Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Don't Drink the Water

(Part II of a fanfiction/political commentary project)

This was not how John Quail expected to end his workday. He was sitting in a fairly small plane on the way to Palm Beach, where the President of the United States and his staff had asked for a meeting. It had started three days earlier, when Quail and some of his fellow agents prepared a report on the Reaper to the White House. Everything they suspected about the killer, including his use of the Death Note, was in the report...except for one omission. Quail decided to leave out the fact that the cause of death was up to the writer, with the default outcome being a heart attack. Instead, he wrote that a heart attack was the only one the Death Note could kill someone. Those who remembered his recent briefing about the Reaper might contradict the report, but this particular presidential administration didn't seem to be interested in any sort of research.

Nobody yet knew that Quail himself was the Reaper, except for his wife Jennifer, who shared his conviction that the Death Note needed to be used to ensure the safety and future of their daughter as well as the rest of America's most vulnerable citizens. Leaving the full capacity of the notebook out of the report gave him an option of going after a target without the death being seen as an act of the Reaper. After what the media was calling the "Health Care Massacre," (which struck him as a decent name for the legislation itself), any heart attack suffered by a prominent figure would likely be attributed to the Reaper. That could yet be useful, but he was also exploring the possibility of trying to influence public policy without having to call upon his murderous alter ego.

Several hours before the had boarded the plane, he was informed by his superior that the President's staff had reviewed the report and asked for a meeting with the Bureau's foremost authority on the Reaper. When Quail volunteered to take a walk over to the White House, he was told he was actually supposed to meet the President at Mar-a-Lago, his estate and private club in Florida. The timing was interesting as the White House had been swarmed with scandal during the past few days, even by the standards of the current administration. The sudden firing of Bureau Director James Comey had made the atmosphere at work even more chaotic, quickly taking the public's attention away from the Reaper, who had yet to strike following the deaths in Congress. The media had lost some interest as well, other than the occasional speculative report on who might be the next to die. Quail hadn't decided yet, but took the coverage under advisement.

In the initial hysteria following the Health Care Massacre, one constant point of discussion was whether Trump would be the next victim. Quail wasn't as sold on the idea as many of the more outspoken liberal commentators. He found the man's public persona as off-putting as anyone else, but the question of succession was an issue. The loss of the President would promote the Vice-President, then the Speaker of the House, then the President of the Senate, followed by the various cabinet officials. None of these people struck him as ideal occupants of the Oval Office and he would probably have to wipe out about two dozen people before he got an acceptable outcome. Such a thing was possible, but Quail was growing less enthusiastic about using the Death Note's power.

He remained haunted by the night Dominic had showed up at his condo, having figured out the truth simply from the drawing he left at the bottom of his letter to the New York Times. Quail cursed himself for his foolishness. How could he have forgotten that he used to decorate his notes with that same insignia during training? He had sent Dominic to his death and hadn't slept well since. A decent man like his fellow agent was not the kind of target he had imagined when he decided to take the Death Note out of that drawer. It was easy to rationalize the decision as necessary for the greater good, but that did little to soothe his guilt. Not helping matters was the notepad found in Dominic's car by the police, on which he had drawn the insignia himself. When news of the suicide broke, several of his agents had asked Quail if he believed Dominic himself was the Reaper and had killed himself out of guilt. Despite how easy it would have been to pin the blame for the murders on a dead man, he declined to do so, instead speculating (correctly) that he had gotten too close to the truth and had been removed before he had a chance to share whatever he had learned about the case.

When the plane landed in Palm Beach, Quail found a group of men in suits waiting for him inside the airport. Most appeared to be Secret Service agents, but he recognized one as Trump's son-in-law.

"Nice to meet you, Agent Quail. I'm Jared."

The group made their way to a limousine and arrived at the property after a brief drive. Quail had never seen anything so opulent in his life, the massive estate was all marble, stone and gold trim and looked especially beautiful now that the sun had begun to set.

"First time seeing it, huh?"

Quail nodded and his host continued. "Most of the senior staff is here. Everyone was very interested to hear what you had to say. We'll be meeting in the main dining hall."

The dining hall was surrounded by gold pillars as chandeliers glimmered overhead. Quail had been to the White House before but it looked quaint compared to this. Was he on his way to meet a President or an Emperor? Finally he was led to a table full of people he had seen on the news countless times. President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, the president's daughter Ivanka, and the White House adviser Reince Priebus.

"What do you think of Mar-a-Lago?" Trump asked as Quail and Jared took their seats. "Isn't it the most beautiful place you've ever seen? Everyone's saying it's terrific."

"It's overwhelming, sir."

"I guess it would be if I were in your shoes. I'm used to it by now, I'm very rich. Anyway, we read your report on the Reaper. Very fascinating stuff. Very fascinating. Do you know where I could get one of these death notebooks? Could I get one? Seems like a useful thing for a President to have, don't you think? Some people in the media would suddenly be off the air. I'm just kidding, of course. But maybe I'm not."

Quail was momentarily disoriented by the flurry of disjointed words he had just heard. He felt someone's hand gently resting on his arm.

"Agent Quail, do you believe we are in danger?" Ivanka asked.

"Well, I need to be honest with you, Mrs. Trump."

"Ivanka, please."

"Anyone in the public eye is potentially in danger. If our theory is accurate, all the Reaper needs is a name. He's been quiet since the Health Care Massacre but the description of his motives he gave in the letter to the Times suggests that he may act again at some point."

"If his goal was to kill our health care bill, it worked." Priebus said. "The Senate is terrified of this guy. They won't even discuss the issue in public, let alone vote on the bill. I guess we're stuck with Obamacare for a while. My question, do you have any leads on who it is?"

"I bet it's Obama," Trump interrupted. "It makes sense. Everyone's saying that. He spies on me, you know. He watches me through the microwave. He thinks I don't know he's doing it, but I do."

"Well, I don't personally believe it's a politician," Quail replied. "I suspect it's an ordinary citizen who is fed up."

An unfamiliar voice rang out. "Some globalist Jew cuck, I bet." Quail turned to see a pale, disheveled man at the next table, slumped forward and holding an open bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand.

"Don't mind him," Jared said.

"So all we know about this person is that they are a Democrat?" Pence asked.

"I'm not quite ready to make assumptions about party registration," Quail answered. "It could be a Democrat, or it could just be someone concerned about the survival of those who are vulnerable."

Pence arched his eyebrow and clearly did not miss the jab embedded in that comment. It seemed to go right over Trump's head as he spoke again. "Why would someone like that go after the Health Care bill? It's a great plan. It covers everyone. Everyone says it's terrific."

Trump noticed the awkward silence at the table. "It does cover everyone, doesn't it?"

"Everyone who needs to be covered is covered, sir," Pence said, as if he were talking to a toddler.

"So is this how we're going to run the country now?" Priebus asked. "Our whole legislative process at the mercy of some serial killer with a magic notebook? It's ridiculous. There's got to be something we can do."

"I do have a suggestion," Quail said. This was the key moment he had been waiting for. "It might help to start something new, something that would help people. People who aren't rich, I mean. Something that the Reaper would be hesitant to disrupt by killing anyone else.'

"Any ideas?" Jared asked.

"There are a few ways you could go with this, but my first thought was the contaminated water in Flint."

"Flint?" Trump asked. "That's in Michigan, right? People love me there. Nobody thought I could win Michigan. I'm the first Republican to win there in 400 years. Hey, do you want an Election Night map? I carry them around all the time. Here, have one."

"I've...um, seen the map, Mr. President."

"Okay," Trump said. "Just let me know if you want one."

Pence spoke up again. "There is work going on to fix the issues in Flint, Agent Quail. Congress allocated some resources to the issue shortly before the massacre."

"The people there have still been without drinkable water for three years now," Quail said. "Anyway, it's just my idea. You all will decide, of course."

"Hey, do you want to be FBI Director?" Trump suddenly asked. "We need a new FBI Director. You seem pretty smart and you haven't said anything about Russia."

"That's nice of you to offer, sir, but I would...uh, prefer to focus on this investigation. That might be hard with so much extra responsibility."

The waiter came to take everyone's order and Quail learned it was Seafood Night at the club. After being assured by the President multiple times that it was the best seafood in the world, he ordered a lobster which couldn't meet such high expectations. It wasn't bad, but he had been to Maine and there was no comparison. He didn't dare say so, but then again he wouldn't have been able to get a word in either way. Trump dominated the conversation with recaps of his Election Night victory as the others at the table showed remarkable patience. After the meal, Quail bid farewell to the group and was led to the suite where he would be spending the night.

If he lingered a little longer, he might have noticed Pence leaning over towards Priebus and commenting, "That man knows more about this than he's letting on."

****

One week later, Quail gently lowered himself into his bed back at the condo. The baby was finally asleep and it wouldn't take much for him to pass out, but first he wanted to check a few news websites on his phone. Jennifer was next to him reading a paperback with a couple embracing on the cover.

"Any luck?" she asked without looking over.

"No," Quail said. "I guess my suggestion about Flint went in one ear and out the other."

"Should we break out the Death Note? You could write another letter demanding that they do something or else the whole administration dies."

"That's risky," he replied. "If the Reaper started pushing for cleaning up Flint so soon after I suggested it at Mar-a-Lago, they might put two and two together. Well, not Trump but one of the others. Still, there might be another way."

"What's the plan?" she said with a wicked grin. She had a special hatred for Trump and the rest of the Republicans and was clearly enjoying this whole thing much more than her husband.

"Well, the public believes that the Reaper can only kill by inducing heart attack. That gives me some control over the narrative."

He reached over to his nightstand and grabbed the Death Note. As Jennifer leaned over to see, he wrote the name of Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, who had been remarkably callous about the whole incident. For the cause of death, Quail wrote "contaminated tap water."

