I believe in softcore pornography… but isn’t that for straight dudes?

Part One: The Discourse, erotic thriller nostalgia, and the feminist angles


For the past two years, give or take, I’ve been formulating and untangling a whole mess of interrelated thoughts on the State of the Sex Scene in mainstream film and television. (This is a manifesto of sorts, so I will be unnecessarily capitalizing phrases to make them seem important. I read enough manifestos while getting my art history degrees to know that unnecessary capitalization is a key component of manifesto writing.) I’m not alone in this preoccupation, by any means. If you, like me, are addicted to the Dying Bird App, then you know that on Film Twitter, we’ve been arguing about the State of the Sex Scene for what seems like a thousand years.

On Film Twitter, it’s well known that there are certain subjects one can tweet about that will increase one’s chances of virality via a flurry of hate-shares and quote tweet dunks. (Anyone who posts anything about Martin Scorsese and the MCU in the same sentence knows exactly what they’re doing.) For a while, one such recurring Discourse was the necessity of sex scenes in movies. For the uninitiated, this Discourse amounted to a different random account going viral every month or so for tweeting some variation of “sex scenes are unnecessary in movies because they don’t advance the plot.” This would prompt a wave of responses along the lines of: 

“What are you mad about, there is virtually no sex in mainstream Hollywood movies any more”

“Disney/Marvel killed the sex scene”

“Why is Gen Z trying to revive the Hays Code”

“All the sex is on TV now”

“There should be MORE sex in movies!!”

And so on and so forth. In 2021, after several rounds of the Sex-In-Movies Discourse, something started to give. The Discourse had reached critical mass by the middle of the summer (see, for example, Brianna Zigler’s feature on La Piscine, which had a surprisingly successful revival run at Film Forum in New York, for Paste Magazine). As film critics started routinely championing the Sex Scene, the conversation shifted. It’s not just that Sex Scenes have disappeared from the multiplex, critics and Sex Scene Defenders noted. We all started asking the same questions: What happened to Films for Adults? (Films for Adults are not to be confused with Adult Films—here we encounter our first “softcore/hardcore” distinction, although I don’t necessarily mean this in the traditional “no penetration/penetration” sense.) What happened to the Good Old Days, when Hollywood released films about sex, films that blatantly aimed to arouse while still telling an engaging story? What happened to mainstream erotic cinema?

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981).

One genre floated to the surface as an object of collective fascination and nostalgia: the erotic thriller, perhaps the high water mark in terms of Hollywood’s permissiveness of sex on screen. In July, the Criterion Channel unveiled a neo-noir collection that proved quite popular in the context of the Discourse. The collection included Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), both often cited as important precursors to the classic erotic thrillers of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.* That same month, cinephile cult favorite journal Bright Wall/Dark Room devoted an issue to the erotic thriller. In the spring of 2022, king of the erotic thriller Adrian Lyne returned with a new entry into the genre: Deep Water, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. This new release prompted yet another wave of erotic thriller appreciation (If not appreciation for Lyne’s new film), including an Erotic Thriller Week at Vulture.

This borderline fetishization of the erotic thriller, however, potentially reveals the limitations of a previous era’s idea of what’s Acceptably Titillating. For one thing, many of these mainstream erotic films prioritize the titillation of straight, male viewers. This is not to say that other viewers can’t find something to excite them in these movies—many do, including myself. I firmly believe that one can legitimately enjoy art that’s “not made for you,” but we can’t pretend that the erotic films of the 80s and 90s don’t have a legacy of sexism (and homophobia) on and off screen.

In the spring of 2022, Karina Longworth released the “Erotic 80s” season of her Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. Longworth approaches the era, when Hollywood was making films that took sex seriously and showed that sex on screen, through a consistently feminist lens.** While Longworth mourns the loss of a time when Hollywood made Films for Adults, she also critically examines the deeply conservative ideas about gender and sex that underpin many of these films, as well as the oftentimes terrible treatment on set and off of the actresses who starred in them. 

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987), one of the films covered in “Erotic 80s.”

Longworth, a historian through and through, endeavors primarily to bring the past into focus; but she implicitly makes the argument that any hypothetical mainstream erotic cinema of the 2020s can’t and shouldn’t look exactly like it did in the 1980s. In a 2021 trend piece called “Why Hollywood is shunning sex,” Christina Newland explores the possible reasons for the decline in erotic content in mainstream Hollywood films. Among other things, Newland theorizes that “this new discomfort with depicting sex” is likely tied to the #MeToo movement and the film industry’s ongoing reckoning with systemic sexual abuse. She writes:

The reckoning … in the film industry has ushered in enormous positive change, encouraged filmmakers to nix female objectification, and led to the increasing introduction of intimacy coordinators to help actors feel safe. Their efforts ensure issues of boundaries and consent are correctly navigated while filming sex scenes. But even then, anxieties remain about the validity of depicting sex, and whether it is gratuitous or not. Lately, sex has felt like a very serious topic; one that no one wants to joke about or “get wrong.” Filmmakers may be responding to this anxiety with their own shyness around the topic: no one wants a social media storm on their hands.

These critiques of the mainstream erotic cinema of yore, and the desire to avoid repeating the harms of the past, must be taken into consideration during any discussion on the topic. I’m not interested in Romanticizing the 1970s or 80s or 90s or whatever. I will always love old films, and I believe that art from the past often remains relevant to contemporary life; but I live in 2023, for better or for worse. And instead of bemoaning how They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To (although I do, also, do my fair share of that), I’d like to see a New Mainstream Erotic Cinema—one that embraces a wider idea of what’s sexy and who deserves pleasure. We’re still here, we’re still having sex, and we still want hot movies about it.

In arguing for the value of erotic content in the mainstream, I often feel like Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) making his famous speech in Bull Durham (1988).*** Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) asks Crash what he believes in when it comes to matters of the heart, and he proudly declares, amidst a litany of other things, that he “believe[s] in softcore pornography.” And I think that about sums it up for me, too. I believe in softcore pornography, and I believe in softcore for all who want it.

PORN! Just kidding, it’s Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s famous sex scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007).

When I say “softcore pornography,” I don’t necessarily mean actual softcore porn, although I’m pro that, too. I use this term self-consciously, as “softcore” is often used as an epithet when dismissing or negatively judging the type of mainstream erotic content for which I’m advocating. One of the weirdest retorts the Anti-Sex Scene Tweeters throw out to the Sex Scene Defenders is that people who want to watch Sex Scenes should just watch porn. There is a distinction between mainstream erotic content and pornography, even if blurring the lines is sometimes fun. (I try not to be a binary thinker.) 

For the purposes of this manifesto, “softcore” isn’t a category of porn based on heteronormative ideas about penetration being the ultimate sex act. No, I use “softcore porn” to evoke an attitude, a vibe. I’m talking about films and television that revolve around sex, include fairly explicit Sex Scenes, and exist to sexually excite the viewer on some level. This wide net can catch anything from a raunchy rom com to, yes, an erotic thriller.

Why do I believe in softcore? Well, for starters, it can be fun. In a media landscape saturated with Escapist Content—and I use “content” derogatorily here—why the sheepishness about a little sexual fantasy? Watching beautiful people in compromising positions on screen makes me happy, so sue me. When confronted, some Sex Scene Defenders will hedge, saying that it’s not about actually seeing the sex. They miss sensuality and chemistry and heat in Hollywood films—the suggestive charge and the promise of adult activities. While I agree with all of those things, I must clarify that I also want to see the sex. Watching a film is always, to some degree, a voyeuristic act, and I’m a cinephile. Of course I like to watch. So do a lot of people, it’s not that weird.

Beyond personal indulgence, I do believe in the power of softcore to destigmatize certain kinds of sex. Mainstream erotic content reflects and, to some extent, shapes sexual mores. It can push the boundaries of The Norm. Now, hey, more power to you if you have no desire to see your sexual preferences and practices “normalized.” But, to me, there’s something insidious about the way mainstream erotic content has evaporated onscreen as society has become more sexually permissive offscreen. Perhaps it’s respectability politics, but I think it’s simpler than that.

It’s clear that there are Unspoken Rules about what kind of erotic images and scenarios Hollywood deems on the Right Side of Explicit. This comes up occasionally when a film hits trouble with the MPAA, particularly when filmmakers are desperately trying to avoid or appeal an NC-17 rating. Here’s the deal: I’d wager that more people than not consider any erotic imagery that’s not focused on a straight dude’s pleasure (onscreen and/or off) to be “more explicit”—even if the actual level of explicitness is objectively the same. I don’t think most people even do this consciously, but it’s indicative of widespread assumptions about what kinds of sex count as softcore (and therefore okay for mass consumption) and whose pleasure is prioritized.****

Do you remember why Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film Blue Valentine initially got slapped with an NC-17 rating?

We’ve all kind of collectively agreed that just making softcore for straight dudes isn’t going to cut it anymore. But how, exactly, does one make softcore for other gazes when the Unspoken Rules about what counts as softcore actively undercut that whole idea? I would contend that Hollywood has, by and large, been all-too-content to cease making mainstream erotic cinema altogether in order to avoid challenging the Unspoken Rules.

The Unspoken Rules, as far as I can distill them down, are these:

    1. Sex acts that prioritize female pleasure (or the visual framing of any sex act that prioritizes depicting female orgasm) can never be softcore. I think this is the Unspoken Rule that’s gotten the heaviest beating over the last decade or so, even as I hesitate to say it’s finally been discarded. Cunnilingus, specifically, has become quite the popular addition to the R-rated Sex Scene repertoire. I’m not saying this is completely thanks to Ryan Gosling, but… he’s not not responsible.
    2. Queer or non-heterosexual sex scenes can never be softcore. This is a huge one, especially when we’re talking about gay sex scenes between men. See:
    3. Male full-frontal is the end all be all of nudity (the final “front”-ier, if you will), and an erect penis can never be softcore. I think we’ve seen some pushback on the penis part, but not the erect part. But I’m sorry to report that the floppy prosthetic dicks on HBO are doing nothing for the Agenda.

Now, I’m a self-professed Horny Bitch who desires men. Naturally, then, I’m most sensitive to the attempts Hollywood has made at catering to Female Desire (a term which is always, always straight and cis-coded). And I will concede that, of all the demographics historically un-catered to by mainstream erotic film, the Lusty Straight Ladies™ have made the biggest strides over the last twenty years. 

And, indeed, as you have read this manifesto, you might have been thinking, “Leah, hasn’t there been plenty of Sexy Stuff for the Lusty Straight Ladies lately? Isn’t objectifying men cool now? Haven’t the thirsty fangirls won the war? Didn’t you just watch Alexander Skarsgård on a leash in a suburban AMC? And didn’t Magic Mike let those Hollywood execs know that catering to Female Desire is profitable a whole damn decade ago?”

