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 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.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Oscars 2016 Educated Guesses

If Saoirse Ronan wins Best Actress, she'll be the first Irish citizen to do so. That's the best we've got for diversity this year, sorry. Welcome to the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite and another round of bad press for the Oscars. I get the sense that the organization's leadership never saw this coming. They assumed the voters would be chastened by last year's controversy and they even invited Chris Rock to host this year's telecast. The current head of the Academy, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, is a black woman herself and has promised a huge membership drive among female and non-white professionals in the industry. Still, that must be awkward. At this point, the nominations can't be redone (if they could, here's my take on how that might look) and all that's left to do is count down the days until Rock slices them to ribbons on national television with his famously sharp wit.

In an effort to find something useful to say, I went through the Oscar nominees for the last couple of decades. Before last year, the Oscars hadn't had a "so white" year since 1997. Now all of a sudden it happens two years in a row - what changed? The only major changes have been to the Best Picture category. The new "preferential" voting that can produce anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees depending on the enthusiasm behind individual films makes it especially hard to predict. Why not just have 10 nominees each year? Well, they did that for a while but changed the rules to this variable format to avoid nominees that looked like filler. Still, one person's filler is another person's overlooked masterpiece and in a year like this, I can't help but wonder what the other two films would have been.

One problem that nobody else seems to be talking about is that the idea of what constitutes an "Oscar movie" has become so rigid. When minority actors do win, it tends to be the same way that white actors do - by playing a real person in a middlebrow drama, preferably one with some kind of physical or mental ailment and if possible, British. Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for playing Ray Charles in Ray, Forrest Whitaker won for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. These were "Oscar movies," regardless of the color of the actors. But wouldn't it be nice if these folks could get some recognition for great work that didn't involve pandering to the extremely specific tastes of the old honky demographic? People often say that there aren't enough good roles out there for actors of color, and that's true, but let's not let the Academy off too easily. There are still enough to show up in at least one of these categories.

This year, I've heard people express surprise that Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about the early days of N.W.A., didn't get a Best Picture nomination. Its quality aside, I could have told you months ago that no movie that features a song called "Fuck the Police" was ever going to be a big player at the Academy Awards. Therein lies the problem. The entire yearly awards process has become designed around the fogey-friendly type of film. Every year, about fifteen movies right up their alley get released right before the ball drops in Times Square and the attitude is "these are the only important movies of the past year - choose among them." Meanwhile, the preceding eleven and a half months worth of movies are lucky to have anything represented. Until they get out of this rut and actually try to make the Oscars a real celebration of a year in film and not just the two weeks before New Year's Day, this won't change. In that light, a summer action film like Mad Max getting so many nominations is actually a small step in the right direction.

But enough of that for now. There are approximately 100 billion thinkpieces out there about this topic if you're interested. We're here to predict winners so let's get down to it.

Best Animated Feature
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep
When Marnie Was There

Who Will Win: Even though I've been ragging on the Academy for their lazy approach to the job, I do get the sense that the people who vote in this category really do make an effort to see all the year's animated films. The results speak for themselves. Such a great list of movies makes me wish it were more competitive this year, but the critically acclaimed smash hit Inside Out is the likely winner. Against a weaker Pixar film, Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion Anomalisa or Studio Ghibli's haunting When Marnie Was There could have upset, but that's not the case here at all.

My Choice: I could come up with arguments for any of these films to deserve the prize, but Inside Out is an instant classic that has strongly resonated with millions of people in a way you don't see that often. There's something so humane and universal about that movie and the win will be richly deserved.

Best Documentary Feature
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Who Will Win: Regardless of the results, the real winner here might be Netflix. The streaming service's exclusive documentaries have been nominated three years in a row and this time there are two in contention (the "W" ones). However, Netflix has yet to actually take home an Oscar and this time around it looks like the winner will be Amy, an archetypal "gone too soon" look at an artist's tragic life that's practically tailor-made for the Oscar voters. The closest competition is The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's second examination of Indonesians trying to cope with the lingering impact of the 1960s genocide while the killers remain in power. While highly acclaimed and truly brilliant, I fear it will suffer the same fate as its predecessor - The Act of Killing - it will be deemed too upsetting and lose to a movie about popular music. The story of Amy Winehouse is certainly sad but it doesn't go to the same dark places.

