I’m going to save some of my posts for Banned Books Week for, well, the week itself, but I mention it here in order to spur you on to make a reading selection, possibly from the website, possibly from visiting your friendly local library.
Instead, we have Patton Oswalt rating his top 5 and bottom 5 films with the zeal and wit you have likely come to expect.
Now, knowing that Oswalt is a total cinemaniac, I kinda wanted a longer list with more deep cuts, but it makes sense to me that he’s not going to do that for the bottom five. I mean, the odds of someone deciding to watch Independence Day are far greater than someone clamoring to watch Defcon 4… so he’s doing everyone a favor by getting some people to pause on the former.
I especially like him raising the concept of films getting audiences to buy into too much — which really is a sin when it comes to sci-fi films: they’re already getting you to buy into any of a number of not-strictly realistic worldbuilding anyway. Besides which, my experiences have been that audiences of fantasy and sci-fi fare want to know how this particular world works, so they are both up for the unusual, but impatient with the patently illogical.
For my own top 5 science fiction films, we’ll see if they’re the same as my 2020 sort. I suspect they will be different.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, of course the headline was clickbait. But tell me you wouldn’t want to see Patton Oswalt as, say, a smuggler in a Star Wars film. “Even I get boarded sometime and I wasn’t about to let those illegal lanyards hang about my neck!”
On this date in 1997, the TV show Stargate SG-1 premiered. To this day, 25 years later, that still elicits “wait, like that 90s film Stargate?”
The series soldiered on through 10 seasons and a couple wrap-up movies. Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe followed, and a legion of fans are still very much around for this lesser known, but very much beloved “star” franchise.
I caught the first season when it first aired, but then only saw episodes intermittently, only really sitting down to watch the whole series (and then Atlantis and then Universe) after they were all off the air. If you’re a fan of military sci-fi, the early episodes are easy to jump into, with its Star Trek-meets-G.I. Joe styling. What really gets fun, however, is as the seasons progress, and the upstart humans of Earth really start to improve their technology as the bad guys begin to realize they’re more than a nuisance.
And besides the honest-to-goodness arms race that goes on over the seasons, there are the characters you really come to enjoy along with some absolute standout episodes like “Window of Opportunity” and the two-part “Heroes.” Indeed, I’ve thought of what sort of playlist I could concoct to get introduce people to Stargate, get them to “Window of Opportunity,” and hopefully get them hooked on watching the whole series.
Naturally some people are very passionate about what Amazon should do. Adam Barnard has a plea to uphold the legacy and continuity over on GateWorld— and I can’t say I disagree. General Carter would be wonderful to see. Stargate Universe ended in such a way that one or more of the characters could appear at any time in the future. There’s a rich backstory they built so that any sort of Stargate: The Next Generation doesn’t need to ignore all that has gone before. As Jack O’Neill would say, “We’ve been in worse situations than this.” Lock that chevron. Lock it, I say!
While plenty of the headlines mention The Omen and Titanic, many of my generation were first introduced to him as the scene-stealing Evil One in Time Bandits(or simply “Evil” which is very dangerous in concentrated form).
And that was not Warner’s only appearance in work adored by speculative fiction fans of a certain age. He was wonderful in Tron, criminally underused in Star Trek V, well-used in Star Trek VI, and absolutely phenomenal in the justly-lauded “Chain of Command” a two-parter for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Besides that, there’s Doctor Who (both audio and visual), Babylon 5, and shows like Wallander and the Hornblower series. And, for anyone who hasn’t seen the 1979 Time After Time (which, this far into the 21st century is likely a lot of you), you get not only a great David Warner performance, but a surprisingly fun turn by Malcolm McDowell not being the villain.
So David Warner holds a special place in my film-loving heart as a “character actor” whose appearance was always welcome. It could be that my dad gave us an appreciation of the supporting players that add that essential zest to any good film. Other kids my age had no idea who Victor McLaglen, Thelma Ritter, or Martin Balsam were, but thanks to my dad’s classic movie education, I did. Growing up, I naturally starting spotting those same sorts of actors in our generation’s movies, like Dabney Coleman, Edi McClurg, and, yes, David Warner. And, possibly owing to being the third kid, character actors were always an underdog of sorts to root for. That guy? Who was in that thing? Yeah, I want to know their names. They’re awesome.
