Ahead on Differential

The blog arm of the Derek Godin Online Media Empire | derekgodin.com

Here are ten things.

  1. Today is my cat Ruby's fifth adoptaversary! Over the 2017–18 winter holidays, we were half-looking at Kijiji for people looking to re-home their pets, and we stumbled upon someone nearby giving away their adorable brown long-haired tabby cat. So on a cold January day, I went for a walk with a pet carrier and brought my little girl home.
  2. I'm not a big resolution guy (see the last edition of Ten Things), but I do want to get better at writing capsule reviews on my Letterboxd.
  3. One of my favourite Nintendo 3DS games is Pocket Card Jockey, a pyramid solitaire/horse racing game from the studio behind the Pokémon games. After literal years of crowing for a port or a remaster, Tim Apple has granted my wish: Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! drops January 20th, and might just be the killer app that gets me to subscribe to Apple Arcade.
  4. What do the Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camera, synthetic tracheae, and the AT-727 Sound Burger all have in common? They are all featured in the Museum of Failure. (via Recomendo)
  5. Two new additions to my bookshelf: The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols and the collected sonnets of William Shakespeare.
  6. Every now and again I'll fall into the wonderful, questionably-accurate, likely-maintained-by-people-half-my-age Aesthetics Wiki and try to figure out what my bag is. Long story short, I may have been stealing some Dark Academia valour with my whole “goth professor” shtick.
  7. NHL logos, Poké-fied.
  8. I made some fried rice last week and I swear I saw the face of God.
  9. 2022 cinematic catch-up, continued: the eye-popping, heart-wrenching visual feast that is Three Thousand Years of Longing, the Fincher-fied cape shit of The Batman, and what is likely to be 2022's Short Good Secret all-star, Leonor Will Never Die.
  10. “After the Fire” by Ada Limón (via Carith)
    You ever think you could cry so hard
    that there’d be nothing left in you, like
    how the wind shakes a tree in a storm
    until every part of it is run through with
    wind? I live in the low parts now, most
    days a little hazy with fever and waiting
    for the water to stop shivering out of the
    body. Funny thing about grief, its hold
    is so bright and determined like a flame,
    like something almost worth living for.


Here are ten things.

  1. Happy new year, y'all! So normally, I'd publish my Kleon-esque list of 100 things that made my year in 2022, but you know what? 2022 was kind of a shitty year for your boy. I don't much feel like combing through the wreckage at the moment. I will say, though, that the weekly ten things in a way market-corrects the annual top 100. But because I love reading it, I will link to Austin Kleon's top 100; I said it once and I'll say it again, without Austin, there's basically no Ahead on Differential.
  2. Last January, in lieu of a resolution, I decided that the operating theme of my 2022 would be “habit.” Now I was doing pretty well until all the death and illness happened, and I don't want to recycle a theme, so I'm going to declare that 2023 will be my Year of Consistency, i.e. being better about keeping the habits I tentatively formed in 2022.
  3. Steph and I started watching Jeopardy! on a whim just in time to be charmed by a soft-spoken below-the-line TV guy from Toronto named Ray “The Sway” Lalonde.
  4. Overcast is my podcatcher of choice, but the barebones desktop version available on the app's website is sneakily useful for when listening to podcasts on my phone is inconvenient (i.e. when I'm at work doing audio-based tasks on my workstation). Last year, developer Marco Arment decided to discontinue the desktop version of Overcast, until he changed his mind when he realized just how popular this particular usage of his app was.
  5. AoD Hall of Famer Jon Bois interviewed in the god damn Times.
  6. 2022 cinematic catch-up update: the face-melting historical action extravaganza RRR, Jordan Peele's oddball thriller Nope, and Steven Spielberg's beautiful, affecting family drama The Fabelmans.
  7. In the spirit of plugging people I've been ripping off for years: here are Jason Kottke's 36 things.
  8. YouTube Digest: Linus Boman on Papyrus, Red Letter Media on the secondary VHS market, and Patrick Willems on Ambulance.
  9. So this is a weird one: this past week I had a flash bulb memory of a gag-a-day newspaper-style webcomic I read in high school called Phil Likes Tacos, a about a dude who works in a taco place and his goofball bestie. Because nothing on the internet truly dies, I looked it up again, hoping to find some lingering trace of it. Not only did I find it, but writer/illustrator Andrew Bilitz is still making Phil Likes Tacos, which I find heartening in the way these kinds of small miracles to be. From the man himself: “Phil Likes Tacos is a webcomic I started way back on May 22nd 2002 and I continue to do to this day for whatever reason. Oh wait, it’s because it’s fun and interesting and there’s always something on my mind.” When it comes right down to it, anything worth doing, especially if you do it for a long time, has to be fun for you. Shout out to you, Andy.
  10. A poem from Wikipedia Haiku:
    She worked at bowling
    alleys, peeled potatoes and
    even made cigars


they come, they come/to put a wall between us/we know that they won't win

Here are ten things.

