It’s been an awesome decade in many respects, so I wanted to look back and see some of the stuff I’ve really enjoyed the most. As such, here’s a post of my thoughts and lists of some top times I had imbibing some content that gave me inspiration and joy.
May it find you the same, or remind me of that which you already got.
Presented in a form that matches my brain tonight, at least, here are the flicks from the past decade that really really stuck with me. These are my favourites!
My absolute #1 flick of the decade. Guaranteed to make me cry, a heartstopper of emotional truths for the entire family, and funny as hell on the side. I’ll be watching this one until the day I die because it’s so truly exceptional. The big story, a girl and her emotions, is a great idea, but it’s handled with such deft care and precision. The fact the film is hilarious and also breath-takingly sad shows that it can do what it pushes.
It also has the mind-kicking of the kid’s brain being run by happiness, but the father’s brain being run by anger, and the mother’s brain being run by sadness. And it doesn’t push those points, they’re just there.
INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Well, okay, unless this is my #1 flick. I mean, it’s a spectacular feat of storytelling, inspiration, and ingenuity. Taking the broader range of Spider-characters and telling the origin story of Miles Morales, alongside Spider-Gwen, with an amazing soundtrack, and wild cartoon style, leaning heavily into the comics in all the right ways. I get the feeling I’ll watch this flick another 50 times over the next decade as I’ve already watched it half a dozen times just this year.
The key to this one is the script: see how so much gets called back in all the right ways.
THE WINTER SOLDIER
I’m always amazed that Captain America isn’t a character I tend towards loving in the comics but Chris Evans made me absolutely dive into the character in the big screen. So take that actor/character, put them in a more intrigue/espionage story, add some Robert Redford, and I am absolutely all in on this flick. The action is great, the tone and visuals are superb, it’s easily my favourite live action superhero flick and I think it’ll be difficult to top because of how well it matches so many of my personal likes.
Protip: watch it in greyscale, it’s a hell of an old school trip. That elevator scene just gets better.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
It took me years to eventually check this out, and I have no specific reason why, but boy am I glad I did. This is the Coen Brothers content that resonates with me, it’s quirky, it’s heartfelt, it’s “small,” and it’s got Oscar Isaac absolutely crushing it. This shot up my ranks to be one of my favourite Coen flicks of all time because it’s all heart, emotion above plot, and plot pushing emotion before it does any kind of logic. I often think I saw Barton Fink too young to truly get it, but this came at exactly the right time in my life to stick right in my brain.
It’s a dance horror flick, and not the only one on this list. Darren Aronofsky retells the classic ballet Swan Lake and makes it creepy and sexy and brutal and I absolutely fell in love with this flick. 100%, this was a special piece of art that makes me want to create better stories myself on a visual and a visceral level. It’s a piece that uses colour and music and tone to make you fall in and feel, and that’s so hard to do at this level, and I want to learn how.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
I also missed this one at first and can’t remember what made me watch it, but I caught it on my flight to Seattle for ECCC and I swear I talked about this flick all damn weekend with all sorts of creators. The script is airtight, the performances are pitch perfect, and the whole flick just reminds you how damn sad male toxicity is, and how it doesn’t stop and will consume you eventually if that’s what you commit to. It also inspires me in that the plot itself isn’t too intricate, but the way the characters honestly and openly navigate it all is what makes this sing.
This is a weird inclusion, because I recognise it isn’t perfect, but it’s something I just personally dig so so much. The decision to put JGL into the Bruce Willis face is jarring and isn’t something I love, but I love the commitment to trying it out. The concept and the script and the performances are all wins for me.
Another one where I won’t say this is Pure Cinema™ but I will say it’s something I dig so much because it sits right at the intersection of things I always enjoy wholeheartedly on a variety of levels. The cast is quality, the concept is hugely my jam, and I dug the layers of the script [whether they always made sense or not]. It’s fun AND leaves you thinking and spinning, what else can you ask for?