My Choice: First, it must be said: the lack of a nomination for the terrifying Scientology expose Going Clear shows just how much pull the cult still has over Hollywood. But even if it were nominated, I'd be rooting for The Look of Silence. People literally risked their lives to get this film made and to draw attention to a massive crime against humanity that the perpetrators have almost succeeded in making the world forget. History won't be kind to the Academy for not recognizing its impact when they had the chance.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short
Nick Hornby for Brooklyn
Phyllis Nagy for Carol
Drew Goddard for The Martian
Emma Donoghue for Room

Who Will Win: The preliminary writing awards this season have favored the writers of The Big Short, a movie which combines detailed explanations of financial malfeasance with fourth wall-breaking gags to create a unique take on the 2008 economic collapse. In particular, the righteous anger in the film's final scenes leaves a strong impression. To win, it will have to fend off a strong challenge from Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel. The first half of the storyline, which takes place entirely inside a tiny shed, isn't the most cinematic concept but she made it work. Close call, but I'm going with The Big Short.

My Choice: A lot of good writing here, but I think I would give it to Carol. Nagy's screenplay manages to convey a lot about the inner lives of the characters without ever being wordy or obvious (helped along considerably by the actresses of course).

Best Original Screenplay
Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland for Ex Machina
Pete Docter, Meg LaFauve and Josh Cooley for Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for Straight Outta Compton

Who Will Win: The sole nomination for the aforementioned Straight Outta Compton is for its two white screenwriters. This is like a criminal begging to get caught. As far as the winner goes, I would bet on Spotlight, which expertly turns a highly detailed journalistic investigation into riveting movie magic. Sometimes this category has a hip, contemporary streak and that could favor an upset for Ex Machina. Still, it's unlikely that Spotlight will go home empty-handed and this is its best chance for a win.

My Choice: Spotlight is excellent but if it were up to me, that statue would be going to Inside Out. It felt like with every scene, the writers had found something new and fascinating to do with the mental landscape that served as the film's setting.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara in Carol
Rachel McAdams in Spotlight
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs

Who Will Win: At the very first Academy Awards in 1929, Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for her work in three films - Sunrise, 7th Heaven and Street Angel. It wasn't long before the Academy settled on the "one actor, one movie" convention but sometimes appreciation for a larger body of work can influence the votes. That's the best reason I can come up with as to why Alicia Vikander is poised to win for The Danish Girl, a by-the-numbers piece of Oscar bait that hasn't even inspired much enthusiasm among the people it was tailor-made for. Vikander appeared in a number of movies this year, the most significant of which was Ex Machina. I suspect that movie came within striking distance of a Best Picture nomination and her spooky performance as a humanoid robot was easily the highlight, making it a big influence on this category's results despite not actually being nominated. Kate Winslet has also taken some trophies this season for Steve Jobs, but I think most people are sick of the endless worship of this man regardless of how good she and the movie might be.

My Choice: Rooney Mara, although it was clearly a leading role and she has no business competing in this category. It's become a common practice among studios to dump leading roles (usually female) in this category to avoid tougher competition. So common that it now has a name - "category fraud." It's a shame her work was compromised by this sleazy maneuvering because she was the heart and soul of that movie.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale in The Big Short
Tom Hardy in The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight
Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone in Creed

Who Will Win: This category's been a wild ride. Just about every Oscar pundit (including me, if I am deserving of such a title) was sure Idris Elba would be nominated for his epic performance as a depraved African warlord in Beasts of No Nation. Clearly we all underestimated the strength of #OscarsSoWhite cause here we are and he's not here. However, he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award and despite the huge amount of overlapping membership, SAG embarrassed the Academy by giving Elba the honor (and making the most reliable indicator for this category's results not helpful this time). Early in the season, the favored nominee was Mark Rylance for his enigmatic spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. His momentum has since been eclipsed by Sylvester Stallone, who returned to his classic role of Rocky Balboa, now training Apollo Creed's son. Say what you will about Stallone's career as a whole but he knows this character. Rocky is one of the most beloved characters in film history and yet Stallone never won an Oscar for bringing him to life. I don't think the voters are going to be able to resist. Expect Chris Rock to make some variation of the following joke - "They made a black Rocky movie and the only one that got nominated was White Rocky!"