I likely need to expand on my working theory of third/third-plus/youngest kids. I hinted at this with my fandom of Moon Knight some months back, but those of us who were the third or fourth or youngest kids would compare notes. And I don’t know if my sample size is wide enough or if times have changed, but back when I checked with my fellow non-firstborns, we found that we gravitated to That Guy and That Gal. Our older siblings had laid claim to the Luke Skywalkers and Supermans, the Captain Kirks and the Batmen. Being fans of the “A” list pop culture icons was thus copying our older brothers and sisters and, at some point, you want your “own thing.” Also –and this could definitely be a generational thing– our parents weren’t about to get multiple copies of the same comic/record/what-have-you. They’d even look askance if we were using are own money, because thrift! And we could generally listen or read our siblings’ copies (because thrift! Now put it back!). So, my working theory is that my appreciation of character actors, introduced by my dad, was deepened by being the youngest and getting my “own things.”
And then I pursued being an actor myself in college… and “character actors” took on a whole new meaning.
At some point, several directors and acting teachers made sure I understood that I was not a “leading man” type, I was a “character actor.” I was Kent, but not King Lear. For some reason, several of them said, identically, “You’re not Tom Cruise.”
I mean, I remember high school. I was under no illusions I was Tom Cruise.
Fast forward after college and I’m working in regional theaters in various parts: often enjoyable and always “supporting.”
Walking out of the theater after a rehearsal, a visiting director du jour was in an advice-giving mood.
“You know Bjorn, you need to understand that you’re not a leading man. You’re not Tom Cruise.”
Does Tom Cruise know he’s the go-to definition of “leading man?” He probably does. He’s Tom Cruise.
I sighed inwardly, but kept listening. He was 50-something. I was 20-something. So many of my instructors and directors had been 50 or 60-somethings at this point and they usually had some good insight gleaned from the decades of experience they had over me.
“You’re a character actor, like me.”
This was a change. When people invoked Tom Cruise, Lord High Leading Man, the insight usually ended there. They certainly didn’t associate themselves with me.
“It can be frustrating, I know. Because you’re as much an actor as the guys who get the leading roles — maybe more so as a character actor because you’re going to do all different types of parts.”
This was leading somewhere.
“So what’s going to happen is you’re going to put in the time. 20 years. 25 years. And then, all of a sudden, the phone starts ringing. You’re getting auditions. You’re getting gigs. Because you’ve built a body of work as a character actor.”
He provided some examples of the diverse work he had been getting, which, I had previously learned from other instructors, is what you do: you get work from every which where.
“So that’s what I’m saying. Stick with it and you can be a Dabney Coleman. You could be a David Warner!”
Now, tormenting Mathew Broderick and harassing Dolly Parton were not top of my acting bucket list. But trying to take over the world or simply making Patrick Stewart question his light-counting abilities? Talk about actor motivation.
I’ve never forgotten that moment… because it was the time David Warner went from being an actor I admired to an actor I aspire to emulate. Actually, I think that’s the moment where I realized he had been a subconscious role model for the work I wanted to do as an actor. And I’ve thought of that moment each time I’ve watched his performances since and I quite consciously study them.
I could be a David Warner?
That’s an impossible dream, but a dream worth dreaming.
(I mean, I don’t think I can ever pull off playing a character named Spicer Lovejoy, for one).
Thank you for your prodigious body of work, David Warner. May your memory be a blessing.
Maybe it’s the overwhelming melting pot of 80s that speaks to my Gen X self. Maybe it’s the fact that this past season has included the best Munsons since Logan (the quality and fate of characters named Munson throughout media is a post for another time). In any case, I’ve very much enjoyed the latest installments of Stranger Things, what we were almost certain was the last season, but… it’s not.
So many fun touches were put into the show, but one of the most talked about has been the subtitles, which seem to take a certain subversive pleasure in communicating moments with unusual specificity.
The whole article is a long and excellent read — and I tend to agree with Mark Evanier in that there doesn’t seem to be much for me to individually add about my own personal connections to Sondheim’s work.
However, one thing that has become evident to me with the outpouring of articles and anecdotes this past weekend is how many people have such specific connections to Sondheim and his work… as if each and every one had their own personal relationship with him.
We can talk about a central goal of art being to touch people — and for great artists being able to touch a lot of people, but for an artist to make such a singular impact to so many individuals with such specificity?
That’s an artist who has given the world gifts on a scale that cannot be understated.
Sondheim lived a long and enormous life, died old and accomplished and loved at ninety-entire-one years of age. His death should feel neither cruel nor unexpected. But it does. I am still living in the world that he built, and cannot imagine it without him. What a hideous thing it is to live in a world without Stephen Sondheim. What an enormous piece of luck it was to have been alive at the same time as him.