"There's some poetic justice," Jennifer said.

Quail nodded. "Not only that, doing it this way means the story isn't about the Reaper. It keeps the focus where it belongs...on the water."

Jennifer was the first to wake up the next day as the baby began crying out for milk. He woke up shortly after and reached for the remote control. The morning news programs did not disappoint. The crawling text at the bottom of the screen read "Breaking News: Governor Rick Snyder dies from poisoned water."

"If you're just joining us, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was found dead late last night. Early coroner's reports identify highly contaminated tap water as the cause of death. This issue was previously thought to be confined only to the city of Flint but is now apparently affecting Lansing as well. Moments ago, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would immediately begin working with Michigan officials to contain the contamination before it spreads farther."

"Now that's more like it," Quail said quietly. All it had taken was the death of a rich white guy to get things moving.

He would keep that in mind.

Monday, May 8, 2017

I'm No Different

In all of his years working at the Bureau, Dominic had never seen anything like it. Less than 24 hours after the United States Congress narrowly passed the American Health Care Act, all 217 Republican legislators in favor of the bill were found dead. After the initial chaos had subsided, doctors on the scene determined the cause of death to be a heart attack...for every last one of them. It might not have been a huge surprise for some of the older members given the stress involved before the vote, but there were plenty of younger men (and a smattering of women) who were in otherwise perfect health and seemingly in no danger of cardiac arrest. It defied explanation but there was more to come.

A few hours after the news broke out, one of his fellow agents had reminded everyone of a letter forwarded to them by The New York Times. It had been sent via the postal service a few days earlier by someone who had declared his(or her) intention to kill anyone who voted for the AHCA. Nobody thought much of it at first - these sort of rants were common, especially in these acrimonious times, and this one seemed too outlandish to be a credible threat. The Times had printed it two days after the mass heart attacks and started another round of hysteria. It was now clear to the public that this was done on purpose, somehow. The mainstream news outlets condemned the act and were at a complete loss to explain how it happened. Internet commentators were less careful and openly rejoiced at the death of over 200 politicians who had just voted to strip thousands, if not millions of people of their health coverage. Impromptu block parties had broken out all over the country to celebrate, a strange moment in the history of representative democracy. Each state had its own procedures for replacing a Congressperson who died in office and a flurry of special elections and appointments were causing their own sort of chaos.

Congress would eventually be full again, but the FBI was no closer to figuring out just what the hell had happened in the first place. Agents had combed the Capitol building from top to bottom and come back with nothing. A few reports of suspicious characters, but they turned out to be just eccentric protesters who were as bewildered as everyone else. What had they expected to find in the first place? How could anyone trigger 217 spontaneous heart attacks? Most agents he spoke to suspected poison, but nothing yet corroborated that theory. At the moment, Dominic was on his way to a briefing room to hear from John Quail, one of the Bureau's best criminal profilers. If anyone could figure out a method to this madness, it was him. He and Quail had attended training programs together and Dominic recalled glancing over several times to see him doodling wacky symbols and stick figures in his notepad. He was one of those people who had just been born brilliant while guys like Dominic worked their asses off to get ahead. Quail didn't have a shred of arrogance, however, and the two of them always got along well. He had been absent from the office for months following the birth of his first child. A daughter, Dominic remembered. This was quite a case to come across his desk just as he was getting back into the swing of things.

Everyone found their seats while Quail got his laptop computer set up for a power point presentation. As he checked the connections, the chatter in the room subsided.

"Thanks for coming, everyone."

"Tell us you've got something, Quail," a voice said from the back. "We look like a bunch of Dipsy Doodles right now."

Quail smiled awkwardly. "Well, I might. I've been going over this letter non-stop and I do have a theory that would explain a lot. Still, you're going to have a hard time believing it. Let's start by reading over what was sent to the Times."

Dear Editor,

I will get right to the point. If the American Health Care Act passes Congress, I will kill everyone who votes for it.

I understand you may want to report this threat to the authorities. Do whatever you feel is ethical. It won't help.

I can kill anyone without leaving my home. I've known of this ability for some time now. I've never really wanted to use it, but the continuing violence enacted by this government against its own people has gone too far. I hope the deaths of these representatives will be enough to get them to change course. If not, more will die. As many as necessary until our leaders stop behaving like sociopaths.

After the moment comes, you may get many letters claiming responsibility. None of them will be from me. I will not use email or social media. You will know a letter is from me when it has this insignia drawn at the bottom. I hope the bill is defeated and you are able to discard this letter. But I fear the worst. Perhaps I will contact you again.

-The Reaper


The newspaper had obviously declined to show the actual insignia, since its entire purpose was to separate the true killer from imitators. This was Dominic's first time seeing it. There was something familiar about it. He almost raised his hand, but couldn't piece together where he might have seen that shape before. Quail noticed him briefly and continued on.

"I believe that this 'Reaper' has the Death Note."

There was silence for a few moments. Finally someone said, "What in the hell is the Death Note?"

He was ready for this and advanced the slide show. What looked like a DVD cover was now on the screen.

"Death Note is a popular Japanese cartoon about an enchanted notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written inside it. There's actually an American movie coming out later this year based on it."

Several people in the room burst out laughing.

"Listen to more about how it works before you laugh," Quail continued. "The writer can specify the cause of death but if they do not, the default cause is a heart attack. Just like the letter says, all someone has to do is enter a full name in the book while imagining the person they intend to kill. It can be done from their home and is untraceable."

That got everyone quiet.

"The show is not especially political. The main character, a guy named Light Yagami, mostly targets petty criminals. There are lots of twists and turns and eventually, Light's hubris gets the better of him and he goes down. But this guy, this Reaper, is different. Light wanted people to worship him as some kind of god and dared anyone to try and unmask him. The Reaper is cautious and has a distinct political agenda. You could almost say he's learning from Light's mistakes."

"What is this, Quail?" an older agent asked. "You're trying to tell us that this cartoon is nonfiction? What's next? Is the Reaper going to turn out to be Mickey Mouse?"

"I'm far from the first to speculate about this," he continued. "Not long after the public learned of the deaths, even before the Reaper's letter became public, there were already dozens of memes going around about Light Yagami and the Death Note. I contacted someone at Netflix who told me there had been massive recent interest in the show...as well as a 1970s grindhouse movie called I Spit On Your Grave, but that's neither here nor there."

"That's certainly an...interesting theory," someone else said. "But we need suspects. Do we have any suspects?"

Quail sighed. "That's where it gets really hard. If I'm right, whoever did this doesn't have to be anywhere near Washington, DC. This bill pissed off a lot of people, particularly the threat to people with pre-existing medical conditions. At this point, it may be easier to round up people who don't have a motive."

****

The moon and stars were on full display by the time Dominic finally got to his car that night. Everyone at the Bureau had been extremely busy since this whole thing started, but today was even harder. He had a terrible time focusing on his work after the briefing. All he could think about was that drawing on the New York Times letter. He started the car but hesitated to put it in drive. Instead, he grabbed his notebook and furiously drew the symbol with a black pen sitting in the cup holder. In this rushed form, it looked even more familiar. Suddenly, everything fit together. He started the car and headed for the Potomac.

He would have to drive across the river to find what he was looking for, a condo complex in Arlington that he had only been to once before for an engagement party. Despite the late hour, the demonstrators were still in full swing, with most appearing to be in favor of the mass deaths in Congress. There were a few signs reflecting the other point of view, including one blaming the billionaire George Soros for the whole incident, but most of them had slogans like "Thank God for the Reaper" and "Karma's A Bitch."

As the crow flies, it wasn't a particularly long trip to the condos, but the traffic made for almost a half-hour drive. Finally, Dominic reached the address he had searched for within his archived emails, the invitation to that party that he had received years ago. Hopefully the couple still lived here. As he approached Unit 45, he questioned what exactly he was looking for. It wasn't the time to report any of his suspicions, there wasn't any way to substantiate this hunch. Looking through a window, Dominic saw that all the lights were off except for one lamp. Hopefully the baby was asleep.

To his surprise, the door was slightly open. Something was wrong. He turned around to head back to his car and then he heard it.

"Come on in, Dom. I've been expecting you."

Dominic considered running away, but if everything he had heard today was true, that wouldn't do him a bit of good. He tentatively pushed the door open. John Quail was sitting at a desk in front of a laptop with his back to the door. Upon hearing the door open, he swiveled his chair around to face his guest. A small bassinet was situated next to the desk.

"It was the insignia, wasn't it?" Quail asked. "I hadn't even considered that someone might remember seeing it in my notebook all those years ago...until I saw your face during the briefing. Why didn't you ever tell me you had such a good memory, Dom?"

"So you have this...notebook of death or whatever it is?"

"Death Note," he corrected with a smile. "Would you like to see it?"

As Quail's hand reached for a drawer, Dominic swiftly pulled his gun from his holster and trained it on his colleague. "You keep your hands right where they are! I'll check it out myself later."

"Whatever you say," Quail said with a shrug. "Just try to keep it down, okay? I sent Jennifer to bed cause she was just so tired and I finally got Daisy to go to sleep. I suspect that you have questions."

He hesitated, but curiosity quickly got the better of him. "Where did that thing come from?"

"I just found it in the parking lot one day," Quail answered. "This was the end of April in 2011. I had already seen the show, so I figured it was just some merchandise. You know, like something you might get at Hot Topic. But I took it inside and decided to write down the name of Jen's boss just for fun. He was one of those old bastards who misses the days when you could hit on your employees and nobody would complain. She went to human resources but they didn't do shit. Finally, we put a stop to it when I told him where I worked and threatened to sic the Bureau on him. But the point is I thought I was just messing around. Imagine my shock when she called to tell me the guy had just dropped dead of a heart attack."

"That's six years ago," Dominic said. "What have you been doing with it all this time?"