My Choice: I think it's shameful that Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler weren't nominated, but it isn't Stallone's fault and I can't root against Rocky.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett in Carol
Brie Larson in Room
Jennifer Lawrence in Joy
Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Who Will Win: Brie Larson has been a steamroller during the preliminary awards and shows no signs of slowing down. As usual with this category, the competition's not all that inspiring. Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence might as well be given permanent nominations at this point while hardly anyone has seen Charlotte Rampling's movie. Larson's only formidable opponent is Saoirse Ronan, whose enchanting performance in a much less disturbing film surely has fans among the voters. An upset is possible in theory but don't bet on it.

My Choice: Brie Larson is the real deal and an extraordinary talent. Anyone impressed by Room owes it to themselves to check out her performance as a youth counselor in Short Term 12.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
Matt Damon in The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

Who Will Win: It looks like the sixth time will be the charm for Leonardo DiCaprio. The Revenant's publicity machine has gone nuts with stories painting the film's shoot as an Apocalypse Now-esque ordeal where Leo ate livers in the bitter cold for the sake of his art. It's very silly but it seems to have worked. Can anyone beat him? Matt Damon is too funny in The Martian and didn't eat nearly enough livers. Michael Fassbender has the misfortune of being in a movie that nobody wanted to see but was made anyway for some reason...and he also didn't eat enough livers. If Eddie Redmayne hadn't won just last year, he'd be a serious threat. That guy has mastered the art of Oscar baiting very quickly and I'm sure he's already in negotiations for a movie about a famous liver-eating Englishman with restless leg syndrome. As for Bryan Cranston, I suppose there could be some cathartic value in giving him an Oscar for playing a blacklisted screenwriter who had to compete for an Oscar under a false name during the height of the Red Scare...but the role's lack of liver-eating works against him. This is Leo's year, folks. Enjoy the memes while you still can.

My Choice: I may be teasing him, but DiCaprio's given a lot of great performances and he deserves this at some point. Still, I prefer Cranston out of this group. The movie was average but he really dug deep.

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson for Room
Alejandro G. Inarritu for The Revenant
Tom McCarthy for Spotlight
Adam McKay for The Big Short
George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road

Who Will Win: This has been another highly unpredictable category. The early prediction was that Ridley Scott would win his first Oscar for The Martian, but then he didn't show up in the final five. Scott did get nominated for the telltale Directors Guild award but that went to Inarritu, who just won all these awards last year for Birdman. I wouldn't have thought this a month ago, but it looks like Inarritu will be the first person in 65 years to win this category two years in a row. The only other directors to ever pull this off are John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Quite an accomplishment.

My Choice: George Miller. The amount of mayhem on display in Mad Max was amazing to behold and it was all done with real vehicles and explosions. Everyone talks about how tough it was to make The Revenant but they didn't even use a real bear! Try shooting a movie in the desert about flipping spiked cars and guys flying through the air on stilts and eating livers might not seem quite as impressive. At least Miller already has an Oscar, but not for this category. He took home one for Best Animated Feature as the director of Happy Feet.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Who Will Win: The toughest category of the night and the trickiest race in at least ten years. Typically you look for a consensus among the various guilds when trying to pick this category, but that's no help this year. The Producers Guild went with The Big Short, the Screen Actors Guild picked Spotlight and the Directors Guild chose The Revenant. It's safe to say it's going to be one of these three, but which one? It's a tough call. The Big Short is an incredibly relevant film in an election year but it's also hilarious and comedy doesn't do so well at the Oscars. Spotlight has a lot more gravitas and a win would be a moving gesture of solidarity for all the victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Yet I can't shake the feeling that everything is coalescing around The Revenant. It surprises me because underneath all its gorgeous cinematography is a pretty basic revenge plot, but all the "liver eating" coverage makes it look like a tribute to the craft of filmmaking and overcoming major challenges to get your vision on the screen. That's my guess and while I may sound sure of myself, I'm not. This could be the first time I've been wrong about Best Picture since 2006, when I incorrectly predicted that Little Miss Sunshine would score an upset victory. We'll see how it plays out.

