Let’s have a legitimate discussion about the new Star Wars films

If you are alive, you probably are aware that multibillion-dollar company and conqueror of worlds, Disney, has bought the rights to Star Wars and has been producing new movies to the once dormant franchise. The new films have released to incredible box office success (with the obvious redheaded stepchild being “Solo: A Star Wars Story”) and generally positive critical reviews. And yet, there is a nerd civil war brewing within the fanbase the likes of which civilized society is woefully unprepared to endure. The problem? Well, critics seem to like the films, mostly, but the fans do not hold the same positive opinions of them.

​Unfortunately, a real issue we have is that discussions of the film aren’t given the freedom to be explored. We have labeled each side with a quick generalization and refused to give either side any credence. The fans have been designated whiney fanboys who hate women and don’t like change, whereas Disney is this money hungry corporation hellbent on forcing a political agenda down people’s throat.

So, let’s be real here. Both sides have merits to their opinions, and both are totally out of control and uncivilized when it comes to discussing this. No film is without flaws, and to act like any criticism of a film is strictly because fans hate women is both irresponsible to make and simply untrue. On the flip side, acting as if Disney is creating these films as political propaganda is a lazy argument just because the main protagonist is a woman. Can we be reasonable and discuss the films for what they are?


​Star Wars makes up roughly 82% of my blood. I am what people in the field of psychology would describe as “obsessed” and “a nerd”. Since I was in preschool, I have been a fan of Star Wars. There is a picture of me in my Pre-K class with my friend Jake, and I am wearing a green shirt with a B1 Battle Droid from the newly minted “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, a movie that despite Jar Jar Binks, I actually love and appreciate for what it is and what it adds to Star Wars. I own several custom-made lightsabers, my most precious being Revan’s purple lightsaber from Knights of the Old Republic era, along with tons of books video games, and more LEGOs than a functioning adult should have. Do you get the picture yet? I love Star Wars.

I would like to offer my opinions of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. However, my feelings on “aesthetic” elements, such as visuals, choreography, humor, and music, I’d like to put to the side for now. Those factors can be subjective and just because I feel that they are unappealing does not mean someone else couldn’t feel the exact opposite. Just because I don’t enjoy something does not make it bad, necessarily. Instead, I am going to focus solely on storytelling, specifically if the story follows its own rules, if characters’ motivations are clear, and if elements flow together.

I guess now would be the ideal time to say I am remarkably disappointed in these new films from a structural standpoint. I am hopeful that my introduction has softened that blow enough that you are willing to listen to what I have to say.


​Disney was not shy in revealing that when they had purchased the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas in 2012, they wanted to separate themselves from his experimental prequel trilogy that had been so divisive with fans. Their goal was to recreate the magic of the original trilogy of the 1970s and 1980s that had such universal appeal to all audiences. Enter “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

​There is no secret, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (I am going to call the films TFA and TLJ from here on out) is essentially the original “Star Wars” with a fresh coat of paint. It’s not 100% the same but it is too similar to ignore. Now, that is not to say that the film is bad, it is just very unoriginal and safe. Disney knew how popular the first film was and looked to make sure their soft reboot would be financially successful by keeping the story as close to a sure thing as possible. (But, if you cheated off a person who got an A on a test, did you really get an A too or did you just duplicate someone else’s A? Food for thought.)

​Most of the new characters introduced were interesting and compelling though. While a few had many similarities to older characters, much of their pasts were mysterious and fans were eager to learn more. There was a solid base in place after TFA to build upward from to create something new and compelling.

​And then “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” happened…

​TLJ is the oil to TFA’s vinegar. They simply do not mix. This trilogy that Disney is producing has a few fatal flaws that are most perfectly exposed by the juxtaposition of these two films, one of them being there is no substantial passage of time over the course of the duration of these two movies. Why is that a problem? If you are trying to tell two interconnected stories, without realistic time for character growth, it almost feels like events are being forced together without any explanation. How can you expect a character to undergo two separate arcs in what equates to essentially a week of in universe time?

​For perspective, the original trilogy takes place over 4 years and the prequel trilogy takes place over 13 years. Meaning, once one film ends, there is a logical passage of time before the next film starts. In other words, the status quo has logical time to progress off screen in movies. You saw Anakin age 10 years in between films. He was primed for a new story to tell and was given enough time to process the experiences in his past and evolve from previous movies.

​In the Disney trilogy, TFA ends and TLJ picks up immediately after that, which essentially makes it one continuous story, and not two interconnected stories. TLJ should really be TFA: Part 2. But that isn’t what TLJ is at all.

​Here is the second fatal flaw. Disney did not have a full plan for the trilogy before they went into production. Better yet, they did not have a singular plan. TFA was written and directed by JJ Abrams but TLJ was written and directed by Rian Johnson. Other than notes about how TFA ended, Rian Johnson was given a blank canvas to create TLJ, and at this point I hope you see the point I am setting up. Rian Johnson is writing the second part to a story that JJ Abrams began.

Imagine having an idea for a story that you are so proud of. You have so many ideas and you are really excited about them. Now imagine you aren’t allowed to write the second part of it and instead someone you do not know gets to continue it, with the only knowledge they receive being where the characters are at the end of your part. Do you believe that narrative would be cohesive?

​TFA and TLJ have very different tones from each other, and that’s a problem because the main conflict of TFA was still going on 10 minutes prior to TLJ starting. The characters haven’t been given a chance to grow and process the events that occurred yet, and are essentially still continuing the same battle.

​Furthermore, questions and mysteries that JJ Abrams set up in TFA are now left to Rian Johnson to answer for him, in any way he sees fit. And unfortunately, Johnson was not very interested in the questions that Abrams posed. The story that his movie is physically touching follows rules and logic that differ from any that have come before it. It is because of this that TLJ does not fit.



​All of that is an issue but I suppose it could be overcome with proper execution, meaning none of that guarantees failure on its own. But when it came down to it, TLJ’s execution was a fatal blow.

​Let’s begin by addressing faults in the storytelling. The biggest one that circles the internet is Rey, her origins, and her abilities. TFA presents Rey as an abandoned loner waiting for her family on a forgotten desert world, until she meets Finn, a First Order Stormtrooper who deserted his post and crashed on her planet. They end up going on a reluctant adventure to save the Galaxy from the First Order’s plans, and along the way Rey discovers that she has Force powers.

​Star Wars has always been a story about family. Rey was waiting for her family and we are not told who they are. This made Rey’s family an essential mystery to who her character is. If Rian Johnson wanted to make a character who was a “nobody” but became a hero, I would have no problems with it. In fact, I would applaud him for taking a path less traveled in the franchise. The problem is TFA just spent an entire +2-hour runtime introducing the mystery and its importance. When Rey’s parentage is ultimately revealed to be nobody of any significance, it is meant to be shocking, but ends up being lazy and cheap.

​Rey’s incredible strength in the Force was also supposed to be explained by her parentage. Since she was essentially living as a recluse on a backwater scavenger planet with virtually no human interaction outside of thieves and fat aliens who sell instant-bread, her advanced powers in the Force are out-of-place. In the past, we have seen Anakin and Luke undergo Force training. They are a great reference point because they are explained to us as the two most naturally gifted Force-users in the Star Wars universe, and it took Anakin about 10 years to master the force, and Luke roughly 4 years. And both of them were under the tutelage of prominent Jedi Masters who gave them guidance and examples to follow. Rey had none of that and was already able to best the primary antagonist in TFA, and shown to be an equal in strength and combat ability again in TLJ. Mind you, there has been essentially only a week of in-universe time to lapse over the course of the two films. To many, including myself, Rey’s abilities needed an explanation or they represented a major inconsistency in the logic of the Franchise.

​When Rian Johnson told us, the viewers, that Rey was from “nobody”, he essentially told us Rey is the way she is because she is Rey, and that will be all the explanation we need. The struggle that comes along with this is it is difficult to create a compelling and relatable protagonist that has no skill weaknesses. At no point in any of the films do you truly believe she is bound to lose. The closest we get is when she goes to try and turn Kylo Ren back to the light and is forced to confront Snoke, but I will get to this later.

In the previous two trilogies, the main protagonist, Anakin and Luke, suffer a chopped off right hand at the hands of the primary antagonist. This was used as a way of saying that the protagonist still had a way to go before they could matchup against their foes, and that their arcs are not yet completed. Rey escapes her encounter with Kylo and Snoke and does not sustain an injury. In fact, she leaves proving she is Kylo Ren’s equal already (Again, this is maybe one week after we are introduced to her and maybe 4 days since she learned what the force is).

​Unfortunately, this point is always marred by claims of sexism directed towards the character of Rey. I hope this discussion isn’t bogged down by that and we can observe her as a character from an objective viewpoint.

​Is there a possibility this explanation gets overridden in the next upcoming film, directed by JJ Abrams? Quite possibly. But for the moment the main character is just willfully unexplained anomaly.


​Next, I’d like to discuss what is my personal biggest gripe with the films, and that is character motivations. This surprises me how little traction this issue has gotten when, to me, it is just so glaring.

​The main characters of the trilogy are Rey, Kylo, and Finn. Finn is actually well written and I find him to be believable and compelling. I don’t think he is flawless, but you understand why he does what he does and feels the way he feels. In fact, if he had been allowed to complete his heroic sacrifice at the end of TLJ instead of forcing in an unnecessary kiss between two characters with no chemistry, he would have had an incredibly satisfying character arc. He would have learned courage and sacrificed himself for something greater. To his credit, he was in the process of doing just that until he was interrupted, so I am going to count it as a win for him.

​As for Rey and Kylo, they are not blessed by being well written (I will say that they are well acted and the actors should be praised for that). Let’s start with Rey since we were just talking about her and there isn’t as much of a rant for her as there is for Kylo.

​I’ve already discussed Rey’s family as an ignored focal point of her character, and how the lack of time lapse has made her growth seem illogical by the rules of the franchise. But now I would like to discuss her motivations as a flaw.

​As I mentioned, Rey is an abandoned scavenger waiting for her family. She lives on Jakku, which is a desert wasteland. The society there is not very technologically advanced, and almost everything that they have is scavenged from crashed starships. No one is really in communication with the rest of the Galaxy and no one really seems to talk to each other unless it is about scavenging or food. It is pretty clear that Rey is not watching Galactic CNN and getting her news about the ongoing wars of the First Order and the Resistance either. She has likely zero exposure to the main conflict of the films prior to our introduction to her as a character. And that is a problem.

​In the original trilogy, Luke was on a desert planet too, but it was occupied by the Galactic Empire. He lived through the struggle before we meet him. He knows about the rebellion because many of his friends have gone off to join them. He wasn’t a galactic recluse. He had a stake in the battle, even if he didn’t feel that strongly until the Empire killed his Aunt and Uncle. Rey not knowing about the conflict is signified by the fact that when she hears the name Han Solo, she only knows him as a smuggler and not a war hero.

​So, the question I pose is how does she know what is morally the right side of the fight so quickly? Yes, Han and Finn tell her, but she grew up not trusting anybody on a world of thieves. Why does she trust these two random people that essentially fell out of the sky, whom almost got her killed within the first 10 minutes of knowing them and she met not two hours ago? The obvious answer is plot progression and do not think about it, and I can actually stomach that part. But then we get into TLJ again.