"Well, being the patriotic civil servant that I am, I decided to use it on Public Enemy Number One."

He was almost speechless. "Osama Bin Laden?"

"Yep," Quail continued, with a slight chuckle. "What I didn't know was that the Navy Seals were just about to raid his compound. They must have stormed in there the next day and been pretty surprised to find him already dead. So of course the story we got was something a little more dramatic. I must have been the only one laughing in the theater during Zero Dark Thirty, looking like a goddamn lunatic."

The baby started to whine softly. "Can I pick her up?" he asked.

Dominic nodded and Quail gently picked up the infant. He rocked her gently back and forth and kept talking. "After that, I decided to rewatch Death Note. It freaked me out to see how corrupted Light Yagami became by the end of the series. I started to think it wasn't right to have this kind of power, so I put it away and didn't touch it for five years, although I came real close to using it on George Zimmerman."

"And then what?" Dominic asked. "The health care thing happened and you couldn't hold back anymore?"

"Almost," Quail said. "Actually, I used it once last year. When I found out Jen was pregnant, a bunch of my friends took me out for drinks. I didn't pay for a single drink that night and I lost count of how many I threw back. We got into talking politics and how the Supreme Court had been screwing us over. I made a joke that someone should take one of the conservative ones out while Obama was still President and then I realized I actually could do it. So I went home, still piss drunk, and wrote Scalia's name in the book cause he seemed like the biggest asshole of the bunch. Holy shit, did that backfire. I didn't think the friggin' Republicans would just leave the seat empty for a whole year."

Dominic felt exasperated. "This is ridiculous. You're like a...murdering Forrest Gump, just accidentally changing the course of history? I suppose you took out Fred Phelps, too?"

He shook his head. "No, after Scalia I took another break. I realized I only had so much control over the consequences of this. I agonized over whether or not to take out Trump, but I kept getting worried that it would throw the election to the Republicans. I never thought that idiot would actually win. I mean for God's sake, he's out there talking about molesting women. That would have destroyed anyone else. The thing is, I still want to believe in America. I keep hoping that our society is strong enough to deal with times like the ones we're living in. But now I realize that even if that's true, it may not be worth the lives that my inaction could cost."

Quail laid the baby back down into the bassinet. "Daisy's nice and healthy, but she might not always be that way. If she ever gets sick, our insurance will probably cover it. But if it's a pre-existing condition and that law passes, who knows? I get paid pretty well at the Bureau and I'm still not sure we'd have enough money if something come up and she wasn't covered. You see where I'm going with this? It's not just the health care either, it's all the guns out there, it's the climate change stuff, it's people getting paid almost nothing, it's drinking water getting poisoned, it's all the police violence. All these problems the government just keeps making worse regardless of who dies. They keep throwing people out to dry like this and pretty soon nobody will need the Death Note to cause death and destruction. In the long run, it's better to try and change things now."

Dominic was done. "Thanks for the story, but now you're coming with me. Get up and head towards the car." Once Quail was inside, he would handcuff him to the steering wheel and go back for the Death Note. He couldn't imagine what the others at the Bureau would think of all this. How would they test the notebook's authenticity without using it?

He meant to keep the gun pointed at Quail, but something was off. His hands fell to his sides although he maintained his hold on the pistol. He couldn't move them again. He opened his mouth to speak to no avail.

"Ah, it must be working," Quail said. "You see, what I didn't mention in the briefing is that you can specify not just the cause of death, but also the time. I wrote your name down as soon as your car pulled in but I wanted to give us some time to talk."

Dominic felt his body turning around and slowly heading towards the door. He strained as hard as he could to fight the impulses, but all it did was slow his movements down.

"You're suddenly having an uncontrollable urge to drive to a secluded area and put a bullet in your mouth. It's supposedly an immediate death with no pain. I'm sorry about this, Dom. You're a good guy and a good agent. But I can't afford to be exposed now. It's a critical time."

Despite using all of his willpower, Dominic was now back outside and still marching stiffly towards the car. Quail followed him.

"You know, any other animal on Earth would kill to protect its young. We may have an advanced society, but we're still animals. I'm no different."

The following morning, police investigating a suspicious vehicle found the corpse of an FBI agent inside. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On the passenger seat rested a notebook with a scribbled symbol. Maybe one of his colleagues at the FBI would know what it was.

The Beginning

Monday, February 27, 2017

Moonlight wins Best Picture after Colossal Screw-Up

So I got Best Picture wrong this year. So did everyone else. In fact, even the Academy had it wrong for a few minutes. In what will go down as perhaps the most shocking moment in Oscar history, La La Land was mistakenly presented Best Picture only to have to turn it over to Moonlight in the middle of the acceptance speech.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the stars of the classic Bonnie and Clyde, were presenting Best Picture. As Beatty opened the envelope, he stared at it awkwardly for a few seconds, leaving everyone to think he was just milking the suspense for a laugh. What really happened was that he had been handed another envelope for Best Actress, which had just been given a few minutes earlier to Emma Stone of La La Land. Not sure what to make of a card that was awarding Best Picture to Emma Stone, he handed it to Dunaway to make sense of it. She announced La La Land, an outcome that everyone had expected from the start.

While the producers thanked their colleagues and loved ones, a man with a headset made his way into the crowd and broke the news. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz told the crowd about the mix-up and handled what must have been a horrible disappointment with major humility and generosity. Beatty tried to explain what happened (Dunaway wasn't there, presumably hiding under a rock) and the stunned Moonlight team approached the stage and made their speeches, but they were too dazed to make the most of the moment. The clip is here in case you didn't watch the show.

Honestly, I've never seen anything like it. Why in the hell was Warren Beatty given another Best Actress envelope when that award was already over and done with? I almost heard the frantic clicks of a million pre-written thinkpieces about how La La Land shouldn't have won being hastily taken off the web and put aside. The internet reacted the way anyone would expect, with jokes about Steve Harvey (who made a similar blunder at a beauty pageant), M. Night "what a twist" Shyamalan, and photoshopped envelopes announcing movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip as Best Picture.

In hindsight, Spotlight's win last year could have been predicted. But this year, I can't think of any clue that would have tipped me off that Moonlight would beat the odds and claim the top prize when all the typical signs pointed to La La Land. If not for the fake-out, there would be more talk about how the Oscars looked outside of their own world and chose to recognize empathy over escapism. Under any circumstances, it's a huge upset. The shock of the final few minutes will also likely overshadow the politics of the ceremony, which weren't as overt as many thought (except for the righteous statement from Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, who declined to attend in protest of Trump's Muslim ban). Like I said in the predictions post, giving Best Picture to a movie about people whose struggles are often forgotten is a much more powerful statement.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 Educated Guesses

The Superbowl was political. The Grammys were political. And you can bet your bottom ruble that the Oscars will be political. I suppose that's just part of the new Age of Shadows we live in. A parade of charged speeches is predictable, as is the ensuing round of whines from those who elected Comrade Trump thinking it would teach political correctness a lesson and are now indignant that progressive-minded people didn't instantly lose their ability to speak after his inauguration. Their guy won the election and yet they're still aggrieved because Meryl Streep sassed him and Netflix has a show called "Dear White People." Sore winners doesn't even begin to describe it.

To be fair, a lot of liberals also find political speeches at the Oscars to be obnoxious. I suppose it's because it can seem insincere or self-aggrandizing, as if rich Hollywood types really suffer under any political arrangement. However this is a different year, not just because Trump pays more attention to media commentary about himself than his predecessors, but because the Oscars have been drawn into the impact of his election just like the rest of us. Before his Muslim ban was overturned by the courts for being blatantly unconstitutional, it looked like Foreign Language film nominee (and past winner) Asghar Farhadi would be barred from attending. At this point, he could come but was so disgusted by the whole affair he decided to stay home. Given that the whole affair has given his film The Salesman a strong chance of winning, the moment after this announcement could be the most memorable of the evening. So I think political speeches are more appropriate for this particular year than they have been in a long time, but I also think these pale in importance compared to the statements the Oscars make when picking the actual winners. More on that soon enough.

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life As A Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Zootopia


Who Will Win: With no Pixar in the mix this year, Zootopia should take it pretty easily. The two lesser known films were even harder to see than usual and the other two had wider releases but don't have a social commentary so finely attuned to the current moment.

My Choice: Zootopia is a deserving winner but I'd pick Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika has been producing exceptional stop-motion films for several years now and has yet to win.

Best Documentary Feature
13th
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America


Who Will Win: The towering O.J.: Made in America has the advantage of having eight hours to dive deep into the material it chronicles and has enjoyed huge acclaim. However, this race is a little closer than it first appears. 13th and I Am Not Your Negro are both blistering takes on race but are likely to be overshadowed by O.J. Sometimes the members are in the mood for lighter fare in this category and if that was the case, the only choice would be Life, Animated, about a young autistic boy who uses Disney films to help express himself. However, I think the real upset looming could be from Fire At Sea. A film looking at the refugee crisis in Europe, the vile Muslim ban could be just the boost it needs to swing the vote. For now, I'm sticking with O.J. but keep an eye on this one.

My Choice: As usual, this category has a fine lineup and yet many other great documentaries were left out. That said, I was seriously impressed by the clarity with which O.J.: Made in America gave to such a complex real world story.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer for Arrival
August Wilson for Fences
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi for Hidden Figures
Luke Davies for Lion
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Who Will Win: Interesting story about Fences. The playwright August Wilson passed away in 2005 but is still being given sole credit for the movie's screenplay. If you've seen it, it does appear that not a whole lot was changed in the transition from stage to screen. However, I suspect that this will be Moonlight's chance to shine. Arrival is a contender but the final big twist gets mixed reactions from viewers. The screenplays for Hidden Figures and Lion fall neatly into the usual prestige formula but the writers who vote in these two categories tend to aim a little higher.