Finally, I’ll link to this video of frequent Sondheim collaborator Bernadette Peters singing one of his best-known songs that, once you’re watching the show it’s in, you realize contains multitudes.
While I touch on the writing insofar as their episodes move at a rapid clip that puts many older TV shows to shame, one aspect I haven’t dwelt on was how the show deals with mental health in general and trauma in particular.
Enter James Hoare’s piece for The Companion. With an assist from Commander Crichton himself (Ben Browder), the article delves into the traumatic events that befall Crichton and how he deals –and is unable to deal– with them.
Frankly, most characters in adventure series experience trauma that would overwhelm those of us who don’t have a writers’ room to prop us up. And traditionally, in many an adventure series, the writers conveniently sidestep the consequences of said overwhelming trauma in the name of preserving the status quo. People being reflective and being affected by the events of one episode bleeding into subsequent episodes is not something one saw in the adventure tales of yore.
Thankfully, Farscape was part of a series of said adventure shows that began to push the envelope of serialization — something we take for granted in the era of streaming and “prestige TV.” And while I always appreciated the different voices and perspectives of the characters –many of Moya’s crew really didn’t get along with one another– reading the article made me realize how much the writers addressed mental health, asking for help, and helping. I suppose just as sci-fi and speculative fiction in general helps explore ideas more easily or safely in its fantastical wrappings, it helps when said sci-fi has been given the mandate to “be as weird as possible.”
But, in the end, how weird is it? After all, as Browder points out, all of us have a ‘Harvey.’
(Note: that last line and the article itself are chock full of spoilers for the series, so if you’re planning to dive into the show for the first time, maybe hold off.)
And here’s the thing, due to a distribution kerfuffle, people here in the United States almost missed an opportunity to see it until Netflix stepped up — and we’re all better for it.
Many people may not realized just how many different adaptations of The Little Prince that have been made. It’s a story that touches all of us (assuming we’re not too much of the wrong kind of grown-up). And while some people of my generation may remember Stanley Donen’s musical version from the 70s (aka the one with Bob Fosse as the funkiest yet disturbing snake you ever saw), the story of The Little Prince is not, to my mind, a feature film length tale. Much like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it’s better as a compact and moving half-hour special — though look how thoroughly Hollywood has ignored that assessment.
So what I love is that the 2015 film version tells the original story, but wraps it in another story of The Aviator passing the story along to a little girl. The girl herself is being raised by a single mother who, while loving, has clearly been buffeted by events offscreen in ways far too many of us can imagine. And so she wants her daughter to be serious and “essential” to better survive this crazy thing called life.
What I love, and why I would urge all of you to give it a rewatch on Netflix, is how many lovely little notes are adding into this as the story unfolds. There’s great truth and depth beyond the dialogue that hearkens to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of the Baron Munchhausen). In this way, I find the film to be great family viewing, because adults can get references and moments understandable only by experience, but it doesn’t make the tale too scary or dull for kids.
And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, you will be treated to great voice work by Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti, and more (the French version is similarly impressive from what I’m told for you French speakers). The score from Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey is exhilarating, and the mixture of computer animation and stop-motion animation just feels right.
At the end, you’ll find you’ve seen a film that clearly tackles themes of imagination and the human spirit, but softly meditates on how we face life and face death. And that’s no small feat to introduce to a child, or remember as a grown-up.
So I hope some of you make the time to watch it before it leaves Netflix and, yes, I am aware of DVD/Blu-Ray technology and already have my copy in preparation for its departure. But for those of you on the fence, you’re more likely to click over to Netflix than order a disc. So go ahead. Treat yourself to a little movie magic.
While it’s almost certain I first saw Kotto in Alien, the performance that will always stick with me was seeing him on stage as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences.
Through all the power, fragility, strength, and weakness in that character was a presence that just couldn’t be faked. As an actor and as a casting director, I obsess about actors “inhabiting” their characters to the right degree — and Kotto always did so. Amazingly so.
And I should point out he could inhabit all sorts of characters in a variety of genres. For Midnight Run, his turn as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely is a perfectly realized straight man in an action-comedy whose plot was anything but straightforward. His gravitas weathers all the shenanigans and manages to ground the film in the stakes, especially at the end.
Although he turned down an opportunity to be Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, evidently in part to avoid being typed in “space” films, he did come awfully close to being in another venerable sci-fi franchise.
Yes, apparently he was close to being Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would have been a very different Picard, but man would I like to see the stories from that timeline.