Only saw this the other week, and yet still, I know this belongs on the list. It’s just so damn well constructed and executed. I know counteless mystery writers no doubt fill shelves with business this good every year, and it’s nothing new, but it felt so fresh on the screen. It’s not a franchise flick, it’s a genre you don’t see all that often, and it’s so damn enjoyable the whole way through. There are dozens of classic little moments that are going to stick with me a long long time, and that’s often what I love most about cinema. I saw this with my wife and then went to lunch and we spent most of it just talking about this flick.
This is another script I’d love to map out and deconstruct. The way things are revealed, and obscured, and hinted at, the balance is near on perfect.
I absolutely fell in love with Captain Marvel on every level. The flick, the tone, the character, and the actress. Yet another notch in the Crazy Enjoyable Marvel Movie column, I don’t think it’s perfect, or a piece of high art, but it is something important. Hot on the heels of Wonder Woman, it showed a huge appetite for female-led cape movies because you could see the eighth quippy smirking white guy with abs in another costume, or you could see this, and people overwhelmingly showed they wanted to see this. And not because it’s legacy, Captain Marvel was once a dude no one knew about, and now it’s Carol Danvers, who realistically no one knew about, so you’d think she’d perform less than a founding Avenger [Ant-Man, let’s say], but she didn’t.
Brie Larson was key to this as she stone cold nailed this role, able to carry the action and the desert dry humour, and I will happily watch her lead the MCU into the next decade.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
By the time this came out, I was well burnt out on Tarantino. Django Unchained did little for me, and while I can see Inglorious Basterds is quality, it just wasn’t my jam. Hence why I didn’t catch this until stuck on a plane years after its release, and even then it took an entire trans-Atlantic flight to get through this while pausing constantly to walk my kids around, but by the end I knew this one was going to stick with me. Maybe it’s Kurt Russell. Let’s be honest, it probably is. But it’s also the script, something a little more back to basics in his approach, characters in a locked box conversing, and Tarantino made every character shine in their own sick way.
THE IDES OF MARCH
Gosling, Clooney, old school politics. I knew this one was for me from the shot with the title card. Just a good political thriller to stand up there with some of the best, and this script is really engaging. The kind of thing that’s just words and faces and it doesn’t need theatrics and helicopters and pyrotechnics, it just needs quality acting.
This was some nasty business. Saw this with my two brothers, all three of us veterans of video nasties, and we all walked away quietly contemplative. It’s not just the gore, but it’s the overall tone. This is some dark business, and I never thought I’d want to see Argento updated, but this worked on so many levels, from camera angles, to colour, to pacing.
Plus, that score on vinyl.
THE NICE GUYS
If this had come out earlier in my life, I would have seen it 20 times. Cracking script, great buddy leads, the plot is great but it’s the airtight structure that gets to me. The kind of movie that should come with a six pack to enjoy it all the more.
Right in my wheelhouse of great journalist stories, this is exceptionally well made, but also treats the plot and subject matter with the tone it deserves. Everyone fired on this, it felt like the kind of thing to stand up there with Zodiac and JFK.
Brutal stuff, a great adaptation. Chris Evans reminds us he has range, and the grime oozes off the screen. It’s not always an “enjoyable” flick, but the themes will cut close to home, and you’ll wake the next day still thinking about it, and, yes, you absolutely should hunt down the original comics, utterly grand stuff.
Still remember walking out and my wife declaring, “Well, that was better than The Avengers.” I think time’s going to stand with her on that one. Gal Godot joins the few of this earth who will now forevermore embody the superhero they brought to the screen. Even with a janky third act, this flick is so enjoyable elsewhere that it gets a pass.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
Matches the original in so many ways: music, tone, moments. Maybe not overall as good, but certainly a worthy addition and something I’m excited to revisit. And, yes, everyone says it, but it’s true, the colours are insane eye candy.
The best crime flick masquerading as a kids’ cartoon…ever? Another script where I want to map it out and study it, for its brilliance, for its simplicity, for its smart joy. Animals and wonderful character arcs and real world commentary: yes, please.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Yeah, not the top of my list. Not even close. But this flick is so good I understand why people declare it #1 – it’s a masterpiece, but it’s down here because it’s not something that completely resonated all the way through me. I mean, the bass did, but there’s something about this flick that has made me hesitant to revisit it. I will, because it’s stupidly great, but it’s not like the things above it.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Oh, man, did this flick ever surprise me. I mean, I haven’t even seen Cloverfield yet, but this was so damn tight I had to give it a go, and I’m very very glad I did. I was completely caught on the edge of my seat, never really knowing, and I’ll forever love the script for that. Tension + characters + wild premise + John Goodman + that final scene = all my love.