To this I say, “Well… sort of.” If you look at most of the films aimed at satisfying Female Desire, so many of them are simply not horny. It’s 2023, and I still struggle to think of a better straightforward celebration of a lady’s Horny Rights than Shakespeare in Love, which came out in 1998. (That’s not an invitation to list movies in the comments. I’m sure there are examples, but the fact that I can’t think of any off of the top of my head proves my point.) And let’s talk about the epidemic of leading men who will play the sex symbol off screen but hesitate to do anything remotely sexy in their art. I don’t think Female Desire is taken much more seriously in Hollywood as an actual sexual concept than it was 25 years ago.

There’s lip service given to the idea of providing women with “what they want,” but what Hollywood says women want is rarely sex. And I, the self-professed Horny Bitch, take extreme issue with that. Where is the softcore for the Lusty Straight Ladies?

Alexander Skarsgard in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool (2023), which is softcore, but not the fun kind. (I believe in feel-bad softcore, too!)


Coming soon, part two: “I believe in softcore pornography… but that’s not what Channing Tatum says I want.”



*Both films are sometimes categorized as erotic thrillers in their own right, but the generally accepted narrative of the erotic thriller’s brief heyday pins the genre’s explosion in popularity on the success of Fatal Attraction in 1987. 

**Longworth does periodically engage with and critique the aggressive heterosexuality of the period, especially in Part 3 (“1980: Richard Gere and American Gigolo”) and Part 8 (“1985: Fear Sex, Jagged Edge & AIDS”). But I would still argue that, by and large, “Erotic 80s” is a feminist project more than anything else.

***If you listened to “Erotic 80s,” then you might have guessed that I watched Bull Durham for the first time at Karina Longworth’s suggestion.

****I’m going off of anecdotal and experiential evidence here. Sometimes I find myself (naively, perhaps) shocked by the entrenched social conservatism I encounter when I leave my Bubble, and I don’t have to stray very far. Additionally (I’ll say it here in the footnotes like a coward), everybody has implicit biases, and dismantling them is a daily practice.


Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of an electric guitar must be in want of a groupie.

Or something like that. Starting a band to get a girlfriend is a time-honored tactic employed by teenaged film protagonists, after all. Even today, with rock and roll reportedly dead, the idea persists that the sexy sheen of rock music automatically confers some sex appeal upon its practitioners. It’s one of the most unshakeable myths of the twentieth century, informed by the profound connection in the cultural imagination between sex and rock and roll. 

Because if sex and rock and roll go hand-in-hand, then it follows that rock stars are mega-studs. In certain cases, a rock star’s sex appeal absolutely has to do with physical appearance—consider Elvis Presley’s matinee idol good looks, Robert Plant’s bare chest and mane of golden hair, Bruce Springsteen’s butt in rigid ‘80s denim—but it’s only the pop stars who have to look pretty. If somebody as weird-looking as Mick Jagger can become a sex symbol through the power of rock and roll, then surely there’s hope for every other man with a guitar in his hands. The implicit promise is that he, too, can harness rock music to become a chick magnet, and why wouldn’t he want to?

In Rock of Ages—Adam Shankman’s 2012 film adaptation of the surprise-hit, jukebox stage musical of the same name—Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is the biggest rock star in the world. Everyone else in the film utters his name reverentially, as if he’s the embodiment of rock and roll itself. Initially, it seems as though Rock of Ages might take a conventional, if humorously exaggerated, route with its characterization of Stacee as a quintessential rock star/sex symbol.

Stacee Jaxx first appears on screen to the sounds of a steamy jungle beat and a dramatic electric guitar riff.* He emerges from a literal pile of women, four certified babes who have sensually draped themselves over his passed out body and obscured him from view. Stacee’s manager (a perpetually gum-smacking Paul Giamatti) calls the rock star’s name, and Stacee shifts, sending a ripple through his groupies. The women lazily disentangle themselves from Stacee and each other, parting the veil so that Stacee can get up from his bed. The first part of Stacee Jaxx’s body they reveal is his crotch, adorned with a bejeweled codpiece.

As is immediately evident from this introductory scene, Rock of Ages explicitly, outrageously conflates sex and rock ‘n’ roll in the figure of Stacee Jaxx. Because Stacee is rock ‘n’ roll incarnate, he is also, naturally, sex incarnate. Or, at least, everyone reacts to him that way. The film’s perspective on sex and its relationship to rock and roll isn’t all that straightforward, and this complicatedness is what has prevented me, for a decade, from writing off Rock of Ages as a totally mindless guilty pleasure. Perhaps this understates the case. Let me be more clear: I’ve been utterly fascinated with Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx since I first laid eyes on his naked, tattooed torso. (And what tattoos! The pistols on his hips pointing down his pants? That’s art.)

The entire plot of the film version of Rock of Ages (adapted for the screen by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo) revolves around Stacee Jaxx, even if he isn’t technically the lead character. At the start of the movie, the Bourbon Room, a fictional stand-in for places like the Whisky and The Roxy, is on the brink of bankruptcy. The club’s proprietors (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, vibing on jarringly different frequencies from one another) are counting on Stacee Jaxx to save their business with a guaranteed sell-out attraction. Stacee has agreed to play one last show with his band, Arsenal, at the venue before going solo. All of the main characters in Rock of Ages, aside from Stacee himself, work at the club, so this farewell show becomes the focal point of the film. But the primary driver of the plot isn’t just Arsenal’s final show at the Bourbon. The source of conflict, for all three major plot arcs, stems directly from the question of who Stacee Jaxx has or hasn’t had sex with.

Despite turning the film’s villains into Regan-era Republican politicians—a change from the German real estate developers of the stage version—Shankman’s Rock of Ages is decidedly conservative. For the sake of a PG-13 rating, it’s glaringly conservative about drugs, for one; there’s not a powder or pill in sight in this movie. The illegal substances are hilariously conspicuous in their absence, particularly since the narcotics are so heavily implied in Cruise’s drugged-out performance as Jaxx. And Shankman’s Rock of Ages is also, less obviously but no less deeply, conservative about sex.

The film’s treatment of Stacee Jaxx serves as the site of the film’s most muddled and curiously convoluted assertions about sex and its relationship to rock and roll. In the stage version of Rock of Ages, Stacee is a true supporting character and a much more traditional rock star/sex god. Cruise’s Jaxx, by contrast, is the centerpiece of the film version and an ambivalent sex god at best. There’s a tension between the film’s repeated adulation of the “rock and roll” lifestyle and its distinctly un-rock-and-roll attitude towards sex; the film uses Jaxx, its resident rock god (the figure in which rock and roll and sex most clearly merge), to explore and questionably resolve these tensions.

Tom Cruise’s mesmerizing, off-putting performance gives Shankman’s Rock of Ages exactly what it needs. Only Cruise could convincingly bring this version of Stacee Jaxx—the rock star/sex god whose magnetism isn’t exactly sexual but is mistakenly assumed to be—to life with such clarity and comedic precision. Cruise’s casting electrifies Jaxx’s anxieties over his perceived sex appeal and how integral it is or isn’t to his fame. This isn’t some meta layer the audience brings to the film. Cruise knows exactly what he’s doing here, which makes the performance enthralling.

Cruise’s casting in Rock of Ages was a point of interest and speculation as soon as it was announced. His decision to do his own singing in the film garnered repeated comparison to his dangerous Burj Khalifa stunt in the recently-released Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Entertainment Weekly reported, with a barely disguised hint of incredulity, that Cruise had worn “perhaps the skimpiest outfits of his career,” including assless chaps, for the film. W asked Cruise about all of the “sexy scenes” in the movie after noting that Cruise would be fifty by the time the film came out.

It might not be correct to say that Tom Cruise was never a sex symbol, but I think it’s more than fair to say that he’s never been known for generating much heat on screen. He’s routinely described as a compelling but cold presence—“sexless,” “robotic,” a “beautiful android.” This coldness can veer into creepiness, something the actor has effectively tapped into on occasion to play against his clean-cut leading man persona of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He’s also known for being a try-hard, someone who commits to his roles with an almost maniacal, single-minded intensity. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but most people understand sex appeal as something effortless, whether that’s accurate or not. An actor can’t train to be sexy the way he can train to perform death-defying stunts. Generally, paradoxically, the harder one tries to be sexy, the less sexy one seems.

When Rock of Ages hit theaters, there was one thing everyone wanted to know: “Does Tom Cruise embarrass himself?” (The assless chaps get another mention here.) The movie received poor reviews and even worse box office receipts, turning out to be one of the few bona fide financial flops of Cruise’s career. But the general consensus was that, no, Cruise didn’t embarrass himself. In fact, many critics singled out Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx as the only worthwhile thing about an otherwise completely forgettable movie.

The narrative goes like this:

Rock of Ages is a cheesy, saccharine piece of fluff. Although the film takes place on the Sunset Strip in 1987, during the heyday of the legendarily libidinous and druggy hair metal bands that ruled the rock scene there, Shankman presents a determinedly sanitized, grit-less simulacrum of this setting. Rock of Ages uses the hits of Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Foreigner, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and others to punctuate a generic story of boy-meets-girl. This being a musical comedy at heart, the movie conclusively, shamelessly proclaims that the most rock ‘n’ roll thing of all is… true love.

The leading boy and girl, Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), barely make an impression. Supporting player Tom Cruise upstages everyone as Stacee Jaxx, the only character who brings any real rock and roll energy to the proceedings. Dana Stevens wrote, in her review of the film for Slate, that “Cruise’s portrait of the rock star as empty-eyed nihilist doesn’t really belong in this gaudy pop trinket of a movie.” In his positive (and mostly bang-on) review of the movie for Salon, critic Andrew O’Hehir lamented, “Stacee belongs in some other movie, maybe the great film about ’80s rock that Cameron Crowe has never managed to make. In this one [Rock of Ages], he’s like a wild thing, the tragic, dying spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, trapped in a cage made of candy.” Cruise is not only good, he’s too good for the silly film Shankman constructed around his performance. Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx injects a little danger, a little darkness, a little sex into an otherwise safe, light, and sexless movie.

I agree to an extent with this analysis. Stacee Jaxx does steal the movie, and I return to Rock of Ages again and again mostly for the joy of watching my favorite Weird Tom Cruise performance. I don’t agree that Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx doesn’t belong in the version of Rock of Ages that we got.

There’s something undeniably perverse about casting Tom Cruise, an actor known for failing to generate much chemistry with his co-stars on screen, as a rock star/sex god. Intriguingly, however, Stacee Jaxx turns out to be a rock god who doesn’t want the sexual attention he receives. It’s implied that maybe Stacee is just over it, that he’s lived that debauched lifestyle long enough and, after a decade plus of rock star excesses, he’s seen it all. What’s another beautiful woman when you’ve had hundreds? Here’s the catch, though, and what makes Stacee a supremely comedic creation rather than a cliché: I don’t believe that Cruise’s Jaxx has ever enjoyed having sex. Not once. 