My Choice: Moonlight is one of those movies that doesn't even feel written, more like it just unfolds before your eyes. That's no accident.

Best Original Screenplay
Taylor Sheridan for Hell or High Water
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills for 20th Century Women

Who Will Win: The voters in this category rarely go with the herd and while La La Land is set to have a good evening at the Oscars, the writing isn't what has gotten it this far. I could see them embracing the singular weirdness of The Lobster, but I suspect that this year they'll rally behind celebrated writer Kenneth Lonergan and award Manchester by the Sea the prize. His examination of grief goes refreshingly against the conventional wisdom and the unmistakable (and profane) Boston dialect helps it go down easily.

My Choice:
I would totally give it to Taylor Sheridan. Hell or High Water was ridiculously entertaining and fun while drawing strong parallels between the violence of the American West's past and the indignities committed by today's financial industry.

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis in Fences
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Nicole Kidman in Lion
Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

Who Will Win: Viola Davis, despite the category fraud of competing here when it's a leading role. She's come within a hair of winning a few times now and keeps doing great work. She won a Tony for this role on stage and now an Oscar's up next.

My Choice: Everyone listed here was very good in their respective films. Viola Davis should be in Best Actress. I suppose I'd go with Naomie Harris. Yep, looking at me rooting for Moonlight again. Better get used to it.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel in Lion
Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali had a very good year. He was one of the best parts of the Netflix show Luke Cage, playing the gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes and also had a supporting role in Hidden Figures. He brings immense gravity to his quiet role as a father figure to the lonely young boy at the center of Moonlight. Dev Patel is probably the one with the best chance to upset, given how well he holds Lion together despite how underwritten his character is, but this one isn't particularly competitive.

My Choice: No complaints here. Ali's last scene in Moonlight is one of the scenes that haunts me months after seeing it.

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert in Elle
Ruth Negga in Loving
Natalie Portman in Jackie
Emma Stone in La La Land
Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Who Will Win: Emma Stone has been favored for most of the race and there's not much reason to think she won't win. She's quite good at making audiences forget about her glamorous movie star status when she plays misfits and underdogs. The dark horse is Isabelle Huppert, who had a surprise win at the Golden Globes and landed in this category despite expectations that Amy Adams or Annette Bening was headed for that fifth spot. But La La Land's momentum has been consistent so Stone is probably in.

My Choice: Viola Davis. I'm serious, she ought to be competing here. As usual, this category is a disappointment. Taraji P. Henson? Ella Ballentine? Rebecca Hall? And yes, Amy Adams? That's just scratching the surface but for whatever reason, it always plays out like this.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington in Fences

Who Will Win: There has been a lot of drama in this category and it's going to be close. For a while, it seemed like Casey Affleck's performance as a man destroyed by grief in Manchester by the Sea was a guaranteed win. However, tales of sexual harassment incidents in his past have followed him throughout the award season and it's always a gamble as to whether stuff like this makes a difference in the end. When the nominations were announced, I expected the presence of the typically more controversial Mel Gibson in Best Director would take the heat off him, but the opposite seems to have happened. Everyone's decided that Gibson is old news and Denzel won at the Screen Actors Guild awards. The SAG doesn't always line up with the Oscars, just most of the time, so Affleck may yet win, but my gut is that things will ultimately work out in Denzel's favor. This will be his third Oscar, putting him in a small group of elite actors that include the likes of Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Another piece of trivia - he would also be only the second person to win in a film that he also directed (the first was Laurence Olivier).

My Choice: Denzel's electric presence comes as no surprise by now. The one who surprised me was Andrew Garfield. Desmond Doss, the man he played in Hacksaw Ridge, was one of those people who are almost cartoonishly noble. It had the potential to be very corny on screen but he grounded the character without compromising that core decency. A really impressive performance.

Best Director
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle looks poised to win for only his second film. The first was Whiplash, a much darker exploration of many of La La Land's themes about ambition and sacrifice. Could Barry Jenkins or Kenneth Longergan upset? Possibly. But Chazelle has the Director's Guild award, and Oscar buffs bet against that at their peril.

My Choice: I have two choices here that I really like. Obviously I'm a huge fan of how Barry Jenkins created such a controlled mood for Moonlight and made it seem effortless. I also thought Arrival was a great experience on the big screen. The way Villeneuve contrasted the alien ships against dramatic landscapes was really epic. So either of those two would be great.

Best Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight


Who Will Win: Last year was really close and I wound up making the wrong call. This year, it's not close at all. Can anything beat La La Land?

Arrival may be highbrow science-fiction, but it still has aliens and spaceships so that doesn't help. Fences is an actor's showcase and will be rewarded as such. Hacksaw Ridge has some pretty intense violence plus Mel Gibson's baggage. Hell or High Water is way too awesome. Lion's incredible true story deserved a movie with better writing. Manchester by the Sea is way too depressing. The remaining two films have more of a chance. Moonlight has developed an enthusiastic following despite its small release and would be the ideal choice if the awards wanted to promote empathy and understanding. Hidden Figures is another important black American story and is a much more conventional prestige drama. Plus, it really connected with audiences and is actually the top-grossing film listed here! If any film could upset La La Land, this is it. However, three out of the last five Best Picture winners have been about show business (Argo, The Artist and Birdman) and La La Land is arguably the most adoring portrait in the bunch.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes like this - Moonlight > Hell or High Water > Arrival > Manchester by the Sea > Hidden Figures > La La Land > Hacksaw Ridge > Fences > Lion. I found La La Land to be a well-staged musical and I don't really have many issues with it as a film (or the three other showbiz movies I referenced just now). But if you've followed my Oscar commentary for a while, you might have seen that I try to be aware of the historical significance bestowed by winning Best Picture. We can all joke about underwhelming past winners but the fact remains that this is the biggest spotlight the Academy can shine on a film.

By taking shots at Trump and our current political climate, the Oscars will be attempting to communicate that they are in touch with the world outside of Hollywood. But if they talk a big game and then give their top award to another celebration of their craft, they look just as insular as ever. In a year like this one, they really ought to put their votes where their mouths are. There's no explicit anti-Trump film in this batch (probably will take two or three years before we really start getting into that) but there are other ways to make a statement. Honoring a film like Moonlight, a story featuring the kind of people who will be the most hurt by what's happening in America now, would be a powerful signal of empathy. It likely wouldn't merit a mention on Trump's twitter account but it would say to those who have suffered in similar ways as Moonlight's characters that their stories are important and worthy of enshrining in a historical record that includes films like Casablanca and The Godfather. The fact that I believe it to be the best movie of the past year is almost beside the point.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Oscar Nominee Banned from the Oscars

The Oscar nominations are out and you might think I'm here for another discussion of the Academy's dismal record on race. Not today. In fact, this year's group of nominees is the most diverse in a long time. So diverse that one of the nominees can't attend the ceremony without breaking the law. This is no Polanski situation where he can't show up cause he'll be arrested for a past crime. Asghar Farhadi is a celebrated Iranian director who is currently banned from America thanks to Comrade Trump's ban on citizens and refugees from several countries in the Middle East.

When I first heard that this cold-hearted idea was actually going to become a real thing, banning entire nations of people from the United States (except of course, countries where Trump has business interests like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), I didn't expect to hear about it in this context. Farhadi is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, a category that he won in 2012 for A Separation. I typically don't include that category in my annual predictions, but it's not for a lack of interest. It's just usually not possible for me to see all the nominated films before the Oscars.

The front runner for this year's winner in that category has been a German film called Toni Erdmann, but a scandal like this could easily swing the vote. If Farhadi does win for his new film, The Salesman, what happens at the awards? We'll need someone to go up there and say "Well, the director couldn't be here because our idiot President thinks he's going to blow up the place." And if he does manage to attend, I'm sure he'll have thoughts on the matter. Either way, sounds like a recipe for the leader of the free world to complain on Twitter about how "overrated" Iranian cinema is.

Supposedly someone from the White House said to People magazine that Farhadi might be eligible for some special wavier that would get him through the ban. But if that's true, does it really make them look any better? A director can be an exception but not all the innocent children suffering in Syria right now? What the hell, man?

I don't think this will be the last time the impact of this policy will show up in unexpected places. Taking a shit on millions of people has wide-ranging repercussions. When Farhadi won last time, he made a really beautiful speech about how he believed the people of America and Iran could be friends one day if our respective leaders took it down a notch. I wonder if he still believes that. I never thought I'd be writing an Oscars post like this one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The 2nd Annual Perfect World Awards

I had fun with this last year, so let's try it again. Oscar nominations are coming soon and it will be really hard for them to leave black people out this year, but you never know! Before the traditional grumbles begin, I've stacked the categories with my own wishlist while keeping in step with the Academy's rules. Let's start at the top.
Best Picture
Arrival
The Invitation
Kubo and the Two Strings
Hell or High Water
The Monster
Moonlight
Sing Street
Zootopia


Plausibility: If you read my Top 10, you know I'm on Team Moonlight. Thankfully, it has a good shot at a nomination. So does Arrival. Hell or High Water may get in there too. The rest...unlikely. Animated films have to make a huge impact to land in this category - not even Inside Out could manage it last year. Sing Street wouldn't be seen as having enough gravitas. The Invitation can be a tough watch and alienates many viewers. And of course The Monster is a horror film and doesn't have a shot in hell, although Sean Spicer may argue otherwise.