That’s the list, hope you dig it – either by agreeing, or wanting to chase some down. If I missed something you dug, know that I probably just didn’t see it, or that I hated it and we should battle, as per the Rules of the Internet. Be seeing you.
Nothing like an end of year round up. A time to reflect, a time to take stock, and a time to project.
Overall, 2018 has felt like a year of building pressure. Whether we get a glorious wave into 2019, I don’t know, and whether I have the balance to ride that wave and not get crushed I also do not know. But I’ve done my best to stay positive and keep wheels behind the scenes moving, so while I didn’t publish a lot this year, I did prep 4 pitches, and put the scripts for one project to bed, and wrote a tonne on another one, and have lined up a few one-shots with artists I’m excited to bring it all together with.
If everything I worked on in 2018 came out in 2019, it would be a stellar year. So we shall see.
And while I said I didn’t get much out in 2018, what did come out was stuff I’m crazy proud of. The BEAUTIFUL CANVAS tpb landed in Feb, collecting last year’s acclaimed mini-series, and the month before it we started the year strong with ETERNAL, and I’ve been saying if you only publish one new thing all year, but that thing is ETERNAL, then it’s been a good year. Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe deserve all the praise this year.
Now, onto some things we can list!
MY TOP COMIC OF 2018
I really dug some good good stuff this year. Image tops the list with so much quality: GIDEON FALLS was something I got caught up on recently, and that book is very fine, as is CEMETERY BEACH, for totally different reasons. SHANGHAI RED was my jam in the same way SINK at ComixTribe is. PAPER GIRLS and SAGA and DEADLY CLASS continue to be masterpieces, and I really enjoyed MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES, but the top book really has to go to something that’s one of my very favourites from my very favourite creative team:
KILL OR BE KILLED
Just a stellar end to a wicked story where both Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker were on superbly fine form.
MY TOP NOVEL OF 2018
Man, THE OUTSIDER from Stephen King could have run away with this, if I’d only stopped before the final hundred pages. It’s not *bad*, but it is not as blistering as the first half of the book. That first half is pound-for-pound King at his dark criminal best.
I also really dug PLATO WYNGARD AND THE ARMOUR OF THE GODS, the second novel from my two brothers, Marc and James Lindsay, but that feels a bit nepotistic, and would make them far too happy.
I took a few weeks to smash through HANGMAN, where Jack Heath writes such a ballistic crime novel that you can’t help but be impressed with the layers of familiarity he builds into his characters alongside the wild intricate puzzles and violent moments.
But there can only be one, so, I’ll lay this one at the feet of:
WE RIDE THE STORM
This fantasy epic from Devin Madson was something I bought because she showed the opening line on her table, and it’s a banger:
I honestly hadn’t read a fantasy book since my David Eddings days in high school, but I was keen to try this out. It’s Book One of a bigger story, so the opening hundred pages is a lot of table dressing, but by the final hundred pages it’s just fistfuls of food being slammed into your mouth faster than you can chew. And I mean that in a good way. The action and character drama continue to rise, and I was hooked on all three plot threads as they wind ever closer.
There were also two particular chapters where I finished them and thought…damn, that’s some good reading.
If you get the chance, track this down, it’s bloody, glorious, and bloody glorious.
MY TOP TV SHOW OF 2018
THE GOOD PLACE came so so close to running away with this one. The third season has been just as good as the rest, and in a way that’s different from S2, which went about it different from S1. The show is a titanic force, and I’m a better writer for having watched it, but something else from this year jumped ahead of it through sheer force of will. And it wasn’t DAREDEVIL S3, or GLOW S2, or THE KOMINSKY METHOD S1 which came out of nowhere to absolutely thrill me, nor was it my marathon catch up of three seasons of THE LEFTOVERS, which I’m discounting because it’s an older show. No, the top gong is kinda easily held onto by this one which should be absolutely obvious when you really think about it:
This show good, this show real good. Some of these episodes, mostly in the middle in and around the Teddy Perkins ep are just A+ analyses of the modern world as told through gonzo noir small screen cinema. So so perfect.