Stacee Jaxx’s sex appeal is entirely manufactured, a product of his status as the biggest rock star in the world, and this only registers so clearly because there’s not much that’s actually erotic about Cruise. The whole set up works to parody the idea that being a rock star makes someone sexually desirable as a matter of course. Cruise leans in, playing the poor little rock star—confused by, ambivalent about, and resentful of the way women respond to him—like a sad sex clown. He’s a rock star, and he’s expected to be sexy. So he’s performatively lewd, permanently shirtless. He gives the people what they want, but he’s totally trapped and perplexed by his sex god persona. Rock of Ages takes this joke about as far as it can go, and Cruise, I would argue, is in on that joke.

At the time of the film’s release, critics picked up on how Cruise might be better positioned than most to understand the psyche of an impossibly famous entertainer who’s been on top for too long. It’s tempting to read Cruise’s performance as some fun-house mirror expression of his own feelings of isolation and pain and disillusionment, and maybe it is, subconsciously. I think Roger Ebert got closer when he claimed in his review of Rock of Ages that “all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves.” He applauds Cruise for being “the most merciless on himself,” playing Stacee as the worst version of a megastar, a narcissistic ego-maniac.

Sure, Cruise has a reputation for being a demanding perfectionist, and he’s probably as narcissistic as can be expected when a person’s been world-famous for four decades. But with Jaxx, Cruise isn’t just broadly satirizing megastars, himself included. I find the satire rather more pointed. As Jaxx, Cruise sends up the image of himself as sexless and plays with audiences’ perceptions of his sex appeal (or lack thereof).

Cruise’s sex appeal has been a much-debated topic in Hollywood for decades now, and addressing this through surprising role choices wasn’t new territory for Cruise by 2012. Two fan-favorite Weird Tom Cruise roles, Lestat de Lioncourt in Interview with the Vampire and Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, serve as clear predecessors to Stacee Jaxx. Lestat, like Stacee, is circumstantially sexy; being a vampire, like being a rock star, brings with it an immediate seductive allure. Mackey’s a wannabe rock star, with his leather vest and cuffs, teaching disgusting “Seduce and Destroy” seminars about how to get women to fall at men’s feet the way they literally fall at Stacee’s. All three roles require Cruise to be sexual, often obscenely so, but he isn’t necessarily sexy in any of these films. All three characters are intentionally repellent to different degrees.

If Lestat and Mackey are nods to and subversions of expectations regarding how sexual Tom Cruise can or should be on screen, only Stacee directly addresses how fame as an entertainer distorts and influences a person’s perceived sexual desirability. And while a mischievous sort of humor infuses Cruise’s performance as Lestat, Stacee is the only character of the three calibrated primarily for comedic effect. Cruise’s performance in Rock of Ages, while clearly coming from some place deeper and more committed than the other actors’ work in the film, is just as funny, just as outlandish, and just as artificial. Cruise’s Jaxx doesn’t illuminate some truth about fame or rock stardom. Cruise’s Jaxx is an impossible fantasy creation that simultaneously lampoons the idea of a famous entertainer who doesn’t enjoy the sex that comes with the territory and provides a bizarre argument for the disentanglement of sex appeal from value as an entertainer (especially entertainers like rock stars or movie stars who are expected to be sexy).

This slipperiness is what makes the movie version of Jaxx so fascinating and Cruise’s performance so rich. If Cruise had simply brought a genuinely hot rockstar energy to the role, played it straight like so many others who played the role on stage before him, I don’t think I’d be thinking about his Stacee Jaxx a decade later.

Stacee Jaxx gets three musical numbers in the film, and they come almost all in a row, smackdab in the middle of the movie. “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” form the high point of Rock of Ages. They’re all killer numbers. 

Cruise turns “Wanted Dead or Alive” into a song about how tiring it is to be sexually desired by literally everyone. The “wanted” here gets a plainly sexual connotation; as Cruise struts through the number, looking off into the distance as he sings his tale of woe, a group of women trails him, touching him, trying to get a piece of him. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” begins with Jaxx on stage, shaking a bottle of beer in front of his pelvis with his back to the crowd (giving them the impression that he’s jerking himself off) before “ejaculating” the foam spray. Cruise lays it all out in this number, performing the whole song on stage, being the rock god we’ve been promised Stacee is.

The crown jewel, however, and the number that gets to the heart of Stacee’s (and maybe the film’s) whole deal, is “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” Before Arsenal’s show at the Bourbon, Stacee’s manager has arranged for the star to give an interview to Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Åkerman, maybe never better than she is here). Stacee’s first number, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is framed as Stacee’s answer to Constance’s first interview question. She asks him, “What’s it like to be the Stacee Jaxx?” And he launches into the Bon Jovi song.

Constance doesn’t buy Stacee’s bullshit. She tells him he’s not a cowboy, but a “man-child stuck in a rut.” She dresses him down, telling him he’s not great any more. Stacee suggestively eggs her on, moaning, “I love it when you talk dirty” and growling, “That’s right, just give it to me rough.” He wears his sex god persona like an armor.

“I think you get this sense of entitlement due to the fact that you’re a rock god,” Constance says to him, thinking that she’s seen right through him. “But it’s not real. It’s not love.”

“No, it’s not love,” replies Stacee, startling Constance with his self-knowledge.

“Then what is it?” she asks.

“Off the record?” Jaxx pauses before leaning in close to Constance and obscenely hissing, “Ssssss-ex.”

After letting that land, he launches into one hell of a monologue, continuing, “And other people’s projections of what they want me to be. Of what you and all your readers want me to be. Sex. And it keeps me from going out and getting the thing that could save me. But I can’t have that now. I’m a slave to rock and roll. I am searching for the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever.”

This initiates a positively incredible duet between Stacee and Constance, in which the two of them sing Foreigner’s power ballad to each other as they shed their clothes. Stacee puts the charm on Constance, using his inexplicable rock star sex magic on her until she’s so worked up that she throws him down on a pool table to straddle him. Stacee’s also just telling Constance what she wants to hear. He’s singing that he wants to know what love is, with her, the only person who’s perceptive enough to understand him. Although Stacee later comes to realize that she is special, he’s sort of manipulating her in the duet scene, showing her how powerful it is when he gives in and becomes “what they want me to be.” Constance starts to understand this when she watches Jaxx perform “Pour Some Sugar on Me” in front of a crowd his next scene, working the magic. Cruise’s face remains contorted in anguish for the whole Foreigner number; and it’s purposefully unclear if Stacee is anguished because Constance has seen his vulnerability, or if he’s anguished because he’s being forced to be sexy again.

This scene is uproariously raunchy. Constance begins her part of the second verse on her knees with the laces to Stacee’s pants in her teeth. He starts the second chorus, belting “I wanna know what love is,” with his face inches from her ass. He sings into her boobs. He sings into her crotch. (Eat your heart out, Adam Driver.) She almost falls off the pool table in her haste to climb on top of it and, by extension, Stacee. 

The duet is a quasi-sex scene. I’m not sure if we’re meant to understand that the two of them actually have sex or not. Most critics read it this way, even though both parties keep their pants on, and the camera angles keep that unambiguous. This is a musical, a genre where songs regularly stand in for sex. The “I Wanna Know What Love Is” duet takes this idea to its limit, showing Constance and Stacee “climaxing” at the big high note at the end of the song. But the camera keeps Constance’s cotton panties in the frame for most of the time that she’s writhing on top of Stacee, and she still has her panties on when she rolls off of him and onto the floor. This comically literal fusion of sex and rock and roll, in which Constance and Stacee erotically sing a power ballad to eachother seemingly in lieu of sex, is the joke.**

Later in the film, when Stacee calls the Rolling Stone offices looking for Constance after she’s published the interview, he doesn’t mention that they had sex. He says instead, with a supremely pained look on his face: “She stuck her tongue in my ear. She blew my world up.” The face Stacee makes when Constance performs the tongue-in-ear action in their duet does, indeed, suggest that the moment made him reevaluate his whole life.

As Drew and Sherrie perform the finale number, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the film checks in on the newly reunited Constance and Stacee. They’re making out, throwing each other around the bathroom of the Bourbon, destroying sinks and knocking a condom machine off the wall. When the camera cuts back to the couple, they’re on the floor of the bathroom, kissing with Stacee on top. Seemingly in the middle of whatever sex stuff they’re doing, Stacee looks up as he hears Drew’s song. Stacee appears to interrupt his sex with Constance so that he can go to the door of the bathroom to hear the song better. If I wasn’t sure before, this scene again suggests that there’s something weird going on with Stacee’s mental inability to separate sex and rock and roll after years of conditioning.

It’s striking that the film’s villain, a conservative politician’s wife named Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones, originating the new role for the movie), also conflates sex and rock and roll to a ludicrous extreme. She’s determined to “clean up” the Sunset Strip with the help of her husband and LA mayoral candidate Mike (Bryan Cranston), seemingly motivated by some personal vendetta against Stacee Jaxx. At one point, Patricia angrily condemns Jaxx by asserting, “He’s like a machine that spews three things. Sex! Hateful music! And… sex!” (Another instance where the lack of drugs in this film is so obvious that it becomes the punchline.)

It turns out that Patricia’s hatred of rock and roll has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with a one-night stand she had with Stacee Jaxx many years ago. The first time I watched this film, I thought, ever so briefly, that the movie might insinuate that Jaxx’s encounter with Patricia wasn’t consensual.*** But Jaxx’s only crime seems to be that he merely had sex with Patricia’s once, since he left LA on his tour bus the next day, and she wanted more. 

Near the end of the movie, Jaxx neutralizes the threat Patricia and her group of church ladies pose to the Bourbon by approaching her as she leads a protest outside of the club. He gropes her breasts, looks deep into her eyes, and addresses her by name. “Patty,” he says. “Your tits have held up well.” Cruise’s Jaxx only uses his unwanted powers of sexual persuasion for good, apparently. Patricia loses her cool, turns to putty in Jaxx’s hands, and her past with the rock star gets revealed to the public. In the final number of the film, Patricia’s decked out in leather and enjoying a rock concert. She can only enjoy rock music again once she’s been assured that her favorite rock god, Stacee Jaxx, still finds her sexually appealing.

The whole thing is so goofy that it’s impossible not to question the entire assumption that it’s normal to enjoy a rock star’s music because of your sexual attraction to him. This, combined with Stacee’s apparent psychological anguish at having to fulfill everyone’s sexual fantasies of him, reads as the film’s attempt to justify its strange investment in separating sex from the spirit of rock and roll. And, ten years later, it’s hard not to read it as Cruise’s justification for fully committing to a radically asexual kind of movie stardom from Rock of Ages on out.

