically classified as “horror,” but I sure watched it like a horror movie. Meaning: filled with dread over what I was going to see next, but too invested to leave. One of the many remarkable things about this movie is that John Goodman’s character here is essentially the same as Walter from The Big Lebowski, reminding us that it was only bowling and Judaism that kept him from being completely horrific.

Movie List Monday: Movies That Made Me Gay

Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

When I logged back into Letterboxd for the first time in a year, I was surprised by how many lists of LGBT movies there were on the site. Looking over the contents, I was reminded of the disconnect between what most people think of as “gay movies” vs what I think of.

I have to say I’ve been pretty unimpressed by mainstream movies I’ve seen about or targeted at gay people. Part of that is that I just don’t like romances unless they’re romantic comedies, and gay romances in movies are hardly ever allowed to be anything other than tragic. The rest is that the movies either target such a specific subsection of the “culture” that I have nothing to relate to, or else they’re so corny and amateurish that I wonder how they even got produced. I’ve heard Moonlight get universal praise, and some positive things about Call Me By Your Name, but I honestly can’t work up enough interest to see either one. And apart from that, it seems like any gay projects good enough for mainstream exposure are either 1) starring straight actors in a story about how much it sucks to be gay, or 2) aimed specifically and exclusively at the Jonathan Groff demographic.

So I took it as a challenge to come up with a list of what I think of when I hear the phrase “gay movie.” (And not the adult kind). It’s the mainstream movies that felt transgressive when I was watching them, because I felt sure that I was watching them in a way I wasn’t “supposed” to be. It felt weird and isolating when I was an adolescent, but as an adult, it makes me feel even more part of a kind of community: meeting dozens if not hundreds of other people who had exactly the same feeling of I must be the only person in the world with this weird crush growing up.

And I should mention before anyone gets the wrong idea: of course the title of this list is only half serious, and it’s offensive to suggest that something as complex and personal as orientation is arbitrary enough to be changed by watching a movie. Everyone knows that it actually requires the more long-term, repeated exposure of a TV series, like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or CHiPs.

The Empire Strikes Back
My obsessive hero-worship of Han Solo as a 6-to-9 year old turned into something else when I got older. Han walking off the Millennium Falcon after landing on Cloud City was my Ursula Andress-in-Dr No moment.

The Man Who Would Be King
I didn’t even know about this movie until I was a freshman in college, and my roommate had the poster hanging on his wall. I was already a huge fan of Sean Connery’s after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but watching this one felt different. It made me a lifelong evangelist for the friendly mutton chops, for one thing, and I make sure to keep them in the rotation for myself. It was also a better vehicle for a confused young man with a secret crush than…

Zardoz
I don’t remember when I first saw this, but I do remember that I spent the entire time feeling like I was watching something I shouldn’t be. Sean Connery with a mustache and a long braid wearing what was essentially a diaper with bandolier straps and thigh high boots was funny, sure, but it was a nervous laughter on my part. “Heh that sure was ridiculous, huh? I think we should watch it again a few more times, though, to be sure.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The scene with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant alone in his apartment with Jessica Rabbit (the “Dabbling in watercolors, Eddie?” scene) is the quintessential example of something that made me feel like a total weirdo as a teenager, but once I got older, I met so many other guys who had the exact same reaction that it’s practically a right of passage. It’s probably still a weird crush for a 16-year-old boy to have, but at least it’s one I’m comfortable with now.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
It started with a spectacular musical number and then had Indiana Jones without a shirt for much of the rest of the movie. Come on.

Bull Durham
When I first saw this movie, I thought everybody in the cast must be the sexiest person who ever lived. I don’t think I’d ever seen a movie with so many grown-ups who were so unabashedly and insatiably horny before. I can pretty much guarantee that I’d hate it if I watched it now, but in high school, I had the poster on my wall and everything, and I may or may not have blown it kisses like Laverne and Shirley did with their Beatles stand-up in the opening credits.

The Ice Pirates
The most embarrassing entry on a list that includes Zardoz. Even as a teenager, I could tell that this movie was terrible, and I loved everything back then. But Robert Urich’s character was designed to be a pastiche of all the character types popular for movies in the early 1980s, which also happened to be a combination of everything that turned on a young gay nerd really into sci-fi and fantasy.

Big Trouble in Little China
I don’t even think this one is all that weird; I think it’d be weirder to leave the movie without having a huge crush on Jack Burton and Gracie Law. Seeing this and The Thing around the same time had me wondering if my last words on my death bed were going to be the same as Walt Disney’s.

Movie List Monday: Labor Day

A pro-Union list of movies for this Labor Day

As somebody who was growing up as anti-union backlash was giving way to decades of full-blown Reaganism, I feel like everybody in my generation had already started to take for granted all the benefits of the labor movement by the time we entered the workforce. And as somebody who’s spent most of his career working in the game industry — which desperately needs to be unionized, but is bafflingly resistant to it — I’ve never been a direct member of a union, but of course I’ve spent my entire professional career enjoying the benefits of unions. For instance:

9 to 5
I loved this movie as a kid, but I think the full weight of the feminist message was probably lost on me. Which is probably my mother’s fault, because I had no perception of a world in which women weren’t smart, independent-minded, and capable of anything they wanted to do as a career, so the movie was more or less preaching to the choir. But even if you’re having to work for a sexist jackass, the entire concept of the eight-hour day is thanks to unions.

8 1/2
This movie is about Federico Fellini’s frustrations making his ninth movie, with Marcello Mastroianni as a barely-fictionalized stand-in for Fellini, and the events of the movie refusing to distinguish between what’s really happening and what’s in Fellini’s imagination. I thought this was a masterpiece of post-modern cleverness back when I thought post-modern cleverness was the highest thing you could achieve. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the eight-hour work day, but it’s nice to be reminded that if you did work 8 1/2 hours, that extra 30 minutes could be considered overtime.