My Choice: My opinion is as follows - Spotlight > Room > The Big Short > Mad Max > Bridge of Spies > The Martian > Brooklyn > The Revenant. Maybe it's all the coverage of this year's controversies talking but all I can think of are the great films that didn't make it this far. I'll always enjoy predicting the Oscars no matter how out of touch they are, but as a film buff, I can't help but hope they expand their horizons in the coming years.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The First Annual "Perfect World" Awards

The Oscar nominations are this week and much grumbling will surely ensue. This was a pretty great year and there will be many deserving movies and performers left out regardless of how the nominees look. I thought I would try something new this year and stack the Oscar categories not with what I think will win but what I think deserves the recognition. The difference between the two will be very clear by the end of the week, I'm sure. I've chosen to call this the Perfect World Awards, although I'm still going to try and adhere by what I know of the Oscar rules. Take a look and feel free to add your own in the comments if you're so inclined.

Best Picture
Inside Out
It Follows
The Look of Silence

Plausibility: Since the rules change in 2011, the amount of Best Picture nominees can be anywhere from 5 to 10 depending on the enthusiasm for the individual films. With that in mind, it's tempting to just stack this one with all the films from my Top 10 list. But thinking it over, a few of them just didn't really seem like a good match even though I love them. One of them (White God) actually isn't eligible because although its US release was this year, it came out in Hungary last year and was submitted for the Foreign Language category (didn't make it).

So how realistic is this? Well, Room and Spotlight have a very good chance of making the list this year. Pixar movies have been nominated since the rules changed and Inside Out could very well show up. Creed is a long shot but it could happen. Advantageous had far too small of a release to even get on the Academy's radar. It Follows is a horror film so it will get no respect. As for The Look of Silence, there's no rule against a documentary making the Best Picture nominee list but it's never happened before so it's not likely to start now.

Best Director
Ryan Coogler for Creed
George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road
David Robert Mitchell for It Follows
Joshua Oppenheimer for The Look of Silence
Jennifer Phang for Advantageous

Plausibility: We are way into wishlist territory here. Believe it or not, the only one here with a decent shot at getting nominated is George Miller depending on how well Mad Max does. Ryan Coogler would only show up if Creed had an unexpectedly huge showing. Mitchell has no chance, which is a real shame since It Follows was one of the year's most visually striking movies in any genre. It takes a much bigger film than Advantageous to get a female director a nomination. As for Oppenheimer, this is another category where documentaries just don't show up but if his body of work continues to be as astonishing as the two Indonesia movies, maybe he'll be the first someday. Maybe.

Best Actor
John Ashton in Uncle John
Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight
Michael B. Jordan in Creed
Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Umm...somewhat plausible, if unlikely. Bryan Cranston probably has the best chance for his performance as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In addition to doing great work, Hollywood just loves movies about itself. Jordan needs Creed to perform big to have a chance. Jackson is a long shot, but could be a potential surprise. Even though John Ashton's performance is my favorite on this list, Uncle John was seen by very few people. As for Mark Ruffalo, this is a little unorthodox because the studio is pushing him for Supporting Actor, likely because they see Best Actor as too competitive. But watching Spotlight, you can see that he's got the most screen time and is present for most of the big moments.

Best Actress
Juliana Harkavy in Last Shift
Thora Helga in Metalhead
Nina Hoss in Phoenix
Jacqueline Kim in Advantageous
Brie Larson in Room

Plausibility: It was tough to limit this one to five, I could have easily expanded it to ten and added Rooney Mara, Maika Monroe, Charlize Theron, Taissa Farmiga and Kitana Rodriguez. The only one here with any chance of an actual nomination is Brie Larson. Critics loved Phoenix, but that seems to be where the love ends. Last Shift is a horror film that was elevated a great deal by Juliana Harkavy's sincere performance, but it's still a horror film. A movie about metal is probably just as unlikely to get any respect so Thora Helga and her demonic makeup won't be showing up.

Then there's Jacqueline Kim, who also has no chance. It's funny - for all the talk last year about the lack of recognition for black actors, it's far more rare to see Asian actors nominated. Once again the under the radar nature of Advantageous works against it. It might be nice if the Academy members made an effort to see more movies, but more on that in a bit.