Rock of Ages is, to this day, the last non-action film that Cruise has starred in. Most of his roles this century have been action flicks, but there’s been a purposeful escalation of the sexlessness since his divorce from Katie Holmes a decade ago. For good reason, since it nearly derailed his career, Cruise no longer wants us to think about his sex life at all. This pivot has worked. Cruise’s recent disinterest in being sexy/sexual/romantic on screen has gotten him praised as “the best place for women in action movies,” and, in light of Hollywood’s recently puritanical bent, his sexlessness doesn’t feel so out of place. In the wake of the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise has been worshipfully lauded as The Last True Movie Star.**** 

In hindsight, it’s difficult not to see Stacee Jaxx as Cruise’s final, brilliantly contradictory word on the subject of anxieties over his own sex appeal. Jaxx is, on the one hand, ridiculous. The film gets laughs out of imagining a rock star who doesn’t seem to like sex. Of course all rock stars (and movie stars) like having sex. Only someone hilariously pathetic, someone like Stacee Jaxx, wouldn’t. But on the other hand, the film sympathizes with Jaxx’s burden. It’s also ridiculous, the film seems to say, to buy into the myth, to give rock stars (and movie stars) such sexual power. It’s ridiculous to be like Patricia, enjoying an entertainer’s work solely through the lens of their sex appeal.

By the end of the film, Jaxx is still making popular music, still a rock star performing to a huge arena crowd, and he’s happily partnered with Constance. (The only evidence provided that Stacee and Constance ever actually have sex is her visible pregnancy in the final scene.) He’s not groping anybody, getting groped, or thrusting his hips. He even has a shirt on. Sort of. It’s an open vest, but it’s more clothing than he’s worn on stage at any other point in the film. This fits with Rock of Ages’ most conservative assertions about sex, art, and fame. Of course famous men have and enjoy sex: procreative sex with blonde women who love them. But good art—good entertainment—should have nothing to do with that sex. Why should it? No sex, no drugs, just pure rock and roll.



* The character of Stacee Jaxx was, reportedly, modeled at least in part on Axl Rose. In this introductory scene, Stacee’s green room is ostentatiously jungle-themed, which seems like a clear visual nod to the Guns N’ Roses’ hit “Welcome to the Jungle.”

** It’s also worth noting here that the film adaptation of Rock of Ages changes the story so that Stacee and Sherrie never have sex. In the stage version, the duet is between Stacee and Sherrie, and they unambiguously hook up. This leads Drew and Sherrie to break up. In the film version, the Rolling Stone reporter’s role is expanded to become Stacee’s love interest, and Drew only thinks Sherrie and Stacee have slept together based on a misunderstanding.

*** This would be much more in line with the Stacee Jaxx we get in the stage musical, who is a straightforward lech—a famous man who takes whatever he wants when it comes to sex. Not for nothing, by the end of the stage show, Jaxx has fled to Uruguay to evade charges of statutory rape.

**** As someone who became pop culturally aware in the aughts and learned who Tom Cruise was basically because of the Oprah couch thing (I was eleven when it happened), I never thought I’d live to see the day.


The Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge in Scrooge (1970)


I grew up in a movie musical-loving household, so, naturally, our yearly dose of A Christmas Carol came in the form of Scrooge, the 1970 musical interpretation of Dickens’ holiday classic. While this version is my sentimental favorite, I concede that this adaptation makes a number of baffling decisions. For one, Scrooge was an obvious bid to capitalize on the success of 1968’s Oliver!, but none of the creatives involved with that project were involved with Scrooge. (It shows in the songs, which vary wildly in quality but nevertheless can’t manage to reach the heights of anything like “As Long as He Needs Me.”) Casting a then thirty-four-year-old Albert Finney—who can’t sing a note—as the titular old tightwad is another head-scratcher. (I love Finney’s ridiculous old man theatrics, but your mileage may vary.) The film’s most controversial choice might be in its third act, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come goes a step further than usual and literally shows Scrooge his place in hell. (After this prophetic vision of eternal damnation, Scrooge’s decision to change his ways seems a bit more, uh, selfishly motivated.)

I will fiercely defend, however, the film’s unexpectedly breezy Ghost of Christmas Present.

In any version of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present has one job: to get Ebenezer Scrooge to care one iota about his fellow man. The second spirit who appears to Scrooge espouses a philosophy of goodwill to all and promotes charity and unselfishness, challenging Scrooge to reevaluate his miserly outlook. This ghost is generally jovial and pleasant, until suddenly he isn’t. There often comes a point where the spirit drops the Father Christmas act to reprimand and shock Scrooge into thinking that maybe he should start giving a fig about someone other than himself.

I find myself indirectly chided and reproached by well-meaning people online for “not caring” about this or that every day. If you’ve ever used social media, you, too, might recognize some of the tactics that The Ghost of Christmas Present regularly uses for cajoling Scrooge into paying attention to and doing something about the ills of the world. Among other strategies, the second spirit pulls out:

  • The “why is no one talking about this” tweet: The Ghost of Christmas Present assumes Scrooge’s ignorance of the degradations of poverty, showing Scrooge how the working-class lives in hopes of sparking a revelation.
  • The heart-wrenching GoFundMe link for medical bills: The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge straight up that Tiny Tim will die if the old man doesn’t do something about it.
  • The litany of dire predictions about the future: The Ghost of Christmas Present tries to scare the stuffing out of Scrooge by dramatically revealing the freaky allegorical waifs under his robe, Ignorance and Want, who will inherit the earth if no one practices Christian charity.

In Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present is good vibes only. The ghost’s stern side never surfaces; Kenneth More infuses his incarnation of the second spirit with his signature blithe charm. If you don’t understand that life’s a romp—or a “perpetual spree,” as he sings—you’re doing it wrong, babe. Here I must confess that in my younger days, at the height of the YOLO craze, I once used a lyric from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s song, “I Like Life,” as an Instagram caption.

More’s Ghost of Christmas Present inspires goodwill towards men in Scrooge’s heart by getting Ebenezer lit. The two of them get drunk together, on the “milk of human kindness” that looks suspiciously like red wine. Then they fly off to invisibly attend a pair of Christmas parties. In remembering how wonderful and enjoyable life can be, Scrooge’s cold heart begins to warm, awakening a generosity of spirit.

Cheers to that. Admonishment, guilt, and fear only go so far as methods of persuasion when they become a constant barrage, even when I’m sympathetic to the causes being put forth. I’m not being the tone police here; I think righteous anger has its time and place. Sometimes we all need to be woken up a little bit, slapped like Bill Murray in Scrooged. But let’s be honest, if the Ghost of Christmas Present showed up at my door at two o’clock in the morning and started in with a talking-to, I think I’d just tune him out. Keep scrolling. I know the world sucks, what’s new.

My grandmother, who might easily be an antivaxxer and a Covid skeptic based on her preferred news sources, just got her booster shot the other week. When my mom thanked her for getting her vaccine and doing the right thing, grateful that it didn’t turn into a point of contention, my grandma texted back, “I love life too much to ever wager on giving it away!”

I like life / Here and now / Life and I made a mutual vow.

Life and I / ’Til I die / We’ll both try to be better somehow.

Perhaps More’s unrelentingly merry Ghost of Christmas Present is onto something. I like the idea of a “mutual vow” between life and I. It’s symbiotic, a give and a take. Getting high on life becomes an essential part of living a generous, open existence and remembering to love other people. I guess it seems kind of obvious, but, man, it’s been easy to hate people these last few years. I don’t need more reminders of how awful the world is right now. I need to be reminded of all of the wondrous things that make being alive so incredible, all of things that I want everyone in the world to have.

Like every good charity event planner, my favorite Ghost of Christmas Present knows that, sometimes, reaching this beatific state of generosity requires a few glasses of wine. And that’s okay.



[I rarely write about new releases, so I’m not in the habit of doing spoiler alerts at the top of my posts. BUT this post includes spoilers for Eternals. *Taylor Swift voice* Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t, warn ya.]


Every so often, a satire or parody comes along that is so effective, so indelible, that it starts to replace the original target as a reference point. I’m thinking, for example, of the way that reviews of the recent spate of Bohemian Rhapsody-inspired music biopics reference Walk Hard far more often than they reference the films that Walk Hard lampoons; or consider the way Weird Al’s “The Saga Begins” completely eclipsed Don McLean’s “American Pie” in the minds of a micro-generation of Zillennials. (Or is that just a “me” thing? No, I’m willing to bet that all the Radio Disney play of this song rotted the brains of other people my age, too.) Well, right now, I want to talk about a recent case of this phenomenon that inadvertently tipped me off to a plot twist in Eternals, the most recent entry into the MCU.

If you’ve seen Eternals and you watch The Boys, you may have guessed by now that I’ve gathered you here today to discuss Homelander. It’s no secret that Homelander, the show’s premier villain, serves as the main fascination for many viewers of The Boys. Antony Starr does standout work on Amazon Prime’s sick superhero send-up; search “Antony Starr Emmy” on Twitter, and you’ll find an abundance of outraged fan tweets about how Starr’s been robbed of a nomination two years running. While I have a more measured appreciation of The Boys as a whole, I will concede to the fanboys that Starr gives one of the more surprisingly intricate performances on a television drama in recent memory.*


A still from the TV show The Boys of Homelander (Antony Starr) using his laser eyes


The whole conceit of The Boys boils down to this: if superheroes really existed, they’d be power-mad perverts to whom no rules apply. So it’s no surprise that Homelander, the leader of the show’s elite superhero squad called the Seven, turns out to be the most power-mad and perverted of all. The show, as well as the comic series it’s based on, is ostensibly a satire of other superhero properties. As Doreen St. Félix observes in her stellar review of season two, the show sits uneasily at the halfway point between satire and genre deconstruction (Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems to be a bigger inspiration for The Boys than anything else), but I do think that the satire is the hook, so to speak.** The show most plainly reads as a satire of other superhero properties when one looks at the supes that make up the Seven. Each member of the Seven is transparently modeled on a member of DC’s Justice League, and Homelander is Superman. To be more specific, he reads like Marvel’s Captain America with Superman’s powers.

This means that Homelander has super strength, the ability to fly, and, of course, laser eyes. And because this is The Boys, Homelander does some horrific fucking things with his laser eyes, let me tell you. His favorite move is slicing people in half, which the show repeatedly depicts with its usual level of graphic violence. At the end of season one, Homelander kills his boss and lover in cold blood by looking into her eyes and focusing his laser gaze directly into her skull. In season two, Homelander imagines committing mass murder with his laser eyes, razing a crowd of protesters to the ground. We’re forced to watch this lurid scene play out before a quick cut reveals that Homelander hasn’t actually used his powers to silence the assembly but merely fantasized about it.