  1. I would be remiss if I didn't wish y'all a merry Christmas. Today is Day 4 of my extended two-week holiday break, and I won't see the broad side of my office building until 2023. I hope y'all are talking it easy with people you care about, and who care about you.
  2. “Santa,” as ever, was quite generous with his wares this year (including a lambswool cardigan that makes me think I should lean way more into looking deliberately professorial), but no gift surprised and delighted me more than this booklet of blank brackets I got. Close attention truly is the currency of love.
  3. Speaking of brackets: nothing says Christmas like a holiday-themed Movie Bowl! For Movie Bowl: Christmassacre, 32 Christmas movies entered the arena, and The Muppet Christmas Carol, winner of the 1992 Movie Bowl, ultimately came out on top. Gen Xers and old Millennials like the Muppets, who'd have thought?
  4. One last Christmas thing: I spent this morning writing while listening to my all-time favourite Christmas album, The New Possibility by John Fahey (here bundled with the very good Christmas with John Fahey, Vol. II).
  5. Music notes: I listened to Tim Heidecker's new album High School, which might have made my Top 20 had I got around to it a bit sooner (“Sirens of Titan” was a late cut to my 2022 mixtape), and I've come to the conclusion that I may be more into Tim Heidecker's music than I am his comedy.
  6. Y'all ever try to print an em-dash on a keyboard with no numpad? It's tough! That's why I've taken my first tentative steps into the world of text expansion apps. I installed aText, and now all I have to do to get an em-dash—like these—is type three regular dashes in a row.
  7. In 2017-18, there was a trend on YouTube of people posting “empty mall mixes” of popular songs, where the track was manipulated to make it sound like it was, well, playing in an empty mall (the great Jia Tolentino wrote about it in The New Yorker in March 2018). The result is this strange mix of liminality and nostalgia, and the remix I keep returning to is this version of ABBA's “Dancing Queen” as played “over intercom in 1976 empty mall food court.” My friend Patrick brought my attention to a similar remix of Crowded House's “Don't Dream It's Over” where the song is performed “LIVE (but tickets were sold out).” The comment highlighted in the link, written by YouTube user Sean Cunningham, is a beautiful and-one.
  8. This week on PlutoTV: the second half of The Truman Show, and all of Terms of Endearment, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Catch Me If You Can. PlutoTV remains undefeated.
  9. My 2022 catch-up continues: I finally saw Top Gun: Maverick (unequivocally better than the OG), Glass Onion (man I hope they let Rian Johnson make like 30 of these) and Barbarian (FYC Justin Long for Best Supporting Actor).
  10. “Miss you. Would like to take a walk with you.” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi (via Laura Saint Chevalier):
    Do not care if  you just arrive in your skeleton.
    Would love to take a walk with you. Miss you.
    Would love to make you shrimp saganaki.
    Like you used to make me when you were alive.
    Love to feed you. Sit over steaming
    bowls of pilaf. Little roasted tomatoes
    covered in pepper and nutmeg. Miss you.
    Would love to walk to the post office with you.
    Bring the ghost dog. We’ll walk past the waterfall
    and you can tell me about the after.
    Wish you. Wish you would come back for a while.
    Don’t even need to bring your skin sack. I’ll know
    you. I know you will know me even though. I’m
    bigger now. Grayer. I’ll show you my garden.
    I’d like to hop in the leaf pile you raked but if you
    want to jump in? I’ll rake it for you. Miss you
    standing looking out at the river with your rake
    in your hand. Miss you in your puffy blue jacket.
    They’re hip now. I can bring you a new one
    if you’ll only come by. Know I told you
    it was okay to go. Know I told you
    it was okay to leave me. Why’d you believe me?
    You always believed me. Wish you would
    come back so we could talk about truth.
    Miss you. Wish you would walk through my
    door. Stare out from the mirror. Come through
    the pipes.


These pins have seen some shit, man

Here are ten things.

