I start this with a notice of intention: I'm not going to write my Best Films of the Year list this month. I'm taking a friend's idea and am gonna delay it until early 2018. Right now, as is, the list is missing way too many top titles be make it worth writing. It feels incomplete. And that's mostly because I live in a place that doesn't often see the limited release titles. And I don't have the money to travel 2 hours each week to see the hot new movie. So! The list is delayed!
But until then, I'm still happy to post about a few new favorites I found in the last month of 2017.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
This Netflix documentary tells the story of the making of Man on the Moon, the 1999 Milos Forman directed biopic about Andy Kaufman starring Jim Carrey in the lead role. Carrey, an underrated dramatic actor, gave what was probably the performance of his career as Kaufman. What we didn't know, or at least had not seen video proof of, was how deep Carrey dived into the role of Kaufman. A method actor is a funny, fascinating thing to watch. Basically they become the character off-screen as well as on. They live their character. But what if the character you're living as is a flawed, infuriating, strange oddball like Andy Kaufman? The footage shown in Jim & Andy was apparently once upon a time meant to appear on the Man on the Moon DVD but Universal got cold feet because they worried the footage made Carrey look like an asshole (it did). But more than that, I thought this a fascinating look at an artist's willingness to lose himself in his art. Carrey is interviewed in modern footage. He seems both sad and wise here, like he's reached enlightenment or... maybe he's just playing another part in another movie. One of the most interesting and bizarre documentaries about the making of a movie I have ever seen.
I have mixed feelings about the making of a film based on recent traumatic events. I get it's what we do, as a society, as a people. We're storytellers. But I haven't yet sorted out how I feel about the 'too soon?' question. Like, I thought United 93 came way too soon. I also thought United 93 was an incredibly well made film. I am conflicted. And it's with these conflicting feelings that I come to Stronger, a film about a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing. Here's what I liked about Stronger and what I feel sets it apart from other similar ripped from the headlines tragedies: it works for your emotional investment in its character's story. It doesn't assume -- however correctly -- that you're sympathetic going in. It tells its story in a timeless manner, making Stronger as impactful today as it may be 10 or 20 years from now. That's important. What's more, it's just a great character piece, regardless of its status as a True Story. Jake Gyllenhaal, who's fast becoming one of the best actors working today, gives an honest, tough performance as the good guy who lost his legs and as a result lost his way. It's an amazing performance. Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson are good, too.
I held off on watching Black Christmas for a long time because I didn't know if I wanted to mix slasher movies with my egg nog. Ya know? Christmas cheer + blood curdling screams = what are we going for here? But I guess it seemed like the perfect sort of Christmas classic to discover in this year of madness, 2017... And I loved it. This is a scary, inventive, visually interesting horror thriller. Somehow both classier and more messed up than I could've imagined. The crazy phone calls, the ambiguous mystery of the killer, the ending, the John Saxon. It's a masterwork. Oh, and it's directed by Bob Clark, same man who gave us A Christmas Story. So, stick that in your stocking.
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
The arrival of Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair on the world film stage has been one of my favorite things to watch these past few years. Blue Ruin and Green Room are just that good. Now, actor and writer Macon Blair is directing his first feature, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. It feels like it belongs in the same rusty, bloody, angry universe as Blue Ruin and Green Room. But it has something those movies didn't: lots of laughs. A dark comedy, with extra emphasis on dark, the movie tells the story of a woman's quest for vengeance after her home is burglarized and her computer stolen. Add in Elijah Wood as her nunchaku-wielding neighbor and you've got a cult classic in the making. I really liked it.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I also watched a little movie called The Last Jedi. Ever heard of it? Yeah, it's growing a small but dedicated audience. I wrote a review for the film at City on Fire if you're interested.
I didn't read a bunch of books this year. But that ain't gonna stop me from listing off my favorites!
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Some books aren't ready for their readers. Or, perhaps more accurately, some readers aren't ready for certain books. I wasn't always ready for The Gunslinger. Not sure why. I've owned a paperback copy of Stephen King's first chapter of The Dark Tower for many years now. I've opened it with intention of reading it to the end more than once. Three times, by my count. And each time, I just... couldn't get into it or I couldn't understand it or I lacked the patience for the prose which did not remind me of the typical Stephen King book. But sometime around when I started seeing fans of the books get excited about the prospect of the series getting adapted to film, I decided it was time to try again. And I assume that the times I tried before I simply was not ready, because... I loved this book. Epic, strange, sad and yet full of wonder. The Gunslinger has master Stephen King's imagination working overtime, even while he attempts a new sort of story for him. With the exception of recent books like Doctor Sleep and the Bill Hodges Trilogy, King was not always someone who wrote sequels, so the idea of setting up a whole world that would not (*could not*) be told in one story was new and interesting to watch him play with. The prose is interesting, too, more blunt than usual. It's like Stephen King by way of Cormac McCarthy and it suits the book very well.
A brilliant, masterful blend of fantasy, horror, and western. I look forward to reading Book 2 soon.
