Sunday, December 04, 2022

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2021


No, that's not a typo. Here, at the end of 2022, I realized that I forgot to actually do a best films of 2021 post last year, in part because I didn't feel like I had seen enough of the major films back in December 2021 to put together a decent list. So I kept putting it off as I caught up until I just forgot to actually write a list at all. And because the completionist aspect of my personality won't let me write a 2022 list without a 2021 list, here is a belated run down of the best films of 2021.

Before we get to the good films, a rundown of the worst films I saw. Usually I only single out one for that honour, but since the worst film I saw last year was Space Jam: A New Legacy and it would be charitable to call that IP car crash a film, I'll skip over that and instead say that Being the Ricardos was the worst film I saw in 2021. A totally inert take on interesting people and a potentially compelling story that doesn't even have the usual Aaron Sorkin saving grace of having memorable lines well-delivered. Over the course of his three films as a director, it has become painfully obvious that he has no idea how to direct actors to deliver his dialogue well or edit them so they play well on-screen. Someone needs to wrest the director's chair out of his hands and sit him behind a typewriter only from now on. Dreadful from start to finish.

And now here's the (very, very late) list.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2021

Rebels of the Neon God

Much like last year, 2021 was a big year for watching older movies for me, since the relative slowdown of new releases caused by the pandemic made it a pretty good time to look back and watch things that I'd been meaning to see for a while and never got around to, in addition to revisiting old favourites because they had significant anniversaries (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), new installments (The Matrix trilogy, The Animatrix, cutscenes from Enter the Matrix) or just because they're rad and there's never a bad time to throw them on (Speed, Ocean's Eleven). 

While getting vaccinated and cinemas re-opening meant that I was able to see more newer films this year than last year, and I generally feel better about my current best of the year list than at the same time in 2020, as is tradition, I won't be writing up that list until sometime in February (or March or April or I might just forget to do one as happened in 2019) since I like to spend January catching up on awards movies that expanded into more theatres (or, more likely given our weird reality, on streaming) rather than risk missing out on stuff that came out in November and December but only really starts to become available to most people in January. It feels like I shouldn't put the finishing touches on my list until I get to see Drive My Car at the very least, and who knows maybe Memoria will play within a thousand miles of me.

So this is a list of all the older movies I watched for the first time in 2021. It was frankly a nightmare putting this list together because I watched a lot of really good movies this year, ranging from films I've been meaning to see for years but never got around to, to movies that I only just heard about for the first time a few months ago. Whittling the long list down to this took ages, but these really feel like the films that stayed with me this year.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Best Games I Played in 2021: Non-Yakuza Edition


Whereas last year I spent most of my time playing older games that I kept meaning to play but never got around to until the pandemic gave me plenty of time to play through an extremely long game like Persona 5, this year I split my time between playing through the Yakuza series and trying to keep up with some of the more notable titles of the year. As such my list for 2021 consists mainly of games that actually came out this year with a few older titles sprinkled in, and I've split them into two lists rather than the undifferentiated list of all games that I used last year since I feel like I can actually field a decent best of the year list. And I also put all the Yakuza games I played in their own list so that they don't swamp this one.

Probably the biggest absence worth mentioning before getting into it is Metroid Dread, which I haven't had time to play yet but which would almost certainly be on there given how much I love Metroidvanias, and by all account it seems like a great one. Feel free to mentally slot it anywhere in the top five, which I'm pretty sure is where it will end up when I actually get around to it.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Best Games I Played in 2021: Yakuza Edition

What can I say, this game speaks to me

Every year, I like to set myself little cultural projects. Things I can whittle away at over the course of 12 months like watching 52 films directed by women, or watching more films from India, so that I can force myself to experience new things and step outside of my comfort zone.

This year, I decided that my project would be to play through all of the main games in the Yakuza series. Produced by Sega, the sprawling and long-running series of action-adventure/RPG games encompasses over a dozen titles at this point if you include spin-offs, some of which can only be played (legally) on consoles that are no longer available. So for this, I played through the seven games focused on the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a sentient slab of muscles with an extremely well-developed sense of morality who starts out as a mid-level Yakuza enforcer in the first game, rises to become head of the powerful Tojo Clan, then walks away from it and spends the rest of the series trying to escape from his criminal past with extremely limited success. It's an epic saga that covers 30 years of Kiryu's life, and features some of the best long-form storytelling the medium of video games has ever attempted.