  1. It's the most wonderful time of the year. That's right, it's end-of-year list season! So to help you get into the holiday spirit, here are my 20 favourite albums of 2022. (here's a text version of the list)
  2. I also made a companion playlist of my favourite tracks of the year. That's 90 whole minutes of bangers for your ass (if your idea of “banger” is “bitchin' power pop and/or sad songs about feelings”). Most of the albums on my top 20 are represented, but also represented are singles that either don't have a parent album yet, won't have a parent album, or whose parent album I have simply missed.
  3. Winter has arrived in full force, greeting the city with heaps of cloudy, fluffy snow. There's just something about seeing cars and apartments and trees covered in pristine, white snow that just... makes me real happy.
  4. Workplace extracurricular #1: The first official office Christmas party since 2019. Libations were consumed, karaoke was sung (I went with an old standby), astrological charts were pored over and parsed. It turns out there are way more fellow Pisceans at work than I thought.
  5. Workplace extracurricular #2: laser-lightshow duckpin bowling, QA vs. Scheduling Edition. I am frustratingly bad at bowling (why blame it on my mechanics when I can blame it on the Jack and lemonades?); Steph, on the other hand, bowled five straight strikes to start off her final game and ended up with the second-highest individual score of the day.
  6. A further experiment in adornment: I bought some fake nose rings on the internet and test-drove a different look.
  7. My three hottest movie takes.
  8. At long last, PlutoTV has landed in Canada, and has so far done an incredible job of replicating the peak-cable feeling of programming movies that are fun to dip in and out of, a veritable murderer's row of rewatchables. A sampling of what I caught, like, 30–45 minutes of this week: Coming to America, Zodiac, Days of Thunder, Collateral, School of Rock, and The Untouchables. The one movie I did watch in its entirety was the Robert Aldrich prison football movie The Longest Yard (capsule review: right up there with Slap Shot in terms of bawdy fuck-the-Man macho 70s bullshit), so now I have a better idea of what the whole Burt Reynolds thing was all about.
  9. RIP Angelo Badalamenti. I've seen his work with David Lynch get praised, and rightly so, but seemingly no one has brought up his sweeping, Cooder-esque score for the sorely underrated Lynch joint The Straight Story. Floodgates: open.
  10. “The Necklace” by Osip Mandelstam (translated from Russian by Christian Wiman) (via Laura Esckelson):
    Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease,
    A little honey, a little sun,
    That we may obey Persephone's bees.
    You can't untie a boat unmoored. Fur-shod shadows can't be heard, Nor terror, in this life, mastered.
    Love, what's left for us, and of us, is this Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless
    To find in the forest's heart a home, Night's never-ending hum, Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.
    Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone, That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone, This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.


Here are ten things.

  1. Workplace extracurricular #1: axe throwing. Capsule review: not so fun when you're starting out, but awesome once you get into the swing of it. Play with a cocktail in your nondominant hand for maximum dirtbag vibes.
  2. Workplace extracurricular #2: trivia night. Your boy was a force to be reckoned with; I don't know how one would quantify AAR (answers above replacement), but I was putting up hall of fame numbers in spite of all the tequila shots we were winning.
  3. I am a big fan of Discord's new display font, gg sans.
  4. An interesting rundown of how the Ralph Lauren coaching tree has had a deep influence on several branches of American fashion.
  5. On The Big Picture podcast, host Sean Fennessey and guest Timothy Simons nerd out about the glory of physical media for 90 minutes. They talk about home theatre set-ups, preferred boutique labels, and the rush of buying 50 used Blus at a pawn shop for $100.
  6. Over at the New York Times, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott break down the Sight & Sound Top 100 list, assess current trends in criticism and cinephilia, and wonder if the list overall is just a touch too classy.
  7. I've been listening to the Fang Island song “Chime Out” a lot recently, a song I have adored for a decade, and realized the lyrics were nowhere to be found online. So in an uncharacteristic fit of confidence, I got in touch with Jason Bartell on Instagram and asked him if he... had the lyrics to “Chime Out” lying around somewhere. Long story short, he did, he shared them with me, and seemed moved that someone would ask in the first place. The lesson of the story? Life's too short to not let someone know that something they do or something they created makes your heart swell; no one dislikes hearing that.
  8. Ear candy #1: Tony Molina, the Cali-based master of the 90-second power pop symphony, has a tremendous new album out called In the Fade. A lot of catchy, wistful 90s fuzz with some Tom Petty-isms thrown in for good measure.
  9. Ear candy #2: Dazy, Richmond, Virginia's finest purveyor of irresistible fuzz-pop nuggets, has a new one out called OUTOFBODY. There is no better stompbox-drenched 1994 college radio crossover hit-ass song I've heard all year than “Rollercoaster Ride.” Damn near perfect.
  10. “Self Portrait at Twenty Years” by Roberto Bolaño:
    I set off, I took up the march and never knew
    where it might take me. I went full of fear,
    I got the runs, my head was buzzing:
    I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
    I don't know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
    to leave so soon, but at the same time
    I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
    You either hear it or you don't, and I heard
    and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
    borne on the air and in the sea.
    A sword and shield. And then,
    despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
    against Death's cheek.
    And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
    that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
    though fixed in such a swift reality:
    thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
    or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
    brushing cheeks with death.


