What Hiroshi Inagaki manages to pull off with the third episode in the samurai trilogy is nothing short of remarkable.
Generally speaking, the third installment of a trilogy is problematic. Often, as in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there is a tendency towards what might be called geographic and storyline inbreeding. Consider the return to Tattoine in Return of the Jedi, as well as the return to a second Death Star along with the dwindling blood lines between the principle characters in that story. Or consider the return to the desert in the Last Crusade, as well as the lame rehashing of the formerly supporting characters of Sallah and Marcus Brody. The inbreeding inclination can actually be attributed to a more fundamental tendency in the final film to celebrate the trilogy’s concepts and characters under the assumption that the audience has come to know and accept them. Why did the audience have to learn how Indiana got his scar on his chin, or how he came to use a whip or why he developed ophiophobia? These things were cleverly explained in a matter of seconds, but such revelations had the adverse effect of diminishing the exotic aura of Indiana’s world. Inagaki chose not to bog himself down in such trifles. Duel at Ganryu Island provides an expansive and riveting conclusion to the samurai trilogy by providing fresh scenery, resolving most of the subplots without fixating on them and building up the dramatic dichotomy between the two central characters, both powerfully and brilliantly portrayed, that are destined to clash in the trilogy’s climax.
To create an expansive sense for the trilogy’s world, each film offers a varied and non-repeating progression of settings. In Musashi Miyamoto, there are a lot of on location shots showing the hills around Miyamoto village, the village itself, the battleground of Sekigahara, the nearby hill country where Oko and Akemi lived and Himeji castle. Duel at Ichijoji Temple employs more sets showing Iga prefecture and Kyoto and the surrounding areas, including the Ichijoji temple grounds. Ganryu Island does not revisit any of those places, but instead introduces us to the ancient capital city of Nara, the new bustling capital of Edo, Hoten Field in Shimosa on the Kanto plain and, of course, Ganryu Island. The distinction of the Kanto plain is particularly striking as that area contrasts greatly to the forests and hills shown in the previous films. In short, Duel at Ganryu Island comes across as a fresh new movie concluding the trilogy instead of a revisiting the same locales in the previous films to tie it all up.
The storylines, too, are ably resolved in a way that does not deter the film from reaching its primary climax (something the novel fares less well at doing partly because it juggled dozens of characters over a serialized format). Remnants of the previous films are shucked away when needed: there is no mention of Miyamoto village or the folks that remained there; no characters from the Yoshioka school are brought back, with the exception of Toji Gion; Takuan is not shown at all and neither is Matahachi. In essence, those subplots and storylines were adequately concluded in Duel at Ichijoji Temple. There is a slightly convoluted sequence towards the end of the first film to set up the subplots for the second film, which comes across as a little confusing for a western audience, though, no doubt the Japanese audience, familiar with the story, followed it with considerable ease. At one point in the third film, Inagaki clever inserts a story within a story, which echoes that of the Seven Samurai. Call it the Single Samurai. This interior story nicely wraps up the fate of one stray Yoshioka character (Toji Gion) while progressing the character development of Musashi at the same time.
Duel at Ganryu Island, though, is principally about the intersection of two extraordinary fencers: Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki. Everything in the story builds up to their inevitable duel. Inagaki impresses the greatness of these two men right out of the gate during the credits where his camera slowly and tightly climbs up the details of a statue of Basara, one of the Twelve Heavenly Generals guarding Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha of medicine). The implication is that this film is about god-like men that are towering figures in Japanese history. Inagaki’s director credit is shown over the fiery intense face of Basara.
The story opens at the majestic Shiraito Falls. Kojiro stands alone, bemoaning the injustice facing his sword, Clothes Rod—a deceptively long nodachi-styled blade that is about 20cm longer than the average katana (something he uses to his great advantage).
“Clothes Rod, my poor sword,” his thoughts go, “your owner, such a fencer, is still unrecognized despite his great skill. His dream remains unattained!”
“Blind fools!” he shouts, drawing his sword and spins around in a slicing fashion.
The camera pans up from a swallow cut in half, dead on the river rocks, to show Akemi, some short distance away, staring in horror at the bloody carcass. She stands up and approaches the dead creature—her bells ringing in alarm.