MY TOP MOVIE OF THE YEAR
It’s one thing to announce a tie, and it’s another to give that tie to two polar opposite things. Both of these flicks did what they needed to do nigh perfectly, and they left me in very different places, and I can barely separate them. One will be endlessly rewatchable, one will be a hard watch again, though I will. One is high pop bubble gum joy, one is brutal art house insanity. Both, though, are long. I can’t separate it, so I’m letting the chips fall where they may – the top flick[s] of 2018 are:
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and SUSPIRIA
Watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe come to this big break moment at the end of Infinity War was something to behold, a truly special feat. The movie is top notch event comic action fun. It’s *BIG* and it’s wild and it’s a smile injected into your lips. It’s not high art, and it shouldn’t be. It’s not a great character study, and it shouldn’t be because there are about 500 principal hero cast at play – though it is a study of Thanos, which is both as bold as it is brilliant, and it’s for that reason it crossed the line at the top.
However, across the aisle, SUSPIRIA does everything different, and is most likely the more true superior flick. It is high art, it’s weird, it’s a character study, or more of a location study, a look at witch hierarchy in dance schools. It’s unsettling, and everything holds huge gravity – which is funny when you consider the death count in Suspiria must be about 0.0000001% of the other cape-inclined movie. I feel like Suspiria is more likely to sit atop Best Of lists when we look back in 20 years, but Infinity War will be more remembered, and more wildly remembered, and will sit on its own Best Of lists, too, for its own reasons.
MY TOP PODCAST OF 2018
I’ve gone deep into WOW IN THE WORLD and STORY PIRATES with the kids on all commutes, and they’ve fed my brain in wonderfully small ways. SERIAL returned and was interesting, but lacked that central narrative engine that makes it a binge-worthy podcast. I also found it crazy depressing, to the point where it almost felt like it was inducing anxiety in me after listening for an ep, and maybe that’s a huge point: if listening to it all give me the shivers, imagine living it 😐
I’ve caught up on a tonne of the GOOGLE TEACHER TRIBE PODCAST just to keep my dayjob game tight, and it’s worked a treat, making me feel energised about all kinds of things for work, especially going into 2019.
But, I think this year goes again to OFF PANEL, the comic interview podcast where the creators are well picked and always get down to real talk. I still love this podcast, and still get a constant stream of quality inspiration and joy from it.
MY TOP MUSIC OF 2018
There was new Sarah Blasko this year, I got DEPTH OF FIELD and it’s a great writing record, but it lacks the punchy catchiness of her other albums, so I think sneaking in at the top might be the SUSPIRIA soundtrack.
And I think that’s a wrap. 2018 had some good stuff, and it also felt like mental quicksand. But walking into 2019 will feel like walking free, so I better make the most of it.
Here’s to building a better stronger list of live in yet another year.
I love a good year end list. And this list is very much about me, and my year, and what works for me. If you dig what I usually dig, then seek these things out.
Oh, and this just means things *I* did/imbibed in 2017, not necessarily things *from* 2017 because I’m crazy behind on things all the time.
Okay, roll the thing!
Man, this took me far too long to put together.
I’d take a few minutes each night to consider what my top 100 flicks of all time were, and the list filled up, I ran past 100 quickly and easily, but then I had to cull. And then I’d remember one I’d forgotten and things would shuffle. And then I could never align the order.
This list, right here and now, is correct at time of publication but can and will change instantly as soon as I hit Publish, and it should. Trying to line up where OFFICE SPACE fits on a list somewhere alongside APOCALYPSE NOW brings up all kinds of sweats. But the flick is definitely on my list, no question, so it becomes placing it in the ‘right’ spot. bah, like art, this list wasn’t finished, it was abandoned.