​Her role in TLJ focuses mainly on interacting with Luke and Kylo. Kylo previously tried to torture and kill her, and did kill Han right in front of her, so it is understandable that she wasn’t too keen on believing him when he said the Jedi are bad. But then she meets Luke. And Luke spends the entire time with her trying to convince her that Kylo was right.

And she doesn’t believe him…

What makes her so sure that both of the people, who are clearly on opposite ends of the conflict she knew nothing about a week ago, are lying to her? How does she know better than them? Luke confirms that he tried to kill Kylo in his sleep. He confirmed that the Jedi were responsible for the rise of the Sith. And he confirmed what Kylo said in that the Jedi need to end for the sake of the Galaxy. Rey did not know anything about this a week ago, if I haven’t mentioned that before.

But fine, Rey picked her side and is sticking to it. Maybe I can live with it seeing as though I don’t see many other people having an issue with it. She is the main protagonist and the audience already knows she is supposed to be “the good guy”, so it just confirms expectations and that is enough for most people.

Kylo’s motivations are different than Rey’s. Kylo is presented as a character that was involved in the central conflict of the trilogy before we are introduced. He is well versed in what each side stands for and doesn’t rely on another character to provide information in order to adjust his allegiance. The first scene of the trilogy shows Kylo leading a First Order hit squad to massacre a village on Jakku in order to find a map that the Resistance has. He’s the bad guy just like that.

My issue is not that he is bad, it is that the filmmakers attempt to explain his motivations for doing so with exceptionally faulty reasoning, and I am baffled at the praise that is directed towards that faulty reasoning.

We are told on multiple occasions that Kylo was attacked by Luke in his sleep because Luke felt “the darkness” in him, whatever that means. Seriously, we don’t know what it is he felt. Considering the age of Kylo at the time, it honestly could have been nothing more than teenaged angst or the desire to burn aunts with a magnifying glass. But basically, Luke tried to assassinate his teenaged nephew in his sleep because of a gut feeling. That is ridiculous, but its honestly not even the point I am trying to make.

I’ll phrase my point in a reflective question: Can anybody tell me why Kylo is evil to begin with? I have not yet received an explanation that is satisfying. Most of them explain that he felt so betrayed by Luke and his family that he went to the First Order. But Kylo was only attacked by one man. He has every right to hate Luke. But he reacts to Luke trying to kill him by slaughtering children and destroying star systems. There seems to be a bit of a jump to me.

Another explanation I am given is that Snoke corrupted him, and to that I say “duh”. Of course, Snoke corrupted him, but with what? With fear? With promises of power? We aren’t given a real explanation for that. He is angry and therefore he is evil.

A major reason why this problem exists is because we know less than nothing about the First Order. They are essentially a carbon copy of the Galactic Empire from the original trilogy, with one key difference: The Empire was a government and the First Order isn’t. When the Empire is presented to us, our need for an explanation is not as great because their presence was established as a status quo from the moment the first film began. They needed to be overcome because they are an oppressive government and they want to preserve their power. It is simple and doesn’t require too much thought. Unfortunately for the writers, the Empire was defeated after “Return of The Jedi” and was no longer the established status quo. Instead, the “good guys” are the established power by the time TFA begins and the reason for this supposedly new threat, the First Order, is just treated as if they are the same thing as the Empire, when they aren’t. We are left to assume that the First Order has the same goals as the Empire. Afterall, their fleet consists of Tie Fighters and walkers just the same as the Empire. But if they are a lazy copycat, does that really result in an objectively good idea? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

When Luke defeats the Emperor and Darth Vader at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, the two heads and guiding forces of the Empire are gone, essentially signifying the end of the Empire as a whole. When TFA shows us the First Order, it is headed by Grand Master Snoke, a character we have never met before. We do not know how Snoke took control of the First Order. Did he create the organization? What are his goals for the organization? What does he want from Kylo? We are given this character and are expected to treat him like he is new but also the exact same as what came before him. And when Snoke was abruptly killed off in TLJ by Kylo (Spoiler Alert), his story ends without any of that information being answered, which is a monumental let down because Snoke was presented as a brand-new threat from a mysterious Unknown Region of space.

What is even worse is that Star Wars has created different villains than we have been given in other popular mediums. When Disney purchased Star Wars in 2012, they declared the old Expanded Universe of stories would retroactively become noncanonical so Disney could fill in their own Expanded Universe. As a fan of the old EU, this hurts but I understand it. Disney had a vision and they wanted the freedom to create their universe. But just because they no longer consider those old stories cannon does not mean they do not exist. And what is better, Disney still owns the rights to those stories (and sells them at book stores) so they have access to the information to use as influence to create their new universe.

In the old EU, there were a plethora of Sith and other antagonists that were compelled by more than just a quest for power. Some of these characters are so fondly remembered by fans for how unique and special they were in the Star Wars mythos.

One character in particular is Darth Bane, of whom a trilogy of novels was written about. His story was told as one where he, a Dark Lord of the Sith, is the protagonist, which is already a new approach. Darth Bane’s goals were first to reform the Sith by killing them all off. By doing so, he was able to put an end to the infighting and backstabbing that took place within the ranks of the Sith. He saw the value in only having two Sith at a time to keep order and infiltrate the Galaxy from the shadows. One Sith, the master, embodies power, and the other, the apprentice, craves power. This symbiosis keeps the flow of Sith knowledge constant from one generation to the next. His plans then go awry when his chosen apprentice does not seem up to the challenge of overthrowing him for the mantle of master, and so he then quests on for the knowledge to preserve his own life until he can find a proper successor. His motivations for his actions are not simply to gain more power. In fact, he openly accepts that he will not live to see the fruition of the execution of his own grand plan. His goals are knowledge and his motivations are preservation of beliefs.

Another character is Kreia, also known as Darth Traya. She was a complex character from the video game “Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords” who acted as both a mentor for the main character and the ultimate antagonist for the story. What makes Kreia so great is her wisdom. She preaches changes in perspective of the world, to understand how your actions echo onto those around you, and how to use this understanding to manipulate the Galaxy. While it is not revealed immediately that Kreia is also the mysterious Darth Traya, there is no real fundamental difference between the two aliases. Neither is power obsessed, standing in stark contrast to other Sith Lords. In fact, she claims she has no love for the Sith nor the Jedi. Her goal is to teach the main character to be able to think. She admits that there is no victory in winning without your opponent understanding. Her objective is actually to destroy the Force because she finds the fact that the Force has a will of its own that dominates the wills of individuals to be abhorrent. But when she is defeated in the end, she feels as though it is a victory because the protagonist finally learns the lessons she has trying to teach, and that she loved her for that. In my humble opinion, Kreia is the strongest character ever written in the entirety of the Star Wars mythos, both cannon and legends.

And in contrast with dark side characters like these, the simplicity of the end result of Snoke seems grossly negligent. Disney had the resources available to know that more complex villains could be written in Star Wars and chose to dumb it down and retread the same ground films from 30 years prior had already done. But we got what we were given and now, Kylo inherits the rank of main antagonist and the First Order follows him. But still to that moment, it is still just an evil organization that is evil because good is weak. We deserve better than that.

On the positive, there is actually a ton of potential for Kylo based on what is already established. Assume the explanation is nothing more than just “Kylo was lost and corrupted by his anger and that is why he joined Snoke”. Ok, Snoke is still a total waste but now, where Kylo stands at the end of TLJ is ripe for an actual philosophical agenda. Kylo hates the Jedi but he also hates Snoke and apparently the First Order too (even though he seized control). He tells Rey he wants to burn it all down and start over without all of this and that is what he should be doing. His whole life, he was treated as a tool by sides that betrayed him. Kylo has legitimate reasoning for becoming a radical anarchist (a friend of mine gave me this idea). It would be a fresh take on the Star Wars antagonist and presents a compelling motivation for his character. Unfortunately, by the end of TLJ, Kylo is the new Grand Master of the First Order, essentially invalidating his anarchic calls just moments before. It is very frustrating to see the potential there, and watch it be ignored for a more typical and simpler antagonist.

Aspects of the Story Without Meaning

​Have you ever driven down a road for about 10 minutes only to find that it ends in a dead end? Probably not considering we all have navigation in our phones nowadays, but I hope you can imagine the frustration of doing so. You would ask yourself “Why does this road even exist?” and “Did the builders know what they were doing when they started paving it?”. All of those would be very reasonable thoughts. Well, aside from the few instances I already mentioned, this incomplete trilogy is littered with points that are essentially meaningless.

​The character of Rose Tico, and her actress Kelly Marie Tran, is unfairly crucified by fans. I need to make my voice heard on this. It is appalling how people could treat another human being. She seems like an amazing person and I will say I believe she did a good job playing the character that was written for her. People look for a scapegoat to blame for all of their problems and regrettably, Kelly took the fall for something that was not her fault.

​The character of Rose is oozing with potential. She offers the perspective of a Resistance fighter who lost her sister fighting the First Order in a heroic sacrifice. Her character can be used to provide humanity and a realistic lens to view this fantastic space opera of lasers and space wizards. The failings of her character are the fault of the writers and director. They never give her anything to do, at least anything of meaning.

​Her main role in TLJ is to go on a side quest with Finn to a casino world and look for a master code breaker to hack into the enemy ship and disable their tracking long enough for the Resistance to get away. Unfortunately, the writers made that entire subplot irrelevant because of another action that I will discuss later. But essentially, Finn and Rose fail to use the codebreaker to disable the tracking, but the ship becomes disabled anyway, and they still manage to get away with the fleeing Resistance anyway. If they never left to go on their quest, they would be in the exact same position they ended up in anyways. And this quest took up roughly a third of the total runtime of TLJ. You can see why I consider this a story without meaning.

​The writers did try to sneak in a message with zero subtlety during this portion of the film about how war is bad and how you shouldn’t be cruel to animals. There is absolutely no nuance with the execution and the message comes seemingly out of nowhere as it was never even the hint of an in-universe issue prior to it becoming the biggest issue ever, apparently.

​I should mention, too, the moment in TLJ that made fans give up on Rose, purely out of the sake of being objective with my criticism. Again, this is the fault of writing and not the actor. In one of the closing scenes, Finn is about to make a heroic sacrifice to save the Resistance, and Rose makes a maneuver that stops him, putting everyone in danger, just to sneak a kiss and a message of “This is how we’ll win. Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love” or something like that. The line is so cheesy and makes little sense when she put everyone’s lives in jeopardy to tease a romance that they never built up, while simultaneously denying Finn a solid conclusion to his character arc in the process. This is an example of objectively poor writing diluting meaning from the film.

​A second example of promised story elements that were rendered meaningless is the character of Captain Phasma. Let me just say that not only was this character a waste of the talented Gwendoline Christie, but her importance was a straight up lie. There was no subtle misdirects in hopes of giving us a twist. Nope. We were lied to.

Both Abrams and Johnson are to blame for this though. In interviews and press tours, they kept claiming Captain Phasma was going to be a badass character and a focal point of each film. Well, she was relegated to roughly 1:45 of screen time in TFA, where she turned on her post at the first sign of danger and was pushed into a trash compactor. Then, Rian Johnson told us she would be getting more screen time in TLJ and this time would be out looking for revenge. Any guesses as to how much screen time she actually received? She got a cool 1:45 again and, on top of that, she did nothing in the name of revenge. Her only interaction with Finn is because he came to her on his mission (which we already know was a pointless mission too). She did not go out seeking revenge at all. But even when she was about to execute Finn, she is defeated by a Deus Ex Machina of all things. That’s right, Finn only wins because of an outside force that had nothing to do with their interaction. There is nothing satisfying about it. Then she dies and her story is over.