still from Fire of Love

Here are ten things.

  1. My friends and I made our triumphant return to pub trivia last Sunday. We won two of ours drinks each, placed second (our prize: a like-new copy of Clue Carnival), and concluded the evening at McDonald's getting silly on chicken nuggets and recommending our favourite media featuring drug dealers (The Wire, High Maintenance, Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper).
  2. The championship match of the 1989 Movie Bowl pitted Kiki's Delivery Service against Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure in a closely-matched contest. The Ghibli juggernaut triumphed, claiming its third Movie Bowl win for the studio, but one of the vanquished parties was gracious in defeat.
  3. Sight & Sound just published the results of their decennial Greatest Films of All Time poll, and we have a new champion: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Funny enough, the only four movies to ever be #1 on this list are all in the top four. Tons of stuff here to shore up your watchlist.
  4. Two great documentaries to recommend: Elvis Mitchell's Is That Black Enough for You?!? (an engrossing, clear-eyed and funny history of Black people in the movies, with a focus on the fecund period between 1968 and 1978) and Sara Dosa's Fire of Love (rock-star volcanologists in love, built mostly from astonishing footage pulled from the subjects' archives).
  5. Another week, another batch of albums I listened to for EOY purposes, and none knocked me on my ass more than the third album by the Beths, Expert in a Dying Field. The title track and “Knees Deep” is as good a one-two opening punch of strong, bittersweet indie pop as I've heard all year. Hot take: Jonathan Pearce is secretly a hot-shit guitar player.
  6. Another high-water mark this week in terms of 2022 albums was Everything Was Beautiful, the latest from space-rock revivalists Spiritualized. “Crazy” is pedal steel-kissed devastation at its finest.
  7. My friend Alex recently DJed an all-vinyl set of yacht rock, City Pop, and assorted smooth music. All five hours of that set are available here for your listening pleasure.
  8. Between Fire of Love and the recent volcanic activity in Hawaii, the word of the week is “vog.”
  9. RIP Christine McVie. Put on “Little Lies” and pour one out.
  10. Another poem from Wikipedia Haiku:
    He is seemingly
    assassinated, but heals
    a short time later


Olivier Gruner is... Nemesis

Here are ten things.

  1. First, a bit of personal housekeeping: after six months of post-infarct heparin injections and a mystery autoimmune infection that's scrambled the nerves of my fingers and toes, I am officially off medicine and in the clear. My medical and emotional annus horibilis has finally let up just in time for the last ~10% of the year.
  2. In case you thought that was the end of medical shenanigans: I noticed a few weeks ago that what once was sharp in my field of vision had started getting fuzzy, so I booked an eye exam. Long story short: I am now a proud card-carrying member of the #GlassesGang. I currently toggle between two pairs: the Mad Men (your classic brow line tortoiseshell deal) and the Elbow Patch Special (a pair with big grey frames that make me look like a uni professor who still rocks out to The Number of the Beast.)
  3. For GQ, in a sequel to one of my favourite magazine profiles, Zach Baron catches up with Brendan Fraser.
  4. For Mubi, Frank Falisi on the man, the myth, the legend, Jon Bois. The latest from the Dorktown crew, The People You're Paying to Be in Shorts, is very good.
  5. Here's a double feature idea for you: Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Speed Racer. These are two idiosyncratic movies about the difficulties and perils of being creative and independently-midned under capitalism's thumb; both have hoppin' jazzy scores (courtesy of Joe Jackson and Michael Giacchino, respectively) and a propendency for collapsing multiple diegetic spaces into one shot (Coppola uses physical sets the unite different locations, the Wachowskis use copious amounts of green screen).
  6. Albert Pyun, the B-movie legend responsible for such highly-stylized sci-fi/post-apocalyptic video store staples as Cyborg and Nemesis, is in ill health. His wife Cynthia Curnan has solicited positive messages and well-wishes in his time of dying. We here at Ahead on Differential salute Mr. Pyun for his decades-long dedication to cheap thrills and cheaper budgets, where a lack of resources never equalled a lack of imagination or fun.
  7. I've been reading Ted Kooser's The Poetry Home Repair Manual, which in insightful in a very homey, plainspoken way. This is geared towards beginners, and Kooser does a great job of laying out some fundamentals, but it never hurts to hear things like “let the poem you're writing find its form” and “don't be cute to the detriment of being clear.”
  8. With list season approaching, I listened to a handful of new-to-me 2022 albums; I really liked the new records by Alvvays, Built to Spill, and Danger Mouse & Black Thought.
  9. Steph got a milk frother recently so 'tis the season for eggnog lattes.
  10. From the ever-delightful Wikipedia Haiku:
    Sorry, I don't have
    time at the moment to read
    the whole article