For all of this, I blame John Lees – the Scottish gent put up his 100 list and my brain wouldn’t let it go [go see his here – LINK]
This list is an insight into my brain. It’s a wholistic picture of things that inform me, that make me smile, and that I dig. This isn’t trying to state what’s ‘best,’ nor what should be here. This is me across ~200 hours of cinema. I hope you dig, and maybe find something new to tuck into.
100 AMERICAN HISTORY X
99 28 DAYS LATER
98 TRADING PLACES
96 THE RUNNING MAN
95 THE SHINING
93 BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
92 COMING TO AMERICA
91 THE ‘BURBS
89 OFFICE SPACE
88 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
87 ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
86 WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
84 DIE HARD
83 COOL HAND LUKE
82 DAY OF THE DEAD
81 BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
80 THEY LIVE
79 FIRST BLOOD
76 THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
75 THE SOCIAL NETWORK
74 THE CONVERSATION
73 THE INCREDIBLES
72 IRON MAN
71 ARMY OF DARKNESS
70 BOOGIE NIGHTS
69 DONNIE DARKO
68 THE EVIL DEAD
66 IN BRUGES
65 BONNIE + CLYDE
63 CITIZEN KANE
62 THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
61 OUT OF SIGHT
58 BLACK SWAN
57 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
56 THE PAPER
55 THE FLY
54 THE BROOD
52 SHAUN OF THE DEAD
51 APOCALYPSE NOW
50 STAND BY ME
49 LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL
46 TRUE ROMANCE
45 12 ANGRY MEN
44 THE TOWN
43 FIGHT CLUB
42 THE IDES OF MARCH
40 THE FRENCH CONNECTION
39 STAR WARS IV – A NEW HOPE
38 RESERVOIR DOGS
37 THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
36 THE DARK KNIGHT
35 GOOD WILL HUNTING
34 THE PRESTIGE
33 ENTER THE DRAGON
30 ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
29 STAR WARS V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
27 KISS KISS BANG BANG
26 REAR WINDOW
24 THE GODFATHER
23 CHASING AMY
22 RAGING BULL
21 THE BIG LEBOWSKI
20 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
19 THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
18 BODY HEAT
17  DAYS OF SUMMER
15 INSIDE OUT
14 THE PROPOSITION
12 TAXI DRIVER
11 THERE WILL BE BLOOD
10 CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
7 THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
6 AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
4 BLADE RUNNER
3 PAN’S LABYRINTH
2 MILLER’S CROSSING
1 THE THING
This flick only gets better with age, and you appreciate that vintage also the older you are. As such, I want to ensure we time it just right that CHINATOWN is the last flick I watch right before I die.
A bunch of the 70s cinema new wave casting their hands over the old gumshoe trope was always going to be something interesting but no one could imagine how masterful they’d get with so many of the old toys.
Robert Towne wrote a script about a P.I. caught up in intrigue and sinister people involved in shady water dealings. From there, a tale unravels where the ugly beauty of the downfall is that it’s a noir for us all. It’s a real world spiral. Because the narrative should have us following the intrigue, the political mess, and Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes certainly does. But that’s not the problem. That’s not the problem at all.
The problem is that people are worse than you ever expect them to be, even the nice ones, and especially the bad ones. The bad ones become something nearly demonic. Roman Polanski touches upon this in ROSEMARY’S BABY where a husband sells his wife and unborn child to the devil and it’s all very theatrical and weird but here, in CHINATOWN, it still feels real. Hell, it could be ripped from today’s headlines quite easily if you know where you are looking.
And when bastard fiction starts to appear under our newspaper masthead then you know we’re all digging deep down.
Once this story moves past the water, we get to the incest. And it blindsides you, because it shouldn’t happen that way, but that’s sadly exactly how it happens. The real world doesn’t lay neat clues, and it doesn’t just do one bad thing and stick to it. The worst of us are Lernean hydras and we lash out indiscriminately, tearing flesh and spraying venom in glorious hi-def 360 leaving no one unscathed.
Jake Gittes thought he lived in a bad world, but one with rules, and by the movie’s end, he’s completely broken because not only are things worse, well, they’re also completely unmanageable, and he’s being told to just accept it. Because it is easier to not think about it, or to walk away. If you die on every sour headline or problematic retweet then your empathy is going to bury you early and hard. You need to armour up. You cannot be completely empathic because the world is an emotional vampire and you will be left as a husk of a human.