Revolver by Michael Patrick Hicks
Revolver is some of the angriest fiction I’ve ever read. Part The Running Man, part The Purge, part Fox & Friends, it’s a middle finger to the right wing of modern American politics who cherish guns over human life, who blame the woman for getting assaulted, who make entertainment out of desperation, and so on.
In an all-too-believable future inspired by the ugliest parts of today (the book likely reads more timely in 2017 than when it was published just 2 years ago), young woman Cara Stone agrees to be on the TV game show ‘Revolver,' where she will search for pity points from the viewers as donations are made to her family before she is expected to kill herself on live broadcast by episode’s end. In this future, the worst parts of conservatism reign supreme. The country’s gone fascist. Everything bad is blamed on the country’s only black President, who by this time has long since passed away.
It’s about as subtle as a kick in the teeth but that didn’t bother me. 2017 has me angry and Revolver tapped into that anger. This dystopian hell is not the sort of allegory that will give you a pat on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together, it’s gonna be okay,’ so much as it says, ‘Hey, don’t ever say that it can’t get any worse, because holy crap it definitely can.’ An incendiary short story fueled by rage and written with style. It’s really good.
The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
The return of Twin Peaks was the television event of the year. It's brilliant, endlessly creative, and soooo weird. Before I started bing-watching the series, I read co-creator Mark Frost's Secret History of Twin Peaks book.
The novel is the discovered dossier compiled by a person known only as The Archivist, who gives details on Twin Peaks history, current events, strange happenings, and conspiracy theories. Written into the margins are the notes of an FBI agent who is tasked with studying the dossier and offering her findings to her superior, Gordon Cole. Some pages are full of redacted print. Other pages are torn out of centuries old diaries. Still others feature strange images of owls. (Note: the design and art direction of the hardcover is beautiful and would not translate well to ebook.)
The dossier goes all the way back to Lewis & Clarke, talks about a strange land in the west (we’re led to believe this is Twin Peaks region), and an all-important green ring. We move through history to the settlement of the town, and the strange occurrences that always happen there. Twin Peaks fans know there is something strange in the woods. We know about the Black Lodge. The Secret History finds an interesting way to expand on those ideas, offering us a few answers, while also presenting all new questions. The amount of time focused on UFOs was unexpected. As was the Richard Nixon cameo.
At times, I was reminded more of John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies more than what I’d come to expect from a Twin Peaks-related book. But that added some fun to the mystery of the fictional world, making the Peaks mystery appear more epic by taking on some familiar ‘real world’ concepts and then twisting them for the series’ intentions.
It is not a typical novel — I struggle to call it a novel at all, other than the fact that it is obviously fiction. It’s also not what you might expect from a Twin Peaks book (but then after watching The Return, maybe the definition of what Twin Peaks is has expanded some). All I can say is that I enjoyed it. It mixes in character histories on important Twin Peaks regulars with all the conspiracy madness. You’ll get a detailed background about Big Ed and Norma and then you’ll be back in UFO territory. It’s crazy. And I kind of loved it for being so crazy.
Sour Candy by Kealan Patrick Burke
Kealan Patrick Burke's Sour Candy is one of the best Stephen King short stories not written by Stephen King and I mean that as a compliment to both authors, but particularly to Burke. It's creepy, weird, and more than a bit deranged. And I loved it.
It starts with a real-world sort of incident that I believe we've all been witness to at one point or another: the unattentive mother and her crazy banshee of a child who everyone in the store can't take their eyes off of. This odd couple is drawing a group of onlookers in the candy isle and our innocent protagonist is likewise drawn in by the scene. The child, when it is not screaming, offers our guy a piece of sour candy, and the world is never the same after that. He returns home to find that his life has been... stolen from him. And the child at the store is now believed to be his son. The kid is in family photographs, has doodles on the fridge, and lives in the... attic? Our protagonist does not accept this, but the world's insistence that this is the true way of things almost has him convinced he's going crazy. Then he finds that sour candy is the only food in the house and he starts seeing creatures with skeletal deer heads hanging out in the shadows and oh God we're really going into some weird territory now.
Creepy and full of crazy ideas. There's a section in this short story where we get a glimpse behind the curtain and in that moment Burke gives his short more world-building than some full-length novels ever manage. The story of candy and madness all leads to one wicked finale. Sour Candy is excellent and I highly recommend it to horror fans.
1984 by George Orwell
The news has me especially grumpy this year. So of course I did the best thing for my crumbling faith in America's political system; I read 1984 for the first time.
Orwell's dark and honest book may be the perfect novel for understanding 2017 (the book, I want to note, is nearly 70 years old). When truth no longer matters, neither do consequences or rule of law. War is fought because that’s the way of things. International conflict is constant, though the enemy is always changing, despite what the state news says (We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia). It’s madness, but it’s a madness that’s been perfected for the purpose of beating the populace into submission.
