Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja

“Before Menahem, I didn’t, and I bet you that millions of people, never knew the word ‘ninja.'” So says filmmaker Boaz Davidson in the 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. “Menahem” is Israeli producer-director and Cannon chairman Menahem Golan, who with his cousin Yoran Globus dominated independent genre filmmaking in the 1980s, flooding theaters, video stores, and cable channels with quickly-made action and exploitation pictures (as well as artier fare when they were able to lure big-name auteurs with the promise of complete artistic freedom). The ninja trilogy that began with Enter the Ninja in 1981 is a good example of both the Golan-Globus process and its product, and Electric Boogaloo gives some hint of the rapidity with which the films were made and the degree to which Golan would keep tabs on ongoing productions and frequently step in to make changes based on his storytelling instincts. In the case of Enter the Ninja, Golan took over directorial duties and recast his lead actor when early dailies were unsatisfactory (however, in the true low-budget spirit, those dailies still appear as a film within the film). What all three films have in common is the presence of Sho Kosugi, who both rose to martial arts stardom and sparked an American craze for all things ninja on the strength of his performances.

If Enter the Ninja was truly the watershed moment for the ninja in American film that some make it out to be, it’s probably due to its first fifteen minutes, a near-wordless sequence in which a ninja in a white gi makes his way through a beautiful mountainous countryside, pursued by a ninja in black and a band of subordinate ninjas in red. If you had never heard of a ninja before, this sequence gives a good idea of what one is, as the white ninja relies on stealth and surprise (and a number of exotic weapons and fighting techniques) to overcome his more numerous foes; when in his enemies’ sights, he seems to have a sixth sense warning him of danger, allowing him to duck and counterattack at just the right moment. The black ninja seems to sniff out his quarry and grabs arrows out of the air in mid-flight. A stunning sequence of both ninjas leaping, in slow motion, from the top of a waterfall, is truly beautiful, inside or outside of the ghetto of genre filmmaking. Finally, the white ninja gets the better of the black ninja (“Surrender or die!”); the white ninja approaches the waiting master of the compound and beheads him, pulling his sword from its scabbard and striking in one swift motion.

After the dramatic conclusion to the cold open, the white ninja enters the temple and kneels; he removes his mask, revealing a Westerner (Franco Nero, in all his dubbed glory, replacing Mike Stone at the last minute, although Stone still performed all the stuntwork). The other ninjas, whom he supposedly slew, enter and sit in rows beside him, pulling out the protective boards and blood squibs that allowed them to simulate deadly combat; the white ninja’s target, actually his sensei, enters, carrying the false head that the ninja appeared to have removed from his body. The infiltration and assassination was a test, and this white man has passed: he is now a ninja. Of course, there must be intrigue, and the black ninja, who has also appeared, protests the acceptance of this gaijin into the ninja order. The black ninja, Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), is embittered by his loss to a foreigner, but also by the lack of place for a great warrior in modern society. “Always be strong enough to avoid bitterness,” the sensei, Komori, tells the white ninja, Cole, afterwards.

After completing his training, Cole travels to the Philippines to visit an old comrade-in-arms, Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), owner of a coconut plantation. It is clear right away that something is wrong, as the local village is under the thumb of a protection racket, and the pressure to sell his land to a powerful tycoon has driven Frank to drink. The long second act is the most conventional part of the film, reminiscent of episodes of Kung Fu, The Incredible Hulk, or The A-Team. What would any man do when he sees bullying and injustice, especially directed at his friend and his beautiful wife, and especially if he is uniquely positioned as a master of the arts of ninjutsu? Of course he steps in, both invigorating his friend with new confidence and tempting said wife with his virility and righteousness. And what happens when word comes back to the boss, a fey character named Venarius (Christopher George), that the man making trouble for the operation is a ninja, and he decides he wants to hire his own ninja to level the playing field? Guess who is available for hire!

Plot-wise, much of Enter the Ninja isn’t too different from the many martial arts or action movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and ’80s: Bruce Lee could have played the part of Cole, the old friend who arrives to find his buddy’s plantation under siege by goons, battling through them until he fights his way up to the big boss. Aside from the ninja theatrics, which are mostly confined to the first and last act, Enter the Ninja is noteworthy for its brisk pacing, with scenes of characterization and recrimination balanced by snappy dialogue and inventive action set pieces, but even moreso by its cast of colorful characters.