Week-end
Another classic I likely never would’ve seen without film school, this one is Jean-Luc Godard making a show of his mockery of filmmaking, bourgeois urbanites, politics, activists, and maybe all of humanity? Maybe most known for its long sequence showing a never-ending traffic jam that gets more and more silly as it goes on… until reaching the cause of the traffic, a gruesome, fatal crash. That mentality carries throughout the film, combining violence, gore, and absurd humor. It’s a satire of western civilization but doesn’t make explicit that the only reason western civilization has the concept of a weekend as separate from the Sabbath is because of the work of labor unions.

Joe vs the Volcano
Even in the 1980s, when I had a much higher tolerance for on-the-nose earnestness, I felt like this movie was a little too much. But I didn’t really enjoy You’ve Got Mail, so this was a great celebration of how much I liked both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The story is an allegory for Hanks’s character breaking out of his dull existence and finding his spark in life, and the misery of his work environment made more of a lasting impression on me than anything else. “I’m losing my sole” was a pretty on-the-nose pun, but it’s still the first thing I think of whenever I start to suspect that my job is taking advantage of me.

Working Girl
Kind of similar to 9 to 5, but this one is more classist and a little less explicitly feminist because the evil boss is a woman (Sigourney Weaver playing a villain that I actually liked better than the hero). Of course, the larger undercurrent is that patriarchy works partly by pitting women against each other, as Weaver and Griffith are both fighting for Harrison Ford’s approval, so maybe it’s even more feminist? Anyway, this movie remains fascinating to me because I still have no idea how self-aware it is. It’s got some of the worst dialogue, even by 80s standards (“I am not a steak. You cannot order me.”), and a lecture I saw from the screenwriter suggested that he wasn’t interested in subtext or any kind of layers at all. But that last shot, showing one corner office in a sea of thousands and re-contextualizing the entire “victory” of the movie — I can’t tell if it’s actually as sardonic as the ending of The Graduate, or if I’m just reading too much into Mike Nichols’s directing credit. Anyway, the title is a double entendre comparing secretaries to prostitutes, in a way that manages to be insulting to both. The 80s were not kind to unions, but movies like this at least helped keep the idea alive that workers were as crucial to a business as executives.

Bring it On
Another weird movie with a baffling tone: simultaneously a predictable, fatuous teen movie, and a self-aware satire. It puts its cheerleading teens in a high school called “Meat Ranch” without comment. It’s directed by Peyton Reed of the increasingly good Ant-Man movies and a couple of fantastic episodes of The Mandalorian, so of course its self-awareness is intentional. I love any movie where different people on set at the same time each thought they were making something completely different. For several years, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly be gay since I enjoyed a movie about sexy young female cheerleaders so much, which is a poignant story about the power of denial. The best character in this movie is Isis, played by an actress who always knows what she’s doing and is always in on the joke, Gabrielle Union.

Movie List Monday: The Back 10

Maybe this arbitrary list of movies will be more interesting?

Assuming that arbitrary lists of movies could ever be interesting, my list of 10 favorites certainly wouldn’t qualify. I’m not a connoisseur of obscure art-house movies, and if there is any new insight to be found in The Empire Strikes Back in 2021, I’m probably not the one to do it.

But what about the rest of the movies that are in my equally arbitrary Top 20 list? Is it interesting to explain why they didn’t make the cut? Let’s find out.

Miller’s Crossing
For most of my adult life, this has been what I called my favorite movie ever. I can still vividly remember watching it in the Tate Center at UGA, and the moment that brilliant opening monologue about ethics hard-cut to the image of a hat blowing away in the wind, I thought, “This is my new favorite movie ever.” I love that they just made up gangster slang for this movie that was convincing enough to trick people into thinking it was real. I love that they made a whole different classic movie about how hard it was to make this one, and how much they’d crawled up their own asses. I love that it’s got some of the cleverest dialogue of any movie and one of the best action sequences (the attack on Leo’s house, obviously) and moments of great suspense and one of the most horrifying scenes with the “always put one in the brain!” moment. It’s one of the best movies ever made, but the truth is that I just don’t like watching it anymore. For a while, I told myself that it was because I didn’t want to interfere with my perfect memory of it, but I think it’s more that it’s an impossibly beautiful and clever work of art that just doesn’t resonate with me or connect with me anymore.

Continue reading “Movie List Monday: The Back 10”

Movie List Monday: My 10 Favorites (For Now)

One of the things I miss the most as I gradually ween myself from social media: all the fun and pointless list-making! When I deleted my old Instagram account, I was in the middle of a month-long thing where you’d post a screenshot from a movie in a particular category each day. Because I got fed up with Facebook’s constant interference with my favorite platform, the internet was deprived of knowing what I chose as “My Favorite Remake” (John Carpenter’s The Thing), or “A Movie With the Best Soundtrack” (Finding Nemo).

That, plus the fact that I restarted my Letterboxd account after a long period of no interest, plus the fact that I’m tired of looking for music every week for “Semi-New Song Sunday,” make me think it’s a good idea to start weekly movie lists!

To start with, I’ll set the base line with the obvious first list, my 10 favorite movies as of right this second. The only rules for this list: no more than one movie from the same director (aka The Coen Brothers Handicap); and no matter how much or how long I’ve loved it in the past, I’m only including the ones that I haven’t over-watched and I’d still be excited to watch if they were on right now (aka The Monty Python and the Holy Grail Exclusion).

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. Big Trouble in Little China
  4. The Big Lebowski
  5. Rear Window
  6. Top Secret!
  7. The Cabin in the Woods
  8. Mad Max: Fury Road
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  10. Pom Poko