Time and again, the appearance of Yaphet Kotto has meant you’re getting a damn fine performance. I’m overdue to revisit his turn as Lt. Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street, a series I should check out again anyway.
You want to talk about the bonus situation? The bonus situation was whenever Yaphet Kotto showed up. May his memory be a blessing.
It’s an even year, although the nicest thing you can say about 2020 is that it was odd. But, in any case, even years mean it’s time for my Favorite Films sort, something I have done offline for about 30 years and have done online for the past eight years. You can see my previous entries here (including how I do the sort by pairwise comparison).
Just as with two years ago, there was some major shakeup in the top 10, along with 15 additions to the top 50 that were either new or sorted lower on a previous year. Some of the results are shocking. Why, Die Hard isn’t even my favorite Christmas film any more!
Hush, you. One Christmas movie delivered because it clearly had correct postage.
Anyway, here are the ground rules:
These must be feature films (narrative or documentary). Short films aren’t included.
Film series or franchises do not count as one entry. Each must fend for itself.
TV movies can be included (I don’t think any are in the top 50)
TV mini-series are not included.
Regular TV series are right out.
These are my favorite films, not a “best of.” If anyone else entirely agrees with my list, one of the two of us is an evil doppelganger/replicant/host.
Basic Stats (note: genres overlap, based on IMDb genres)
Total Comedies: 7
Total Dramas: 30
Total Action-Adventure Films: 27
Total Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films: 23
Total Westerns: 1
Total War Movies: 13
Total Musicals: 4
Total Animated Films: 3
Total films with Liam Neeson: 2
Mean average year of the 50 films (rounded up): 1992
Decade with the most favorites: 2000s (13 films), followed closely by the 1980s (12 films)
The film at #51 which at least one reader will insist should rank higher: Sense & Sensibility (1995)
All right, here’s some other thoughts…
What a lot of war
Okay, I guess it’s not the majority of films, but 13 is “nontrivial.” You pair that with all the dramas, and it does seem heavier. I’ve also noted that, in general, though I inhale TV shows these days — thanks to the omnipresent streaming services — really none of them are sitcoms. Evidently I get my comedy in the ‘quippiness’ inherent to many an action-adventure (the majority of the films in the 50).
Perhaps I should revisit a few more comedies for next time.
Trek films 2, 4, 6, and 8 are all in the sort and “Wrath of Khan” has been in the Favorite 50 frequently. I guess the familiar is no longer the favorite.
Similarly, The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps always in my favorite list, has retired to a lower place behind young upstart Rogue One.
As with other longstanding films on the list, I guess the personal resonance only goes so far and I’m ready for new things, which may explain why…
Hamilton did have the votes
Because I maintained a strict personal blackout on the play, I didn’t know most of the details or any of the music about Hamilton (musicals not being my thing anyway, despite working on dozens of them in a former life). And then it came to Disney+ and blew us all away.
But Hamilton was a damn fine musical and if “concert films” like The Last Waltz and Woodstock are eligible for the sort (which they are), then Hamilton certainly was. And I watched it several more times after my wife and my initial watch just to be sure. I wasn’t going to throw away its shot.
Besides Hamilton and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being brand new entries to the sort that also got in the top 50, I also noticed the average age of the top 50 went from ‘1986’ in the 2018 sort to ‘1992’ now. I suspect that average will continue to rise in 2022.
As with the comedies, should I delve into the deeper trove of classic films? Maybe.
No Christmas in the Favorite 50
There’s always a few films that are undoubtedly favorites that, nevertheless, fail to break the top 50 — and that seems frequently the case with both spy-fi and holiday films.
While a Bond film actually broke into the top 50 this year (Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale), Die Hard, which supplanted the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street as my favorite Christmas film, was itself supplanted.
The interloper, Klaus, narrowly missed out by coming in at #54, so perhaps it’ll get in next time, as The Little Prince did this time. Die Hard is still in the overall 100 at #80. You really should check out Klaus though. It’s delightful.
So there you have it. Another sort in an altogether too long two year interval, this year being at least 14 years long. Here’s hoping there’s more joy in 2022, and if I’ve inspired anyone to check out some films, my job here is done.
The end of this week will feature the latest edition of my biennial Favorite Films list, so I suppose I have films on my mind.
Some of the earliest films I saw were short films, thanks to my dad and the Arlington County library which had them. And I do mean films! We had a projector at home, which was often used for birthday parties and other events. This inevitably meant those masters of movie comedy, Laurel and Hardy.