Typical of Golan-Globus films, even minor walk-ons are sharply drawn and provided with novel details. Of course they’re mostly caricatures (and some of Golan’s eccentricity and unique comic sensibility may come from his Israeli background), but they pop from the screen: the German with the Colonel Klink accent and hook hand who appears as the first “spearhead”; the prissy, demanding villain, coaching his synchronized swimming team in his in-office pool while he conducts business, along with his ever-loyal British right-hand man; even “Preacher,” a would-be henchman who only appears in one scene, has a nickname and a gimmick like an experienced wrestling heel. It’s all comic book stuff, of course, but as in the best comic books, iconic images combine with a few well-chosen words to imply much more than what we are actually shown. (Note the contrasting white and black uniforms of Cole and Hasegawa, or their final battle in an arena under a sign reading THE JUDGE’S DECISION IS FINAL: none of this is subtle, but in contrast to the comic relief in other parts of the film, the ninja material is played utterly straight, giving it the weight of myth.)

Cole is the type of figure who populated movies and men’s adventure magazines in the post-Vietnam era: a man adrift, hardened by war (in flashbacks, we see him and his buddy Frank fighting together as mercenaries in Africa), but who has found peace, or the promise of it, in Eastern philosophy and physical discipline. Of course he is irresistible to Mary Ann (Susan George), tired of her washed-up husband’s passivity and alcoholism: here’s a real man, advertised by his square jaw and piercing gaze, but most of all by his vintage porn ‘stache. The physicality of their first meeting–when she greets him, a stranger, with a shotgun, he disarms her and literally kicks her in the butt–is “rough courtship” straight out of the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara playbook. When Cole and Mary Ann inevitably come together, it’s surprisingly tasteful for a Golan-Globus production, signaled by her appearance at his bedside and a Hays Code-like turning off of the lights.

Revenge of the Ninja followed in 1983, directed by Sam Firstenberg in seven weeks, including a thorough overhaul of the story by Golan. Now, this is what I expect from a Golan-Globus production: gratuitous T&A, broad ethnic stereotypes, corny comic relief, and a plot that makes Enter the Ninja look grounded. However, the action sequences are more intense and inventive than in Enter, largely free of the need to make us believe that Franco Nero is a better martial artist than Sho Kosugi. Since (spoiler alert!) Hasegawa died at the end of Enter the Ninja, Kosugi appears as an entirely different character in Revenge (this time the hero), making it more a thematic follow-up than a true sequel (the third film in the series, The Domination, likewise features Kosugi in yet a different role, but that one is so bonkers it deserves to be treated separately).

Revenge of the Ninja opens with the slaughter of Cho Osaki’s (Kosugi) family in Japan by a band of ninjas; besides himself, only his mother and infant son survive (we again see Kosugi catching arrows in mid-air, one of his specialties). Cho’s American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) insists that Japan is no longer safe, that Cho will never escape the ninja clan warfare that has soaked their land in blood for generations; Braden has the idea of opening an art gallery in America, and it could be just the opportunity Cho needs to start a new life and raise his son in safety.

Six years later, Cho runs a martial arts studio in America (with Salt Lake City standing in for Los Angeles), but he has personally forsaken the ways of ninjutsu: his sword is sealed, never to be drawn from its scabbard. His son Kane (played by Kosugi’s real-life son, also named Kane) studies karate with him (as demonstrated in a cheesy scene where he beats up some bullies–actually, most of Kane’s scenes are cheesy). One of his other students, Cathy (Ashley Ferrare), helps him out setting up the art gallery. She’s a good friend, but clearly she would like to be more, as in her first scene she attempts to seduce Cho with a bottomless karate workout (“If you want to work out, you forgot your pants,” he tells her coolly).