Best Supporting Actor
Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation
Michael Keaton in Spotlight
Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight
Sylvester Stallone in Creed
Ray Wise in Digging Up the Marrow

Plausibility: Not bad! Elba and Stallone are very likely to show up and Keaton also has a good shot. Kurt Russell would need a Hateful Eight sweep to get in, which is too bad because he was arguably the highlight of the film. The most unlikely is Ray Wise, an underrated actor best known for playing Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks. He really dug deep as the father of a missing child in Digging Up the Marrow, adding serious gravitas to a movie that was otherwise kind of silly.

Best Supporting Actress
Malin Akerman in The Final Girls
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria
Mya Taylor in Tangerine
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Plausibility: A little bit, but not much. Leigh is a likely nominee and Vikander may make it in, although not necessarily for that movie since she's been in several acclaimed films this year. Kristen Stewart is considered unlikely by most of the pundits, but her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria has won many other awards so I wouldn't necessarily count her out. Mya Taylor could get in if the Academy is feeling extremely progressive, which is rare despite Fox News always insisting that they're communists out to turn everyone gay or whatever. Malin Akerman has absolutely no chance, which is a shame because she was one half of the mother-daughter relationship that made The Final Girls surprisingly heartfelt and moving for a goofy meta-comedy.

I could do more categories, but I think that's enough. It's safe to say the nominations won't look much like this. Still, what I find sadder is that people might look at this and be like "Oh, you're just trying to be politically correct." But I'm not. All I'm doing is looking at the last year in film beyond the typical Oscar bait. Once you do that, the nominees do start to look a little more diverse. Rather than trying to find one or two performances by minorities to coalesce around each year, the way to truly start to fix the Academy's diversity problem is to expand the definition of what an "Oscar movie" is. Why does it always need to be formulaic biographies of famous disabled people or stories about just how spectacular the life of an artist is? Until that changes, the nominations won't.

Hope you guys enjoyed this new activity. Before long, I'll be back with the more familiar ritual of trying to guess the winners. See you then!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Top Ten Films of 2015

A bad year for the world. A good year for movies. The connection between the two illustrates once again that difficult times can produce great art. That may feel like a small comfort but I believe it still is one. Personally, I always feel a little better when it becomes clear that there are writers and artists out there who share our passions and frustrations. This year was particularly great for that - many of the films on this list reflect the times in which they were made, providing the kind of insight and empathy that you don't usually get from the usual barrage of depressing headlines. Aside from that, there was also a nice amount of just flat-out good movies this year. Let's talk about some of them!

10. Unfriended
Since the turn of the century, there have been attempts to create an "internet horror film" - a movie with a storyline centered on internet and social media culture that would embody our cultural anxieties about the march of technology. The numerous movies made with this goal in mind ranged from disappointing to downright awful until Unfriended came along. It was dismissed by most critics and genre buffs as just another cheap generic horror movie and admittedly the trailers and commercials did little to dispel that perception. Regardless, Unfriended is a clever, layered film that speaks to both the times we live in and the timeless struggles of adolescence. It fully commits to its central conceit of telling a story entirely through one teenage girl's activity on her laptop, providing exposition through internet browsers, social media posts and instant message conversations. During a group chat on Skype, a mysterious screen name shows up and begins to cause trouble. Over the course of this real-time story, characters who initially conform to the usual teen stereotypes (good girl, bad girl, nerd, jock, etc) reveal secrets and sides of themselves that the audience doesn't expect. It's a solid horror film, but what's most impressive is how honest the script is about the gossip, humiliations and cruel betrayals of high school, all amplified through the social media that is now being used to torment the perpetrators.

9. Room
Brie Larson has been doing great work for a few years now, staying just under the radar. This year, it was Room that got everyone's attention and what a role - she plays a woman who has been held captive in a shed for seven years. She's even given birth to her captor's child during her imprisonment. Now five years old, the boy (Jacob Tremblay) has never seen the outside world other than on television, which he believes is all fake. When the imprisonment ends (in an amazingly tense scene), the more complicated second half begins as Joy struggles with introducing her son to the real world, dealing with intrusive journalists and her own lingering trauma. Larson gives a vivid portrait of a woman worn down by abuse but still desperate to be the best parent she can and the 7-year-old Tremblay acts way beyond his years. The emotional and oddly heartwarming script turns the stuff of lurid evening news stories into a surprisingly universal story of dealing with change and moving on from hard times.