“Poor swallow!” she laments.
“Not just anyone can do that,” Kojiro says smugly and confidently, putting Clothes Rod back in its sheath. “Swallow Turn Swing….I’ll kill Musashi with it.”
Kojiro’s overwhelming vanity has made him into an extremely cold and unnerving individual.
“Why must you kill him? You’re a devil,” Akemi protests and then, in an effort to preserve Musashi’s life (such is her unrequited devotion to Musashi, as well as the assumption that Kojiro will kill him) she promises Kojiro she will never mention Musashi’s name again if he will simply forget about him.
“Conceited girl! I’m not after him because of you. He’s good. He’s my only match in this country today…My dream is to fight him. He must dream it too.” Kojiro’s face is staring dreamily into space. His coldness sends Akemi running away in panic, but not before Kojiro, knowing that she is running off in search of Musashi, bids her to tell him not to wantonly trifle with his life before he and Kojiro can face each other.
Like Musashi, Kojiro seeks perfection. Only, he is seeking a different type of perfection, one that is almost entirely void of humanity. In the second film he receives a certificate from a prominent fencing school indicating that Kojiro is a man of considerable skill and fighting prowess. His credentials tend to be founded on official letterhead, unlike Musashi who spends the first film as an outlaw and the latter films roaming the country training himself. In his own arrogant way, Kojiro is a rebel, but one that stays in aristocratic circles. He’s fashionable to the point of giving off an effeminate air and he always wears a crisp stylish kimono. He is semi-engaged to Chief Retainer ___’s daughter, Omitsu, yet he is somehow still an outsider.
It is through Chief Retainer ___ that Kojiro finds an audience with Lord Hosokawa, applying for the prestigious job as the Lord’s fencing instructor. He is challenging one of Hosokawa’s retainers, Okaya. For the match, Kojiro is using a wooden katana, and Okaya is using a lance with a protective covering over the spear head. Kojiro insists that Okaya remove the cover, but refuses to switch to his real sword. Okaya protests, but Lord Hosokawa, intrigued by the courage of this man brought in by Chief Retainer ___, tells Okaya to do as Kojiro insists. However, during the match, Kojiro uses a little too much force and permanently cripples Okaya, whose lance pierces the Hosokawa crest printed on a banner.
“He overdid it!,” Chief Retainer ___ complains later after returning home after the match, “I was embarrassed.”
In an adjacent room, Omitsu asks Kojiro how the match went.
“Not too well,” he explained and related the events to her. “No Lord will hire a man that cripples one of his vassals…..I do not think I did anything wrong, but others will see it differently.”
Thus we see that Kojiro is realistic, yet sees his skill as something that should trump every other consideration. When he visits Okaya, we do not know if he is doing so out of genuine compassion (his curious sense of honor, pride-based as it is, somehow still allows for this possibility), or whether it is simply a show for Lord Hosokawa. Regardless, Hosokawa is impressed when he hears the news that Kojiro has paid the vassal a visit and decides to hire him.
Unbeknownst to Kojiro during this whole affair is that another of Hosokawa’s Chief Retainers, Sado (Takashi Shimura) has been recommending that Musashi fill the position of fencing instructor. But Sado has never met Musashi and only knows the man by his reputation as a peerless swordsman. In contrast to Kojiro, who sought the position, Musashi sought to avoid it.
When we first see Musashi in Duel at Ganryu Island, he is in Nara, at the Horyuji Temple, where he and Jotaro are among many bystanders watching a martial arts contest put forth by the Hozoin Temple Priest. A stocky priest, Agon, has been whipping challenger after challenger with his lance, until running out of contestants. He asks the crowd for more challengers, but nobody comes forward. Musashi is content to simply watch. After awhile, Agon proclaims himself the victor and the crowd, including Musashi, begins to disperse. Then suddenly, Jotaro shouts at Agon, who quickly turns and approaches the young boy.
“I admire your spirit. You insulted me audaciously!” he says, “you challenged, now fight!”