Now we’re getting into spoiler territory, although it will surprise no one that Braden is not exactly who he seems: not only is the art gallery a front for a drug smuggling operation (the imported Japanese dolls are full of heroin), Braden is also a ninja himself, having lived in Japan for twenty years and absorbed their teachings. Using the mind-clouding powers of the ninja (as well as conventional blackmail, presumably), Braden has Cathy secretly working for his smuggling operation in the gallery.

Things fall apart when Braden’s buyer, a cartoonish mob boss named Caifano (Mario Gallo), tries to stiff him and work out a deal with the Japanese behind Braden’s back. Braden dons his own ninja gear (including a demonic silver face mask) and goes to war with the mob. Braden is the flip side of Cole in Enter the Ninja: an American who learns the ways of the ninja to access their power, but without any concern for honor. Once Braden’s villainy is revealed to the audience, he revels in psychopathy, killing indiscriminately: the first time we see him in his ninja disguise, he kills a stranger in a public bathroom for no apparent reason at all. Soon, Braden’s killings of Caifano’s family members draw the attention of the police, including the police martial arts instructor, Dave (Keith Vitali), who recognizes the advanced bone-breaking techniques used on the victims and brings Cho into the investigation for advice (at this point, Cho has no idea that the killer is his own friend, Braden). Some of Revenge‘s most purely entertaining sequences involve Cho and Dave working together to find out information, mopping up a series of Village People-like gang members with their kung fu moves. Is it good police work? Not really, but it’s a lot of fun.

Once Cho learns the truth (and after Braden has killed his mother and abducted his son, as well as the now-repentant Cathy), he inevitably unseals his sword (it’s called Revenge, after all) and sets out for the final confrontation. This is at the same time that Braden is making his final move against Caifano, and it all comes down to an exciting infiltration and battle sequence set in Caifano’s high-rise office tower. The two ninjas face off on the roof in an exciting (and sometimes baffling) duel to the death. Some of the more memorable moments include Braden tricking Cho with a life-size dummy of himself (face mask and all) and using a robotic hand to grab Cho’s ankle from beneath the surface of a rooftop hot tub. Ninjutsu includes techniques of deception and disorientation, of course, but this flight of fancy shows the ninja treated as a kind of mastermind, with every contingency prepared for and a near-infinite capacity for escape (shades of the Fu Manchu master criminal archetype I’ve discussed before). As mentioned, however, realism is obviously not the goal, and this and other sequences are exciting and suspenseful (as great as Cho/Kosugi is, Braden frequently has the drop on him; it’s not an easy fight).

Director Stan Firstenberg had never made an action movie before this, and he has stated that Kosugi (as both star and stunt coordinator) advised him on making the action look good: the camera is much more fluid and the editing more rhythmic than in the relatively staid Enter the Ninja. It delivers the kind of thrills and surprises one hopes for, even as it strains suspension of disbelief. Revenge of the Ninja was the first film Cannon released through a distribution deal with MGM, so its exposure was even bigger than that of Enter the Ninja, and with another hit (and a full-fledged fad) on its hands, a sequel was inevitable. Firstenberg would be kept on to direct Ninja III: The Domination, but I’ll save that for another time.

I Am Curious (Ninja)

“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.

Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.

“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.

“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.

“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’

Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.

‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.

“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art

It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.

“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.

‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

My 2018 in Movies: Top Ten

2018 was a great year for film: I don’t see everything that comes out, so if even I can say that, and have to make tough choices to narrow my favorites down to a top ten, while still having missed out on some of the most acclaimed films of the year, then it must have been good. Still, I did see more contemporary films than in previous years, nearly fifty from 2018, a third or so of them in the last month alone as I played catch-up. As always, the rankings given below are so subjective that even I may not agree with them tomorrow, but at least they give me a chance to organize my thoughts and explore common themes that run through the year’s cinema. You will also note that I am sometimes using a film’s entry to draw comparisons with a similar or complementary film: this isn’t necessarily to say that one is “better” than the other, even if I make clear why I prefer one over the other. Perhaps it is simply an opportunity to write about more than the arbitrary limit of ten films during this rich year. (My selection of films is based on U.S. release dates; some of these films were released earlier in other countries or sat on the shelf for a while.)

10. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

Oakland native Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) rockets to the top of his telemarketing job when an older African-American colleague advises him to use his “white voice” to connect with potential marks. From this already whimsical conceit (Green’s nasal “white voice” is dubbed in by comic David Cross), Sorry to Bother You goes in increasingly bizarre directions as Green is admitted to the “Power Callers,” where he cold calls dictators and corporate CEOs to sell them weapons, indentured labor, and other unsavory products, while struggling to keep it real with his performance-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and working-class friends. Not everything works in this scattershot comedy, but the righteous anger at the dehumanizing elements of our society and economy are refreshing and necessary, and the Gondryesque production design is a delight.

9. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)

I’m as surprised as you to find this on my top ten instead of the year’s other big Nicolas Cage vehicle, Panos Cosmatos’ instant cult favorite Mandy: Mandy has a lot going for it, and I would have liked to have seen it on the big screen, but it ultimately felt a little hollow beneath its fog- and synth-drenched surface. Mom and Dad is a lot messier, and its premise–a mania of unknown origin causes parents all over the world to turn violently on their own children, setting up a confrontation between Cage and wife Selma Blair and their two kids in their suburban home–is so ugly that I almost didn’t watch it. The seams frequently show, and Cage seems unhinged from the get-go, making his turn to homicidal maniac less than surprising, but there’s some honest examination of the frustrations of aging and parenthood beneath the provocation. A sense of clever gallows humor pervades the action, with some of the film’s biggest laughs courtesy of Zackary Arthur, who plays the couple’s young son. A gauzy soft-focus opening-credit sequence set to a maudlin ballad suggests an homage to issue-driven ’70s horror, but that’s a stylistic feint, and the film proper has a hyperkinetic, chronology-twisting sensibility that is clearly contemporary; it has gotten under my skin and stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it.

8. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail)

The animated series Teen Titans Go! is essentially the Looney Tunes of superhero media, treating its heroes as the punchlines to absurd jokes and extended gags: putting the emphasis on “Teen,” the Titans would rather hang out and play video games or eat pizza than fight crime, much to the chagrin of their ambitious leader, Robin. In their first cinematic outing, the Titans deflate the rest of the DC universe–and superhero cinema in general–in similar fashion, setting their sights on the current crop of big-screen comic book adaptations. Robin’s insecurity as a leader is a natural peg to hang the story on, and with seemingly every other character getting a movie, his ambition gets the better of him. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is one of the flat-out funniest movies of the year, with both broad slapstick and wordplay and jokes targeting the glut of superhero movies and jabs at specific characters and bits of DC mythology (a sequence in which the Titans use time travel to clear the field of competing heroes is a high point).

7. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)

Alice (Madeline Brewer) earns money as a cam girl online, putting on an edgy live sex show as “Lola.” While lucrative, it has risks, from stalkers who can’t separate online fantasy from real life to the possibility of her family and friends discovering what she really does for a living. Things get weird, however, when “Lola” takes on a life of her own, locking Alice out of her own website and crossing lines that Alice swore she never would. Has she been hacked? Is it one of her fellow cam girls messing with her, taking professional rivalry too far? Cam isn’t quite a horror movie, except in the existential sense that it updates the classic fear of the doppelganger for an age of identity theft and online sex work. The line between representation and reality is one of my favorite themes, and some of the best scenes in Cam are those that put Alice on the opposite side of the screen, watching the character she created come to life and trying to figure out just what’s real and what’s an act like any other john. Like Sorry to Bother You, Cam trades in the unsettling feeling–frequently pushed down so we can get on with our day–that you never really know who’s on the other end of the line.

6. Colette (Wash Westmoreland)

The creative process can be difficult to portray on film, particularly something as private and relatively quiet as writing, but as the title character in Colette, Keira Knightley makes it seem both urgent and sensual. (Between this and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s been quite a year for Knightley to play characters who get off on their work.) The film begins with Colette’s marriage to the older, already-successful writer Willy (Dominic West), whose factory-like output is produced by a cadre of ghostwriters. While coming to terms with his profligate, philandering lifestyle, Colette writes the first of her books about the precocious schoolgirl Claudine, which she allows Willy to publish under his name. A few books later, Claudine is a national sensation, inspiring fashion and style trends and bushels of tie-in products, as well as a line of wannabe Claudines lined up to satisfy Willy’s sexual fantasies. At the same time, Colette has come to terms with her attraction to women, leading to an uneasy open marriage (and an amusing sequence in which Colette and Willy trade liaisons with the same woman). The tensions inherent in such a marriage could not last forever, and Colette must choose what she wants out of life even as her older husband seems more and more used up. Knightley and West make a dynamic pair in this, and the film is charming and breezy while making room for the depth of feeling beneath the banter and fin-de-siècle Parisian style.