Here are ten things I want to get better at doing.

  1. Tarot. Tarot cards are less interesting to me as a divinatory tool than they are as a storytelling device. I have three decks on my desk and one in my bag, and they're gathering more dust than I'd like to admit. I'm not a mystic or anything, but as addressed in an earlier post, I am a Jungian, at least in that I believe in meaningful coincidences and archetypes and such, and this is part of why tarot interests me. Their archetypal nature is such that a reader cast a wide enough net so that a querent might see themselves in the spread; this is the essence of cold reading. But I'm not out here trying to predict anyone's future. I just want to tell a story. That said, I only know enough about tarot to be dangerous. I'm familiar with tarot in the same way I am with chess: I know how all the pieces move, but not really how they go together. My notion of what the suits, ranks, and Major Arcana cards represent by themselves is okay, but how they relate to each other? That's still nebulous.

  2. Playing ukulele. One of my major sliding doors moments was when I was about 9, when my grandfather offered to show me how to play guitar. Naturally, being 9 and a total idiot, I turned him down. I had better things to do that day, I guess? Fast-forward 25 years later, and I'm at a party where a jam is happening in a friend's kitchen. I'm sitting next to my editor, and I tell him that musicians are 1,000% cooler than writers, to which he counters, “Then just pick up the guitar, it's not that hard.” Images of my two ukuleles gathering dust near my desk then passed before my eyes. It's not that I want to become the Eddie Van Halen of the ukulele or anything, I just want to be able to put chords together without faceplanting. I know your classic cowboy chords, but again, this is a situation where I know enough to be dangerous. But my editor is right: this is a reachable goal. Dare I dream that I could one day sing while playing? If I can get to a point where I can croak my way through “Don't Dream It's Over,” I'll be happy.

  3. Using the library. I moan and I complain and I make a giant stink about physical media dying and like a total asshole, I visit the library like four times a year. The major library here is right on a major metro station! There's no excuse! My failure at using the library as the vast and wonderful resource it is segues perfectly into my next two points.

  4. Reading. I am colossally ill-read. Not even “for a former English major.” I am terrible at keeping up with reading. I have a bad habit of abandoning books about 70% of the way through. Not because they're bad, just because I've moved onto something else, or something has muscled itself onto reading's chunk of the calendar. There are seven books in my line of sight that I have left unfinished. I used to read on the subway but I bike to work now, so audiobooks might be an option. (Editor's note: please don't listen to shit while biking.) I have checked out so many books with the best intentions of reading them only to admit defeat after renewing my loan over and over and over again.

  5. Watching movies. I spend so much time with a thumb in my ass and the other on the OK button of my Roku just letting YouTube wash over me. I want to be more active in my watching habits, which is in part why I cobbled together something I'm calling the Modular Film Festival for September.

  6. Taking pictures with a disposable camera. I was hanging out with some writer buddies of mine and I started talking about how I didn't have evidence of my 20s: no mementos, no trinkets, no nothing. All I had were zeroes and ones on my phone. A few months later, those same few friends sprang a birthday get-together on me and gifted me a lo-fi solution to this particular existential issue: a disposable camera and a couple of photo albums to fill. It was a very sweet and thoughtful gift that I proceeded to not use all that much. It took me five months to take 24 pictures. I don't want the second camera to sit idle as long.

  7. Playing Scrabble. I might be a Scrabble asshole. Yes, I play QI and XI and AA and SUQ and QAT. Maybe I should join a club, and the internet tells me there's a club in my neighbourhood. It's all well and good when you just shellac Maven by 150 points, but I think I want to test my mettle against other Scrabble assholes.