The moment Ikaris (Richard Madden) used his laser eyes in Eternals, I felt uncomfortable. The first time he uses his power on screen, he’s heroically saving ancient humans from the Deviants, the world-devouring threats from which the Eternals have been tasked with protecting Earth. Ikaris isn’t doing anything nefarious, in any way, but those laser eyes put the chill on me faster than Kevin Feige slapped “from Academy Award winning director Chloe Zhao” on all of the Eternals marketing materials after this year’s Oscars ceremony. Every instinct in me went, “HELL no, not the laser eyes,” and I distrusted Ikaris from the start for no reason other than the laser eyes. I fully blame Homelander.

Like Homelander, Ikaris is an obvious riff on Superman. He flies, comes from outer space, and has superstrength and heat vision. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the comics, but the film version of Eternals heavily leans into the Superman comparison, going so far as to have a child verbally mistake Ikaris for Superman. In various interviews, Chloe Zhao called Ikarus “our own take on Superman” and acknowledged the influence Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel had on her superhero film.

Recent cinematic iterations of Superman have trended towards the, shall we say, more disillusioned. When everything’s a gritty reboot, nothing is, and so by now I’ve come to expect that any new Superman (or “Superman”) will turn out to be Evil Superman, since that’s the edgier, more “realistic” option. Evil Superman has a storied history, but lately it seems that he’s taken over. See: Justice League (2017) and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), which adds the “Knightmare” sequence that hints at more Evil Superman. So I suppose it was expected that Eternals’ Ikaris would not only be the MCU’s Superman but also its Evil Superman/subversion of the Superman myth, as he does, ultimately, turn out to be.***


Promotional image from Zack Snyder's Justice League, close up of Superman's (Henry Cavill) face with his laser eyes activated


Despite being satire, Homelander is, arguably, the most culturally visible Evil Superman at the moment. Season two of The Boys was Amazon Prime Video’s biggest hit to date; although the streaming services rarely release meaningful viewership data, Nielsen’s weekly “Streaming Top 10” showed The Boys drawing in huge numbers. And so we’re back where we started, with the parody overtaking the original.

I won’t go so far as to say that Homelander has ruined Superman for me – that would be hyperbolic. But Homelander’s laser eyes are so disturbing that I think we need to put a moratorium on heat vision for now. I would like to say that I guessed where Eternals was going with Ikaris because I have such a finger on the pop culture pulse that I used recent trends to predict the arc. That would be a lie, however, and I can’t lie to you in good conscience. No, it was my absolutely visceral reaction to the laser eyes that prompted my suspicion.

Laser eyes are for villains now. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 




*I’m partial to Starr’s work in season one, where you can literally see him turn the charm on and off (the way he makes his eyes go dead on command freaks me out), but Starr portrays Homelander’s mask-off villainy in season two with similarly terrifying precision. It’s a marvelously controlled performance in a notably unsubtle and over-the-top show.

**I could also go on at length about how it’s never quite clear what, exactly, The Boys is satirizing. Is it other superhero properties, or is it our (real) cultural obsession with (fictional) superheroes? In the same review, St. Félix notes how The Boys takes aim at the real world cultural domination of Disney/Marvel as much as it parodies the Justice League, in an apparent departure from the source comics.

***I wouldn’t say that Ikaris is quite evil in the film, but he secretly works at cross purposes with the rest of the Eternals for what he believes to be the greater good. That greater good involves the complete destruction of Earth, however, which I guess tips him into the villain category, relatively speaking.


Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso


[SPOILER WARNING: This piece discusses plot points from seasons one and two of Ted Lasso, so if you’re not totally caught up and don’t want spoilers, wait to read this until later! Also, I refer to “soccer” as “football” throughout the piece because the show’s British characters do so, and calling the sport “soccer” in this context felt weird.]


When I began watching the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s breakout word-of-mouth hit comedy, at the beginning of the summer, I quickly fell in love with Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). As someone who prefers a man with a hirsute torso, I thoroughly appreciated the positive chest hair representation.* Goldstein’s deliciously terse line readings consistently cracked me up. (The way he spits out the phrase “shape-based jokes” in episode eight might be a season one highlight.) Sure, Roy’s irritable and stoic to a fault, but he’s not mean. He has a good heart, and his tender relationship with his young niece Phoebe confirms it. As the ladies on the romance novel podcast Fated Mates pointed out in a recent episode, Roy is definitely a romance hero. And like many viewers of the show, I felt the warm fuzzies as his cute and genuinely hot romance with Keely (Juno Temple) sparked over the course of ten episodes.

Roy’s not only a romance hero, though. While his relationship with Keely is certainly pivotal to Roy’s character development, he’s not defined by their romance.** More than anything else, Roy Kent is defined by his anger. He speaks in a low growl (not Goldstein’s natural voice), and he’s always scowling. He liberally punctuates many of his sentences with profanity, as if he can’t quite convey his bottomless frustration without swearing. Goldstein delivers every line as if Roy’s angry he has to speak at all; this has, as I mentioned, a wonderful comedic effect, but it’s also a key component of Roy’s characterization. Through season one, it becomes clear that Roy’s anger issues come from an inability to acknowledge, process, and articulate his emotions. He’s angry that he has feelings, he’s angry that he has to face them, and he’s angry that he has to communicate them to other people.

Understanding this character dynamic, when it fully came into focus at the end of the season, sent a disruptive shock of recognition through me. When I was younger, I had anger issues. It took me a long time to realize that all of my furious anger had nothing to do with actually feeling angry. I had lots of other feelings, feelings that I told myself didn’t matter and should be stuffed. Those feelings came out as a misplaced, directionless, seemingly inexplicable rage when I could no longer deny them but still couldn’t properly express them. I thought that being emotional was being weak, and I’d angrily push people away at the moments when I was the most vulnerable. The last scene between Roy and Keely in the season one finale hit me in a profound way. I, too, have said “stay the fuck away from me” when what I meant was “I desperately need you to hold me.” If we’re being honest, I still mentally shout an exasperated “Fuck!”—Roy Kent style—when I’m metaphorically smacked in the face with an emotional epiphany. I’m working on it, but anger remains my instinctual reaction when I have to deal with my feelings.

Reflecting on Ted Lasso’s first season, I realized that I had never before seen my own anger issues depicted with such painful accuracy on screen.*** I saw myself in Roy Kent, in a way I could not or would not see myself in other, harsher characters defined by their misplaced anger. This new awareness complicated my fun, fangirl infatuation with Roy. I found myself wondering if I desired Roy Kent, in the fantasy way one desires fictional characters, or if I had been deeply identifying with him the whole time and misunderstanding what was happening. Like Loki having romantic stirrings for an alternate timeline version of himself, had I fallen in love with an alternate timeline version of myself?

Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in the show Ted Lasso

Both reactions—finding Roy desirable and recognizing myself in Roy—are only possible because of the way the show treats Roy’s character-defining anger. It’s apparent that his anger issues come from an aversion to being emotionally vulnerable, and it’s true that, culturally, we often code this inability as “masculine.” We could fairly infer that some of Roy’s reluctance to feel his feelings comes from being steeped in a macho sports culture for the majority of his life. But there’s a distinct, purposeful way that the show avoids stating any of this outright. Roy’s trouble with accepting his feelings is never directly tied to the condition of his being a man.

In a recent piece critical of Ted Lasso’s (and Ted Lasso’s) brand of aspirational positive masculinity, Time’s TV critic Judy Berman pushes back against the recent trend of shows that self-consciously try to craft the “perfect man” for male viewers to emulate. She writes that as long as these portrayals of ideal men refuse to meaningfully challenge binary gender norms, they remain one-dimensional “teaching tools” and not depictions of full-blooded people. Berman concludes that these kinds of characters are ultimately not useful to the work of unlearning the behaviors of toxic masculinity. “Isn’t it possible that gender essentialism is exacerbating things?” she asks. “Whether male, female or nonbinary, the characters we need most now may well be ones defined by anything but their gender.” I wholeheartedly agree with Berman’s larger point, but I don’t agree that Ted Lasso is the culprit that she makes it out to be. The discourse around the show certainly perpetuates what Berman talks about, but I contend that there is a way to engage with the text of the show that complicates such surface-level readings.

Roy Kent works as a fascinating case in point. Roy’s anger issues can’t concretely be linked to toxic masculinity because they’re never quite linked to masculinity at all. (Compare what we know of Roy’s history to, say, Jamie’s. Jamie’s relationship with his dad is, I would say, more clearly the “toxic masculinity” storyline of the show if that’s a thread for which we’re looking.) For this, Roy’s character immediately becomes richer, and his journey becomes more complicated. The show takes pains to treat Roy’s character-defining trait with nuance and, quite frankly, ambivalence, in a way that would simply not be possible if Roy’s anger issues were neatly labeled as a harmful result of toxic masculinity. 

By decoupling Roy’s anger from masculinity, Ted Lasso assures viewers that Roy Kent isn’t a “bad man.” This signals two things simultaneously: Roy is a safe character to identify with, and Roy is a safe character to root for in a romance. The moment that Roy’s anger issues become unambiguously linked to gender, the whole thing, in my opinion, would fall apart. There’s too much cultural baggage. His character absolutely works best outside of a pointedly gendered context, particularly given the pop-culture track record regarding men with anger issues like Roy’s. 

It’s rare to find an angry male character who isn’t explicitly a product of toxic masculinity. These types of characters often serve as villains or tragic warnings, men who would rather punch someone than cry, to their own detriment and to the danger of everyone around them. While men don’t have a monopoly on anger as a whole, misdirected anger, specifically, is often popularly associated with masculinity. Women are in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. Or, perhaps, women are socialized and expected to be in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. (I’m not a gender essentialist, so you know which one I think it is.) When “being a man” means sucking it up and burying your feelings, it follows that being unable to process emotional responses in a healthy way has become a pervasive problem among men. Denying your emotional responses and developing anger issues can go hand-in-hand. Invalidating your feelings and stuffing them down is like loading a cannon; those feelings are going to explode out in some way eventually, and probably not in the way you mean for them to.

Many pop-culture depictions of displaced anger end up being portraits of abuse and/or abusers, violent men who misguidedly and/or unconsciously overcompensate for their general feelings of hurt by lashing out at people more powerless than themselves. These abusers are the extreme examples of what the unhealthy standards of masculinity can create, and they serve as pop culture’s most common form of toxic-masculinity-related cautionary tale. I find it incredibly telling that Goldstein, in an interview last fall with Esquire UK, described Roy Kent as “Bill Sykes, if Bill Sykes had a heart of gold, and wasn’t a murderer.” Goldstein repeated this comparison in a different interview last month, asserting again that he based Roy on “Bill Sykes if he hadn’t killed Nancy.” The unbearable English-ness of casually referencing Dickens aside, the comparison speaks to the strong connection in our cultural imagination between misplaced anger and abuse. 

Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

All of this is subtext to which Ted Lasso remains attuned. I find Roy so compelling precisely because he isn’t Bill Sykes. He isn’t even particularly physically violent. I keep waiting for Roy to punch a wall, even, but he never does. But that is not to say that Roy’s anger isn’t sharp. Roy’s explosive, emphatic swearing has a certain auditory violence to it—which makes a comedic subplot in S02E08, where Roy realizes that he needs to stop swearing in front of Phoebe, metaphorically rich—and often functions as the main indicator of Roy’s fundamentally angry state of being.**** In yet another interview, Goldstein likened Roy’s physicality to a “walking fist.” Even though the Roy we see in the show never acts on any violent impulses, Goldstein’s tightly coiled body language does, indeed, suggest that Roy is always a breath away from starting a brawl. 

Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein communicate the violence of Roy’s misplaced anger in subtler ways than we might be used to with characters of his kind, but I would argue that Roy’s anger, as presented in the show, still has a definite edge. It’s been curious, then, to see almost no critical discussion of Roy’s anger issues. It’s as though, if we’re assured that his anger won’t result in physical violence, his anger issues aren’t that pressing. Much of the writing I’ve read about Roy Kent doesn’t even use the word “angry.” Softer adjectives like “grumpy,” “gruff,” and “surly” do the work of describing Roy’s brusque manner while sidestepping the point. Roy’s anger isn’t a personality quirk, it’s the core of his character.

This is where we get to the knotty heart of the matter: Roy’s anger is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. Anger often serves as the motivating fire in Roy’s belly. Over the course of season one, Ted weaponizes Roy’s anger to, arguably, righteous ends by goading Roy into putting the unbearably cocky Jamie in his place to restore the balance of the team. (Another perfect line delivery from Goldstein: “Vanilla vodka. Such a child.”) In S01E07, when Nate memorably reads the team to filth before a match in Liverpool, Nate tells Roy, “Your speed and your smarts were never what made you who you are. It’s your anger. That’s your superpower.”

Later in that same speech, Nate tells Roy that he needs to let out his anger on the pitch again. “I’m afraid of what [your anger] will do to you if you keep it all for yourself,” Nate finishes weakly as Roy glowers at him, inches from his face. Ted Lasso understands this tension, too, that Roy’s anger can both fuel and destroy him. While Ted largely works to channel Roy’s anger to benefit AFC Richmond (in both seasons one and two), Keely encourages Roy to let his anger go. As their romance develops, Keely gently diffuses Roy’s temper and gets him to open up about his real feelings, those vulnerabilities and hurts that he’s been suppressing because he doesn’t know how to talk about them. She coaxes him into being comfortable expressing his emotions in an honest way instead of angrily denying them.

Through the course of two seasons, Ted Lasso carefully navigates this contradiction at the center of Roy Kent. His anger is an elemental component of his existence, and he has to learn how to deal with it in the healthiest way he can. The show can treat Roy’s anger with a certain amount of ambivalence because the harm of his anger is mostly self-directed. He’s not cruel or irredeemable, as many of pop culture’s angry men are. He’s just a human being who finds his feelings frustrating and annoying and would prefer they didn’t exist. Learning to validate and process one’s emotions isn’t a simple journey, and I would argue that Roy’s season one character arc isn’t simple in the slightest, which is what makes it so powerful. Part of that power is rooted in the way the show stops short of simplistically diagnosing Roy’s misplaced anger as a symptom of the harmful pressure to “be a man.”

Juno Temple as Keely Jones and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

Positioning Roy as the “heterosexual dream man,” as many discussions of Roy’s character have, re-centers masculinity in the conversation around Roy’s anger. I think this is why, even though the show does position Roy as a romantic lead, I’ve found myself bristling at articles like this recent one from Paste Magazine. I can’t say that the interpretation of Roy as a “dream man” is totally wrong; the show does set up Roy as a romantic lead and asks us to invest in his relationship with Keely. And he is pretty dreamy. But because  I am the Roy Kent in my relationship, I guess I see it from a different point of view. (I’m lucky enough to have found my Keely—now there’s a dream man.) I know firsthand how hard a relationship with someone like me can be. It’s disconcerting to see the work Roy and Keely do together in their relationship simplified to fit a “patient woman trains an emotionally illiterate man” narrative that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their dynamic.

I was frustrated with Roy’s season two arc for the first four episodes, mainly because it leaned so heavily into the “dream man” characterization. Keely was his sole narrative link to the AFC Richmond orbit proper, and it wasn’t clear if Roy would continue to fit into the show as anything other than Keely’s perfect boyfriend. There are moments, in these first four episodes, that seem designed to generate swoons on Twitter. Some of these moments work as thoughtful character beats, like the one where… well, you know exactly what scene I’m thinking about right now. Others didn’t land so well for me—take, for example, Roy’s outburst in S02E01 where he tells Rebecca not to settle for fine in her love life, that she deserves someone who makes her feel like she’s been “struck by fucking lightning.” (Yes, Roy’s always taken no bullshit, but a relationship pep talk? From a man who repeatedly refuses to join the Diamond Dogs in session?) After retirement, Roy seemed adrift as a character, and I wasn’t sure if the writers were intentionally cultivating this sense or not.

And then, in S02E05 (“Rainbow”), Roy came roaring back. “Rainbow” is an undeniably Roy-centric episode that might best be described, in more ways than one, as “the one where Roy Kent returns.” Anyone with a shred of sense probably knew that Roy was likely going to come back to AFC Richmond as a coach; narratively, it’s the best way to keep Roy in the action without back pedaling his retirement arc, and it’s established in season one that Roy is a natural leader and an effective coach, albeit of small children. The whole episode works as a spin on the romcom formula, but instead of two lovers making their way to each other, Roy finally shows up for his date with coaching destiny.

How fitting that Roy’s big romcom moment is not, after all, with Keely, but with himself. “Rainbow” ingeniously subverts expectations by, once again, refraining from slotting Roy into a heterosexual, gendered role. He embraces his ultimate vulnerability not by committing to a romantic relationship or admitting romantic love (the stereotypical fear of straight men everywhere); instead, he admits that he can’t live without football, a sport that’s broken his heart and will undoubtedly do so again. Instead of angrily rejecting a career as a football coach to protect himself from further pain, as he has been doing up to this point in season two, he commits to the sport that he loves—a sport that, as Nate reminded him before the Liverpool game, requires his full, angry brilliance. 

I love the way Ted Lasso explores the paradox of the anger at Roy Kent’s core and his complicated anger issues. It only works so well because it does just what Judy Berman calls for: it explores a man’s emotional reeducation beyond the framework of the gender binary.





*While the fastidiously waxed Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) makes some cracks about Roy’s chest hair, the camera frequently and admiringly lingers on Brett Goldstein’s shirtless body in the locker room scenes. Unfortunately, the now retired Roy is more frequently clothed in season two.

**Refreshingly, Keely isn’t defined by this romance, either, at least not in season one. While season two has, so far, mostly focused on Roy and Keely as a happy couple, I hope that future episodes will complicate their dynamic a little bit. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Goldstein said of Roy’s post-footballer season two arc: “[Roy’s] not going to kill himself, it’s not the end of the world. But I think we can already see there’s a danger in how much he’s investing in his relationship with Keeley versus the rest of his life.

***One of my good friends got the rough draft/seed-of-an-idea version of this essay via text when she unsuspectingly messaged me about Ted Lasso a few days after I finished season one. She was like, I just started watching Ted Lasso, it’s so good. Roy Kent is the best! I replied with a casual, Oh cool, I might identify with Roy Kent to an unhealthy degree because I’ve never seen a character with anger issues like mine who isn’t an asshole abuser, and it’s making me really emotional! As Rebecca said in S02E02, “That’s why you have friends, isn’t it? To burden them with your issues and anxieties, right?”

****Ted Lasso is a smartly written show, and I really don’t think I’m giving the writers too much credit here. So much of what makes Ted Lasso work operates in the subtext. I love this choice partially because the series is a comedy and exists, first and foremost, to be funny, but I also love it because it’s tiresome to be constantly hit over the head with Important Themes and Lessons.


Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


I don’t make it a point of pride to hate actors. If I don’t like someone’s acting, I generally keep it to myself. I much prefer to talk about things I love, and I always want to be surprised by things I thought I didn’t or wouldn’t like. But, until a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure that British actor Dominic Cooper was never going to surprise me. I had entirely written him off as not my cup of tea, and I was fine with that.

My sister and I used to call Dominic Cooper “Frog Man.” We first saw him as Willoughby in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and we immediately hated him. In all fairness, by the end of Sense and Sensibility you’re supposed to hate Willoughby, but my sister and I specifically hated Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. We were teenagers, and we were judgemental. “Who would swoon over that baby-faced, bug-eyed guy?” we wondered. My mom, who watched the miniseries with us, agreed that he was no Greg Wise.* We incredulously marveled at the awfulness of Cooper’s shallow bad boy act.


Still from Sense and Sensibility (2008): close up of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby
Dominic Cooper as Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

That was in the spring, and by the end of the year, my sister and I had been subjected to two more films where it was clear that we were supposed to find Dominic Cooper hot and sexy. Summer brought Mama Mia!, in which Cooper’s main number finds him cavorting shirtless around the beach. For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I viscerally disliked all of Mama Mia!, but Cooper failed to impress once again.** In the fall, Frog Man showed up in The Duchess, this time as Keira Knightley’s one-true-lover. I don’t recall him setting the screen on fire in that one, either. I haven’t seen The Duchess since it came out, but the fact that Roger Ebert’s very positive review of the film doesn’t mention Dominic Cooper by name in the main text at all seems to reaffirm my initial opinion.

2008 set the tone, and Cooper never recovered in my estimation. Until a few weeks ago, I had yet to see Cooper in a film where I was picking up the sexual charisma that he was ostensibly putting down. And it seems that he’s always cast in roles where he’s supposed to be sexy. There’s clearly something about the man; in real life, he’s dated two of his gorgeous co-stars (Amanda Seyfried and Ruth Negga), and he’s currently reportedly linked with Gemma Chan. Until a few weeks ago, I just never saw that something on screen. Until a few weeks ago, I still thought about him as Frog Man, wannabe sex symbol and sometime Howard Stark.

A few weeks ago, I watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on a whim.


still from Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Young, shirtless Abe Lincoln doesn’t know what he stumbled into, and neither do I.

The 2012 action/horror film, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel of the same name, pits our nation’s sixteenth president against the slave-owning vampire ring that runs the antebellum American South. I mean, it’s all there in the title. The film got mostly bad reviews and did poorly at the summer box office, and I, too, skipped it when it was in theaters. I’m going to be honest with you, I had pretty much forgotten that this movie existed until it popped up on the HBO Max homepage a couple of months ago.

I vaguely remembered that the film had briefly been on my radar because of Benjamin Walker. Fresh off of the unsuccessful Broadway run of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which he played the titular role, Walker signed on to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If it’s possible to be typecast as something so particular, it seemed for a time that Walker might make a career out of portraying outrageous versions of nineteenth-century American presidents. The actor brought Andrew Jackson to life on-stage as a hot, emo rock star—to, it should be said, scathingly satirical effect—so, naturally, Walker seemed like a fun fit for a cool, vamp-slaying version of Abe Lincoln.