8. White God
"Never work with children or animals" is an old showbiz adage and now, thanks to CGI, directors don't have to even try. Growing up with films like The Adventures of Milo and Otis and Homeward Bound, I remember going to see the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians and feeling bitterly disappointed when I realized that the most memorable dog antics were performed by digital stand-ins. If I wanted to see animated animals, I'd go back to the original movie! It's been a pet peeve of mine with animal-themed movies ever since, but the dogs in White God are the real deal. At this point, I should clarify that this allegorical Hungarian epic is not for kids and doesn't shy away from what the life of a stray dog is like in a big city. Hagen, the lead dog, finds himself on the street and the cruelty of the outside world turns him from a wimpy lapdog into a lethal beast. It all culminates in a brilliant sequence where nearly 300 real-life dogs wreak havoc on the city. Majestic, humorous and a little scary, director Kornél Mundruczó set the record for the amount of dogs filmed in a single scene. The whole film is a powerful experience with an important message for those who run this cruel world we live in - one thing humans and dogs have in common is that we can only be pushed so far before we push back...hard.

7. Metalhead
I can hear it now. "Rob only put this one the list because it's about metal." Nope, that's not how it works. Sure, the reason this tiny Icelandic film caught my attention was because it's about metal, but it made the list because it's a moving and sensitive story about grief and how music can become part of your identity in difficult times. After her brother dies in a senseless farming accident, young Hera (Thora Helga) latches on to the heavy music that he loved. The movie takes place in the mid-1990s, when early black metal bands burned down a series of churches in nearby Norway, an act of revenge for the old Viking beliefs that was interpreted by the media as Satanism. Needless to say, Hera walking around in demonic-looking face paint in a microscopic town where everyone goes to the same Catholic church causes a bit of an uproar. Director Ragnar Bragason beautifully uses the stark Iceland landscape to complement the storyline and while any sort of music can become meaningful to listeners, metal was the only choice for this particular story. Metal is defined by its sincerity about topics most people don't want to talk about, especially loss and death, helping Hera to deal with her trauma while her neighbors are ready for the family to be over it. The movie is just as sincere...and features the most heartwarming use of Megadeth you're ever likely to see.

6. Creed
There wasn't much demand for yet another movie with Rocky Balboa in it, but thankfully this film came along in a year where revisiting old stories yielded quite a bit of success. Like The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed does justice to its acclaimed forebears while reworking the classic story for a new era. Michael B. Jordan cuts a heroic figure as Adonis Creed, the out of wedlock son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's friend and rival. Hoping to make the cut as a boxer, Adonis seeks out his "uncle" (Sylvester Stallone, who may not have had the most illustrious career but he knows this character cold) and once the sports media learns his last name, he's pitted against an intimidating opponent. Anyone who's seen the other Rocky movies will be able to guess most of the plot points, but director Ryan Coogler (who worked with Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station) stages everything with considerable skill. Case in point - the already famous boxing match in the middle of the film that's depicted in one single moving shot. It's the best film in the series since the first one and proves that a simple underdog story is still irresistible when done this well. Try not to tear up when Rocky revisits the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

5. Advantageous
This little-seen independent film is hard to summarize, but I'll do my best. Advantageous is a small, quiet science-fiction drama starring Jacqueline Kim as Gwen, a mother trying to secure a future for her daughter Jules. Even though her daughter has a genius-level intellect and perfect grades, getting her into college and then into a good job is considered a huge long shot in the world of this not-so-distant future. If that sounds hyperbolic, you're probably at least middle-aged and haven't witnessed crowds of top-ranked students from top-ranked schools with gigantic student loan debts desperate for even the most miserable bottom of the ladder corporate job. This is a movie about the Millennial experience, so get your stupid 'participation trophy' jokes out of your system now...and by the way, I never got one of those despite being in a lot of after-school groups. I think it's a myth. In Advantageous, the economy of things is doing fine, it's the economy of people that has collapsed. Gwen's response to this uphill battle is to take a chance on some risky new technology that could bring her enough money to get her daughter's foot in the door. Elegantly directed by Jennifer Phang, this is a smart, thoughtful movie that holds a mirror up to the audience and asks how we can possibly survive as a society that throws away the future of its youth for short-term profit.