But Disney still has the audacity, the testicular fortitude, to sell a Captain Phasma novel after TLJ’s release! I am trying to not get emotional in my criticism but this makes me upset. We were already sold two lies of her character, and only after you tell us how meaningless her character really is to the main story, you try to sell us a book explaining why she was cool at one irrelevant point. As a fan and a consumer, this is insulting.

​However, the most egregious meaningless aspect of the trilogy is The Knights of Ren. They were teased in both the films and marketing as the new order of antagonists led by the flashy Kylo Ren. TFA has Snoke address Kylo directly as the leader of The Knights of Ren as if it is a title of significance. They appear in Rey’s force vision attempting to kill her. Naturally, they must be important. But nope. They have yet to be mentioned again and Kylo has taken control of the First Order, with seemingly no need for the Knights anymore.

​So, what are they? The answer is don’t worry about it and try to forget about it. Rian Johnson, again, had zero interest in something that JJ Abrams setup and the story suffers because of it. How could something posed as such an important aspect of a trilogy simply be forgotten about and buried?

My final point regarding the lack of meaning in these films is by the end of TLJ, the Resistance is rebranded into the Rebellion (I wonder where they got that name?), and the First Order is on the offensive. But did you notice how small everything felt? In a conflict of galaxy-wide proportions, the new rebels total maybe 50 people. The First Order, whose leader was just killed along with his capital ship and Starkiller Base (which I can only assume housed most of their resources and troops), is down to maybe a few thousand people. Leia says no one answered their pleas for rescue, and I can only conclude because nobody in the galaxy cared enough. There are barely enough participants in this war to inhabit a small rural town. The galaxy no longer seems affected by the actions of anybody involved. Rose and Finn already showed us that some planets are thriving just selling weapons to both sides, while not participating in the war themselves (Maybe there was a point to that after all). How many other planets and societies are just going about their days with no mention of this war? We were never given a real glimpse of any society except for ones that operate outside either group, so no one really knows what is at stake for the galaxy, if anything. This is just another example of how Rian Johnson wrote meaning and stakes out of the story.

Retroactively Taking Away Meaning

​Earlier, I said I would not criticize the film for anything “aesthetic” and I fully intend to stick to that. That means although I do not agree with the changes they made to Luke philosophically, someone might agree with those. That is a simple artistic choice and there is not structural issue with it. But Rian Johnson’s TLJ spends the majority of its runtime attempting to remove meaning from previous entries in the franchise, probably in an effort to allow the new trilogy to grow without being held to the expectations of what came before it. It is understandable for him as a creative filmmaker, but it is also lazy and damaging to the franchise as a whole.

​Something that Rian Johnson really seemed to have trouble grasping is that his film does not stand alone, no matter how much he wanted it to. His work seems to point to the idea that he enjoyed the properties of Star Wars but he wanted it to be different. Certain decisions he made fail to align with rules and logic established by previous films that were not his creations. Again, I understand how that can be frustrating to a filmmaker, but his lack of acceptance that he was creating an entry into a larger story has created plot holes and inconsistencies in the entirety of the franchise. His desire to subvert expectations so he could stand alone rendered major moments that came before him as moot.

​Beginning with the opening scene of TLJ, where Poe takes a single X-Wing fighter and singlehandedly disables a previously unknown ship called a “Dreadnaught”. The intimidating name and commentary by the characters suggest that this ship is dangerous, and while Poe runs into some minor inconveniences, he manages to beat the behemoth by himself in maybe a minute. This is cool, but it really invalidated all the buildup that we were given regarding the threat-level of the Dreadnaught. Furthermore, assuming the Dreadnaught is simply the new Star Destroyer and not a more advanced and dangerous model, as we are led to believe, it then makes us call into question every encounter throughout the cinematic history of Star Wars we have ever had with a Star Destroyer and wonder if they were really to be taken seriously as a threat if one pilot can disable the biggest and best one in less than a minute. Was every trained fighter pilot in both other eras that much of a step down from Poe? This is minor, however, and can simply be credited to Poe’s inhuman skill-level as a pilot. It is lazy, but okay, I’ll move on.

​The second example worth discussing is Leia’s newfound ability to take proton torpedoes to the head, float out in the vacuum of space for a few minutes, then use the Force to propel herself back into the wreckage of the ship she was ejected from due to the torpedoes. There is a note on how bad this scene looks, but maybe someone else could enjoy it. But the significance of this scene is that it rescales what is considered realistic danger for characters. Yes, Leia is the daughter of Anakin and the twin sister of Luke, meaning they should have the same natural aptitude for the Force. But no character in all of Star Wars has ever come close to surviving an event of that much damage. And Leia, to our knowledge, has never trained to learn how to use her Force powers, so if Leia can do that, she should be unkillable, and therefore Luke and Anakin should be the same. These torpedoes killed everyone else on the command bridge with Leia and she essentially survives, fatigued, but without a scratch. Now, I look back on every scene with Luke, Leia, and Anakin in the films and TV shows before TLJ as if they are characters in a video game with invincibility cheat codes.

​But if you thought that was bad, this next example renders the plots of entire movies irrelevant and unnecessary. Vice Admiral Holdo was introduced as a foil to Poe. Her no-nonsense attitude and leadership were meant to present a sharp contrast to the trigger-happy Poe, who would often act before thinking. Her presence as a character could have had a lot to offer, if written better. Her leadership skills are questionable, as she refused to reveal her plan to anyone in her own crew as she watched her own ships get destroyed. But that is not the main issue with her.

​During the Resistance’s evacuation from their doomed flagship, Holdo stays behind to pilot the ship in what is objectively a noble sacrifice. But when the escape plan is revealed, she turns her dying ship around and jumps to hyperspace and Kamikazes the entire First Order fleet by crashing into a Dreadnaught.

​This is an absurdly massive problem for Star Wars. What Rian Johnson did because he thought it would look cool, accidentally blew Death Star-sized plot holes in multiple of TLJ’s predecessors. You see, if sending a ship in hyperspace can interact with objects, like it did in this instance, it reasons that you could weaponize this ability, as Holdo did. So, the Death Star that was a threat in “A New Hope” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, the Death Star II from “Return of the Jedi”, The Droid Control Ship from “The Phantom Menace”, and Starkiller Base from TFA, could all have been taken down by an object jumping to hyperspace and crashing into them. Shouldn’t militaries just make ships, piloted by lifeless droids or autopilots and have them Kamikaze themselves regularly if there is a big enough target? In fact, what would even be the purpose of building planet-destroying superweapons if the physics of crashing objects in hyperspace could destroy planets too? It would seem the Empire waisted decades of time and resources to create a redundant ability. Why does Luke need to skim along that trench and use the Force to aim his torpedoes in the original film when the Rebels could have just launched a few ships with droids piloting them into the Death Star and not risk the human lives? Luke and the Rebels are no longer brave and heroic, but foolish. Call me crazy, but making the plots of 5 of the 10 Star Wars films irrelevant is not a good move for a franchise.

​It is important to note that this is also the Deus Ex Machina that saved Rose and Finn from the First Order, capping off their negligible adventure. See, I told you I would mention it later.


​The defense that frustrates me more than any other about these films is the claim that the original trilogy did something similar, or followed similar beats with characters. There may be merit to that point and I do understand that George Lucas wanted each episode to resemble a line of poetry and rhyme. The problem I have with using this as a defense is that if you rhymed a word with itself, everyone would tell you that you can do better.

​With regards to Snoke, I am always told “Well, we didn’t know anything about the Emperor in the Original Trilogy. He wasn’t given any motivations either and everyone loves him”. Good point hypothetical person. But we already have the Emperor in Star Wars so why do I need him again? Also, writing tropes from the 1980s are generally simpler than they are today. Just because more one-dimensional villains were acceptable at one point does not mean we should accept that standard today. Sufficient complexity should be a given when creating a compelling character and just because audiences in the 80s were okay without it, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve better now.

​TFA and TLJ both attempts to emulate what came before them, even if TLJ wanted to burn it all down at the same time. As it stands now, we still have Jedi, despite Luke’s best efforts to reform, a Rebellion, and an evil empire. I find it ironic that Rian Johnson so desperately wanted to do his own thing, yet at the last minute, he returned every character to their starting point that conveniently mirrors the stories that came before him. He essentially poked holes in a boat and then got onboard.

​If these films were just going to do what they’ve done, why even bother creating them? I know the answer is money, but I am asking purely from the creative aspect. Why bother telling these stories at all? They are devoid of meaning and purpose and if you only sought to recreate what came before them, I might as well just watch the originals.


​The reason fans are so protective of the films is because we know they are not like other films. There is no do-overs or retcons. We want it to be the best version of itself possible because we know we really only have one chance to make things right with it, and once a decision is made to put something in one of the movies, there it shall remain forever. We must learn to live with that and we have a long history of stomping our feet in useless protest over decisions we don’t agree with. But guess what. Jar Jar Binks, Jedi Council circle time, and sessions of the Senate are still part of Star Wars.

There is an old saying amongst us nerds that “no one hates Star Wars quite as much as Star Wars fans” and sadly it’s true. We are the overbearing parent demanding our child practice the piano and get straight As. We want what is best for our child, even if our child grows up resenting us for it. It’s not a healthy relationship, but you can never doubt that we care.

Although we do take our obsession to extremes, there are still logical, rational criticisms to be made of the films that are not just fans overreacting to something playing out differently in their collective heads. There are some serious flaws to these new films that are more than just annoying choices. These movies masquerade behind shallow meaning and purpose and pretend to be far more than they are. The writing has drained any significance and understanding because a total lack of direction, and dare I say competence, with regards to what they were partaking in.

As a fan, it is disappointing more than anything. We want these stories to be great and full of meaning. Hell, this should not be such a ridiculous standard to hold anything to. A question I always ask myself after I see a film is “did this film need to be told?”. So far, the answer to that is no. None of the new trilogy adds any meaning to the saga that came before it, and the only thing that it has yet to truly accomplish is draining those films of meaning.

A problem I see as a common theme is that Disney develops characters before they develop stories. Now, I am not a professional writer and maybe that is what is considered appropriate for making stories, but the negative consequences of this course are felt in these films. Disney made characters, then gave them something to do to validate their existence, and you can tell that they don’t quite know what they are doing. They did the same thing for “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and the whole thing felt pointless. The only film that seems to have gone against this trend is “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. In that film, the main attraction was the plot. The characters were simply a medium in which the plot could be viewed. Everyone in the film had a natural reason for their story to be told. Everyone was doing something of significance. It is not a perfect film, but notice how there is no fan outrage over anything that the movie did because there was meaning behind it all.

A lesson Disney could learn is to simplify their creation process. If you break down the plot of TLJ, it pretty much boils down to a slow speed chase until someone runs out of gas, all while everyone else just wastes time until they can all regroup for one last showdown. If Disney knows what story they are trying to tell, instead of forcing different parts together and trying to link them with mildly relevant activities, perhaps they can stick the landing in the trilogy finale. I desperately hope they do because I endure physical pain from being critical of Star Wars. I want to love and appreciate them for all they are. If episode 9 reverses this trend, I will happily accept it for what it is. I will give it a chance and I plan on following this post up when I do.