I realize that I throw around the word “obsessed” very liberally on this blog, but I am well and truly obsessed with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. If you aren’t familiar with the show, this song will give you a taste of what the whole thing entails. (Popula-jizz-m!)*** I could absolutely talk about this musical for far too long if you let me, but I’ll spare you. I only mention it to say that when I decided to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last month, I did so mostly out of affection for Ben. And, of course, an urgent desire to turn off my brain for a couple of hours.

In truth, the cast of this ridiculous movie is stacked with charismatic actors. In addition to Walker, we’ve got Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson, and Rufus Sewell—none of them A-list stars, but all of them reliable scene-stealers. Not one of them shines in this film, though. The odd but, I would argue, ultimately successful tone of the movie requires everyone involved to play it straight as can be, almost to the point of being deadpan.

I admire director Timur Bekmambetov’s instinct to forgo a self-aware tone and easy jokes in favor of poker-faced seriousness. (Based on his filmography, I’m not sure that Bekmambetov is capable of making anything that doesn’t take itself seriously. But I suppose this inability is what made him the right choice for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) There are few things worse than a film that transparently wants to be a cult-classic midnight-movie and winks at you about it every five minutes. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works best when the ludicrous premise plays out in the most straightforward manner. For instance, the final action set piece, where Abe Lincoln simply kills a bunch of vampires on top of a train, plays like gangbusters.

In a way, Walker has the easiest job. To make good on the juicy promise of the film’s title and get a reaction out of the audience, all he has to do is be tall, look grave, and axe murder vampires while wearing a top hat. The bizarre visual of Abe Lincoln’s iconic physique engaged in battle with a bloodsucking monster doesn’t need embellishment. Weirdly, it helps that the totally freaky prosthetics Walker sports in the back half of the movie make it look like the actor is literally wearing Lincoln’s dead face as a mask. Most of the supporting characters, however, aren’t given material outlandish enough for the juxtaposition between affectless performance and fantastical action to work nearly as well. This movie is Lincoln-sploitation, and for the most part it doesn’t know what to do with the characters who aren’t Lincoln.****


Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, close up of Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln
Big difference from young, shirtless Abe.

But one actor in the film operates in a slightly different register from the rest of the cast and stands out for it: Dominic Cooper, the one and only. I had no idea that he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when I put on the film, so it was a genuine surprise when he popped up. About ten minutes into the movie, young Abe decides that he’s going to get revenge on the man/vampire who killed his mother when he was a child. Abe goes to a bar for some liquid courage, and Dominic sidles up to him as he’s drinking. “A boy only gets that drunk when he wants to kiss a girl or kill a man,” Dominic quips before slapping Abe on the back, knocking a gun out of his coat and confirming which it is. With that, we’ve been introduced to Henry Sturges, the mysterious man who eventually educates Abe about the world of vampires and trains him in the art of slaying the undead. 

Here I must note that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is vampire-sploitation as much as it is Lincoln-sploitation; we all remember the years when every publisher and every producer was trying to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Twilight. Just as Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous book, the wildly successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was a mashup, so is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the source novel). It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dear America—or any other diary-format historical fiction, take your pick. Lincoln is the vampire slayer, obviously, and the Southern vamps are the unequivocally monstrous enemies that Lincoln must vanquish. [Light spoilers follow, if you’re worried about that sort of thing.] Henry Sturges is our Angel, our Edward Cullen, our sexy, good-guy vampire that the genre requires.


Still of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) swinging an axe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) shows Abe how to swing an axe to murderous effect.

I was startled when Frog Man showed up in the film and didn’t immediately prompt an eye roll. I was flat out shocked when he single handedly stole the whole show. Dominic Cooper, it turns out, was born to play a sexy, good-guy vampire. 

Cooper’s screen persona is intensely tied to an artificial sort of over-the-top sensuality which I have previously found uncompelling. In calling the actor’s allure artificial, I mean to say that the come-on is clearly put on; he’s laboring to seduce you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, I want to clarify. Glamour and performative desirability are often part and parcel of being a movie star. But I had always felt that Cooper lays it on too thick, to a “dost-thou-protest-too-much” effect. That is, he works so hard to convince everyone of his hotness that I just had to assume he’s not actually that hot.

Unexpectedly, everything that normally registers as “too much” about Cooper’s mannered approach to exuding sex appeal—the pouty lips, the intense stares, the carefully mussed hair, the insistence on appearing shirtless in every one of his films—hits precisely the right note in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It all comes together flawlessly. It only took a film where Cooper plays a vampire for me to finally understand his appeal.


Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) sit at a bar in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The dynamic duo in action.

Henry Sturges is Cooper “playing it straight,” in so far as Cooper always acts like a vampire. (Aha! A revelation.) In this way, the casting is brilliant. Cooper doesn’t ham it up in a way that contradicts the self-serious tone of the film, but his usual modus operandi is already rather exaggerated. I don’t think he could be legitimately deadpan if he tried, and that turns out to be for the best. The dynamics of this film only work if, as previously discussed, stony Abe has something spectacular to contrast with. In the action scenes, that’s the horrible Southern vampires. For the rest of the film, it’s Sturges’s sexy, good-guy vampire bit. 


Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
“He smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses.”

And Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really fires on all cylinders during the scenes shared by Abe and Henry, because in the context of this otherwise icy affair, Cooper’s charisma is indeed spectacular. While it’s not revealed until partway through the movie that Sturges is a vampire himself, Cooper’s performance should tip off any observant viewer. He prowls around in the shadows, he entertains lady friends in an empty bathtub (in the middle of his living room in his clearly haunted house), he smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses. And there’s something so, well, vampire-y about the way Cooper strives to be seductive in all of his roles. He’s trying so hard it’s like he wants something from you (your blood). Cooper’s not menacing enough to be a villainous vampire, but the sexy, good-guy vampire is such a natural fit for him that I can’t believe he played a human in Dracula Untold. What a waste.


Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I just…

I have to admit that willingness to be seduced may have a lot to do with what works for me about Henry Sturges. I love sci-fi/fantasy fiction, and I’m a sucker for sexy vampire tropes. While I normally find Cooper’s style excessive and off-putting, it’s perfect when he’s a vampire. Sexy vampires are excessive, verging on obscene, and, honestly, a little silly. I dig it. Where vampires are concerned, the more licentious, the better; and Cooper’s performance as Sturges hints at so much that the script leaves untouched. Sturges might only rip the throats out of bad men, Dexter-style, but I guarantee you that he’s into some convoluted sex stuff. (It’s implied that Sturges got turned into a vampire instead of simply dying because his soul isn’t pure, which raises so many questions, seeing as Sturges doesn’t seem all that evil. What is he into? I want to know.) Cooper’s giving me so much as Sturges, and I want it all

So, I never thought I’d say it, but I finally watched a film that made me think, “Wow, Dominic Cooper is HOT.” Surprises await you around every corner in this life if you keep your mind open. Stay curious, my friends, and you, too, might find that your frog was a sexy vampire all along.


Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter



*Now there’s a dashing Willoughby. All three of us agreed that, on the whole, the men in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version were vastly superior to the men in the 2008 TV version—with one exception. I remember that we were all rather charmed by a pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars.

**If you search Cooper’s name on Twitter, you will find many people who disagree with me on this. Maybe I just missed the point, but I’ve watched the “Lay All Your Love on Me” clip five times over the course of writing this piece and still don’t get it.

***I came to the musical first through the original cast recording (in high school, a friend burned me a copy—yes, I know, my theater kid is showing), but I did get to see the full show on stage when the Salt Lake Acting Company mounted it in 2012. I made my sister come with me, and they did not like it as much as I did, to put it mildly. Your own mileage may vary.

****2009 marked the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and in the ensuing years several projects, both scholarly and popular, set out to capitalize on the small flurry of renewed interest in the man and his historical legacy. Grahame-Smith’s novel was published in 2010, hot on the heels of the bicentennial. In 2012, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter famously wasn’t the only Lincoln-related film release. That fall, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar, came out to almost universal acclaim.


Selfie of Leah and Keith sitting in a dark movie theater


After I booked my first COVID-19 vaccination appointment, I started to let myself look forward to exactly two things. These activities, while certainly not equivalent in importance, were the two most discrete things I had been missing since last March, when the pandemic struck New York. The first thing, of course, was being able to safely travel to see my parents and my sister. I bought a plane ticket to Seattle as soon as I knew the date I’d be inoculated; I practically levitated off the ground with happiness when I finalized the purchase, knowing that I wouldn’t cancel this trip out of safety concerns at the last minute like I had done twice before.

The second activity? Going to the movie theater, naturally. Movie theaters in the city reopened at reduced capacity in early March, after an entire year of closure for public safety. I wanted to wait until I was vaccinated before treating myself to a movie on the big screen, so I could revel in the experience without worry, guilt, or fear. And so, two weeks ago, the day before I left for Seattle, Keith and I went out to see a movie. We saw Riders of Justice. We both enjoyed it. But investing something that was once so regular for us with such a symbolic sense of special occasion—Things will finally feel a little normal again when I can go to the movies, I had thought to myself more than once—made the whole outing a bit overwhelming. 

Going to the movies again undoubtedly filled me with joy. I had missed the immersive experience of sitting in the dark and totally losing myself in a film. I had missed hearing strangers’ audible reactions to sharp jokes and shocking acts of violence, and Riders of Justice provided plenty of both. I had missed complaining about the odd, small screens at the Angelika like the provincial New Yorker I aspire to become. Walking out of the theater, putting together my thoughts on the film so that Keith and I could chat about it on the way home, it did somehow feel like I’d taken a big step towards reassembling my life after spending a year in limbo. It was unspeakably sweet to fall back into a well-loved, old habit.

Simultaneously, going back to the movies at last also felt like no big deal—almost a letdown. It didn’t actually mark much at all. I hadn’t suddenly found my “new normal” and discovered a clear way forward out of one of the weirdest years I’ve ever lived through. It didn’t heal anything. This strange, double feeling of elation and deflation kept recurring over the next couple of weeks, as I did several formerly commonplace activities again for the first time since the pandemic started last spring.

It’s nice to feel like things are returning to normal (as sick as I am of that phrase and the underlying assumption that “normal” was good for everyone before the pandemic hit), and I’m eager to come out of my suspended state of semi-solitude. Seeing my family again, in person, replenished my spirit in ways I can’t fully articulate; for now, suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no replacement in the world for a hug. I love walking outside without a mask on because it means I can smile at all of the cute dogs I see when I’m out in the neighborhood. Going to a friend’s house for dinner, inside and unmasked, brought on a kind of giddiness. The cautious optimism prompted by the rising vaccination rate and dropping infection rate in the U.S. feels, pardon my French, fucking great.

