I heard great things about The Mandalorian when it premiered a couple years ago and had been wanting to see it, but I did not have Disney+ (until this past year). So I finally got around to watching the first two seasons of the show and really enjoyed it. I normally prefer movies over TV series, but The Mandalorian was better than the recent Star Wars film trilogy. That’s probably because the showrunner (John Favreau) had more creative freedom since he wasn’t working with the core franchise characters. There were likely too many cooks in the kitchen for the movies, with producers, studio execs, marketing experts, toy manufacturers, and Disney brand advisors all having a say in the plot and characters. Plus there were different writers and directors for the three movies and they apparently didn’t plan together. Beyond that, so much was on the line for the Disney mega-corporation with those movies because of the production and marketing budgets. The Mandalorian had a relatively high budget (~$120 million per season), but the budgets of each Star Wars movie were 2-3x that. They surely saved a lot on marketing by just dropping the show on Disney+ (while people were stuck at home during a pandemic with nothing else to do but watch TV).
It is time for my sixth annual list of the best movies at least ten years old that I arbitrarily watched this past year. There isn’t much of a method to the movies I choose to watch, some of which are re-watches and others I’m seeing for the first time. The common themes that emerged from this year’s list are psychological horror, literary adaptations, twist endings, plus a lot of Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves.
In anticipation of the new Dune movie, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve, I decided to read the classic novel by Frank Herbert before seeing the film adaptation. Dune is one of those books that appears on every all-time best of list for science fiction. Sometimes you read a book like that and it feels dated or over-hyped (such as Ringworld by Larry Niven, which I also read this past year), but not in this case. Dune not only met but exceeded my expectations.
As a child I was terrified of horror movies and avoided watching them. Two of my favorite movies were Jurassic Park and Independence Day, and while they were not directly horror, there were certain scenes in each film that I had to close my eyes during because I was so terrified. (They were when the raptors popped out and when they showed the alien body in the Area 51 base). Though I avoided explicit horror, I enjoyed spooky movies and TV shows intended for children, such as Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. I liked PG horror because it was merely spooky and creepy, not outright terrifying. The first true horror movie I remember seeing was Scream, which came out in 1996 when I was ten years old. Though that movie was meant to be somewhat comedic, the Ghostface mask nevertheless remained burned in my mind and gave me nightmares for months after.
Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film conceptually to date, which is saying something considering he made Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Without spoilers, Tenet involves time travel, but it is a unique version of time travel—perhaps the most inventive form of time travel I’ve ever seen in a movie—and the most complex.
Work for Idle Hands was originally written in 2016 as a 9,000-word short story. At that time I was still pursuing screenwriting in tandem with prose writing, so I decided to adapt the story into a screenplay. But after unsuccessfully trying to pitch the screenplay to agents and producers, I decided to re-adapt it back into prose form, but longer since I had expanded the original short story when adapting it into movie form. This final version is a sort of amalgam of the short story and screenplay, which I expanded upon further. The final word count is triple the length of the original short story, at almost 30,000 words. I think this novella version is the best of the three. The novella may be my favorite form for a story. It is the perfect length to tell a full story and develop characters without getting bogged down by side-plots.
Have you ever noticed that most artists tend to get less creative when they get older? A band’s first album is often their best—or maybe their second or third album is better—but rarely does a band record their most creative music on their twelfth album. Sure, some artists like The Rolling Stones continue to perform well into their 70s, but they are only rehashing the creativity of their 20s and 30s. They are not recording new songs, or if they are, those new songs are nowhere near as beloved or creative as their earlier work. That is the normal life cycle of most musical artists: they release creative music when young, get popular, then “play the hits” for the rest of their career.
Finding older movies is surprisingly difficult in the age of online streaming. Netflix has severely cut down on their movie catalogue, focusing on their own original television series, and most other streaming services do the same. Amazon has a decent collection of movies, as does the new HBO Max, and I’ve also found some rare gems on Vudu and Tubi, streaming services that are free with ads. JustWatch has become essential in figuring out where and how to watch any given movie. I wish the streaming services would focus more on making original movies rather than television series, but it’s in their economic interest to create addictive TV series that will keep you watching longer. Just as it is in the Hollywood movie studios’ interest to make $100+ million tentpole blockbusters based on pre-existing material.
With the conclusion of the latest Star Wars trilogy, and supposedly the end of the Skywalker saga, I’ve been thinking about the series as a whole and its legacy. I liked each movie in the new trilogy upon first watching them. They were all enjoyable and exciting in-theater experiences with seemingly had everything you’d want in a Star Wars story: the Force, the Dark Side, lightsabers, space battles, aliens, planets, robots, Jedi, Sith, old masters, young apprentices, new characters, old characters, science fiction concepts, and more. I truly had a great time watching each movie the first time around, but it was only upon later reflection that I realized the parts didn’t quite add up to the whole. The acting, writing, and direction were all top-notch, especially compared to episodes 1-3, but the problem with this new trilogy, and the one area where the prequels were superior, is perhaps the most important part of all: story. Continue reading →