4. It Follows
This unexpected hit was the moment that the New Wave of Horror had fully arrived. It's been slowly making its mark for most of the current decade and It Follows is a perfect demonstration of what this movement is about. Director David Robert Mitchell and his peers are out to restore the artistic credibility of horror films which has mostly been absent since the 1970s. In particular, the popular found footage subgenre has to sacrifice polish to achieve its essential verisimilitude. (For all its virtues, Unfriended is a variation on the found footage concept and by necessity is not a particularly great looking movie). With its stunning deep focus cinematography and distinctive soundtrack, It Follows is one of the most aesthetically impressive horror films in a long time. Still, such a great presentation would be wasted if the story and concept weren't able to match it. Lead character Jay (Maika Monroe) contracts a curse that spreads like a venereal disease and now finds herself pursued by a bizarre entity who takes different human forms depending on the situation. Wherever she is, the creature is slowly walking towards her. As she and her tight-knit group of friends try to maintain distance from the monster, the viewer is treated to a series of harrowing encounters and twisted imagery. The ambiguity of the antagonist has become fodder for a huge amount of think pieces - does it represent urban decay? Buried trauma? The shame of catching an STD? The inevitability of death? The director isn't saying and I suspect the movie will inspire these questions for years to come.

3. The Look of Silence
This documentary is a sequel to The Act of Killing, which was my top film of 2013 and possibly of the decade. Like its predecessor, The Look of Silence examines the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of communists, public intellectuals and ethnic Chinese were slaughtered by local gangsters recruited by the government. This dark piece of history is still mostly unknown to the public (although not quite as much now thanks to The Act of Killing) and the powers that be in Indonesia remain unrepentant. This time, director Joshua Oppenheimer follows a civilian named "Adi" (a fake name, these movies are truly dangerous) whose brother was killed during the massacre. Under the pretense of administering eye exams, he confronts the retired thugs who were behind the murder. Hoping for some expression of remorse or admission of wrongdoing, Adi somehow manages to keep a straight face when the perpetrators respond with callous nonsense and chide him for "talking politics." Like its predecessor, the movie is brilliant but deeply disturbing, but the two movies have a surprisingly different feel. While The Act of Killing was loud and bustling, The Look of Silence is quiet and contemplative. Together, they make for an eye-opening story of injustice, corruption and tragedy that, short of the arrival of some peaceful utopia on Earth, will always be relevant.

2. Spotlight
Spotlight is the true story of a early-2000s Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church's penchant for child molestation that starts small but gradually implicates nearly a hundred priests. American culture has a habit of dealing with uncomfortable subjects using ridicule and we've certainly done that with this issue. Spotlight impressively makes the viewer forget about years of late-night comedy zingers and brings home the true horror of these incidents without sensationalism or excess. As the reporters dig deeper, they realize that many facets of society at large knowingly or unknowingly enabled these abuses, including the media. More than other movies about crusading reporters, this one illustrates the fine line newspapers walk between being a public service and a commercial enterprise. As the reporters find out more, the editors begin to fear the negative implications such an expose could have on their careers. The script avoids melodrama in favor of a painstaking recreation of the detailed investigation. The realism is enthralling and director Tom McCarthy wisely keeps the, ahem, spotlight on the terrific ensemble - Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Liev Schriber and Brian D'Arcy James.

1. Inside Out
A lot of people get emotional during movies but Pixar's best film in years has been moving audiences all over the world on a scale not seen very often. The studio captured something universal with their heartfelt fantasy about personified emotions navigating the life of the young girl whose brain they inhabit. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust are all brought to colorful life thanks to the film's perfect casting (Lewis Black as Anger is truly inspired) and while a lesser movie might have had Anger and Fear as villains, there are no antagonists in this Miyazaki-esque adventure. Every emotion has a role to play, which is an important message in a society where boys are told they can't cry and girls hear that getting angry isn't ladylike. But it's not all heavy - this is still an animated family film and there are plenty of wacky adventures to be had as the emotions explore different parts of the mind. The movie truly makes the most of its fun premise and is constantly surprising you with its creativity (the dream production studio was my favorite bit). This time of year brings the usual pile-up of prestigious dramas out to tug on your heartstrings and grab some awards, but none of them offer the same laughs and emotional catharsis of Inside Out. It's the total package.

Honorable Mentions: Going Clear, Mad-Max: Fury Road, The Final Girls, Uncle John, Spring