Best Director
Jaume Collet-Serra for The Shallows
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Karyn Kusama for The Invitation
David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Plausibility: Pretty decent! Barry Jenkins and Denis Villeneuve have very good chances. David Mackenzie is a long shot but not impossible. Unfortunately for Kusama, it's hard for a woman to get in this category unless your name is Kathryn Bigelow and you make big manly war films. Nobody would consider a silly B-movie like The Shallows for awards, but Collet-Serra's underwater photography and use of scenery were really beautiful, to the point where it was a minor letdown when the killer shark actually showed up. Still, the mood and imagery of Moonlight still haunt me a few months after seeing it so it'd be great to see Jenkins get an Oscar.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea
Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
Do-Wan Kwak in The Wailing
Max Records in I Am Not A Serial Killer

Plausibility: Barely. Casey Affleck is highly favored for a nomination and possibly the win. The rest...not so much. Ryan Gosling will probably get in for La La Land, but I would prefer to recognize the hilarious comic performance he gave in The Nice Guys. Cox is an underrated actor who elevated what otherwise would have been a stock role. Do-Wan Kwak is going way out on a limb, since the Academy doesn't even seem to be aware that Asians sometimes appear in Hollywood movies, let alone movies that come from Asia. And once again, Max Records is in a horror film so no dice. It's a shame because his performance as a young man fighting against his recently diagnosed sociopath tendencies was the most complex, interesting take on this condition I've ever seen in a movie.

Best Actress
Amy Adams in Arrival
Ella Ballentine in The Monster
Rebecca Hall in Christine
Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Plausibility: Low. Amy Adams is the only one with a good shot. Henson might make it if Hidden Figures does really well. Ballentine and Taylor-Joy were great in horror films, so we know how that goes. Annoying, isn't it? You would think Rebecca Hall had a better chance given that Christine checks most of the Oscar boxes - real-life story set in the past, lead character has an illness, media sensationalism is a highly relevant topic now,etc - but I guess the release was just too small.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Apocalypse
Jack Reynor in Sing Street
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Patrick Stewart in Green Room

Plausibility: Mahershala Ali is a good bet, but why stop there? Moonlight had a ton of good acting in it and the contribution of Trevante Rhodes as the older Chiron really brought things in for a solid landing. I would have thought Patrick Stewart had a better shot because it's so against type but I can understand Academy members not really wanting to think about Nazis at this particular moment in time. The last X-Men movie was one superhero film in a sea of them but Fassbender gave it 110 percent. My pick would be Jack Reynor, who really got to me as the frustrated noble older brother in Sing Street.

Best Supporting Actress
Tammy Blanchard in The Invitation
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Allison Janney in Tallulah
Soo-an Kim in Train to Busan
Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters

Plausibility: Almost a complete wipeout if not for Naomie Harris, who has a good chance. Blanchard and Janney both gave very emotional performances in films that have been absent from this awards season. Even though the Ghostbusters remake was (pathetically) the most controversial movie of the year, Kate McKinnon's scene-stealing greatness seems to be generally agreed upon. My favorite was little Soo-an Kim, who showed off a huge range. However, the movie is Korean and is about a train full of zombies, so we're way outside the realm of Oscar awareness here. It's a shame, because you'd think they really were meant to represent an entire year's worth of film, not just all the middlebrow dramas released right before New Year's Day.

That's all for now! I'll be back to predict the results of the actual nominations soon enough.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Top Ten Films of 2016

It's been established ad nauseam that 2016 was a wretched year for humanity, but how were the movies? At first glance, it seems on the weak side but it turned out to be one of those years where I had to dig a little deeper to fill out this list. While most of the attention goes to the parade of sequels, reboots and desperate appeals to 80s/90s nostalgia (an Independence Day sequel? Really?), the ever growing realm of streaming services has given movie fans a chance to find gems that had only a tiny stint in actual movie theaters. Even a classic crowdpleaser like Sing Street would have gone totally unnoticed if not for Netflix. Combined with strong showings by the horror and animation genres, the year turned out to be a little better than I first thought. Let's go through some of the high points.

Special Mention: O.J.: Made in America
Eligibility for this one was tricky. This is a five-part documentary made for ESPN, but it also had an awards-qualifying theatrical release that should come in handy this awards season. Ultimately, I decided the massive difference in length gave it an unfair advantage over the rest, hence the special mention. Highly detailed but never boring, the epic chronicle begins with Orenthal James Simpson’s rise as a record-breaking football player, commercial star and comedic actor in the late 60s to the early 80s. Then he was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. The rest is history, but you’ve never seen it like this. Director Ezra Edelman contrasts Simpson’s ascent with a series of high-profile conflicts between the police and black residents of the running back’s native Los Angeles. With this as a preface, it becomes clear why the trial of a man who had distanced himself from the black community became an unlikely referendum on decades of appalling behavior by the LAPD. Following the trial, the filmmakers continue to follow Simpson on his sad decline into decadence and crime. It’s a towering experience to watch, with somber music and haunting archival footage expertly accompanying the comments of an army of interviewees.

10. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesome, nerve-shredding movie stars a small-time punk band in need of money who find themselves playing in a venue full of Nazi skinheads somewhere in the Oregon woods. After they witness a murder, the band (including the late Anton Yelchin, who sadly passed away this year) barricades itself in the green room and the skinheads outside make increasingly brutal attempts to clean everything up. Patrick Stewart plays way against type to tremendous effect as Darcy Banker, the monstrous but oddly paternal leader of the thugs. The tension pins the viewer to the screen for the entire standoff and when it ends, the audience is left to reflect on the pockets of hateful white rage that have been growing in the corners of America while so many of us fooled ourselves into thinking things were getting better.

9. The Witch
This period horror film follows a family too extreme in their beliefs even for the Puritans who are exiled and find themselves living uncomfortably close to a genuine witch. After stealing the family’s infant child in an early scene, the witch prefers to menace them from afar while isolation and unsuccessful attempts at farming begin to strain their relationships. Despite the presence of a very creepy goat, the true horror of the film is watching this family slowly collapse and Eggers stages some brutally intense scenes where they turn on each other. Only the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to really understand what’s happening and is central to the thought provoking ending, which goes totally against the conventional wisdom for tales like this.

8. Sing Street
The 80s nostaglia thing might be getting out of hand, but it can still be done really well. This delightful coming of age story takes place in 1980s Dublin, where sensitive teen Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is dealing with the crumbling marriage of his parents and being transferred to a joyless Catholic school. When he meets the glamorous Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he tries to impress her by telling her he’s in a band. Despite knowing very little about music, he relies on the expertise of his older brother (Jack Reynor, the heart of the movie) and gathers a group of nearby young musicians who quickly cohere into a real band. It’s pretty familiar stuff, but it works wonders thanks to the sincerity of the cast and the infectious fun of the songs themselves (composed primarily by Gary Clark). There is also a surprisingly heartfelt subplot about the pain older brothers endure so that their younger brothers have a better chance for success.

7. The Monster
For me, this was the year's biggest out of nowhere surprise. It’s a familiar setup – young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) get into a car accident on a rainy night and then figure out that a mysterious creature is lurking in the nearby woods. What makes this film stand out is the emotionally intense relationship between the two lead characters. Flashbacks explore the family’s dysfunction and this is not the typical “my mom doesn’t understand me stuff,” these are unsparing glimpses of domestic life gone wrong. Director Bryan Bertino wisely uses the monster sparingly and when it does appear onscreen it looks fantastic. There are no explanations given for its existence, which will annoy some viewers but keeps the focus where it belongs – the powerful family drama playing out during the scares.

6. Zootopia
Are we in the midst of another Disney renaissance? The surprising depth and visual ingenuity of this animated buddy-cop movie makes a pretty strong argument. The story takes place in a giant city where predator and prey have long since evolved from their primal ways and live in harmony. An idealistic rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) defies expectations for her species by becoming a police officer and teams up with a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to solve a series of disappearances. The colorful setting, made up of several ecosystems, is constantly delightful to look at and there’s always something interesting to see. There is also a surprisingly detailed examination of prejudice and identity politics buried beneath all the sight gags.

5. Arrival
This smart and surprisingly optimistic tale of man’s first contact with an alien race depicts a point in the not too distant future where a dozen spaceships touch down at various points on the Earth’s surface. Lonely linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and decipher the circular ink-blots the tentacled aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, panic gradually sets in across the globe and a war could erupt if Louise and her partner (Jeremy Renner) don’t crack the code soon enough. The main breakthrough in figuring out the language seems to happen during a montage, leaving the audience with disappointingly little insight into how it works, but Director Dennis Villeneuve’s majestic visuals and a major twist conveyed with surprising grace make this a powerful film. If the day ever comes where we meet aliens, I hope it turns out to be more prescient than naive.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings
So I wasn't a big fan of The Boxtrolls, but Laika Studios came back in a big way and turned in another top-notch production with this classic hero’s journey tale about a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) trying to find three magical artifacts to protect himself from his wicked grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Kubo is joined by a foul-tempered monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Some of the attempts at humor can feel strained but the film’s gorgeous animation feels as effortless as it is spectacular. You can't overstate just how amazing the stop-motion work here is. Kubo has the power to manipulate paper but the only one who can conjure more magic than him are the animators.

3. The Invitation
Two years after the tragic death of his son, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michael Huisman). In the midst of the reunions, the couple babbles new-age nonsense about expelling bad feelings and Will isn’t having any of it. In general, things seem unusually tense for a gathering of friends but are we right to be suspicious or are we just viewing things through Will’s agitated perspective? How much passive-aggression and intimidating behavior should anyone tolerate for the sake of politeness? The ensemble cast is excellent and Director Karyn Kusama directs everything masterfully, withholding answers as long as she can and dragging the audience to the edge of their seats.

2. Hell or High Water
Most modern takes on the western are dour, but this is a surprisingly fun morality tale of cops and robbers that nonetheless makes powerful observations about how the American West’s history of domination and exploitation continues in the form of modern capitalism. Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies to try and save the family ranch from foreclosure, slowly pursued by a smart-ass Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham). The emphasis on banter, memorable side characters and dark comedy (it’s tough to keep robbing places in a state where seemingly everyone is carrying a gun) does its job and the audience will be heavily involved with all the characters by the time things get intense in the final act.