I hope that we can all have a discussion about this, knowing that each side could learn something if we just listened to each other instead of blindly prejudicing the other based on which side of the debate we take. Star Wars is a community and the fracture I have witnessed over these new films saddens me. I hope we do not lose what we once had.

Maybe I shouldn’t go out to dinner with my family…


Take a moment and let your imagination wonder to an enchanted realm of possibilities. Picture yourself sitting at a table at a new restaurant with your parents. They come bearing their usual skeptical optimism, where your father is interested but really was not in the mood to try anything new because you chose this new place over a proven favorite, and your mother has already made it abundantly clear to the 16-year-old hostess that she is gluten free and therefore they need to construct a brand-new kitchen in her honor. You’re just sitting there trying not to add an undue burden on this new serving staff, making sure to say “please” and “thank you” as loud as possible to give you the best odds of not getting a fresh batch of spit in your food. You are on your best behavior and trying to tune out the turbulence that is a given with your family in a public setting.

I know this seems like an utterly foreign affair because none of us have ever been embarrassed by the conduct of our goofy-ass parents, but try to place yourself there because this person is poor, little, old me. And while I am trying to save the sinking wreckage of a family social outing with just the little things, my parents start reading you the menu! “Zach, look. They have chicken here!” Ooooow. How exotic! I would never have guessed that such a fine establishment such as the one you dragged me to tonight would serve something as extravagant as chicken! Oh, it comes in a sauce too? Unprecedented! Look, I am trying to hold it together and save our family from getting into a verbal altercation with management over a $5 miscalculation on the bill, but you’re telling me they have chicken…WITH SAUSE?!?! Please, go on. What else do they have here? This world of wonders is so alien to me and I would be utterly helpless without you acting as a liaison to the kitchen, which by the way, you too have never eaten from.

Oh, wait. What is this tri-fold piece of construction paper doing on my lap? It seems that there are strange markings on it, almost as if it is trying to signal something to me. Hmmmmmm. I might have to break out all of my detective skills and do some sleuthing as to what this flimsy tablet could be. WHAT?!? THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! It turns out that this is another menu! A perfect replica of the menu you are reading from. And it turns out everyone at the table has one too! Inconceivable!

But if I have the same information you have at my fingertips, wouldn’t it seem a little redundant and ridiculous to act like you’re Sir Reginald Chicken with Sause and you sailed across the sea to discovered that they served Chicken with Sause here? I have a lot on my plate here and I don’t have the patience to deal with this tediousness, mom.

2019 Oscars Reaction

That was certainly an interesting night. Well, actually it was really drawn-out and boring (as is tradition). But the results were pretty interesting, right? I know this may be a shock to anyone reading this, but I have opinions about those results. Some are positive, which in all seriousness, is a word I rarely associate with, some are negative, which fits my character like a glove, and some are just interesting observations. Since the internet is a thing, I doubt any of my opinions haven’t already been circling the depths of twitter for several hours already, so I apologize if you’ve already heard any of this before.


Let’s kick this bad boy off with positives to be drawn from last night. The Oscars absolutely nailed a few picks, and even though most of them were predictable, I still want to celebrate their wins.

  • I absolutely love Lady Gaga. In a world where my most marketable talent is writing petty, unsolicited rants into the ether, she is a phenomenal actress and an otherworldly musician. I am thrilled to see that she won for Best Original Song (along with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt) for “Shallow”. It’s no secret if you know me personally that I am a fairly emotional guy, and “Shallow” is a song that really cuts to the core of me. Lady Gaga’s vocals on the song are the stuff legends are made of and they are the reason the audience feels what they do when listening to the song. Maybe I am a prisoner of the moment, but this feels like one of those rare wins in this category that will be fondly remembered for years to come, and not fade into the footnotes of cinema history like many others that have come before it.
  • The category of Best Makeup and Hairstyling can be a fickle mistress at times. We, as filmgoers, can often be oblivious to the importance of the techniques that help create characters, and too often do we see the subtle nuances go unrecognized in favor of flashy designs in blockbusters and fancy old-English period pieces. This is a category that gave Suicide Squad an Academy Award just for bleaching Margot Robbie’s and Jared Leto’s faces and dying their hair bright neon colors, so it is hard to tell if the academy really values quality over flamboyant displays. Having said that, the Academy absolutely got this one right this year by giving “Vice” the win. The combination of Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia DeHaney turned Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell into very believable representations of famous, modern political figures. Bale, especially, was so convincing as Dick Cheney and they look absolutely nothing alike in reality. I think we can overlook the sheer difficulty it takes to turn three well-known people into three different and equally well-known people, but I am glad the Academy didn’t.
  • It is so satisfying to finally be able to say “Academy Award Winner Spike Lee”. “BlacKkKlansman” was the magnum opus of his esteemed career and a film that I would say did not get close to the correct amount of recognition last night. However, the win for Best Adapted Screenplay still was the category that I valued as the most important for the film to win in last night, and it delivered. The writing in films with themes about racism normally receive praise by default, but Spike Lee’s creation adds so much more to the standard tropes. By mixing seamlessly a brand of dark comedy, humanity, and stressful drama, he and his crew wrote and created a genuinely great film.
  • Alfonso Caurón is undoubtedly one of the finest movie-makers of any generation and last night was just a continued trend of the world recognizing that. “Roma” was among my favorite films of the entire year, and aside from personal opinions, it is objectively a technical tour de force. Caurón’s wins for Best Cinematography and Best Director are a testament to his ability to create art. Best Foreign Language Feature was a hanging curveball for him, and not that it isn’t important, but the other two are considered “major” categories with far more mainstream and popular competition. For any person to take home 3 Oscars in the same night, they must have created something truly special, and although he was snubbed for Best Picture, we should not lose sight of what an impressive night he had.
  • For a very long time, the mainstream blockbuster was a taboo subject matter for the Oscars. Maybe one or two could sneak a nomination here and there, but rarely would the voters ever take them seriously enough as a genre to reward them. In fact, in 2009, the Oscars faced such harsh backlash for not including “The Dark Knight” in the Best Picture nominations class that they had to amend their voting rules to allow up to 10 nominees to hopefully diversify the pool of films to vote from. Well it only took another decade for the Academy to finally vote in a superhero film, “Black Panther” for Best Picture, and thus finally addressing the initial injustice that caused the rip in space-time that forced the rule change in the first place. Sunrise, sunset. That alone is huge step in the right direction for the Oscars in recognizing a wider assortment of films, but last night “Black Panther” won some hardware too. Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score are all much deserved wins for a film that thrived equally as much on its feel as it did on its content. Here’s hoping this is the start of a very positive trend.
  • Speaking of superhero films, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” winning best Animated Feature breathed life into my unwilling corpse. This film might be my favorite Spiderman film to date, and it was so refreshing to see someone other than Disney juggernauts get a win in this category for a change. Nothing against Disney or their admittedly high-quality animated movies, but this category sometimes has the feeling of inevitability, kind of like how everyone knows the Warriors will win the NBA Championship yet again this year. Stagnation is never a good thing when you are trying foster a competitive, creative environment, so this win should be encouraging to everyone who wants to see more films push each other to be better.


Enough of that positive crap. I am not sure who the man who was writing all of that was, but he certainly is not welcome in this house again (Unless you liked him in which case, I’ll do anything to conform to your standards. Please, someone love me.). Let’s get down to what I do best: criticizing people for things I could not dream of doing at their level myself. If the likes of social media did not tip this off to you, there were some, let’s just say subpar winners last night and it is only appropriate that we shame them for winning something based on other people’s opinions.

  • “Green Book” won Best Picture. Why? Beats the hell out of me. When I saw this film for the first time, I remember my initial reaction was “I have definitely seen that before”. To me, and apparently to the angry Twitter mob as well, “Green Book” was not a special film. That is not to say it is a bad film, and the chemistry between the leads is what carries it, but the subject matter, the plot, the message, and even the character designs are all painfully unoriginal. Vigo Mortenson plays the single most Italian human being that has ever graced the planet Earth with their presence, and Mahershala Ali plays a man that is so blatantly just the reverse of stereotypes for the sake of comparison. I know they are both portraying real-life people and that is what the film is about, but these ideas have all been explored before and the methodology of fleshing out the characters boarders on hackneyed. With Ali’s character, it felt as though the writers had a checklist they used to create his character into the most Oscar-bait mold possible. Is he artsy? Check. Is he a sophisticated man struggling with his identity? Check. Is he burdened by his own genius? Check, but let’s make him an alcoholic for good measure. Oh, let’s add one scene where he admits he is gay, then never mention it again. Is racism bad and friendship good? Hell yeah it is. No one will care about the lack of nuance because no one ever does. Its wins for Best Picture, as well as Best Original Screenplay are not just surprising, they seem like the wrong picks. “The Favourite” and “Vice” had far better original screenplays, and “Roma”, “BlacKkKlansman” and “The Favourite” were much better films overall.
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not a great film. It is a tremendously well-acted compilation of loosely connected events with no plot. Rami Malek definitely deserved his Best Actor win so please remove him from anything I am about to say, but this film won 4 goddamn times last night, leading all films. My brain is having difficulty coping with that kind of reality. “Bohemian Rhapsody” winning Best Film Editing when it is objectively a very poorly edited film will surely rank among mankind’s most awful crimes. There are so many disorienting, and sometimes meaningless cuts that I am mildly convinced that Academy voters didn’t watch the same film that we did. Conspiracies are not really my thing, but I really don’t see any other reasonable explanations. I mean this film should not have even come close to smelling a nomination in this category and yet it won the damn trophy. I can sort of justify winning Best Sound Mixing with the way the music was composed for the film, but how could it have beaten “A Quiet Place” for Best Sound Editing when that entire film is based on its use of sound? This is a film with some strong elements, particularly the acting, but it is inexplicable how it got so much love and recognition when it clearly does not deserve it.


Time for some miscellaneous thoughts about last night. You can view any of these as positives or negatives but they were just interesting things I noticed and the possible long-term consequences of them. Enjoy.