Jotaro is frightened and does not want to fight. Musashi steps in and pleads humbly to Agon to forgive the boy, but Agon refuses. Musashi gets down on his knees and apologizes for the boy. But Agon, still angered, thrusts his lance several times, just missing Musashi. After exhausting all efforts of diplomacy, Musashi grabs the lance and defensively battles Agon to a standstill. While the two men match strength, Priest Nikkan (the same priest at the beginning of Duel at Ichijoji Temple) intervenes. He tries to convince Agon to stop, but Agon refuses, even after he realizes that he is fighting Musashi. Agon mounts one final attempt to gain control of the lance but is forced to the ground by Musashi, who then places his hand on his sword, unsure where the fight might be headed. Agon, stays on the ground. Priest Nikkan explains that this is no match and proclaims Agon as the victor for the day’s contest. Musashi easily accepts it.
Musashi has matured. His character in the previous films would not have watched the contest idly and certainly would not have attempted to apologize for Jotaro. Nor would he have accepted Prince Nikkan’s confirmation of Agon as the victor. But that was then. If there is any question to Musashi’s flowering into greatness, then Prince Nikkan answers it that night while having tea with Musashi:
“I marvel at your perfection!” he says, “Power alone won’t make an accomplished samurai. He must be strong. At the same time he must be just.”
Musashi, accepting the sage words offers: “I want to be able to fight without regrets. My past encounters were full of them.”
“Errantry has its points,” the priest says. “Your suffering will polish your soul.”
Priest Nikkan then tells Musashi that his fencing feats have caught the eye of Lord Yagyu, who, along with Hosokawa, is a close adviser to the Shogun. He encourages Musashi to go to Edo and visit with him. It should be noted that while the film never shows Yagyu or follows up on his interest with Musashi, the Lord Hosokawa does have an interest in acquiring the service of Musashi at the same time he is considering Kojiro.
So Musashi heads to Edo. Inagaki is extremely efficient at showing Edo as a bustling new city. Whereas the opening shots of Kyoto (in the second film) and Nara show temples and pagodas, noting their cultural significance, Edo shows a busy street swarming with commerce. This is the new capital of Japan under Tokugawa rule and recently its most crowded city. When Musashi reaches Edo, he seems reluctant to petition the Yagyu clan regarding a position. Instead, he stays in a seedy inn (a far cry from the carefully landscaped serene housing that Kojiro inhabits) carving boddhivesta figures. One night, while he and Jotaro are eating dinner amidst the flies in their room, a swarm of rogues and rascals are noisily gambling in an adjacent room. Musashi and Jotaro are clearly frustrated. Jotaro opens the sliding door and tells the men to be quiet. Aghast at the ballsy demand issued from the little kid, the group is silenced. Jotaro returns to his meal.
“They became quiet,” Musashi observes, “You are persuasive.” Just then, the leader of the rogues, a horse thief, slides open the shoji.
“Samurai, stop eating,” he says. “Confess you are scared. Don’t pretend that you’re calm at heart.”
But Musashi does not stop eating, nor does he take much notice of the horse thief. He, instead, begins to pick the flies off of his noodles and garments with his chopsticks. After catching half a dozen flies, he hands his chopsticks to Jotaro and tells him to wash them. The horse thief and the crowd behind him are awestruck. Knowing that this is no ordinary samurai, they flee. The horse thief turns up the next morning, no longer a rogue but a student of Musashi. Thus does Musashi find ways around violence to resolve matters.
Kojiro and Musashi first cross paths after Kojiro kills several men in a duel. The fight occurs on the street just below the room where Musashi is staying. The noisy crowd arouses Musashi from carving his bodhisattva figures. He goes out to check on the commotion, but Kojiro is gone by the time he reaches the scene. He left behind four dead fencers and a note:
“The four are students of Obana Strategic School.
He who is responsible for this is Kojiro Sasaki of Isarago”
Musashi is intrigued by the apparent skill of Kojiro. One stroke each, and they all lay dead.
He takes the bodies to the Obana school, but the master refuses to accept that they are his men. Musashi is taken aback at the man’s foolish pride, but offers his apology for bringing the corpses in error. As he carts the dead bodies away, the younger Obana disciples follow and beg him to turn the bodies over to them.
“I will not!” Musashi says, “the dead men will not like it. Fortunately, I know several sutras. I’ll bury them.”