1. Moonlight
This soft-spoken but intensely emotional film follows Chiron, a fatherless black boy with a crack addict mother (Naomie Harris) who is quietly trying to piece together his own identity. The movie follows Chiron at three points in his life – he is played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, a teen by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes, all of whom give great performances. While much of its subject matter, such as drugs or bullying, may be familiar, the strength of the actors and Barry Jenkins’s inventive cinematography make it feel totally unique. With its colorful yet desolate depiction of Miami and sometimes unsettlingly personal dialogue, the film is a involving portrait of people whose lives are rarely explored in movies. It’s Chiron’s story but the other roles are also filled out by talented performers, particularly Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer whose growing attachment to the boy force him to confront the reality of his trade. The late Roger Ebert once said that at their best, movies are "a machine that generates empathy" and in a year where empathy was violently kicked to the curb, we need movies like this one more than ever. There will be plenty of righteous takedowns of Trump-era ideology in the years to come but movies like Moonlight, which draw attention to important issues simply by exploring the lives of our fellow man, are likely to make more of a difference in the long run.

Honorable Mentions: The Little Prince, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Audrie and Daisy, Captain America: Civil War

That's all for this year. Soon I'll take another stab at my Perfect World awards, hopefully out one day before the Oscar nominations get announced.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The 24 Hour Setlist Returns!

Once again, I'll be helping Extra Life support children's hospitals all over the world by streaming a Rock Band marathon. I plan on singing 302 songs this time and I've upgraded my internet so the quality of the stream should improve.

Rock Band 4 has injected some new life into the series and that means DLC singles are being added weekly once again. This has made the 2016 setlist much different than last year's and I'm really excited about that. Here are just 10 of the songs that are joining the line-up! This list is exclusive to the blog...if you want to learn more songs, check out my Extra Life page!

Twisted Sister - We're Not Gonna Take It
Gin Blossoms - Hey Jealousy
Joan Jett - I Hate Myself For Loving You
Johnny Cash - I Walk the Line
Dream Theater - Metropolis, Pt. 1 - The Miracle and the Sleeper
Earth, Wind & Fire - September
4 Non Blondes - What's Up?
Ohio Players - Love Rollercoaster
Soundgarden - Superunknown
and the theme of the 2016 24 Hour Setlist...
Skillet - Feel Invincible

When the setlist is finalized, it will be posted here. In the meantime, feel free to donate at my page!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Bad Movies: Advanced Studies II

It's time for another session of bad movie examination. I trust you've all had time to review the required viewing from last year's assignment and I'm looking forward to reading your papers on The Giant Claw and Pieces. Now let's have a look at our new syllabus.

Cathy's Curse

The Exorcist's reputation as the scariest film ever made is generally based on the early stages of Regan's possession. The movie shreds your nerves with the horrific medical procedures the poor girl is subjected to, plays on your anticipation and freaks you out with its subliminal flashes of demonic faces. It's dreadfully effective and while Linda Blair's makeup is still hideous enough to inspire many a nightmare, her gravelly profanity isn't quite as scary. In fact, it makes a lot of viewers laugh. Even in the midst of extreme terror, something about children swearing is just funny.

That's about the only reason to watch Cathy's Curse (or maybe it should be Cathy's Cursing), an incompetent Exorcist rip-off that turns an eight-year-old girl into a profanity-spewing villain. The writer really seems to be enjoying himself with these rants and I'm honestly surprised it doesn't have more notoriety. The movie fell into public domain at some point but the only print available is in horrible condition. This isn't just me being a picky film buff - it looks like someone pissed all over the negatives. But even if it were in HD and "crisp," this would still be right up there with Manos in terms of how poorly made it is.

Savage Streets

And speaking of Linda Blair, she also has a ridiculously bad movie on her resume (one of many, if we're being honest). This unbelievably crass, lewd and over-the-top revenge drama could have only come from the 1980s. She plays a tough broad at one of those 80s dystopian high schools where all the kids look 10 years older than they should be and the bullies aren't just jerks but irredeemably evil.

After her deaf sister is assaulted by a group of loathsome thugs, our heroine takes it upon herself to exact revenge by taking it to the streets in a leather costume and crossbow. It's kind of awesome in a trashy way, although I should warn everyone that this is by far the most disturbing film on the list. It's got its share of laughs but there's also a nasty rape scene that still shocks viewers. It may not be eroticized, which is a step above some of the other films coming out in this era, but anyone sensitive to this kind of subject matter should stay far away.

Mac and Me

Many of you have likely heard of this one - a half-baked E.T. rip-off that bombed at the box office and would have faded into obscurity if not for bad movie fans. A mysterious alien creature (MAC) is accidentally taken to Earth by a space probe and meets two brothers who have just moved into a California neighborhood. Viewers today watch it for the ridiculous rubber alien costumes, canned dialogue, huge plot holes and an overly epic score from Alan Silvestri.

While the famous falling wheelchair scene gets the biggest laugh, the movie is particularly infamous for the shameless product placement, including a five minute dance number inside a McDonalds. Not only that, the aliens literally need Coca-Cola to live! Most of the movie seems like a cheap but generally agreeable kids movie but the last half-hour or so is totally nuts. There's a fight inside a supermarket, a massive explosion and one of the most deeply stupid endings in film history.

I Drink Your Blood

This early zombie film was made during an era where God-fearing adults were terrified by all these kids doing drugs and not respecting authority. But rather than vote for Donald Trump, the people behind this movie told the reactionary story of a band of Satan-worshipping hippies who show up in a small town. After assaulting a woman, a young boy decides to get revenge on them in a very creative way - giving them all rabies. Wait until you see how he pulls this off.

Obviously, it backfires as rabid hippies begin leaving a trail of dead bodies all over town. With its paranoid view of 60s counterculture, goofy dialogue and a synthesized score that sounds more like a car alarm, “dated” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Some 30 years before Signs, it turns out that their weakness is water and viewers are treated to the sight of the zombies running away in fear from people splashing water at them. Audiences at the time didn’t find it so funny and it was cut to ribbons all over the world until an uncensored version emerged over 30 years later.

Cool As Ice

The white rapper Vanilla Ice was briefly a huge star in the early 90s before being shooed away by an embarrassed nation. During his time in the spotlight, he cast himself as a Marlon Brando-esque rebel in this affably silly film. Ice plays Johnny (seems to be the go-to name for protagonists in shitty movies) and whether he's jumping a fence on a motorcycle with very little momentum or resting his dirty shoes on his love interest's bed, Johnny embodies that superficial 1990s "attitude," like Sonic the Hedgehog sticking out his tongue.

What starts as a John Hughes-esque romance between a snotty rich girl and a poor authentic (i.e. rude) guy takes a turn towards action in its second half with the arrival of some organized crime antagonists. Naturally, Vanilla gets to prove his mettle and take down the bad guys. It's not as obnoxious as you might expect. The whole movie is so dated that it's easy to just accept it as a product of a strange time and enjoy it. Although there's still the opening scene, which has possibly the worst dancing I've ever seen on film. Seriously, it makes Elaine Benes look like she should be doing Tchaikovsky on stage.

Vampire's Kiss

Out of all the movies on this list, this is the only one that I'm not totally sure is "bad" or not. It's either a ridiculous horror/comedy with glorious overacting by Nicolas Cage or a cheeky satire of 1980s corporate debauchery with glorious overacting by Nicolas Cage. Either way, if you enjoy Cage's weird mannerisms, I don't think he's ever gone more out there than in this bizarre film.

He plays some kind of publishing executive who's already on the edge of a breakdown. When he gets attacked by a bat, he becomes convinced that he's becoming a real vampire. From then on, Cage rants about the alphabet in his psychiatrist's office, starts wearing plastic vampire fangs, drags a cross across a street while shouting and develops a creepy fixation on a frazzled employee played by 80s mainstay Maria Conchita Alonso. If you thought his "Not the bees!" or "How'd it get burned?!" moments in the 2005 Wicker Man were great, you haven't seen anything yet.

Despite all the wacky behavior on display, I realized after it was over that the premise and themes were actually pretty close to American Psycho, another film with a balls-out lead performance that few people would place on a list like this. Oh well, my ambivalence doesn't change the fact that this is a very funny film to watch.

Fateful Findings

As for our final film, I have no doubts about its badness, its hilarious, wonderful badness. Already burning its way through bad movie circles, Fateful Findings is just shy of breaking into the big time and taking its place among bad movie royalty like The Room and Troll 2.

Like The Room but more ambitious, this 2013 film was brought to you by a strange looking middle-aged man who clearly believes himself to be the most talented and handsome man on the planet. The movie is hard to describe but I'll do my best. Most of it is some bizarro Douglas Sirk domestic drama where the greasy Breen proves irresistible to several younger women and scolds just about anyone within reach. However, there's also insane stuff about a magical black box and a subplot about Breen hacking into government databases that takes center stage in the jaw-dropping finale. Whatever secrets Breen found are never revealed but clearly they were quite scandalous, judging from what happens next. I'll leave it at that.

To watch this movie is to enter a bizarre alternate universe where everybody moves slowly, none of the women wear any bras and nobody is allowed to say anything until a slow camera pan over the area is finished. Trust me guys, this is the total package. Spread the gospel.

Till next time, enjoy the films and remember...no more books!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Batman: The Animated Series - Top 20 Episodes

The Dark Knight is back on the screen thanks to Batman vs. Superman, where the new Ben Affleck Batman fights the Henry Cavill Superman from Man of Steel. It's not particularly good and I don't find that surprising - these days superhero movies are so disposable that the main purpose of each one seems to be to get you excited for the next movie rather than the one you just paid money to see. Still, between hearing of its arrival and playing Batman: Arkham Knight this past winter, my interest in the character came back. So I did what I usually do - I went back to Batman: The Animated Series, which was always the definitive version of the hero for me.