  • The success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” last night sets the stage for a contender next year. “Rocketman” will be the fantastic biopic of the life of musician Elton John and might be poised to follow in the footsteps of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Now, I obviously have not seen the film yet and there are many variables that have yet to be determined before I coronate anybody the winner of an event that is a year away, but the similarities of the two films can be seen already. Both are biopics about flamboyant, British rock stars who are gay and who have larger-than-life personalities. Both will feature popular music along with the peaks and valleys of their individual personal lives. It is still yet to be determined how well “Rocketman” executes but if you are part of that team of filmmakers, you now see a viable path to Oscar gold next year, and your film wont event need to be perfect. It is definitely something to look out for.
  • It used to be almost a rule that actors and actresses who have had a long career but have never won an Oscar were due for a win and would achieve recognition based on that alone. I can remember this as recently as Juliane Moore in “Still Alice” in 2014. But there seems to be a trend away from that notion in recent years and 2019 might have been the ultimate tell that the Academy no longer votes along those lines. Glenn Close was heavily favored to win Best Actress, in no small part to the fact that this was her seventh nomination and hadn’t won yet. Any actress who has seven nominations clearly has had a very distinguished career and it feels wrong that she never has won before. But when Olivia Coleman won, Glenn Close went home empty. I personally think that every one of the Best Actress nominees had deserving performances and I see no error in rewarding Coleman over Close, but it does signal the greater change. To a slightly lesser extent, Amy Adams now has six nominations without a win after coming up short to first time nominee Regina King. Both actresses again did phenomenal jobs, but what used to be the unofficial tiebreaker no longer seems to be in place. Now, looking back on it, the past few years have signified that this trend was coming to an end soon. Actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Michael Keaton were favored in recent years and went home empty-handed. We may need to adjust the way we analyze these awards in the future.
  • I already mentioned the impact “Black Panther” had last night but for the future, “Black Panther” may have opened that path for major blockbusters to possibly win Best Picture. This is still a relative longshot, but if the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” is a satisfying film, the sheer grandeur of the film should merit a Best Picture nomination in my opinion. And since “Black Panther” was adequately recognized last night, it seems possible that other films could stand on its shoulders.
  • This year in particular seemed to signal a more surface level voting standard in the Academy. Shallow depth in writing made a comeback and that is not a good thing. Now, that is not a uniform observation but it is startling that films that either conform to the mold or do not have cohesive elements of a story seem to be garnering positive reception. I hope this is not a trend and maybe it was a one-off incident but it could be telling of the types of nominees we could be seeing next year.

Calm the Hell down, Buick

“You can’t be driving THIS car. It’s a Buick!”

This has been on my mind for a while and I finally have a good platform to vent. Have you guys seen these Buick commercials where all of these people go around surprising their friends by the fact that they have a Buick instead of some other, far more desirable car like it’s supposed to be impressive? There is always this one person who is so overly sure of themselves that the other person must be driving a cool car and then pompous-ass Linda comes around with an iced latte and a hair flip and says “It’s a Buick. You wouldn’t understand”. Alright, calm down, Linda. I know it must be tough to hear me all the way up on that high horse of yours, but let’s get one thing straight: no matter how cool you may seem in that commercial, NO ONE HAPPILY DRIVES A BUICK.

It’s simple science. Buicks are for old people and teenagers that are driving a third-generation hand-me-down from their great-uncle who was forced to surrender his driver’s license to the state after a series of low-speed fender-benders outside the local breakfast buffet. I’m sure there are people who drive Buicks that may be adequately satisfied, but I’d wager my right testicle and a third of my liver that there are ZERO human beings on this planet that are happily driving a damn Buick and think “This is it. There is nowhere else to go but down from here”.

Buick can try to change their image all they want but to have the unmitigated gall they have to really sit up there and masquerade as one of the cool kids is deeply insulting. Oh yeah, Buick, after seeing that commercial of an understated, affordable, beige sedan, I think I am going to buy a damn Buick poster and hang it up in my room. In fact, I can’t wait to tell my parents that I got a Buick. Maybe they’ll finally be impressed with me. Who knows, maybe I could use this Adonis of automobiles to court one of the surely hundreds of women mouths are involuntarily agape at just the presence of this hotrod. The world will truly know that I am a force to be reckoned with because I drive a Buick. Does any of that seem reasonable, specifically my parents being impressed with me? That’s a hard no. Honestly, if Buick discontinued and went the way of Pontiac and Saturn, would anyone really notice. Again, that would be a negative. Stay in your lane, Buick. You look ridiculous.

Shutter Island (2010) – Movie Review

You can just hear the ominous pipe organs playing in the background of this static image

For my first official review, I wanted to do a film that most people enjoy but often forget about until it’s brought up and then you go “Oh yeah! I loved that film!”. “Shutter Island” perhaps most perfectly encapsulates that very feeling.

Director Martin Scorsese has built a reputation over many decades of work as one of the most prestigious filmmakers in Hollywood, but this film is an oddity for him, not because of a drop-off in quality, but the content stands out dramatically when you compare it with his other work. His filmography has an abundance of gangster films, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci. “Shutter Island” is not like any of those. “Shutter Island” is a mystery thriller, with a nice splash of horror mixed in for good measure.

The film stars Scorsese’s new golden boy and DeNiro’s spiritual successor, Leonardo DiCaprio, as US Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, alongside Mark Ruffalo’s Marshal Chuck Aule, both sporting some strong Bostonian accents and over-the-top pre-cancerous cigarette addictions, both of which I am here for. The two marshals are brought to Shutter Island, which hosts a mental hospital for the criminally insane run by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley, because one of the patients has escaped. On the island, however, the marshals discover a greater conspiracy than they were brought there for.

“Shutter Island” is an exceptionally tense experience from the very beginning when Marshal Daniels is vomiting from seasickness. At no point does the viewer have the opportunity to relax because it is clear that things are not what they seem. You are as on your guard as the marshals are. This is exacerbated by the brilliant technical aspects of the film. The score is haunting, ominous, and powerful. The use of lighting to convey the stress and physical pain was brilliant. There is one scene in particular, where Marshal Daniels is suffering from a migraine, and the lighting used is so piercing that it almost hurts the viewer. But you’ll be damned if you aren’t craving relief from the intense pain just the same as the marshal. Furthermore, the lighting is of the utmost importance as it is a great tell for how in the dark he is to what is really going on around him.

Similarly, the sound editing process that the film underwent does more than just add intensity, it adds to mystery. There are key moments of the film where dialogue is not totally clear, but clear enough that the brain fills in the gaps to what we think they said. And the constructed dialogue makes sense, only to be later revealed that we all missed one key word that totally changed the meaning of what was said. It is a brilliant trick.

Like with any great mystery film, this film relies on a twist ending that the viewer is not supposed to see coming. In some cases, an ending such as this can be considered a novelty that only really has an impact upon the first viewing, and while it is true you will never truly be able to recreate the sense of unknown in subsequent viewings, “Shutter Island” does offer reasons to watch it multiple times. If a mystery has been done correctly, subtle hints should have been sprinkled throughout the film prior to the reveal. Most of these hints had no significance to the viewer before they knew what it was they were hinting at, but it is only with subsequent viewings that we can all truly appreciate how intricately the seeds of mystery were woven into the story.

It may come as no surprise that the acting in the film is exceptional. DiCaprio, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 2016, is one of the finest actors of any generation, so complimenting his work is fairly commonplace. What makes this performance standout amongst his other work is just how much this film relied on him. In most films, there are scenes that do not involve the main character, often for exposition or to reveal something the viewers. But not “Shutter Island”. In the roughly 2 hours and 18 minutes runtime, he is onscreen for virtually all of it. With the exception of a few landscape shots and opposing conversational camera angles, Leo never leaves the view of the camera. It may not seem like that big of a deal but I challenge you to find any film that relies that heavily on the presence of its lead. The story focuses so intently on who Teddy Daniels is as a person and it takes a special performance to portray paranoia, confidence, aggression, and intelligence all in one.

Mark Ruffalo does a great job as well, albeit his burden not quite the same as Leo. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow both play their roles with exceptional tact, portraying doctors with both noble intentions and possibly sinister undertones. Their European accents certainly help in that department as well.

The film is not flawless however. In the latter part of the film, I couldn’t help but be aware of the very obvious greenscreen use. Perhaps this is where the use of lighting actually hurts the film. DiCaprio and Ruffalo are standing on some cliffs and even to the untrained eye, you can see that the actors were most certainly not outside. I would give it a pass, possibly since the effects could have been convincing for the time, but this film is only 9 years old at the time of me writing this. CGI and green screen usage were not foreign concepts in 2010. Ultimately, it is not a huge deal and does not ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw. Also, there are a few parts of the story that upon careful review do not make logical sense. Specifically, why would the overseers allow for the events of the film to take place during a hurricane. It makes for a more dramatic and stressful story, but it seems unreasonable when you stop to think about it. But I know I am just nitpicking.

“Shutter Island” through its narrative discusses themes of acceptable violence, acceptance of reality, and the morality of certain psychological treatments. There is a running comparison made throughout the film of the Nazis in WWII. Marshal Daniels was part of the liberating force of the Dachau concentration camps and he is fearful that the actions of the Nazis could be replicated. Also, harboring the burden of his own lethal actions during the war, the marshal questions the morality of these criminally insane patients, the use of lethal force, and the ability to accept responsibility for your actions.

This is a film that I fear gets forgotten amongst its peers because it doesn’t quite fit in. It is a very competently created film with a lot to offer any viewer, whether they are just looking for an entertaining thriller, or wish to examine a technically sound film.

I would rate this film a solid 8.8 out of 10.

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 Hours 18 Min

Top 10 Movies of All-Time

Congratulations. Despite my best efforts at self-deprecation, somehow you wanted me to make another list. Even more disturbing is that I received a request for this specific list. I worry for you if you really want to hear my opinions. But who am I to deny the 3 whole people who read that last list, and the 2 whole people who read my Oscar picks? Those people were there with me from the beginning of the week. You can’t buy loyalty like that.

I am going to try my best at this list. There are so many genres of film and it is really hard to compare a comedy that doesn’t take itself to seriously to an 80s action movie or one of those pretentious period dramas that all the rich assholes love. With that in mind, I am going to try to be as varied as possible, including as many different genres as I can, otherwise this list might consist solely of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. There is no correct way to do this so give me a break if this looks nothing like the list you would put together. (Note: I reworked this list four times because I couldn’t come to a one person consensus with myself.)

Special shout out to the movies you couldn’t pay me to put on this list but your film professor insists are perfect: “Citizen Kane”, “La La Land”, “Titanic”, “The Breakfast Club”, “Forrest Gump”, and “12 Angry Men”. And a much more deserved shout out to the Honorable Mentions crowd: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “There Will Be Blood”, “Inside Out”, “V for Vendetta”, “Anchorman”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Shawshank Redemption”.

10. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Wow! I’m starting out with a black-and-white film from the 40s? I must be so intellectual, unique and mysterious. I bet everyone thinks I am cool. I should wear a fedora and get a pocket watch too. Well hypothetical onlooker, who am I to tell you that you’re wrong for thinking that?

While I may be auditioning for your local annoying hipster with this pick, there is a reason this film is so fondly remembered. As optimistic as the title suggests the movie is, the plot centers around the contemplation of suicide. Fun times. The main character, George, is considering taking his own life on Christmas Eve, 1945, and a guardian angel descends from heaven to help show him how his life has impacted others and the world around him.

I am not a religious man in the slightest so the heaven aspect is just fluff to me. However, the power this film has to give anyone’s life perspective is incredible. As someone who struggles with depression on a daily basis, it is a story I want to connect to.

George sees how his life saved so many others’ lives from death and prison, but it also doesn’t forget to show where he went wrong. The film doesn’t lie to you and say that your impact is all positive because that isn’t true. No one has lived life to perfection. The point is to look back and see what you’ve done right because it’s easy to forget that when all you can feel is the wrong.

The angel shows George what life would be like if he was never born at all and it wasn’t what he expected. In fact, it was unrecognizable because his absence meant all of the positive influences he made were gone.

This film can impact your life, the way it impacts George’s. Sometimes you need this kind of perspective to help you. Most films inject positivity just by being positive, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” is reflective and can appeal to absolutely anyone.

9. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

This is a film that has aged gracefully. Apparently, people had mixed feelings upon its initial release, but since it came out during the legendary Gerald Ford administration, who can fault all those hippies for not knowing what quality looked like? Take that all you boring Gerry Ford fanatics out there. I bet all three of you are crying now.