And so he does. While reading the sutras, Kojiro waits nearby, ready for the moment that he can finally confront Musashi. However, Musashi, aware that he will be seen as defending the Obana school, suggests that they meet at a later time, at a different spot, where he can fight freely. Kojiro agrees to meet him the next evening.
During that time, another retainer for Lord Hosokawa, Chief Retainer Sado (Takashi Shimura) who had been recommending Musashi for the same post that Kojiro eventually received, finally finds Musashi in the hotel. Through their conversation, Sado learns that Musashi will be dueling Hosokawas new man. Sada pleads with Musashi that, if he should win, he should accept the offer to become Hosokawa’s vassal. This presents a delemna for Musashi, who still feels unready to serve under a master.
Kojiro waits at the spot of the duel only to receive a message from Musashi:
“I have decided to leave on a journey. Let me please postpone the promised match for a year. When we meet again, I will be quite ready.”
How the men spend that year further draws the contrast between them. Kojiro, employed with Hosokawa, enjoys the fruits of the upper class (though still remaining a serious and dedicated fencer). Musashi travels to the Kanto plain, builds a modest hut with Jotaro and the old horse thief, and takes up farming near a settlement plagued by brigands. This period in the film is the story within a story segment that echoes a little from the Seven Samurai. Through Musashi’s aid, the other farmers are able to rid the yoke of the brigands. When the story plays out, it has been one year and the time has come for the rivals to finally meet in what is to be one of the most famous duels of all time.
Again, the method of travel taken by each speaks to their differing ways. Kojiro travels in a royal procession, while Musashi travels alone. He sends a message to Kojiro and Lord Hosokawa that he will arrive on time at Ganryu Island in his own boat.
During the boat trip to Ganryu Island, Musashi takes a large wooden oar and trims it down with his sword.
“What’s that for, Sir?” asks his boatswain.
“For the duel.”
“Fight with a wooden one?”
“I like the size” replies Musashi. “Listen, if I lose and fall… take my body back to Otsu.”
Musashi times his arrival with the tide and the coming sunrise. He disembarks and wades through the waters to confront his foe. Kojiro is on the beach waiting. They lock stares; an atmosphere of inevitability hangs in the air. Kojiro takes the higher ground. Musashi remains at the water’s edge, the surf washing around his feet. Three times they attack. “Clothes Rod” clacks against the wooden oar without a definitive result. They maneuver back and forth along the shore in parallel tracks. Musashi brilliantly positions himself in front of the rising sun. As he moves, it peeks out from around his head in glaring flashes that blind Kojiro. The time has come. The two warriors move in for one final clash. When they leap back, Musashi has a bloody gash on his forehead. But you should see the other guy. He stands erect, the life flowing out of his body. It was Musashi’s sword that dealt the death blow. Kojiro teeters and then collapses, a smile of satisfaction on his dead lips.“He was the best fencer I will ever encounter” Musashi tells Lord Hosokawa’s men before turning and walking out to his boat. “I’m so glad. I’m so glad” rejoices our hero’s ferryman as their boat journeys out to sea, on a return voyage to Otsu we can only hope. The duel between the cold skill of Kojiro and the organic nature of Musashi is over. Musashi Miyamoto can only weep.In Japanese history, the island was named Ganryu, after Kojiro Sasaki (he was also known as Kojiro Ganryu) as it was the place of his death. Thus, the Japanese audience was well aware of the ending beforehand. From the beginning shots of episode one, to the final duel of episode three, twelve years elapse. And in the time, Musasashi makes the transformation from a wild hot-headed beast to Japan’s greatest samurai.
Jeffrey Hill is the art director for The House Next Door and the publisher of Liverputty. Wagstaff is a contributor to The House Next Door, Liverputty and Edward Copeland on Film. For more posts about samurai films visit Liverputty.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife
Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos
To celebrate Radiohead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at the group’s best and most innovative music videos.
Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to Radiohead by way of their debut single, “Creep.” Thom Yorke and company may have soured to their very first modern rock hit, but as we said in our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, for which the song ranked at #37, “Creep” is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ultimate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. The track peaked on the Billboard pop chart in September of 1993, a full year after its initial release, and Radiohead would go on to become one of the most influential bands in rock history. To celebrate the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at their best and most innovative music videos.
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2013.