It is also an extremely ridiculous, melodramatic run of games that features over the top characters, wild action, more shirtless rooftops fights than you could possibly imagine, and a dizzying array of side-quests and minigames that add up to a frankly exhausting amount of videogame. The balance the series strikes between how silly its story is and how deeply it cares for its characters makes for an intoxicating mix, and while I started playing them because I'd heard they were unbelievably fun and engrossing, I very quickly found myself being invested in the story and character of Kiryu, and the series' prolonged interest in exploring the inner life (and outer violence) of a man approaching middle-age, reckoning with all the pain he has caused and trying to build something better for the next generation.

I also fell in love with Kamurocho, a fictional entertainment district in Tokyo which provides the main setting for much of the series. Not only is it a very fun place to run around, get into fights, and sample minigames that range from simple (darts and pool) to intricate (slot car racing and running a cabaret club) to extremely seedy ("massages" and softcore video booths), but it feels like a living, breathing city where things change every time you start a new game. Some of this reflects technological advances over the course of the series, but it also underpins one of the recurring themes of the series; the battle between an older way of doing things rooted in loyalty and the messiness of humanity, and a newer, heartless and more corporate way of living. 

It's such a central idea to the games that there is a series-long subplot about how Kamurocho's one big public park, which serves as a home for the city's unhoused population, gets turned into a mall, forcing the people who previously lived there to eke out an even more meagre existence in the sewers. Not to throw all video games under the bus, since there are plenty of games out there that tackle big and complicated issues in innovative ways, but it is rare to see a series of this scale and prominence so interested in fundamental issues that shape modern life.

All that being said, the series is not without its flaws. Probably the biggest mark against it is the strain of transphobia which runs throughout, and while the games get better at handling their trans characters as they go along (to the extent that one of the most egregious substories from the third game was removed entirely when it was re-released as part of the remastered collection of 3, 4 and 5) at best it manages to be awkward at including them. This is not to say that all the violent crooks in this series of crime games should have good politics, far from it; many of the characters in the games are racist against Koreans and the Chinese, in fact their racism is central to the plots of at least two of the games, but there is always a sense that the Korean and Chinese characters in the game are people, whereas the trans characters in the game are, with very few exceptions, depicted as little more than jokes, and that runs counter to the warmth that can be found throughout the rest of the series.

Since these games are all pretty long and involved, and it took me pretty much the whole year to work through them, I thought I would do a whole list ranking them separate from my best games list, rather than have that list consist of seven Yakuza games and Inscryption. So with all that out of the way, here is my ranking of the mainline Yakuza games.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2020

A somewhat shorter list this year because I didn't see as many newer movies as usual, partly because cinemas were closed for a lot of the year (and even when they reopened I felt like I might as well wait until I get vaccinated before seeing movies in theatres again) and partly because I didn't watch as many movies this year in general. It was just very stressful all round, and if I wanted to relax at the end of a day fretting about how bad the pandemic could get, video games ended up being my go-to entertainment option for much of 2020.

As such I find it pretty hard to gauge what kind of year it was for cinema. There were certainly some really good films released this year, in whatever form that ended up taking, but everything felt so disjointed and scattered. Everything felt impermanent and ephemeral, with nothing to moor all the movies that got out into the ether of VOD and streaming. Was 2020 a good movie year? Was it even a year? Who can say.

Anyway, these were the films that made a mark on me this year, and all but one of them could probably have the addendum "I wish I'd seen this in a movie theatre" attached.

Before we get to the good stuff, let's indulge in a bit of negativity. Easily my least favourite film of the year was David Fincher's Mank, which I found to be a terribly dreary and affected bit of filmmaking about filmmaking that was hamstrung by a terrible Gary Oldman performance and a tin-eared, obvious script. It's not a bad film, but it was a terrible disappointment and I can't think of any film this year that had more going for it that so categorically failed to delivery on its promise.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2020

Goodbye, Dragon Inn

As someone who has often complained about how hard it can be to keep up with new releases while also watching the thousands of older films that I've been meaning to see, there was a certain Twilight Zone irony to having a global pandemic shutter movie theatres for most of the year and push many major releases to some indeterminate time in the future. In the words of Mr. Henry Bemis, there was time now, so long as I didn't mind spending so much of it in my own flat.