All those clickbait Buzzfeed articles talk about is Boy Meets World or Hey Arnold, but this show's aged a lot better than those shows...or for that matter, most of the youth-oriented shows of that entire era. Even at the time, its exemplary storytelling, art direction, music and voice acting were a shock and made it an instant classic. More than 20 years later, I still find new ways that it influences my own writing. So while I may enjoy making jokes at Buzzfeed's expense, one thing I have learned from it is that people really like lists. With that in mind, let's count off the 20 best episodes of this timeless show. There was also a Superman animated series that was very good, but I don't know it quite well enough to put together a list like this.

20. Night of the Ninja
Written by Steve Perry
Directed by Kevin Altieri

Antagonist: Kyodai Ken

Batman can win a physical fight against most of his enemies, as long as he keeps track of their unique gimmicks and weapons. In this episode, Bruce Wayne encounters an old rival who may be his superior in hand to hand combat. Flashbacks highlight Bruce's days of training in Japan as a younger man, learning martial arts and the discipline of a samurai. Years later, he crosses paths again with Kyodai Ken, the only student who could consistently defeat Bruce in their sparring matches. There's a lot of storytelling in this half-hour, including fun action scenes and some solid scenes for Alfred and Robin. If I had made this list as a kid, this episode would have ranked a lot higher because back then a fight between Batman and a ninja was the coolest thing ever. It's still pretty awesome.

19. If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?
Written by David Wise
Directed by Eric Radomski

Antagonist: The Riddler

The writers of the series have admitted to being intimidated by Riddler stories, which required a lot of creativity to pull off. That creativity is out in full force in this debut as the villain is brought to life by a sleek design and the charming vocal performance of John Glover. Game designer Edward Nygma is cheated out of the profits for his own blockbuster game by the slimy Daniel Mockridge and decides to use his puzzle skills for revenge. When Batman and Robin get involved, Riddler lures them into a huge maze full of booby traps and tests of intellect. If you watch enough episodes of this show, you start to realize that a lot of the supervillains are created thanks to unethical corporate behavior. So if you wind up seeing someone in Seattle or San Francisco putting people inside giant puzzle boxes, it might be time to ask EA some questions.

18. Christmas With The Joker
Written by Eddie Gorodetsky
Directed by Kent Butterworth

Antagonist: The Joker

Most episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are inspired by the noirish Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams comics of the 1970s. Not this one. With its absurd plot, onslaught of puns and many giant props, "Christmas With The Joker" hearkens back to the goofy Batman comics of the 50s and 60s. Silly as it may be, it's hard not to like an episode that begins with the Joker singing the classic "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" song we all heard on the playground growing up. Before long, he hijacks Gotham's airwaves for his very own hilarious Christmas special. Batman and Robin are forced to deal with exploding bridges and giant Nutcracker soldiers before they finally find out what the Joker's really up to. His mundane but hilarious goal is the cherry on top of this holiday treat. I may be a little biased on this one since watching it has become a Christmas tradition for my own family.

17. House and Garden
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonist: Poison Ivy

It's become common for writers who think they are being edgy to depict Batman as only slightly more stable than the crooks he brings in. This version went against that and created a well-rounded person who you could admire. Secretive, obsessive and plagued by unresolved trauma? Of course. But he's not a maniac and more importantly, is shown to have empathy. His compassion for his adversaries is at the core of this tragic episode. When Poison Ivy renounces her criminal past in favor of a normal life with a husband and adopted children, Batman is skeptical. After a while, however, he becomes convinced and there's a moving scene where hero and villain seem to reconcile for good. But all is not what it seems and the ending of this episode goes into some truly disturbing territory, at least for a superhero cartoon. We all want to believe people can redeem themselves, but it's much easier said than done.

16. Baby Doll
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba

Antagonist: Mary Dahl

Paul Dini again. Get used to seeing that name as we make our way further up this list, because he has a real gift for telling emotionally-driven stories that highlight the personalities and struggles of the characters. This one is so effective because it feels plausible. A sitcom star with a Gary Coleman-esque condition that keeps her body from aging has been hurt deeply by a string of career failures, so she decides to bring the family of her hit show back together...regardless of how the other actors feel about it. Mary Dahl's stylized appearance makes this episode somewhat divisive among fans, but Alison La Placa's amazing vocal performance makes it work. The first time Mary drops the childish act and speaks in her real adult voice will give you chills. The surreal, tearjerking ending is another example of what made this show so different from the other stuff on TV at the time.

15. Dreams in Darkness
Written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Directed by Dick Sebast
Antagonist: The Scarecrow

Batman getting hit with fear gas is standard procedure for Scarecrow stories, but this creative episode turns his hallucinations into a series of spectacular moments. The visions escalate from subtle frights like Batman seeing the Joker in the reflection of the Batcomputer to a trippy re-enactment of the death of his parents, complete with a giant gun with blood dripping out of the barrel. How the hell did they get that past the network censors? The Dark Knight finds himself detained in Arkham, helpless to stop Scarecrow from contaminating Gotham City's water supply with his fear toxin. If that last bit sounds familiar, it's because Batman Begins ripped off this episode for the film's climax (and tossed Ra's Al Ghul into the mix).

14. Joker's Wild
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonists: The Joker and Cameron Kaiser

This subversive episode pits the Clown Prince of Crime against a casino mogul manipulating him as part of an insurance scam. Dini assumes, correctly, that the audience would much rather root for a psychotic clown than a corporate dirtbag. Mark Hamill is on fire for this episode, offering hilarious voice work during Joker's suspiciously easy escape from Arkham and his antics inside the casino. Since the whole place is capitalizing on the Joker's image, he can walk around in his costume and just look like one of the employees. Only Bruce Wayne is able to recognize his laugh and heads over to the blackjack table to troll his arch-enemy in a hilarious scene, one of several spot-on character moments in this episode. Pay attention to the scene where Joker hijacks a truck - the driver is dressed just like Super Mario.

13. Feat of Clay, parts I and II
Written by Michael Reaves and Marv Wolfman
Directed by Kevin Altieri and Frank Paur

Antagonists: Clayface and Roland Daggett

This dark, powerful two-parter takes one of the more ridiculous villains from the old Batman comics and refashions him as a tragic monster. As we've seen a few times already, the supervillain may be dangerous but he's not half as evil as the unethical corporate behavior that created him. Movie star Matt Hagen (Ron Perlman) relies on the revolutionary "Renuyu" cream to hide the scars he sustained after a car accident, but the stuff is highly addictive, a fact that its creator Roland Daggett has taken advantage of to keep Hagen on a leash. As I kid I didn't realize how obvious the parallels were to real-life drug use, but Matt Hagen is clearly a junkie. When he finally rebels, Daggett's hired goons nearly drown him in the Renuyu cream, which gives his body the ability to take any shape he can imagine, turning him into Clayface. There's a B-plot about Bruce Wayne being framed that drags down the first half a little bit, but the second half is a non-stop thrill ride. Clayface confronts Daggett in the most dramatic way possible before losing control of his powers and madly transforming into his numerous screen personas. It's a breathtaking piece of animation, although I'm tempted to say that the most powerful aspect of this one might be Shirley Walker's score. She uses two separate themes for Hagen and Clayface, weaving them together to great effect. In particular, the music at the ending of this episode makes my hair stand on end.

12. Read My Lips
Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonist: Scarface

Another example of a lesser-known villain being used to great effect, this episode pitted Batman against perhaps his strangest foe - a wooden dummy. We're not talking about some evil Pinocchio who comes to life. Scarface is the alternate personality of a ventriloquist named Arnold Wesker, a meek old man who is totally cowed by his other personality. Using a puppet dressed like a Prohibition-era mobster to express this side of himself, Scarface is a criminal genius who shakes up Gotham City upon his arrival and Batman's reaction to seeing him for the first time is priceless. Upon hearing a recording of both voices, Alfred comments that "I'd swear it was two separate people," but the characters are both played by George Dzundza. His pitch-perfect characterization, along with Lansdale's hardboiled dialogue and Shirley Walker's jazzy score, give this episode a feel all of its own.

11. His Silicon Soul
Written by Marty Isenberg and Robert Skir
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonist: HARDAC

This is a sequel to the two-part "Heart of Steel" episode where Batman was pitted against an evil artificial intelligence (HARDAC) who was kidnapping people and replacing them with robot duplicates. Those episodes were good, if not top 20 material, but they pale in comparison to this one. The opening is a knockout - Batman is shot by some thugs in a dark storage room only to look down and see circuits under his skin. This was the final duplicate HARDAC created before his destruction, but the poor creature has no clue about his origins. When he discovers the truth, you can't help but feel for him. Eventually, HARDAC gets control of the duplicate and things look grim...but maybe the robot is too similar to Batman for its own good. The haunting ending will stick with you for a while.

10. Mean Seasons
Written by Hilary J. Bader and Rich Fogel
Directed by Hiroyuki Aoyama

Antagonist: Calendar Girl

A few years after its debut, Batman: The Animated Series was moved to the WB Network. In the process, all the characters were redesigned to make the animation more consistent with Superman: The Animated Series. Most of the redesigns were fine but a few were downright awful, particularly the Joker, who looked like a deranged Animaniac. Still, there were some gems in this last group of episodes, such as this blistering satire of the entertainment industry's treatment of women. An actress (Sela Ward) finds herself discarded by the studios once she gets into her 30s and wreaks violent revenge as the masked Calendar Girl, whose crimes are patterned on the four seasons. The show is really biting the hand that feeds it here, including a spoof of the inane teen-oriented sitcoms the WB was putting out at the time and the final scene packs a real sting. There are also some sleek and exciting action sequences, including Batman fighting a giant robotic dinosaur.