Monty Python is a famous British comedy group that released numerous films that were either sketch compilations or satire. This film falls into the latter. In a spoof of the legend of King Arthur, Monty Python produces a notoriously low budget tale that is so self-aware of itself, you’ll be in physical pain (in a good way). One of the funniest gags they implement is the use of coconuts as an onscreen prop in place of horses. Obviously, the budget for horses didn’t exist so the writers decided “let’s just roll with that” and it is so satisfying to watch.

In so many brilliant maneuvers, the writers and cast know they are dictating their own rules as they go along and can have the viewer so confused. I know it sounds odd if you haven’t seen it, but it just does its own thing. This ultimately comes to a head when at the final conclusion of the film, a lowkey side-gag of police investigating a murdered character actually stops the main climactic duel to arrest the protagonists and throw them in a modern police car. And that’s it! The movie ends like that!

The film is littered with cheeky British wit that is not just limited to small gags. The dialogue is virtually perfect and very quotable, and the comedy will have you tearing up. With respect to all the Mel Brooks comedies out there (I’m looking at you Spaceballs), this is the greatest parody film, in my humble opinion, of all-time.

8. “Spirited Away” (2001)

Have you ever watched a movie and it just makes you feel some type of indescribable way? “Spirited Away” is a film that will give you that experience. Although my knowledge of Eastern films is limited, and I am sure there are others that I have not watched that deserve to be mentioned here, this film is my personal favorite of those films and I cannot think of many films in general that gave me a sense of wonder quite like this.

There are a multitude of comparisons to “Alice in Wonderland” that can be drawn, and for a good reason. The sheer oddity and creativity that went into designing the world in which the stories take place are both upper-echelon. It is truly a beautiful sight that mystifies at every frame. I recall watching “Spirited Away” for the first time as a kid home on a Saturday night and having the strangest, yet enjoyable dreams that night, which might be the point of the film: A strange, dream-like adventure to help children go on their own strange, dream-like adventure.

On paper, the film is a coming-of-age, animated fairy tale that takes place in the spirit world. But if you haven’t gotten it yet, this film is so much more than what it is on paper. This film is enchantment in its rawest and most pure form. As a 23-year old, I still feel moved by even the mention of this film’s name in casual conversation. I could explain the intricacies of the plot and characters, but I believe wholeheartedly that doing so is just a distraction from the point I am trying to make.

I encourage anyone and everyone to watch this film with an open-mind, don’t ask questions until the end, and just absorb this with your eyes and ears. Trust me, you’ll understand then.

7. “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

Time for an unexpected 180o turn from all the light-hearted positivity is was spewing in the previous entries. Optimism sucks anyways. “A Clockwork Orange” is on the total opposite end of the spectrum from all that junk and I am here for it.

A film that can be described as overwhelming and desensitizing, “A Clockwork Orange” walks a path that no other film prior had even treaded near, and really no film since has tried to approach. Critics, at its release, claimed it was “pornographic” and “dehumanizing”. When boundaries are pushed, the boundaries often push back.

But somehow, despite being so removed from the mainstream, this film is actually quite positively regraded by most people who aren’t the president of their church’s book club. In college, my History of Cinema professor was an old, holier-than-thou woman, who didn’t much care for opinions that weren’t her own. You always wanted to ask “who hurt you?” whenever she scolded your thoughts. Even this woman, unprovoked, raved about this film as a masterpiece to a class that she told she didn’t enjoy Harrison Ford’s work to. Who hurt you, professor? Who hurt you?

Underneath its controversial subject-matter and depictions comes a legitimate criticism of censorship, psychology, humanity, free-will, and morality. The main character Alex is not a good person at all. He is a murderer, thief, and rapist who shows zero remorse about his actions. The story is about the dubious nature of his reconditioning back into a society he utterly demonized, via the means of traumatic psychological conditioning that limits his free will and thinking. There are heavy questions you must ask yourself of the absolutes of your morality and just how far you think it is acceptable to go to execute that morality.

6. “The Shining” (1980)

I don’t believe I am going out on a limb here when I declare that “The Shining” is the best horror film ever. You may disagree, but (A) you’d be wrong in doing so, and (B) most people would agree with my assessment.

Not relying on the usually jump-scares that litter modern horror, “The Shining” is a great story that doesn’t create fear by hiding things in what you cannot see and what you do not know, but instead by presenting it all to you. The threats feel real because you see it develop and you watch it encroach. Found footage horror has a niche and I understand the appeal, but this is a narrative, a full, well-told story that does more to create its horror on its own than any other film of the genre, at least that I know of.

Jack Nicholson does a brilliant job portraying the steady decay of Jack’s (conveniently the name of his character too) psyche, and Shelley Duvall, who was basically tortured by perfectionist director and utter psychopath Stanley Kubrick, gives the purest portrayal of fear I can recall in film. The atmosphere of slowly impending doom makes you feel paranoid as if you are really having visions of bloody waterfalls coming out of elevators or being chased down by an axe-wielding, crazy, if not realistic depiction, of Jack Nicholson on a given Tuesday.

A testament to how important this film is for the genre of horror and pop-culture is how often it is referenced still. Just for reference, 2018’s “Ready: Player One” had a major aspect of its plot centered around the recreation of the film in video game form. On top of that, there is an absurd amount of parodies of the film due to how recognizable so many of its scenes really are. This film has a powerful and lasting legacy.

5. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Has anyone ever said anything bad about this film? Ok, aside from the suggestion of an incestuous attraction between Marty and his mom and how she was definitely being raped by Biff, this might be the most universally beloved film ever. And ignore the fact that one of the main, goofy protagonists was hired by Libyan terrorist to steal Uranium and build them a nuclear weapon while you are at it, because no one cares, nerd. It is the weird, forgotten subplots like that one that add to the charm.

It may not be number one on my list, but it is borderline impossible not to enjoy yourself watching “Back to the Future”, regardless of what genre of film you generally prefer. The characters of Doc and Marty are one of the greatest “odd couple” duos in any medium ever. Doc’s wacky antics create all the zany possibilities while Marty, as the viewers’ point of reference, constantly gets himself into trouble seemingly only by existing. Marty, especially, has to learn on the McFly (Sorry. I hate myself too) and his improvisations are incredibly entertaining.

This movie, and its subsequent sequels help the imagination explore time in a way that can appeal to every moviegoer, not just the usual science fiction niche that typically explores the topic. I’m sure that it is a fantasy that we’ve all had at least once to explore eras before you and some that have yet to happen. And that is what this is: an adventure!

There are lessons about being careful what you wish for and how actions have unintended consequences, but that’s not why the film is special. No one watches this film to learn anything. You watch it to be entertained! That is the goal of watching movies, after all, and “Back to the Future” is, without question, one of the most universally entertaining films ever made.

4. “Star Wars” (1977)

I have zero tolerance for disagreement on this one. If you have an “alternative” opinion, you are instructed to kiss my ass. I love “Star Wars” and so does everyone else because as the saying goes “Nobody hates ‘Star Wars’ more than ‘Star Wars’ fans”, meaning you either love it or you criticize it because you love it and want more for it. I’m glad we cleared up the fact that everybody loves “Star Wars.”

With “Star Wars” we have the original blockbuster, the genesis of all modern movie franchises, and the emperor of pop culture. You know that little group of Indi-films called the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Well, that simply does not exist without “Star Wars”. The idea that a film could impact society in an economic and cultural way was laughable before “Star Wars” and now it’s counted on by film studios. The toy aisles at Walmart, filled with LEGOs, action-figures, and posters, all are the way they are because of “Star Wars”. I will shamelessly admit to owning multiple custom-made lightsabers and a wall displaying my Star Wars LEGOs in my room. Judge me.

Aside from the soul-crushing and wallet-killing economic leviathan that is franchise merchandising, this film was groundbreaking in its advancements for special effects and world-building. The modern film industry is where it is now because of Director George Lucas’s experimentalism with miniatures, pyrotechnics, and post-filming editing techniques. But as George himself said “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”.

The story of “Star Wars” inspires hope, follows an ideology (albeit a simple one) that everyone can get behind, and has so many memorable, surprisingly deep characters to root for. This film burgeoned into possibly the largest pop culture franchise to date, with TV shows, video games, books, comics, and too many movies than the producers know what to do with, because the story is fun. It captures the imagination and teaches you that it is never too late to be a hero.

Now the sequels… Much to everyone’s surprise I have some thoughts on those too, but we can talk about them another day.

3. “The Departed” (2006)

Martin Scorsese has directed more fantastic movies than I have had actual moments of happiness in my life, and I do think it is criminal that I only put this one film of his on my list. If that’s the crime they finally get me for, I’ll surrender peacefully. I deserve what I’ve got coming. Frankly, Scorsese could direct 3 hours of uninterrupted static and I’d probably watch it.

“The Departed” (the legal pronunciation is with a heavy Bostonian accent) is an utter masterpiece of the highest caliber. Consisting of one of, if not the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, the movie executes its story as close to perfection as humanly possible, which include Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Anthony Anderson. The acting is stellar, and the on-screen chemistry between actors is beyond exceptional.

At the heart of the story is a two-way cat-and-mouse chase between an undercover cop in the Boston Irish Mafia, and an undercover mafia member in the Boston police department, both of whom are tasked with finding the rat in their organization. I’ve been told that this is a remake of the plot from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, but as I haven’t seen the original, I can’t comment on how the two compare to each other. Either way, the movie is filled with tension, unexpected changes of the status quo, and incredibly written dialogue, and we should appreciate the quality in which all of those were undertaken. This film is long but it doesn’t let up at any point. The pacing is consistent and every moment shown on screen is there to give you necessary information.

I love this movie. My friends and I go around asking each other “Are you a f*cking cop?!” (again, a heavy Bostonian accent is necessary) just randomly just to make sure neither one of us is a rat. If you give this a chance, maybe you’ll be doing that with your friends soon enough.

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Is this a modern blockbuster that is also a poignant detective movie with Oscar-winning acting? Yes.

What, you want more? You’re so needy. That’s a really unattractive quality.

“The Dark Knight” is arguably the finest work in the filmography of Christopher Nolan, of which he has objectively made zero movies that are even below average. He takes a character and stories that have been told and retold for more than seven decades prior to its release and somehow sets the bar. The movie was so good, that when the Oscars inevitably snubbed it for a Best Picture nomination, the entire Academy reformed their nomination process so films like “The Dark Knight” could get the recognition it deserves. Getting an organization that is so stuck in their ways that are probably still mad at Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation (#OscarsSoWhite) to go home and rethink their life is an accomplishment equal to that of the Herculean tasks of Greek myths.

What this film does is create the first blockbuster that can also be taken seriously as a sophisticated drama. Nolan does an amazing job creating a fictional city that very easily could exist. Somehow, he turns a story about a mentally scared man who dresses like a bat in military-grade super armor, drives a tank to work at his multibillion-dollar company which he owns, and beats up Italians and mentally ill people in his down time seem real. Because that’s reasonable.

The legend of Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t do it enough justice. He creates a psychological villain in the Joker that is without question belonging in the Mount Rushmore of movie antagonists. His unfortunate passing is a shame for many reasons, but the fact that he was not able to see his best and final performance on the big screen is truly heartbreaking.