  8. Playing Magic: The Gathering. My Magic proclivities have been documented elsewhere, but even when you factor in my preferred way of playing, It is absurd that I've been playing this game for this long and can't go .500 in a draft event, jank or no jank.

  9. Listening. To music, to others, to myself. Deliberate attention and all that, I don't know that you can ever get too good at this.

  10. Writing. I haven't written a poem in weeks. The keys of my typewriter have gone silent. I've got more empty notebooks than I care to admit. I can't keep up with my Letterboxd capsules. Hell, it took me a week to muster up the energy to finish this very blog post. The worst of it is that every time I sit down to write, I do right, and it infuriates me that “apply ass to chair” (i.e. sustained focus and energy) is still undefeated as advice for writers. The tricky part is carving out the time necessary where said sustained focus can happen.


Fuck yeah.

A distressingly mustachioed Nicolas Cage looks down the sights of his rifle, magnifying one of his eyes. Cut to an iris shot where crosshairs are lined up with John Travolta's back. A finger pulls the trigger. A CGI bullet slow-mos towards the audience and fills the screen before exploding into Travolta's back. He falls off the merry-go-round he is riding with his son (right, I forgot to mention, Travolta is on a merry-go-round with his son while this is happening). The reveal of a smear of blood on the white fibreglass mane of the carousel horse scored by a warped, shrieking whinny. A grip of balloons floats away. Travolta army-crawls through the shock of being shot to cradle his dead son. The frame curdles into the opening credits of Se7en for a second. We are two minutes in. Believe me when I say that exactly 0% of my love for Face/Off is winking or ironic. It is an absurd and sublime piece of action filmmaking emblematic of everything missing from contemporary Hollywood fare. It is unafraid to be cheesy and bombastic and thus unafraid to be fucking sick as hell. We didn't know how good we had it.

At this point, it was fair to assume most moviegoing American were familiar with John Woo. Prior to 1997, Woo was a favourite of action movie sickos and assorted Hong Kong film enthusiasts on the strength of several hyper-stylized, hyper-violent crime movies. The key text is the pivot point of this story: 1989's Hard Boiled, a masterclass in controlled cinematic chaos and one of the best action movies of the 1980s, period. It has a brilliant one-take shot in its climax and baby piss plays a key role in its denouement; seek this out and watch it at as soon as is convenient, I beseech you.

But by the time Face/Off dropped, Woo was already two pictures deep into what would be a decade-long American detour. The 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (a cartoon Cajun Most Dangerous Game riff) was a modest hit, and the Travolta/Christian Slater team-up Broken Arrow (Travolta steals a nuke and the cast of Pump Up the Volume tries to get it back) was a bigger, but still modest, hit. I like Hard Target way more than I possibly should, and Broken Arrow is fine, and while some of the John Woo magic is there, there's still something bridled about them. Some of it is star ego, some of it the Hollywood curse of being noted to death, and some of it is (entirely unwarranted) distrust of Woo as an outsider. Now, this is an absurd thing to say about a movie where this happens, but that is part of the majesty of Face/Off: it is a movie that doesn't just exist in the red, it lives and breathes there. Excess is its oxygen. It's too big and too brash to be tempered in any significant way. The only people making American blockbusters like this right now are the Wachowskis and no one wants to give them any fucking money.

Face/Off is a movie that dares to start with an action setpiece so electric, a setpiece where a fucking private jet crashing into a hangar full of oil drums and fireworks merely signals halftime, that it would be a fitting climax to most movies. Face/Off is not most movies. Most movies don't have grace notes like tanker trucks on fire. Why is there a choir at the Los Angeles Convention Center singing Handel's Messiah? Why does the black site max-security prison have a magnetic floor? Why the Chiclets? We are in the realm of heightened reality here. The stakes are heightened. The imagery is heightened. The emotions are heightened. And no one is more up to the task of filtering all these excesses into their performance than Nicolas Cage. Cage always commits. Like Woo, he is unburdened by the limits of what should happen. To see Cage as Sean Archer as Castor Troy during the fight in the prison cafeteria is to watch a circus performer navigate a tightrope on rollerskates while juggling. This specific acting challenge, performing as a fellow actor portraying a character playing yourself portraying a different character, is a mesmerizing feat to behold. Travolta is no slouch, but the illusion isn't perfect. Cage and Travolta both have twitchy performances here, but Cage can never rid himself of the mania of his style, while Travolta is always more pinched and high-strung. Still, it's a delight to see these two A-list actors tuck into this rich a meal. Every character actor you like is in this, from the Zodiac Killer to Bunny from The Wire to Claudette from The Shield to the square Anglo detective from Bon Cop Bad Cop. Gina Gershon is in this! I mean, hell yes.