Much of 1984 hits too close to home. It was not meant to be used as an instruction manual, but I suppose I see how it could’ve been helpful as such. In the later pages, one of the high-ranking party officials comments on the failings of the Nazis, the communists, and so on. Big Brother’s party is successful because it is built on hate; hate for humanity, hate for the inferior, hate even, potentially, for life itself. “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.” And that, it occurs to me, is something that our orange friend has in common with Big Brother. This first year has been chaos, yes, but it’s also been about stomping out the things we once held up and declared to be true and just. It is about stomping on us, too. (However, unlike Big Brother’s hate, which was cold and precise, our man is powered by stupid hate, a bully’s hate, and unless greed proves his undoing, then his emotional stupidity may yet.)
1984 is a brilliant piece of writing. Well deserving of its time-tested status as a classic. I’m glad I finally read it. I did not enjoy reading it – most of the book is unpleasant, made only more so in 2017. But I’m glad to have taken that journey to Oceania. I got a good story out of it, and I might’ve gotten a little extra fuel to rage against the lies and stand for what is true.
2 + 2 = 4, y’all.
End of Watch by Stephen King
Reading Mr. Mercedes, one would never imagine that the series would end this way. End of Watch is such a strange, surreal, and ultimately supernatural departure from what came before it.
In Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King was attempting his take on a mystery detective novel. Finders Keepers was something of a meta look at detective fiction, about a coveted piece of noir being sought after in a noir thriller setting. The first two books were examples of how one adds Stephen King style to a real-world thriller. End of Watch is the opposite. End of Watch takes the typical thriller characters and puts them into a Stephen King novel.
Mind control, telekinesis, hypnotizing, forced suicide, and the addictive nature of videogames are just a few of the weird concepts King's playing with here.
The book works. It works because the reader accepts it all long before the skeptical characters do. If the characters believed it before we did, the whole Jenga tower would collapse under it's own weight.
End of Watch is a satisfying, if weird conclusion to the Bill Hodges trilogy. Bill, Holly, Jerome, and others get their time to shine. I really liked the main trio. More than the cases they solved, I will remember the characters. And Mr. Mercedes himself returns to the spotlight in End of Watch, raising the stakes higher than ever.
I think that those King fans who felt disappointed by Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers will find more to like about End of Watch. Similarly, those who enjoyed those first two books because they represented a departure for King may be disappointed to find the author returning to some of his old tricks... Me, I liked it.
GOOD TIME -- A young man tries to round up the money to get his brother out of jail by stealing, dealing, and running for his life. Good Time is an adrenaline-spiked crime drama with a great Robert Pattinson. Seriously, ten years ago if you had said I'd be rooting for Pattinson to find his way into the Best Actor category I'd say you're crazy. But he -- and Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart -- have really evolved into interesting actors in the years since the sparkling vampire saga. Good Time features Pattinson at his best. It is a magnificent movie.
YOUR NAME. -- I was expecting a silly animated body swap comedy. And for a little while, that's what it appeared Your Name was going to be. But then it strikes some unexpected notes and delves deeper. It is a beautiful film. Full of life and wonder. Unexpectedly complex, too. Like a dream you don't wanna wake up from. I love this film.
IN A LONELY PLACE -- There's a thing called Noirvember where you try to watch a film noir every day in the month of November. Um. I didn't quite manage to accomplish that task. But I did see some new noirs and the best of 'em, by far, was Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter who was the last person to see a woman alive. After the mysterious murder, the police suspect Bogie but his neighbor (and cooperating witness) falls in love with him. After a while, we begin to suspect him, too. It's like Bogart is playing toxic masculinity as a living, breathing character. It's a fascinating character study about dangerous men and the women who are drawn to danger, all set to a great noir style.
THOR: RAGNAROK -- An absolute blast. Full of color, wonder, humor, and adventure. The best of the Thor solo adventures by a pretty wide margin and one of the zaniest times spent at the movies this year. Sure, the plot and the villain could've used more depth, but I was having too much fun to notice at the time. Thor: Ragnarok is one of Marvel's best.
If you met your goal for NaNoWriMo, well done! You've done more than most. So many people talk about that book they wanna write but you actually did it. You sat down and you committed to the words. Mega congrats! ... But you're not done yet. Edit that thing! Do not -- I repeat: DO NOT -- send it to an agent or publisher tomorrow, I BEG you.
And hey, if you started but didn't finish, congratulations to you as well! You've still done more than most. You started, you tried, and you're not done yet. And hey, you gotta know that NaNoWriMo is not for everybody. I've decided it's not for me. The pace, the demands... meh. I'll write my way, thank you. There's no crime in taking your time to get shit done right. And just because November is over, doesn't mean you're done. Finish writing that book! We want your story!
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
Blog notice: mostly this blog is for sharing my thoughts and talking about my books. From time to time I will also comment on books, films, music, sports, and/or videogames. During these times I may use images of the creative works under discussion. I'm posting the images under the "fair use" allowance, for purposes such as criticism, comments, reporting, teaching, and research. If you have any issue with images used on this blog, please contact me and the images will be removed.
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