This is what stares Gittes in the face as he watches Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray keep on down the street, despite being slumped, probably dead, and definitely about to go unavenged for her trials.
CHINATOWN perfectly encapsulates the fact we all live in a noir globe, and we are slowly spinning down and down and around and around and we simply ride it out because what other choice do we have?
This tale of Boston robberies and broken men is the sort of narrative you know is noir because you feel it in the creak of your bones. You and I know the score but everyone else could be forgiven for thinking this was just another Hollywood flick featuring some crime. I mean, it stars [and is directed by] Ben Affleck, a guy who seemed for a long time to be living out his own noir tale IRL. I don’t know where SURVIVING CHRISTMAS fits into a noir flick visually but we all know it’s one of the lower rungs in the spiral.
Yet THE TOWN sparked redemption for Affleck while only bringing a metal curtain down on his character and anyone he touches around him. Because Affleck’s character of Doug MacRay is god’s lonely man, he’s just very good looking so we don’t believe it straight up.
He spends his nights sculpting his body – which we see in one scene that has no narrative relevance except to show us Affleck’s superb physique, though it also holds reason, because you have to wonder why would he bother? He’s an isolated man, he robs banks, and while he’s externally doing great, his inside is hollow. He is working towards nothing until one aspect of a score goes sideways.
Affleck and his crew are successful in their heist but they take a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey. They ensure their safety, and her blindness to them, and they release her onto the sand and tell her to keep walking until she hits water and then she can stop and look. It’s a terrifying moment – or series of moments – for Claire and it’s a perfect way for her to meet Affleck, even though she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing at the time. She is reduced to raw emotion, she is connected to the world in a visceral contact way, and she is assuming she is a second away from death the entire time. With him, this is all true and will be forevermore.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Affleck begins a relationship with Claire after the heist and we instantly see the conflict this brings and knowing how volatile his best friend, Jem Coughlin played by Jeremy Renner, is then there’s no escaping the fact we are walking the plank blindfolded and waiting to fall much as Claire was on the beach that day her life changed.
Watching the love blossom in this bleak environment is hard because you want it to give you hope but the signals are all there to point to the rather more honest truth of where this is all heading. Through a tapestry of events involving the FBI, the crumbling heist crew solidarity, and the knowledge that the one main truth can shatter a relationship, none of this plays out well.
And it’s all Affleck’s fault. Because he chose crime over ice hockey as a youth. Because he sticks by his toxic friend when he should have cut him loose many years before. Because he is so intrigued by this woman that he thinks he can make the one thing work that’s the one worst choice in the world he could make after having used her as a hostage. Because he was nice to the local girl he used to make time with who had a kid and he wanted to help her out when he had no reason to do so at all.
Because he starts the flick alone, and he needs to end the flick alone. Because he’s made all his important decisions alone and he is god’s lonely man. And we get a crime flick that’s slick and violent and dark and is most certainly one of the modern noir masterpieces.
And this works as a slick double bill with Affleck’s later GONE GIRL, directed by David Fincher. Wherein he plays a husband investigated for the murder of his wife. It’s actually not the sort of story I’d want to spoil but I will applaud it for being a surprise in tone because the flick looks like yet another Hollywood thriller and instead it is very much a throwback to the lurid paperback days of old where shit got real and everyone sank under the waves by the final page.
It would appear Ben Affleck is another one of today’s noir stars, a different version from Joseph Gordon-Levitt but still as handy, and mostly because though Affleck’s size should make him an imposition, he rarely uses it in these flicks, and the realest noir is about decision anyway. It is Affleck’s handsomeness that works against him, that disarm people in the worst ways, and that lead his path between others and locations until he’s too far gone.
And if you are wondering, yes, this makes me excited to see him tackle an aging Batman on screen because we might just get the tone and ending we deserve.
Noir isn’t about the bleak ending, it’s about every single direct step to that final crash onto your knees.