10. “Burn the Witch” (Dir: David Mould). “Stand in the shadows/To the gallows/This is a round-up,” Thom Yorke cautions at the start of “Burn the Witch,” with all the paranoia and politically shaded intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Radiohead frontman. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the music video for the track depicts a government official sent to inspect the strange goings-on in a small village, where he’s burned alive in a giant wooden statue in a scene reminiscent of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. The clip features stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s-era U.K. children’s show Trumpton. Sal Cinquemani
9. “Paranoid Android” (Dir: Magnus Carlsson). Radiohead commissioned Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson for this bizarre and somewhat graphic video, which sees the titular protagonist of Carlsson’s series Robin encountering various unsavory or unearthly characters, including a prostitute in a tree, a deranged businessman, and an angel flying a helicopter. Cinquemani
8. “House of Cards” (Dir: James Frost). When the “House of Cards” video came out, it struck me as a tech geek’s gimmick, but in retrospect, its motion-capture technique is used for deeply human ends. First we see two faces in close-up, their physicality rendered as blue-ish data points. Then, indistinct bodies at a party and a whole suburban landscape being wiped away in Etch-A-Sketch fashion. It’s a kind of digitally envisioned nightmare: Every pixel of everything we know, instantly erased. Paul Rice
7. “No Surprises” (Dir: Grant Lee). Lo-fi simplicity tends to work best for Radiohead’s live-action videos. In “No Surprises,” we get to watch Thom Yorke gasp for breath as a water chamber fills and releases around his head. It’s a sly sadomasochistic dream that could be his, or that of plenty of Radiohead haters everywhere. Rice
6. “Daydreaming” (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson). In this video for 2016’s “Daydreaming,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Thom Yorke through numerous locales, from hotel hallways to laundromats. The images, lucid and confrontational, exude an almost gestural quality as they cut from interior and exterior spaces, with Yorke waltzing in a sleep-like torpor toward a hole—or spacious studio igloo?—somewhere on a snow-capped mountain. The world here appears at once real and imagined, and by the time the fire within the hole lights Yorke’s face and the song grinds to a halt, Anderson dramatically reaffirms most of our beliefs about Radiohead’s music as, above all else, the prettiest soundtrack in the world to one man’s devotion to his own alienation. Ed Gonzalez
5. “Just” (Dir: Jamie Thraves). There’s a Kafkaesque absurdity to the simple concept of “Just” that gets and stays under the skin. A man lies down in the middle of a monochromatic city sidewalk. People trip on him and ask how he is and why he’s there. Finally, he tells the crowd (though we never know, since the subtitles cut out), and they all lie with him, presumably in conjoined doom. Rice
4. “Knives Out” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Thematically evocative of the director’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the elaborate, seemingly single-take “Knives Out” juxtaposes emotional and physical hardship via Michel Gondry’s signature surreal imagery, including singer Thom Yorke’s head replaced by a giant heart in which he stores a Polaroid photograph of his fiancée, whose critical condition he may very well have been responsible for. Cinquemani
3. “Pyramid Song” (Dir: Shynola). Thom Yorke and company have long been champions of animation, and “Pyramid Song” is their best, most heartfelt work in the form. A man—or a thing (the figure could be human or beast)—dives into a lost civilization, wading through bones to a home where he watches TV. CG allows for meticulous detail, but the gorgeous design by artist collective Shynola is purposely murky, full of unknown layers, and like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released the same year, it suggests a ruined past we can never get back. Rice
2. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Dir: Jake Scott). Jake Scott, noted music video director and son of Sir Ridley, has said that his striking clip for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” filmed in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California, is an allegory on death and reincarnation. His claim is borne out by images of colorful characters, old and young, strolling the aisles of a neon-lit supermarket, being watched on surveillance cameras, and eventually carted off to a heavenly looking “exit.” Cinquemani
1. “Karma Police” (Dir: Jonathan Glazer). Director Jonathan Glazer claims that this creepy revenge clip, in which a car slowly follows a man running down a desolate road only to have the tables turned thanks to a chance gasoline leak, was inspired by a bad dream. His remarkable use of point of view implicates the spectator in the video’s action, but it’s the spooky way with which he fashions a Möbius strip from karmic irony that makes “Karma Police” Radiohead’s finest contribution to the music-video medium. Cinquemani