“Style over substance” is a bogus way of interpreting art. What is “substantive?” The plot? Hell no. There are like seven plots. This is a boilerplate Good Guys/Bad Guys story, or as Travolta-as-Cage-as-Troy says, “The eternal battle between good and evil, saint and sinners... but you are still not having fun.” The style is the fun, it's what I immediately glom onto when I watch it. This is the substance, these are the nourishing parts, this is what is lacking when I survey the contemporary tentpole landscape. It's difficult for me to imagine someone watching Face/Off or any of its brethren and them not feeling any sense of glee. There's something Romantic about the excesses of this particular strain of filmmaking, about its explosion of cliché and imagery. What is substance without style? Oatmeal. Pablum. Chicken feed. The reticence you might be feeling about these operatic more-is-more opuses might be some vestigial form of irony poisoning. You are not too good for stuff like this, because everyone should feel glee at the movies. I reiterate: My love for Face/Off, its excesses and its cartoonish explosions of action-film cliché, are 100% sincere.


I don't think it's going to be particularly close.

The most difficult cut I've ever made to a Movie Bowl field was cutting Starship Troopers from the 1997 tournament.

Now, the selection process for this most hallowed of pop-culture tournaments is based on a willfully-obtuse college football-style alchemy that uses, to quote the literature, “a mix of box office performance, awards performance, critical reception, long-term popularity, and a vague secret sauce [we're] calling 'canonization'.” A certain level of teeth-pulling and WTF-ness is expected and even encouraged. I've put together 24 Movie Bowl brackets thus far, and 1997 might have been the hardest field to whittle down to 16 participants, save maybe 1987. And to my great chagrin as a cinephile and as the commissioner of this enterprise, Paul Verhoeven's satirical sci-fi masterpiece, one of the all-time great media literacy litmus tests, will be on the outside looking in. With RoboCop losing to The Princess Bride in 1987 and Basic Instinct not even making the field in 1992, this was perhaps the great Dutch provocateur's last real shot at Movie Bowl gold. Unless, that is, the 1990 tournament comes around and people forget how good Goodfellas is. This is one of the many agonies of the Movie Bowl.

So yes, Starship Troopers will be absent from our field. As well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Gattaca, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, all of which made it to the last round of cuts.

Here's a rundown of the 16 movies in the field.


There's no way Big Jim Cameron (director of the 1984 Movie Bowl winner The Terminator) wasn't claiming the 1-seed. Titanic won more Oscars than I have fingers, had a stellar (ongoing?) half-life in the zeitgeist, and made more money than God. Not even the colossal Titanic Hangover of the early 2000s is enough to pry its ass off pole position. Hell, even Cameron was sick of Titanic: he didn't make a narrative feature for nearly a decade, at which point the whole cycle began anew with Avatar (what is it with Cameron taking on projects so arduous he steps away for years after making them?).

But now, removed from the hype and the Celine Dion and the Leo-mania of it, Titanic can be seen for what it is: a weepie of the highest order spot-welded to a fucking masterclass in disaster film directing by one of the best to ever do it. I am long due for a rewatch.


Let me get ahead of this: The End of Evangelion is one of the great movies of the 90s... but you need to watch the series to get the full effect of it: the story, the characters, the context. If you go in cold, like I foolishly did as a budding weeb in high school, you're just watching a free-associative psychosexual mech apocalypse with weapons-grade bad vibes. When Shinji Ikari [REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT] at the top of the movie, it needs to mean something beyond the immediate ick factor. Sorry, nerds, End of Eva joins Starship Troopers on the margins of the big dance. Not terrible company to be in.

Man, talk about a bad vibes double feature. If you ever want to obliterate your soul, now you know how.

But fear not! If you absolutely need that double dose of psychosexual anguish and deep self-loathing in the form of an animated film from Japan, you're in luck! Because Perfect Blue also came out in 1997. I've got a custom marble bust on my mantle of my Mount Rushmore of non-Ghibli anime directors: it goes Masaaki Yuasa (motherfucking Mind Game y'all), Mamoru Hosoda (I'm still a Summer Wars guy), Makoto Shinkai (if his movies don't make you weep, check your pulse), and the late, great Satoshi Kon, a mind-bending visual stylist who never met a reality he couldn't warp with the power of dream logic and subjective perception. Perfect Blue is the darkest of his movies, an entertainment-industry thriller where jealousies erupt, identities blur, and realities break down. Pair it up with Brian De Palma's Body Double and make a fucked-up evening out of it.