So MEMENTO, from Christopher Nolan, took that concept up a level by giving you that final fall straight up, it’s the very start, but you don’t quite get it, and you certainly don’t feel it, so then you get the journey in reverse and everything slowly clicks into place and it breaks you up in different ways because it makes you confused and uncertain and it really puts you into the mind of our lead, Leonard, played with noir lead aplomb by Guy Pearce. Y’see, Leonard has a memory problem where he doesn’t hold new memories very well, hell, he even struggles to hold a train of thought for very long, and it’s just brutal to watch at times.
With this major flaw, this perfect noir flaw, Leonard sets out to track down one of the attackers who murdered his wife and we are given the case in small snippets in reverse order so we never know what came before, the same way Leonard doesn’t in each scene. It’s a bold way to fracture a narrative and in this case it works to enhance the art and the dread because told straight up this would be a great crime flick but in the manner in which Nolan delivers this we get nothing short of a masterpiece.
It is with every step taken forward, which is actually a linear step backwards, we discover a sliver more and then have to quickly cross-reference all new points of interest against everything we’ve seen thus far so as to retroactively build a new narrative on the fly for the entire flick. By the end of it, we are exhausted and as the final pieces slide into place everything becomes clear in one long moment of despair and there’s nothing we can do. Instead of watching Leonard get dragged down for 113 minutes, we stow 112 minutes of information and then run it into a tight spiral all in the final moments and the shotgun blast of noir catches us in the chest and throws us to the ground.
The result was me sitting back after first seeing it and needing to discuss it. Thankfully, I watched it with some mates at university and we spent the next few hours debating the flick until the middle of the night. Because this is the intricate nature of Christopher Nolan’s mind when he’s at peak. You can’t shake loose of him.
Now I won’t even spoil the intricacies of the story because it’s one of those things you really need to discover and feel and it’s also something you conceivably haven’t seen so I will tread lightly. Suffice to say, this flick is dark and the more that comes to light the darker it all gets. Pearce is suitably baffled and determined and certainly hard done by. He’s a guy acting certainly about things he can never truly be certain about. There’s no other story that would so readily have him as a noir.
Whereas Carrie Anne Moss’ Natalie steals the show in one sequence where she plays damsel and femme like sides of a coin and it’s chilling and is also the moment the ball drops into the inky depths and you know you will never hear it hit bottom.
From this introduction to the world, Nolan showed himself as a mastermind of cinema. A thinking man’s creator who is interested in small things and how they fit together and you can’t help but be invested every single damn time. I find myself again and again drawn into the works of Nolan purely because I want to see how these people react in the face of these terrible things, I want to know why they choose each step. And this is something Nolan has looked at, in variations, over his career.
THE PRESTIGE is a great example of noir as being representative of a human theme. Determination is the sort of thing that if staunchly stood by can lead you down the darkest of alleys. As you watch two magicians duel over years, and each of them die a little for their craft, it’s hard to imagine either of them ever getting a happy ending because that isn’t even what they are chasing. They are after something so ethereal that they’ll likely never achieve it and yet in that hunt they remain locked through sheer determination.
The final hook turns of THE PRESTIGE are also masterful and also things I will not spoil here because they are experiences in themselves, especially through the way Nolan reveals, and conceals, them. But mostly it is because these paths are very consciously chosen by both characters, and they continue to stay the path despite a series of disastrous results and that is the key to personal downfall.
Whereas that subtle end of INCEPTION where Leonardo DiCaprio’s spinner just keeps on turning is the sort of thing that hints at possible noir, he’s certainly built up to that moment to fall forever into the abyss, but the final sound cues mostly preclude that ambiguity if you really think about it. He’s a flawed man, and one also driven by lengths of determination but it would appear he is allowed to exhale in that final moment.
And as Nolan continues to experiment with film stock and style, with endings dark and neat, and as he gets better in so many ways, I’ll always be drawn back to that perfectly simple and dark ending, the one he thought to put right at the start.
Hitchcock was a master of showing us the self-destructive things we do and why we do them.
Spoilers: we often do them for women.
I’d love to know the top ten worst decisions Hitch ever made for a woman. The guy clearly knew from bad life choices. Oh, he knew.