There is honestly too much to say about this film and why it is so amazing. Other films have tried to emulate it in hopes of creating a formula for greatness, and yet none have yet to succeed. The Dark Knight is my personal favorite film of all-time, and it juuuuuuuuuuuust missed out on the number one slot.

1. “The Godfather” (1972)

Remember when I said “The Departed” had “one of, if not the finest cast”? Well, this film is the reason I used the qualifiers. Sorry, but it is hard to top Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton.

What can I say about “The Godfather” that hasn’t been repeated thousands of times before I wrote this? Nothing. Okay, cool. Well, then I guess I’ll be unoriginal.

The film centers around the gang wars of the 1940s and 1950s, and the New York crime families that head them. The story tackles themes of power, family, revenge, and criminality. Honestly, you ask any random person and chances are this is what they would call a perfect movie. It’s violent, it engaging, and it sets the standard for the genre of crime-based gangster films that is so well-remembered that it is unlikely that a film can reach the near hyperbolic accolades we’ve bestowed upon “The Godfather”.

Maybe it’s unfair that I give a film credit for being a literal living-legend but it is part of the package that is “The Godfather”. Its impact cannot be denied and it has had enough time to fully saturate itself into our American culture, more so than the other films I put in the top 3. But “The Godfather’ has no faults in my eyes so it is not like it hasn’t earned its placing up on top. If they are tied, I give this the edge because it is the standard that was set, and still to this day, has been unbaled to be surpassed.

Top 10 Acting Performances of All-Time

Our obsessive need to constantly rank and compare things in this world help us contrive value from effectively obscure and inconsequential aspects of life. Yeah, that’s pretty deep. I fancy myself a fan of movies, or cinema if you’re annoying, and I too feel the need to rank them because I desperately crave understanding of the randomness of life. So, having said that, here are my 100% objective, totally unbiased Top 10 Acting Performances of All-Time. If you disagree, good for you. You deserve a cookie. I made these picks under my own criteria for greatness, and considering there are literally thousands of performances in film throughout history, I’m willing to bet my mortgage I got this one down perfectly.

Certain factors resonate with me more than others when making these judgements: does the performance leave a legacy; was the performance unique; could anyone else have done this at the time…? These are primarily the factors I considered to filter out the great from the legendary. So, hold onto your butts, because here we go!

10. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara (“Gone with the Wind”)

Yeah, I didn’t expect me to go to a pro-Confederacy movie for any of my picks but here we are. Is the content something I love? No. Glorifying the Confederacy as a lost way of life is a tasteless interpretation of history, especially through the lens of today’s social standards. But I will not hold Vivien Leigh responsible for that and judge her solely on her performance.

I first saw this film in my High School English class, so you can imagine how enthused I was about the experience. It was long. It was old. But it meant that for 3 days I didn’t have to do any real work so I was all in. And not only was I pleasantly surprised by the film’s ability to keep me awake during my de-facto “free days”, I was also amazed how such a long film could be carried by the performance of the lead, Scarlett O’Hara.

O’Hara broke the mold of a female protagonist, especially for a film from 1939. She was layered and complex, which really stands out in contrast with the world she lives in that willfully tries to simplify women. “Gone with the Wind” is full of all sorts of symbolism, but essentially it is a narrative that is burdened on the shoulders of Vivien Leigh, and there is a reason it is still remembered fondly 80 years later.

9. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass (“The Revenant”)

Hey Leo, you got a little shmutz on your face…

This might be the most controversial pick on my list. Not because it isn’t great, but because is it really legendary? You could say “no”, and I’ll tell you that your opinion is wrong and you should seek help. But you could say “yes” and make yourself feel a little bit smarter. I say take the deal.

DiCaprio is, without question, one of the top actors of any generation with a plethora of amazing performances. So why does this one top the ones in “The Aviator”, “Blood Diamond”, “The Departed”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Catch Me if You Can”, “Django: Unchained”, and the colossally underrated “Shutter Island”? This one is the only one that I believe no one else could have pulled off to the extent he did.

His role as Hugh Glass is not prototypical of most of his work. There is no flashy monologue to steal the spotlight. This is probably beyond acting. Leo is legitimately surviving on camera. If at any point during the making of this film, Leo died, I don’t think a single human being on the face of the planet would be shocked.

He portrayed so much emotion, purpose, and drive without speaking, it almost seems shameful how much other performances rely on verbal communication as a crutch. I guess my point is that while he was exceptional in all of his other roles, someone else could have pulled them off with similar performances. But this one? This one required one of the finest actors ever to use a skillset that is, more-or-less, unprecedented, and he succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

8. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (“Psycho”)

Fair warning: there are a lot of crazy people on this list beyond this point. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” is the stuff of legends. Considering this role is not a typical drama, his performance is more unique than most others with this sort of mainstream recognition.

Bates is a horror film icon and perhaps the most memorable character in the entire filmography of the immortal Alfred Hitchcock. Perkins plays the psychotic side and the friendly outer façade of Bates flawlessly.

This role has impact and was a trailblazer for the horror genre. Portraying psychosis, but also as a sympathetic antagonist who is a victim of his own life, is very difficult to do. Often in order to sell one of those you must overcommit to that aspect and the other suffers. With Perkins’ portrayal, there is balance. AND this performance came at a time when many of the themes explored were groundbreaking. I mean, he was an onscreen murderer who was abused by his mother at a time when flushing a toilet and having a man and woman share a bed (NO NOT SEX, I MEAN SHARING A BED) was still taboo. It takes a special performance to pull that off.

7. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (“Aliens”)

Ellen Ripley is royalty in the science fiction genre. Sigourney Weaver has honored us with a character that, not only is a blessing in one film, but the lead for an entire franchise. But there are all types of franchise leads that do a great job, why is this so good that it is in the elite performances of all time?

If you take a look at franchises today, most struggle to create believable, strong female leads. Maybe this is more of a knock against other franchises, but the fact that it isn’t easy to do just makes this all the more important and amazing. For example, the recently Disney-afied Star Wars movies can’t help but make its female lead perfect without any real explanation for her lack of faults. Ellen Ripley is the antithesis of that.

She is strong, not because she can do know wrong, but because in a movie about large, spaceship-destroying monsters with two mouths, Sigourney Weaver makes Ellen Ripley a real person. Now that doesn’t sound too hard to do, right? Well, it is. Portraying overwhelming fear while still exhibiting courage is an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. Depicting a protagonist who is constantly in danger while still giving her a realistic ability to overcome her adversary is rare. You could give credit to the writers, but what is most impressive is the actor’s ability to translate the screenplay into a reality. I know this performance is revered, but I maintain that it is an overall underrated performance because we really don’t appreciate it for its difficulty. Although not the standard I am really considering, the fact that she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for a role in a sci-fi movie should tell you all you need to know.

6. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge (“A Clockwork Orange”)

Here comes another crazy guy! Malcolm McDowell plays an absolute psychopath in “A Clockwork Orange”. The character of Alex is a remorseless rapist and an enthusiastic, violent brute. He revels in the dangerous taboos of society, being driven by the primal urges most people have learned to suppress and work around.

But simply being a deranged brute and violent sexual deviant isn’t what makes this performance so special. Yes, it probably pushed the boundaries of common decency more than any role prior or since. But Alex has depth. Maybe he doesn’t exhibit the standard redemptive character arc we look for, but McDowell portrays an exceptionally intelligent character that makes you wonder just how detached from reality he really is.

The scene that stands out to me beyond the violence and torture is the moment Alex feels threatened by the free thought of his goons. He manipulates them into believing they were equals and then he ruthlessly beats them to reestablish his dominance. This is a character that not only lives for violence, but expertly knows the correct ways to utilize coercion to get his way. Then the tortured method of treatment he must undergo forces him to be sickened by the very impulses that drove him is an interesting twist. He is not exactly sympathetic, but it is really amazing how a character that is unadulterated evil can get an audience to root for his overcoming of his reconditioning into society.

5. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos (“Monster”)

You thought I wouldn’t include any mentally unstable women on this list? Well you were GODDAMN WRONG. Charlize Theron, without question, belongs on this list for her 2004 performance in “Monster”.

A lot of mid-twenties fanboys, such as myself, go nuts for the hardcore method acting of juggernauts such as Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but most of us admittedly aren’t even aware of this film’s existence, sadly. And that’s a real shame because it shows that Charlize Theron can method act better than our frat boy man-crushes. Luckily, I’m sure there are circles outside of my own where this film gets the praise it deserves.

Her performance here is genuinely disturbing. Theron utterly transforms into Aileen, both physically and mentally, and even though I only saw this film 10 years after it was released, I still fear for the well-being of Charlize. Aileen is a very disturbed street prostitute who commits a string of murders in Florida (I know, so cliché). Experts in the field verify that her performance accurately portrayed the struggles of antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. I am no expert, but she sells crazy QUITE convincingly. Also, Theron underwent a ridiculous physical transformation. Since normally she is objectively a very attractive woman, you’d be excused if you thought she actually wasn’t the one staring in the film. She gained roughly 30 pounds, wore fake teeth for the entire shoot, and even shaved off her eyebrows.

I actually have remorse that this performance isn’t higher on the list because 5 just seems too low for what it actually is. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert says that “[It] is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.”

4. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes (“Misery”)

She looks like a reasonable person

We are going back-to-back! That’s right. We have got our second batshit crazy woman in a row! I’ll call that a streak at this point. Kathy Bates’s performance is one of legends. Not because of any ridiculous method acting, but simply because of how effective she was as an antagonist.

Annie Wilkes still makes me shiver whenever I see her on screen. She is the ultimate Stan (Stan is an overly obsessive fan. Listen to the song by Eminem) and is totally unhinged. She rescues her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident and holds his life hostage until he writes her favorite character back to life. She claims she loves Paul but she brutalizes him on camera. On top of all of that, she is a serial killer. Fun! Paul discovers that she has committed a series of murders throughout the years but got away with them, which just makes her presence so suspense-inducing.

The scenes that stand out the most is when she savagely breaks Paul’s legs with a sledgehammer because she found him snooping around her house for that information, and when she drugs Paul and murders a state trooper. For a woman that looks so innocent on the outside, she is so cold and ruthless. I am very happy that this performance is appreciated even in my generation because she is genuinely one of the most intimidating antagonists in film history.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”)

Danny, you also got some shmutz on your face…

DDL is arguably the greatest actor of all time, so of course he’s on this list. I had a literal metric ton of performances to choose from but honestly it had to be his turn as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”.

Plainview is a ruthless oil tycoon around the turn of the 20th century, and while he isn’t the typical lunatic that I’ve been praising in previous entries, he is psychotic in his own way. First off, his voice. Just wow. Day-Lewis obviously is a master of his craft but he could not have constructed a voice more appropriate for the character. It is deep, scratchy, yet oh so slimy. It’s like he breaths petroleum.

As a protagonist, you root for his success, but you’re utterly amazed how a person could be so violently detached from humanity all together. He claims he has a competition in him, that he wants no one else to succeed but him, but as you watch him from start to finish in the movie, you realize just how deep he feels that. His complicated utilitarian relationship with his adopted son displays this fully. He initially uses his son as a marketing tool to appear like a family operation, but he abandons him when he is deafened in an explosion. Then when he is publicly shamed by his rival Eli for his actions, he reunites with him just to win over the townspeople. When his son grows up and wants to start his own oil company, Daniel disowns him claiming he was nothing more than “a bastard from a basket”. Those words echoing through his giant, lonely home as his son leaves him for good.