But there is a single word that can make any Movie Bowl participant quake in place, and that word is Ghibli. The venerable animation studio has already produced two Movie Bowl winners (1988's My Neighbor Totoro and 2001's Spirited Away, the latter of which also won the inaugural Movie Bowl Tournament of Champions) and is well on its way to claiming its third title with Princess Mononoke. Like, how do you plan against Ghibli? What defence could possibly contain this onslaught? Like, is there a more universally-loved director than Hayao Miyazaki? Maybe John Carpenter. But consider this: for my money, Miyazaki's worst movie (or least heralded, anyway) is Porco Rosso, and that's still a pretty good movie that's head and shoulders above at least a couple of Carpenter's biggest whiffs. Carpenter and Miyazaki both have celestial ceilings, but the latter has the higher floor. That quality control, coupled with a strong visual style and a deep and resonant emotional core, is part of the reason Studio Ghibli is a Movie Bowl juggernaut. I see no reason for this to stop being true here, hence the name of this post.


For good or ill, the Movie Bowl is America-centric, in part because film discourse is very America-centric. Part of the selection process factors in international festival prizes, but nothing helps non-American films break through more than being released by the Criterion Collection. Why them? Well, at the risk of sounding reductive, people watch those movies. They're readily available to buy and stream, so more people watch them, so more people talk about them, so more people have heard of them. It's a cinephilic feedback loop. That said, I understand that a single company like Criterion (an American company, no less) shouldn't have this much pull in the world of art film distribution. But for our purposes, I want the people playing along at home to have at least heard of these. What good is it to include a movie like, say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure only for it to get bodied in the first round?

That said, if I were making this bracket a year from now, Cure could probably sneak into the field not just on its sterling reputation as one of the great horror movies of the 90s, but thanks to a shiny new release on the best-known boutique label on the planet. But for now, three participants fall under the category of Criterion-core: Funny Games from Austria, Happy Together from Hong Kong, and Taste of Cherry from Iran.

I suppose if we really want to get down to it, Lost Highway (the opening salvo of David Lynch's L.A. Is Hell, Actually Trilogy) and The Game (in which Michael Douglas LARPs a spy thriller, which is exactly as sick as it sounds) are also in the Collection. But I'm a simple bracketologist: I see a film by David Lynch or David Fincher on the master list, I put it in the field. Usually. Sorry, Alien 3.

If we really want to get pedantic about this, Criterion put out a laserdisc of Boogie Nights at one point. It just hasn't made the jump to the smaller discs.


In 1996, in a move that baffled stuffed shirts but delighted sickos like yours truly, Nicolas Cage cashed in the clout and goodwill his Best Actor Oscar afforded him and proceeded to star in three of the era's most iconic and enduring action movies in a row. Two of them would come out in 1997: the gleefully crass high-concept plane heist joint Con Air and the gleefully absurd high-concept cop thriller Face/Off, also known as the finest moment of John Woo's 90s American tour. Both are included here, even if I don't like Con Air as much as some of my esteemed colleagues. But respect must be paid to one of the great post-Oscar flexes by a performer in living memory, even if I'm not even sure if Con Air gets past Titanic in the first round.

Con Air might have the edge by being leaner (read: shorter) and meaner (read: 90s edgelord shit).


  • If you can make it past the first five minutes of L.A. Confidential and not cringe too hard at the presence of a certain disgraced actor, you'll find there's still a really good movie in there.
  • Good Will Hunting is in this tournament; here's your reminder that Ben Affleck has two Academy Awards, and neither is for acting or directing.
  • Jackie Brown is so good that most Tarantino haters will cite it as the one of his they can stand.
  • I considered cutting The Fifth Element because Luc Besson is very bad at making life decisions but I also knew that if I cut it, you fucking dorks would call for my head. A beloved movie can be directed by an unbeloved person; after all, film is a collaborative medium. Also, did y'all know that Milla Jovovich released a diet Kate Bush album a few years before she was Leeloo? The 90s!
  • Men in Black still kind of kicks ass, right? Also, I've heard it said that actors watch Vincent D'Onofrio in this the same way you or I watch dunk compilations on YouTube: just total slack-jawed awe at the physical display.