During the many months of lockdown, I watched a lot of older movies that were new-to-me, and was able to finally check off some heavy hitters that I've had on my to-watch list for years. I didn't manage to complete some of the loftier goals I set myself (such as watching all of Berlin Alexanderplatz) or even some of the dumber ones (like watching Eyes Wide Shut every day of December leading up to Christmas) but since we're not getting out of this anytime soon, I might find time to fit them in before I write next year's post. As ever, though, as great as it was finally seeing movies that I expected to be great, the biggest thrill came from seeing films I knew nothing about, and realising that there is always more to discover.

Before we get to the list, a shout-out to the best film I rewatched this year: Wayne's World. We all needed a little comfort this year, and nothing allayed my anxiety as much as revisiting Aurora, Illinois and seeing that the film is just as funny as it was when I was seven, if not funnier since I understand a lot more of the jokes now. 

Anyway, here are the best older films I watched for the first time in 2020. A good year, but only in this one respect.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Best Games I Played in 2020


Like many people, I found myself spending a lot more time at home this year. As the Coronavirus pandemic gathered steam in the spring, I started working from home, limiting travel, and looking for ways to occupy the many anxiety-riddled hours each day. Between reading Agatha Christie novels at an alarming rate and making a dent in the ever-growing list of films I've been meaning to watch (which I'll do another post on), I leaned on video games for comfort and escape, broadening my horizons a little by trying genres that I've previously been skeptical of, and ever so slightly reducing the backlog of games I've bought in sales over the years but never had the time to actually play (then buying more games in subsequent sales, thereby perpetuating the cycle). The games listed below (and ranked in no order other than chronological) were the ones that proved especially meaningful, and made the long stretches of worry and isolation a little more bearable. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Best Films of the 2010s

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
The 2010s are well and truly over, so it's only right to take stock and try to figure our what cinema meant to me over the past ten years. During a decade that saw a lot of personal and professional disruption for me as I switched careers and continents, movies were a constant, even if my tastes shifted more than at any other time in my life. It's hard to imagine the me of 2010 being more excited about watching An Elephant Sitting Still, a four-hour Chinese drama, than the latest Star Wars movie, or earnestly insisting that one of most exhilarating things I saw all decade was a black-and-white Hungarian film about a horse, but here we are. We change, we grow, we become strangers to ourselves.

Which is not to say that the list below, which encompasses the 100 films from the past decade that I think are real neat, is all bleakness. There's some incredibly silly comedies buried in there, and I dearly love the blockbusters that made a real impression on me. But as Hollywood spectable became more homogenous and I got most of my comedy from television and podcasts, those two genres, which defined my taste in movies through my teens and early twenties, fell off precipitiously.

This is the final version of my list, not because it's in anyway definitive, but because I finally forced myself to stop tinkering with it. Having whittled it down from a longlist of about five hundred films, I've spent much of the last week going over it and moving things around, looking at other peoples' lists to see what I might have missed, or suddenly being reminded of a film I'd forgotten to include. (Case in point, mere minutes before writing this section, I suddenly realised that I had left off The Skin I Live In.) If I don't post this now, I might never get around to it, since there's always another great film to catch up on, or some unheralded masterpiece waiting to be discovered. As such, this is as good a list as any, though probably not as good as the list I would come up with if I revisited it ten years from now, when I've got an even better sense of what this whole decade looked like.

Not to fill this whole preamble with caveats, but this is a personal list shaped by my own taste, but also by my own myopia. Even though I watched a lot of films this decade and feel like this is a pretty good sample of What Was Good In Cinema over the past ten years, I have by no means seen everything, let alone everything good. I set some time aside in the past few months to try and catch up on films and filmmakers that I had heard being discussed in the Best of the Decade discussion, and seeing films by directors like Hong Sang-soo and Zhangke Jia, both of whom were pretty prolific over the past decade but whose work I only just started to dig into, was a nice reminder that there is always so much out there waiting to be discovered.