In VERTIGO we follow James Stewart as a broken man having the shards of himself smashed to pieces by his own hand. He’s never really the one who breaks himself, the world does that, the shitty shitty world, but once broken he seems to methodically take himself apart and really grind each piece to small razor slivers just to see how it will feel and what will be left once he steps back to analyse things.
The opening of this flick is fantastic as we see Stewart chase a criminal across some rooftops until a fellow policeman slips and falls to his death right before Stewart’s eyes as he clings on desperately for his own life.
Our heroic lead is instantly broken by the world and we now have a major flaw to deal with as he develops acrophobia and vertigo which sends him into retirement and limits his own belief of self worth and function. So he’s out of the game for a while but he soon allows himself to get pulled back in, this is his choice, and here the true noir unfolds.
It’s fascinating to watch this noir play out and I mean that in a literal sense because Hitchcock as well as visual designer Saul Bass played with spirals and circles to make Stewart’s character feel adrift, which is in keeping with the sensation vertigo delivers to sufferers. It’s also an apt way to describe someone’s downfall, swirling, downward, as you watch. VERTIGO shows us a literal noir spiral in a story where our lead is most absolutely his own worst enemy.
There is also Bernard Hermann’s score to back this concept up as Martin Scorsese once described in an interview with Sight & Sound where he made parallels between the circular and spiral motion of the music as a representation of obsession and the need to revisit the same moment repeatedly. Everything on screen is a harmony of downfall. You could close your eyes and still not be able to escape it.
And the worst thing is we don’t even get to believe that maybe Stewart is doing it all for the best. We know the path he’s on very early and we have to watch it play out. Because that job he takes in his retirement, of course it goes south. He watches a woman die, he blames himself, and it fractures him that little bit more because for a brief while he falls for this woman, he feels, and this is so rarely helpful to us in the long run.
It’s not until he meets another woman, a doppelganger of the one he watched die, that he starts to feed himself to the beasts below. Or maybe he’s just feeding on himself. Either way, the result is the same, he’s being eaten alive one bite at a time. And there’s a chance he’ll heal enough between mouthfuls so the feast could go on for a very long time.
Watching Stewart transform Judy into the woman he lost, Madeleine, is difficult because we are shown that Judy is Madeleine, or was Madeleine, as she played the role to trick Stewart into believing the real Madeleine died in front of him. But now she’s free, and she does love him, and so she lets this pressured transformation happen. Which is the worst part, this is Judy’s noir, too.
As Stewart pressures her, she starts to crack and we follow two very broken people as they only set out to make themselves suffer, as if some form of self-flagellation is going to do anything but add rocks to their burden.
Stewart takes Judy back to the scene of Madeleine’s death, he takes her through the paces of the scene, the motions of the moments, and it’s horrific and unjustified, and ghastly to observe. It is Stewart blaming himself and projecting this tension onto the one person who might be able to save him, if he’d ever entertain the thought of allowing it to happen because he’ll never forget how he was unable to save her the first time around.
Noir, like suicide, can be a tough path to contemplate sometimes.
And in the end, against all odds, Stewart manages to hug Judy, to understand what happened, and maybe even why. This interpersonal shock therapy has yielded a result where Stewart is cured of his acrophobia/vertigo and he might even have a future with Judy. It’d be a messed up future but it would be something and something is mostly better than nothing.
But this is where the world steps in. And a figure approaches up into the top of the bell tower, a shadowed figure, and Judy is shocked, probably certain this is death come to deliver the only fair thing, and so she slips back and off the bell tower and to her demise, just like she did the first time when she was Madeleine. And again Stewart will need to live with this and it will be absolute because there will be no second woman to save him.
Knowing Stewart’s obsession at the end, I have no doubt his character lives for many more years before either falling off this location to his own demise, or perhaps before that he lures some other women up there and has them befall accidents. His spiral is going to circle this place and event until it finally does him in. To die any other way or in any other place would not seal that final noir buttonhook in on itself.
And with that, VERTIGO makes itself a cold-hearted noir masterpiece that’s not about love or hope or even justice, it is about how the world will force a crack in you and you’ll spend your lifetime pushing on it and touching it until you’ve spread it far enough to split you into pieces, and then you’ll repeat the process until you don’t exist anymore.