5. Blockers (Kay Cannon)

Blockers (as in “cock blockers”) had one of the more obnoxious marketing campaigns in recent memory, flipping the “teens set out to lose their virginity” premise of so many raunchy comedies by showing it from the perspective of the parents out to stop their fun. Perhaps no trailer could get across how thoughtful and, yes, funny, the actual film is, but I’m glad positive word-of-mouth encouraged me to give it a try. Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz are the parents of three teenage girlfriends, and when they get wind of their daughters’ prom night plans, they go into protective overdrive, each for their own reasons. (Barinholtz in particular is hilarious as a sketchy divorced dad, but his motives are actually the purest, hoping to protect his closeted lesbian daughter from what he sees as hetero peer pressure.) Through misadventures and complications, the parents come to understand their children and learn to let go, and the three girls go through their own journey of self-discovery. This year had another fantastic comedy in Game Night, but I liked Blockers a bit more: it got me in the feels as well as making me laugh.

4. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

The polite, marmalade-loving bear is back, and this time the plot centers around a pop-up book of London Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) hopes to give his Aunt Lucy. When the book is stolen, Paddington is blamed and he brings his sense of good manners and good intentions to prison where he makes an unlikely friend in cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Hugh Grant, as has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (and the real thief), makes for a more fitting villain than Nicole Kidman’s bloodthirsty taxidermist in the first movie; it’s a great star turn as he dons one disguise after another, a performance that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Vincent Price in Theater of Blood. This charming comedy has some big laughs and a truly warm heart; Paddington’s message of civility may be simple, but it never feels cloying. And, like the Harry Potter series before it, the Paddington series is apparently dedicated to finding a place for every working actor in the British Isles.

3. Shirkers (Sandi Tan)

A captivating documentary about the nascent indie film scene in Singapore in the 1990s, Shirkers is both a retrospective and something of a mystery: Sandi Tan’s debut film, Shirkers, had completed filming when its director (and Tan’s mentor) Georges Cardona disappeared with the footage. Much of the runtime of Shirkers (the documentary) sets the scene, using clips of the original film (the reels were finally recovered after Cardona’s death a few years ago) and describing the fallout of the film’s disappearance in the lives of Tan and her collaborators. One doesn’t have to buy the doc’s implication that Shirkers would have been a great film to appreciate the injustice Tan suffered, although the parallels between Tan’s film and later indie darlings, especially Ghost World, are eerie, to say the least. Cardona comes off as at best negligent and at worst predatory, and since he is no longer around to explain his actions, the enigmatic (and silent–Cardona preserved everything carefully but apparently lost the film’s audio tracks) excerpts from the original Shirkers stand as a monument for a rural Singapore that is now vanished and a promising film career that never materialized.

2. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)

Like Shirkers, The Other Side of the Wind was long considered a lost film, but one made by an established master at the end of his career. Orson Welles filmed the project patchwork-style over several years in the 1970s, struggling to secure funding and eventually losing legal access to nearly one hundred hours of footage in a tangle of claims and counterclaims. The film was finally freed from red tape and completed (“restored” seems like the wrong word) in the last few years according to detailed instructions left behind by Welles. The film portrays an aging director (John Huston) on the last night of his life (the film is framed as a documentary investigation of the director’s apparent suicide–shades of Citizen Kane!), shown through the multiple cameras of documentarians and cameramen invited into his home for an epic birthday party. At the same time, we are treated to lavish excerpts from the director’s magnum opus–also called The Other Side of the Wind–as he searches for a producer willing to invest in completing the film (and yet Welles denied the film was a self-portrait!). These excerpts, starring Welles’ muse Oja Kodar in a wordless, erotic journey that finds Welles outdoing his French New Wave competitors, are magnificent. The entire film is fragmentary and often frustrating, with many clear analogues to then-current figures in Hollywood (although I knew the general outlines of this story, the accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, detailing Welles’ final years, was illuminating and raised my opinion of The Other Side of the Wind; also recommended is the featurette A Final Cut for Orson, which describes the actual process of collecting, restoring, and assembling the footage; all three films can be seen on Netflix).

1. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)

Two teenage girls, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) hatch a plot to rid themselves of Lily’s asshole stepfather, recruiting a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin, in his last performance–this movie was made in 2017 but wasn’t released until this year) to do their dirty work. Amanda is a sociopath, so detached from her emotions that she denies having any; is Lily in Amanda’s thrall, or is something else going on? The description of the plot makes it sound similar to any number of psychological thrillers or true crime dramas, but the clinical approach and icy humor make it closer to something like The Neon Demon or one of Alexander Payne’s upper class satires. I went into this one knowing very little about it, and that’s probably the best way to appreciate its many surprises.

Worst Movie: Gotti (Kevin Connolly)

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. “Self-serving” doesn’t begin to cover it, as the John Travolta-starring biopic of late mafia boss John Gotti goes beyond apologia to hagiography, deflecting any criticism of its main character with tough questions like, “What if government prosecutors are the real gangsters, huh, didja ever think of that?” and “What are you, a pussy?” Leaving aside its heroic spin on real-life criminality–after all, there have been plenty of compelling films about morally questionable protagonists, and it’s not like we haven’t made heroes out of mobsters before–it’s a boring slog, like a series of Dateline NBC reenactments strung out to feature length, jumping from one “highlight” to another over a series of years. Even when Gotti should be sympathetic, like when his young son is killed in a car accident, the filmmakers can’t help themselves, having him heroically tell his wife to “snap out” of her understandable depression and assuming that we’ll agree the driver of the car deserved to get wacked. Aside from a few jaw-droppingly bad choices, Gotti doesn’t even have the mercy of being comically terrible: I borrowed it from the library and I still feel like I paid too much.

Dumbest Movie I Will Almost Certainly Watch Again: The Happytime Murders (Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders first came to prominence as a screenplay by Todd Berger that made The Black List, a noirish fantasy about a washed-up puppet detective paired with a human to solve the murder of one of his own. That sounds great! Then the reviews started coming in, describing it as a labored, unfunny insult to the legacy of the Muppets. That sounds terrible! Perhaps helped by low expectations, I found The Happytime Murders to be neither a hidden masterpiece nor the complete disaster it had been made out to be. Its biggest flaw is the assumption that puppets spewing obscenities is inherently hilarious; the lack of wit becomes apparent pretty quickly, but the plot and characters are diverting, and while it’s no Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it does succeed in delivering a few laughs. The Happytime Murders wouldn’t work at all without Melissa McCarthy’s game central performance as the troubled human police detective forced to team up with disgraced puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). Actually, one of the best parts of the movie is the end credits, which includes behind-the-scenes footage showing how the puppets were filmed alongside the live actors.

The Ones That Got Away

As I mentioned, I don’t get out to see everything, and even with the options of streaming and home video there are only so many hours in the day. Of the movies that I had hoped to get to, it’s mostly films that came out in the last few months of the year that I still haven’t seen. I didn’t make Damien Chazelle’s First Man a high priority when it came out in October because I was focused on horror, even though I had enjoyed Chazelle’s previous films, and now I’m regretting that I didn’t make more of an effort. I am also kicking myself for not getting to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, but it was difficult trying to find the time for a two-and-a-half hour film in November. I also expected to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before the end of the year, but at least that (and Aquaman, which I also haven’t seen) will still be in theaters in January. As for the rest, well, I try not to beat myself up over deadlines that are entirely personal; I know that I’ll be able to catch up with films I missed, and since I’ve already made it clear that rankings don’t really mean much to me (even as I arbitrarily assign them), I don’t plan on losing sleep over the placement of a movie. There’s always next year, right?

Thanks for reading. Have a happy New Year and a great 2019!