Before we get to the list itself, I feel the need to explain one notable omission: Twin Peaks: The Return. In the nearly three years since the continuation/conclusion(?) of David Lynch and Mark Frost's seminal funny/upsetting drama/nightmare aired on Showtime, the question of whether it can be considered a film, seeing as it's a pretty singular work from a visionary director and hews closer to the grammar and structure of avant-garde cinema than traditional television, has been litigated and re-litigated (and re-re-litigated) into absurdity. Ultimately, I come down on the side saying that it is a film in all the ways that count, and that future cinephiles and scholars should consider it as such within Lynch's oeuvre, but I also cannot divorce myself from the original context in which I and so many others watched it for the first time; broken up into eighteen episodes that aired week to week over the course of four months in the summer of 2017.

This is not merely a formal distinction, but one tied into the broader experience of watching television versus watching a film. You generally don't watch a couple of scenes from a film, stop, read a review of the scene that you just watched, talk to friends about how they feel the film is going, then wait a week to see what the next couple of scenes will be like. It's a fundamentally different way of experiencing art and relating to other people experiencing that art, and while I believe that Twin Peaks: The Return fits certain, nebulous criteria that make it a film, I fell in love with it as a TV show, so ultimately I don't feel like I can include it on this list. Though, for the record, if I were to include it, it would probably be my number one.

With that out of the way, here is my list of the 100 best films of the 2010s. I'm mostly happy with it.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2019

Every year, I spend the first nine months or so thinking that the year is, at best, a mediocre one for cinema and at worst (as was the case this year) a medium-threatening calamity, and I start wondering if maybe all the great movies have been made. Maybe we're all just marching towards a content-slurry of Disney-owned IPs that all have the same depressingly predictable rhythm.

Then October/November comes around, and the good movies that barely got any sort of release in the spring and dummer come out on home media, the weird auteurist oddities that Weird Auteurist Twitter got all hot under the collar about bubble to the surface, the awards contenders start to roll out, and very occasionally you'll get a Parasite or an Uncut Gems that sets your mind alight.

But those nine months can be rough, especially in a year like this where there was, in my opinion, not one blockbuster worth thinking about, and it's where older movies can really fill the void. This year I didn't watch as many older movies as I would have liked, but I made a conscious effort to seek out movies by directors whose work I was familiar with but hadn't seen much of, an endeavour which bore fruit many times over, as the list below demonstrates. Whether it was the Rohmer-esque intimacy of Hong Sang-soo or the playful pop freneticism of Richard Lester, taking a first look at directors whose names I had heard bandied around for years but never investigated, or directors who I had seen one or two films by but whose work I had never explored more fully, proved incredibly rewarding, and was a reminder that there is always so much more to the world than our limited perception allows.

Less successful was my attempt to broaden my horizons by watching 52 Indian films. I don't mind telling you, I failed pretty spectacularly at it. I didn't really have much of a plan in terms of where to watch Indian films, or in terms of which films would be worth prioritising so that I had a bit of mooring to work from. In short, the whole endeavour did not go well.

However, the films I did watch were pretty terrific, with a strong showing for the films of Satyajit Ray, an artist whose work I have dabbled in before, but never really took the time to go much deeper into than the Apu trilogy and a handful of the other really famous ones. Even the least of his films that I watched this year was very, very good. I'm already dreading the day when I'll have no more of his films to discover for the first time.

Anyway, here's to another year of discovery, and here are the best older films I watched for the first time in 2019.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Ed's Top 30 Films of 2018

Ready Player One, a film which will definitely not be appearing on this list
A tiny bit late with this one, largely so that I could catch up on some of the big awards contenders which didn't hit any theatres near me before the end of 2018, but started to roll out in January and February. And partly because I tend to put things off when I can, especially when it's going to involve a whole lot of writing.

So please enjoy this whole lot of writing, which started out as a Top 25, but expanded a bit as I saw more movies that I loved and wanted to include. 2018 was a good year for movies, all told. Maybe not the deepest bench, though, in the sense that while I found it hard to narrow this list to a mere thirty motion pictures, I couldn't expand it to a top 40 and feel strongly about everything that would be included on that list.

Speaking of, here are some honorable mentions of movies I loved or liked, but didn't feel strongly enough about to include on this list: Let the Sunshine In, Incredibles 2, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, A Star is Born, A Simple Favor, The Little Stranger, Blockers, You Were Never Really Here, Zama, Black Panther, Cold War, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Now, to the list!