9. The Laughing Fish
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

Antagonists: The Joker and Harley Quinn

Scary psychopaths are a dime a dozen when it comes to comic book stories and sometimes the Joker is written as a humorless monster indistinguishable from any other serial killer with a gimmick. The reason the Joker is such an enduring character is because he's both dangerous and funny. You enjoy his company even when he's wreaking havoc. This show always walked that line pretty well, particularly in this episode, adapted from two classic Batman stories from the 1970s comics. The Joker uses a nonlethal toxin on Gotham City's fish to give them all big smiles, hoping to copyright fish and make millions. The reality of copyright law is a rude awakening for him ("But they share my unique face! Colonel What's-his-name has chickens and they don't even have mustaches!") and begins terrorizing the hapless bureaucrats until they agree to do his bidding. It's such a bizarre, creepy and funny scheme that it wouldn't work for any other villain. While there were a lot of great Joker episodes, this one has a unique feel thanks to the polished animation, Bruce Timm's creative layouts and Shirley Walker's strings and piano soundtrack.

8. Beware the Gray Ghost
Written by Dennis O'Flaherty and Tom Reugger
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonist: The Mad Bomber

The legacy of the campy 1960s Batman show is explored in this creative episode, which features Adam West himself as Simon Trent, an actor who once played a Batman-esque character on TV. When a mysterious terrorist begins blowing up buildings in Gotham City, Batman realizes the circumstances are almost identical to an episode of his favorite show as a child - "The Gray Ghost." In this era before DVD collections and streaming video, finding episodes of the old show proves to be difficult and so the Dark Knight seeks out the actor himself. What makes this episode so heartwarming is how it illuminates a time in Bruce Wayne's young life when he was happy and even though he's been in mourning most of his life, reconnecting with this old character clearly brings some of that joy back. Given how each successive screen iteration of Batman portrays him as even more miserable and unstable, a story like this can be like water in the desert.

7. The Joker's Favor
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonists: The Joker and Harley Quinn

Unlucky everyman Charlie Collins (Ed Begley, Jr) is driving home from work and suddenly a station wagon cuts him off on the highway. Furious, he speeds up to the car, shaking his fists and shouting insults. Unfortunately, the driver of that car is a notorious villain. Whoops! "The Joker! I just cussed out The Joker!" Collins gasps as he tries to get away. Joker traps the poor sap in a Godfather-esque position of having to do an unspecified favor some time in the future. Years later, that day finally comes. Hamill is utterly brilliant in this episode, showing how frightening the Joker would be to a regular person but also so naturally funny that the line "look at the size of that cake, man!" becomes the comedic high point. Perhaps more important than anything else I've mentioned, this episode is also the first appearance of Joker's henchgirl Harley Quinn (the wonderful Arleen Sorkin), who became a beloved character and has since appeared in numerous Batman stories on page and screen.

6. Perchance to Dream
Written by Laren Bight, Michael Reaves and Joe R. Lansdale
Directed by Boyd Kirkland

Antagonist: The Mad Hatter

After a strange encounter in a warehouse, Bruce Wayne wakes up at his mansion to discover his whole life has changed. His parents are alive, he's engaged to Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and someone else is Batman. At first, he's as skeptical as you would expect but gets a highly convincing explanation from the trusted Dr. Leslie Thompkins that his whole past life as a costumed hero was just a diassociative delusion. The fact that he is momentarily certain that all of the pain of his past wasn't actually real is what makes this story so heartbreaking. Kevin Conroy has said that this is his favorite episode and it might be his best performance as Bruce/Batman. He captures the arc of cautious hope and brief joy that Bruce feels and also his agony and frustration when he comes across a telltale clue he can't ignore. However, he's almost upstaged by Roddy McDowall as The Mad Hatter, who has a tearful meltdown when Batman escapes his machine. It's a profound episode that captures the tragedy at the heart of the Batman legend without slipping into nihilism like certain recent movies I could name.

5. Robin's Reckoning, parts I and II
Written by Randy Rogel
Directed by Dick Sebast

Antagonist: Tony Zucco

The Boy Wonder takes center stage in this Emmy-winning, emotional look at how the bond between Batman and Robin endures even as it becomes strained over a surprise revelation. During a routine investigation, the Dynamic Duo come across that's a mystery to Robin, but Batman knows it's an alias for the mobster that killed Dick Grayson's parents. Flashbacks to when Robin was just a little Dick (sorry, couldn't resist) vividly tell the story of how Tony Zucco sabotaged a high wire act as part of a protection racket. The scene where Dick loses his parents is worthy of Hitchcock - you feel like you've seen something horrific but all you've been shown is a close up of a cut rope. Bruce Wayne becomes his legal guardian and the scene where they discuss the nature of grief makes me tear up every single time. Back in the present, Bruce is determined to keep Robin out of the fray but it isn't long before he figures out what's going on and the two partners are at odds. Despite the conflict, the loyalty between the partners is clear, from Robin's comment that he was "trained by the best" and the contemptuous rage Batman shows towards the loathsome Zucco (Thomas F. Wilson). It's obvious he hates this guy much more than the Joker. The show initially surprised some fans with their college-age Robin in contrast to the usual preteen incarnation. The elegant contrast between the past and the present in this episode proves the wisdom of this choice.

4. Almost Got 'Im
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Eric Radomski

Antagonists: The Joker, The Penquin, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn

This beloved episode starts with a premise that can't miss - a gang of Batman's enemies sit at a poker table and swap stories about the closest they ever got to killing the Caped Crusader. Any one of these climactic moments could have ended an episode and instead we get an episode chock full of them. It's thrilling to say the least but the bigger thrill might be hearing all these voice actors play off each other. There are enough hilarious one-liners and exchanges that I could fill this whole paragraph with them. It's not a terribly deep episode like some of the others on here, but it's a shining example of the show's creativity and willingness to make the most of the talent it attracted. It also has probably the most violent moment in the entire show - that giant coin landing on the thugs. Owch!

3. Heart of Ice
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

Antagonists: Mr. Freeze and Ferris Boyle

The other Emmy-winning episode of the show, "Heart of Ice" is typically cited as the greatest episode of Batman: The Animated Series and with good reason. Dini and Timm took one of the most ridiculous villains from the original comics and turned him into a tragic figure, setting the standard for how this character would be depicted in the future. Even the ridiculous Arnold Schwarzenegger incarnation in Batman and Robin copied some of this backstory. Victor Fries (Michael Ansara) was a scientist at Gothcorp Industries who froze his wife Nora is suspended animation until a cure for her terminal illness could be found. Unfortunately, keeping Nora frozen 24/7 must have really driven up the utility bills because Gothcorp CEO Ferris Boyle demands that the machine be turned off regardless of what happens to her. In the ensuing fight, Boyle knocks Fries into a table of chemicals and now he can only survive in extreme cold. We've seen this theme many times while going over this list, but this episode is the ultimate example of petty corporate cruelty creating a deadly villain. Or is Mr. Freeze a villain at all? It's hard not to feel for him when he describes how he'll never be able to walk in the sunshine or hold a hand. Meanwhile, the top-notch animation beautifully renders Freeze's ice blasts and Shirley Walker's music box theme for the character gives the episode much of his emotional weight.

2. Two-Face, parts I and II
Written by Alan Burnett and Randy Rogel
Directed by Kevin Altieri

Antagonists: Rupert Thorne and Two-Face

All these years later, there is no episode that haunts me more. It could have easily topped the list, but given the character, I couldn't resist placing it at number 2. One of the show's smartest moves was introducing Harvey Dent (Richard Moll, brilliant) early on as a friend of Bruce Wayne and giving him important roles in several episodes before his transformation into Two-Face. As district attorney, Dent is dead set on bringing down the mobster Rupert Thorne (the late John Vernon, also brilliant) but things get dicey when Thorne discovers that Dent has been concealing an escalating case of multiple-personality disorder. The scenes of Dent struggling with how the stigma of mental illness could affect his career as district attorney really hit home and the dialogue is just so good that you can't help but get invested. When the inevitable happens and Harvey's face is disfigured on one side in an explosion, the heartbroken look on Batman's face says it all. It's so powerful that it impacts every future appearance of Two-Face in the series. I once had a professor who told me that the appeal of the King Arthur story is that the audience always wants to believe Camelot can succeed despite knowing that it is doomed. A different kind of story obviously, but every time I see this episode I find myself hoping against reality that maybe this time Harvey Dent will work everything out. But he never does.

1. The Man Who Killed Batman
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce Timm

Antagonists: The Joker, Harley Quinn, Rupert Thorne and Sid the Squid

Similar to "The Joker's Favor," this episode shows how a figure like Batman appears to an ordinary person. A clumsy wimp named Sidney (Matt Frewer) tries to get in on the Gotham City crime scene and winds up a lookout. In the ensuing confrontation, it appears that "Sid the Squid" has accidentally killed the Dark Knight. Seeing the reactions of other characters, heroic and villainous alike, is both touching and amusing since we know there's no way Batman's actually dead. As Batman's oldest adversary, we know the Joker must be heard from and he gives a hilarious eulogy followed by Harley Quinn playing "Amazing Grace" on a kazoo. Reportedly, the dialogue for this whole sequence had to be recorded in one take because everyone in the studio was laughing too hard afterwards to do it again. Because we only see Batman through Sid's perspective, we understand the awe and intimidation he inspires in people, which is something you can take for granted when you're usually getting the stories from his point of view. His triumphant return at the end of this episode could very well be the most badass moment in the entire show. "The Man Who Killed Batman" could have served as a series finale since it sums up so much about what makes both the character and the show great.