But the last scene of the film, where he finally claims victory of his internal competition, is where he really shows just what a madman he is. He savagely beats Eli to death with a bowling pin after he tells him that he had already gotten all of his oil years ago. The words “I drink your milkshake” have never been more deranged. With that, Daniel wins his competition with Eli and completely cuts himself off from the last link to humanity he still had. I think it’s a magical moment honestly.

2. Meryl Streep as Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski (“Sophie’s Choice”)

I was so, so, so close to putting Meryl Streep at number 1. Honestly, if you put her there, I don’t blame you at all. She is a living legend and this performance in “Sophie’s Choice” is her magnum opus.

Streep plays the title character, Sophie, who recounts her experiences as a Polish immigrant and prisoner at Auschwitz. I hate to say that alone isn’t anything special in film, but it kind of is. In fact, the film itself isn’t amazing. But Streep stands out emphatically. She is tortured by her past and present, haunted by her decisions and her reality. She literally had to make a choice between which of her two children will live and which will die in a death camp. Yet Streep manages to convey the trauma without appearing too fragile, or too strong. It’s exceptionally nuanced and avoids coming off as a hackneyed “female survivor” character and becomes unique.

It was a tough order to fill, yet what makes this performance so damn exceptional is how much work Streep put into perfecting her character. She actually spent 6 months learning Polish, specifically in a genuine Polish accent. To anyone who says that’s reasonable, you’re a madman. This is the epitome of “no one else could this but her”. Her acting saves a rather underwhelming film and makes it exceptional.

The material alone is ripe for a standout performance and accolades, but Meryl proves why she is in the upper echelon of acting legends. For what it’s worth, Premier Magazine ranked this as the 3rd greatest performance of all time. They were so close to being right.

1. Heath Ledger as The Joker (“The Dark Knight”)

If anyone knows me, this one was pretty obvious. I am mildly obsessed with this performance, both as a comic book nerd and just a fan of film. I showed this performance to my mother, who thinks I get shoved into lockers and get wedgies, even as an adult, and even she, with her out-of-touch thinking, was blown away. That should be telling.

Ledger is immortalized with his performance as The Joker in the acting community. But before he took the role, fans thought he was a bad casting by Christopher Nolan. Congratulations, nerds. You. Were. Wrong. Ledger took a character that was portrayed dozens of different times in all sorts of mediums, and created something unexpected and unique. Oh yes, we’ve had plenty of psychopaths in film before. Hell, we’ve had a lot on this list alone. But goddamn is The Joker special.

For those who haven’t seen the film, The Joker is a mix of Alex DeLarge (see entry 6) and Verbal Kint from “The Usual Suspects”. The kind of chaos that is under control. Throughout the film, The Joker keeps insisting he is not crazy and he very well might not be. He’s definitely a violent sociopath but he’s so calculating and has legitimate worldviews. He is well aware of what he is doing and sees a good reason for doing it. “Do I look like a guy with a plan”? Yes! Yes, you do!

Well that is just how the character is written, and Ledger has taken that Herculean task and ran with it. He created all the weird little ticks that make The Joker so unsettling. He directed and filmed the ransom video himself. He designed the makeup himself. He created the voice after a month of being alone in a hotel room and keeping a journal of what The Joker would think. Every time he asks you if you want to know how he got his scars, you’re convinced that The Joker himself doesn’t even know or even care. He loves that you can’t understand him. He is the unstoppable force, making the perfect antagonist to the immovable object that is Christian Bale’s Batman. He doesn’t undergo a character arc, he is the character arc for everybody in the film. He is the change in Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and especially Harvey Dent. That could easily be confused with what any antagonist does, but no. The change is not because of The Joker, it is The Joker. I could go on and on about all the subtleties of his portrayal but I don’t intend on doubling the size of this post.

His legacy is forever tied to this performance, which won him a posthumous Oscar as a comic book character, a genre that typically is ignored by the elitists of the academy. Many people believe his sudden death was brought on by his experience playing The Joker. It’s and unfortunate and haunting aspect of the legend of this performance.

2019 Oscar Predictions

Major Categories

Best Actor

One of the more competitive acting races, I still have to say I am ultimately underwhelmed by the total. While the Academy has, let’s just say, a soft spot for roles in biopics, I tend to view them as glorified impressions, which in itself is still worthy, just not as creative. 4 of the 5 nominees fit this bill, and the one outlier, Bradley Cooper, stared in a remake of a film. So ultimately, there is nothing too original here, albeit each actor did an exceptional job becoming their characters.

Winner: Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) – Malek has the benefit of playing the most flamboyant character of any of the nominees, with more eye-catching quirks and an in-your-face personality. His performance is not exactly understated, but it does have its moments of humanity. Is this the greatest acting performance ever? No. That could ultimately lead me to believe this is a lesser overall class than we’ve seen, but there truly is no weak link. I would say 4 of the 5 on any given year would score a Best Actor nomination regardless of the competition, so there is that. If Malek doesn’t win, it will be Bale (“Vice”), who underwent another absurd physical transformation and actually acted more like Dick Cheney than the former Vice President, himself.

Best Supporting Actor

This category disappoints me more than ever this year. While Best Actor has the perception of a weak class, Best Supporting Actor sports that as a true reality, which is disheartening, to say the least. This category usually yields remarkable and groundbreaking performances that can change the way we think about secondary characters in film. This class simply fits comfortably in the mold and makes no attempt to break it.

Winner: Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) – Ali is one of my favorite actors alive and it did pain me to include him in that paragraph above. Having said that, his win is an easy call. First off, he is basically a co-lead meaning he holds way more screen time than his competition. Secondly, he hits every checkmark that the Academy looks for: period piece; artist; victim of social injustice; LGBTQ character; alcoholic burdened by his own genius… You know, all those things. The reason I am so critical though is that we’ve seen that hundreds of times before. This performance doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It is not a leader, it is a follower. But it is the best of the followers.

Best Actress

This category I appreciate. The nominees all did a great job and I thoroughly enjoyed each of their performances, which is in contrast to the male categories this year. It also helps that there is potential for some competition here. Nothing helps spice up a performance more than knowing there is a lot in the real-world riding on it.

Winner: Glenn Close (“The Wife”) – Full disclosure, you could make this pick without seeing any of the films. Close has the distinction of garnering 7 Nominations without collecting a win. That alone might play as a bigger factor than the intricacies of her actual performance. She is due for a win and that is how many voters will decide. Her performance was great and she will deserve the win. Gaga had a very crowd-pleasing performance but she is almost guaranteed to win for Best Original Song which will also play a factor here. Olivia Coleman is also trending upwards and could make it interesting but the award is Close’s to lose.

Best Supporting Actress

Another great category for acting. And again, there is suspense in who the winner will be. The past few years, the winners seemed too predictable and kind of drained the fun out of it all.

Winner: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) – I am just following the trends here. She is on an enormous hot streak and she seems to be the unstoppable force in the group. Weisz and Stone being in the same film doesn’t help their chances, nor does the fact that they’ve both already won an Oscar before. I loved Mariana De Tavira’s performance but I don’t see it winning, sadly. Amy Adams is the interesting one though. She could easily be considered the female lead for “Vice” and has legitimate screen time. She is also rather ruthless as Lynn Cheney which was fun to watch. But most importantly, this will be her sixth nomination, and yet she still does not have a win. It is a major factor in the Best Actress category as well, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly here. I would almost put her as a 50/50 split with King, but I still give King the slight edge.

Best Director

This is another relative tossup. The directors of my personal top 2 films of the year are also the 2 frontrunners for this award.

Winner: Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) – I don’t make this prediction with 100% confidence, but I do believe both Lee AND Cuarón are deserving. Honestly, either could win. But Lee doesn’t have an Oscar and Cuarón does. Lee is also in contention to be the first ever black winner of this award, and with the Academy’s recent efforts to be more socially conscious with it’s voting, maybe that could play into it. Cuarón made some brilliant artistic choices in “Roma” that certainly are deserving of recognition too. I just think I would give a slight, slight, slight edge to Lee at this point.

Best Picture

I’m just going to start with the prediction.

Winner: “Roma” – “Roma” was, for me, unexpectedly beautiful and heartbreaking. It took more somber and real material and made it compelling without the use of melodrama or monologues that typically garner attention. Instead it demands your attention with its beauty, in a way that I have rarely seen in a film before. It is an understated masterpiece that feels more real than any other film in contention. It takes creative risks, such as completely foregoing the use of a musical score, and filming in black and white at the risk becoming a cliché. And yet it takes the challenge it sets for itself and runs with it. In a world where films tend to hit you over the head with its message, “Roma” is more thoughtful and it stands out.

As for the rest of the films, most never had a real chance and should just be happy with a nomination. “BlacKkKlansman” is my runner-up, followed by “The Favourite” then “Vice”. “Green Book” is colossally overrated and cliché.

Technical Categories

Best Cinematography

Winner: Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”) – This film was a joy to watch. Every frame was art with purpose and this film deserves to win this category

Best Visual Effects

Winner: “Avengers: Infinity War” – Nothing groundbreaking, but it is the biggest blockbuster that heavily relied on its visuals.

Best Costume Design

Winner: Sandy Powell (“The Favourite”) – Period piece that is in contention for Best Picture. These tend to win.

Best Editing

Winner: Barry Alexander Brown (“BlacKkKlansman”) – Editing was a major part of the visuals of the film. It most effectively used editing to convey its message, especially with it’s opening scene and it’s closing montage.

Best Makeup and Hair Styling

Winner: “Vice” – Did you see how they changed Christian Bale into Dick Cheney? That can’t be easy to do.

Best Production Design

Winner: “Black Panther” – I am hesitant to give credit to big budget films over smaller ones, but this is the category where they shine most. Black Panther did an exceptional job.

Best Sound Editing
Winner: “A Quiet Place” – This was the only film that relied on sound as the focal point for the narrative. The film was well received for its success in doing so in a unique way.

Best Sound Mixing

Winner: “A Star Is Born” – I almost gave this to “First Man” but sound and music was everything to “A Star Is Born”. The way the performances were recorded live and how impactful they were seal the deal for me.

Minor Categories

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: “BlacKkKlansman” – The best film in the category.

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: “The Favourite” – Great script with better dialogue than “Roma” and just overall better than “Green Book”.

Best Documentary Feature

Winner: “RBG” – Grossing over $14 Million is really great for a documentary, and in today’s political climate, this seems ripe for a victory.

Best Foreign Language Feature

Winner: “Roma” – A Foreign Language Feature that is also the frontrunner for Best Picture doesn’t come around often. Very easy win here.

Best Original Score

Winner: Terence Blanchard “BlacKkKlansman” – A mix of Jazz and R&B perfectly compliments the story that Spike Lee told here.

Best Original Song

Winner: “Shallow” (“A Star Is Born”) – Easy money.

Best Animated Feature

Winner: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” – Just watch it. It’s obviously the best in this category.

Best Animated Short

Winner: “Bao” (Pixar) – This once again proves the advantage appearing with a major Pixar release brings. A mix of Chinese culture and a short story about a mother struggling with her son growing up, “Bao” was a very touching and funny short that should win.

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