I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready to return to “normal” life, though. I first suspected that the transition might be more difficult than I wanted to admit when I read the March 4th edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. The short piece was called “No I’m Not Ready,” and it resonated so deeply that I immediately had to re-read it. In the newsletter, Petersen confesses her personal feelings of hesitancy about jumping head-first into post-pandemic life. She writes about how it will be a long, complicated, and perhaps non-linear path for each of us to get back to “normal.” She writes:


Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. … And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy [to bounce back], but it is not the strategy.


Okay, wow. So, going out to the movies again might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. Doing “normal” things again will help me feel normal in the short run, but it won’t help me process the grief, loss, and trauma of the last year. As much as I’d love to pretend last year didn’t happen (wouldn’t we all?), it looks like I’m going to have to face the last fourteen months.

I don’t have much of a desire to reflect for too long on the past year; I want to look forward, towards the good things presumably coming. I want to think about seeing In The Heights on the big screen and paying too much for movie theater popcorn, to keep it film-related. This post was supposed to be about the pleasure of returning to the movie theater, a little light-hearted and tossed-off missive from the front lines of the reopening. I wanted to look forward.

It turned out to be sort of ironic, then, that the film I chose for my first foray back to the cinema should be Riders of Justice. Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy sells itself as a revenge flick, the sort of thing that would sit alongside Taken or any number of other slick actioners about a middle-aged man with special skills who avenges a wronged or murdered family member. The actual film is anything but that, however. Riders of Justice is, at its heart, a story about the necessity and difficulty of acknowledging the senseless nature of loss and trauma directly. It is, among other things, an exploration of the ways that people avoid dealing with their grief, to the detriment of their own mental health.*



The losses I’ve sustained over the past year are surely an order of magnitude smaller than those endured by the characters in Riders of Justice. I’m not presuming to make a one-to-one comparison; we’re talking about thematic echoes here. But I found it slightly unsettling to be confronted with such a film when I have been so determined not to face my own grief over everything lost, collectively and personally, during the pandemic. Especially when going back to the movie theater was supposed to signify that I was moving on from all of that.

I feel like a whiner when I try to talk about it. I’ve been so fortunate, all things considered. I tell myself that the losses I suffered aren’t big enough, important enough, to merit grieving, for God’s sake. (I don’t apply this ridiculous standard to anyone else, of course, only to myself.) I push forward, forward, always forward. I focus on what I think I can control. Then I sit down to write a quick, breezy blog post about what was a mostly nice afternoon, and it turns into… this.

I’m trying to sit with my feelings rather than brush them away. I’m trying to heed the advice I read again and again: I’m trying to accept my own emotional responses and be forgiving towards myself when I can’t effortlessly “bounce back.” I’m going to publish this somewhat sad, rather uncertain, and decidedly unpolished version of what I probably could have turned into a pat anecdote about the euphoria of emerging from my pandemic cocoon. Yes, the euphoria is real, but so is the lingering gloom. Recognizing that gloom, and recognizing that simply doing “normal” activities again isn’t going to dispel it, is the only way I can think of right now to start truly recovering. I’m not hoping to make sense of it or fix it. All I can do is honor that strange double feeling and give it space, here and elsewhere.

Near the end of her essay, Petersen writes that figuring out post-pandemic life as we process our grief is “going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing.” Yep. That’s pretty much exactly how I’ve felt for the past month. Going back to the movies was no exception.



*In his four-star review of the film for rogerebert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums it up like this: “‘Did a therapist write this?’ is not a sentence one expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle.”



About half an hour into Danton, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film about the period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, the movie’s two main players finally come face to face. Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) has invited Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) to a private meeting over dinner. Danton, the latest target of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, hopes to smooth things over with his one-time ally before Robespierre signs any arrest warrants. This tête-à-tête may be one of the film’s most famous scenes, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. The scene deftly operates on multiple levels, suggesting the contours of the pair’s knotty personal relationship while simultaneously illuminating the stakes of their political disagreements. 

In outlining the men’s political differences, the scene clearly sets out the central historical analogy that defined Danton’s reception upon release and has continued to guide twenty-first-century audiences’ understanding of the film. It’s not much of a stretch to understand Danton as a critique of the communist government that was still in power in Poland in the early 1980s. In this reading, the liberal Danton and his allies (played by French actors) stand in for the Polish Solidarity movement and democratic Western Europe more broadly; the authoritarian Robespierre and his Committee for Public Safety (played by Polish actors, with French dialogue dubbed in) correlate with the repressive communist regime that Solidarity resisted.* It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Danton without running into a discussion of how and why the film links these two points of political change and unrest across two centuries.

The dinner scene functions as a key to the film because it’s the scene that most legibly articulates the historical parallels the Polish director seems so eager to make. The scene fascinates me for the way that it exemplifies the film’s nuanced approach to presenting these connections. It’s here that I suppose I should admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Danton since I first watched it last month. As I struggled to figure out what, exactly, has so thoroughly captured my attention about this film, I kept returning to the proposed historical parallel at its center. I think I find Danton so compelling because I appreciate how Wajda draws parallels that actively destabilize certain historical narratives, which were themselves destabilizations of earlier historical narratives. By making what was at the time a somewhat subversive analogy, Wajda’s film obliquely asks the audience to consider the malleability of historical narrative.

The film’s script is based in part on Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska’s 1929 play, The Danton Case, which was significantly more admiring of Robespierre (whom the leftist playwright idolized and imagined as a proto-Marxist) and critical of Danton. Wajda’s adaptation takes the events described in the play but gives the material an ideological twist; the director’s formal choices align the audience with Danton. The dinner scene works as a potent example of how Wajda transforms an episode that shouldn’t, on its face, reflect well on Danton into an argument for the vital importance of Danton’s humanity.



Depardieu and Pszoniak are, by all rights, co-leads in the film. Both actors receive roughly the same amount of screen time, and both actors give riveting performances.** One can imagine a version of Danton that treats Robespierre, rather than Danton, as the hero. In this version, Robespierre’s cool, detached fanaticism is a commendable commitment to principle, and Danton is a mess, too beholden to worldly concerns to uphold the pure values of the Revolution. And one can easily envision a rendition of the dinner scene, specifically, that is dismissive of Danton. In the scene as it is, both men are allowed room to state their positions openly and rather equally. Danton doesn’t outreason Robespierre and win the argument. In fact, the meeting ends when Danton drunkenly falls asleep on Robespierre’s chest. Danton is a bit of a mess here.



As embodied by Depardieu, however, Danton is such a glorious mess, and Wajda’s camera is in love with him. The scene begins with Danton as he prepares for the meeting before Robespierre shows up. Danton anxiously tastes all of the food, frets about the flowers, and compulsively fusses with his outfit. A sense of doom hangs over the proceedings from the start. Danton is plainly aware that his life hangs in the balance, that this meeting must go well if he’s to save his own head. Danton goes from giving directions in a hushed whisper to shouting at his companions at the drop of a hat. He’s nervous, and the camera never quite settles, fluidly following Danton as he bustles around readying the room for Robespierre. 

As the minute of Robespierre’s arrival approaches, Danton suddenly has a moment of paranoia and demands that one of his associates forcibly remove everyone from the adjoining rooms in the hotel where he’s set the meeting.*** Danton’s man Bourdon violently and rudely clears the floor, disrupting a group of aristocratically-dressed people in one room who appear to be gambling, a private party of men watching a woman sensuously dance, and another gathering that looks to be a séance. The aristocrats get the worst manhandling, of course. The medium at the séance, however, gets an almost reverential treatment. Bourdon gently guides her out of her room, and she never seems to surface from her trance. She walks straight towards the camera, which is positioned just outside of the doorway, with her hands outstretched, humming. She turns into the hall at the last second, pitching her hum sharply upward, and the camera cuts back to Danton, inside the meeting room.

It’s a striking interlude that teases what Wajda mostly leaves out of the film. Bourdon’s rough manner acknowledges one of the major criticisms of Danton—that he and his cronies were thugs. Wajda sets up Danton and his opposition to the Terror as an analog for non-violent movements like Polish Solidarity, so he necessarily elides Danton’s involvement in violent actions earlier in the Revolution (like the insurrection of 1792 that led to the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI). But Wajda does not totally sanitize Danton’s Cordeliers or change their character to make his argument. Instead, he makes Bourdon’s incivility more interesting to watch. Bourdon’s direct dealings with those in his way stands in stark contrast to the detachment of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, whose members sign orders of execution regularly without ever getting their own hands dirty. None of the members of the Committee ever look as good on camera as Bourdon does after he gets the order from Danton to clear the adjoining rooms. He grins like a fox, then he saunters down the hallway, casually smoking, anticipating violence with the cool eagerness of a Hollywood gangster.



When we return to Danton, Robespierre is just entering the meeting room. As the meeting commences, the camera finally starts to come to a rest. The camera slowly follows Danton as the pair make their way from the doorway to the table. From the beginning, Robespierre is still while Danton continues to be a flurry of motion. He offers up various dishes and platters. He almost chokes after he tears into a quail breast to show Robespierre it isn’t poisoned. When Robespierre repeatedly refuses food, Danton dumps all of the dishes off the table and onto the floor. He compulsively pours himself glasses of wine. He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks. Danton stands up, looming over the still sitting Robespierre, and physically assaults his adversary. Danton switches seats. He takes off his wig and offers up his neck to Robespierre’s guillotine. Through all of this, Robespierre hardly moves. He’s coiled up, intense but tightly contained.



Wajda’s framing of Robespierre is also rather static. While the distance of the shots varies slightly, Robespierre is almost exclusively shown from the same perspective: a portrait-like three-quarters angle. When the camera moves to show a side view of the table, Robespierre’s severe profile takes over the foreground while Danton carries on behind him. Robespierre’s almost inhuman immobility and composure stands out all the more in comparison to Danton’s restlessness.



When Danton moves, the camera follows him, but, for the most part, the camera stays still. The two men’s conversation is mostly composed of over-the-shoulder shots, switching between each man as he speaks. While Robespierre is framed very similarly in each of these shots, Wajda frames Danton in as many different ways as possible in the confined space. Danton can’t be defined by one type of shot; the camera must consider him from all different angles. Depardieu’s performance is the opposite of contained. Danton’s energy threatens to overflow the frame, and the camera constantly adjusts to try to capture it.



Danton’s argument in this scene boils down to a defense of individuality and praise of exceptional men. Danton accuses Robespierre of “chop[ping] off any head above the rest” and asserts that “all exceptional men are above the masses.” Wajda’s camera treats Danton as an exceptional individual, captivating in all of his unruliness and folly. (And drunkenness.) “You want men to act like the heroes of novels,” Danton admonishes Robespierre. “You forget we’re made of flesh and blood.” Robespierre might act more dignified in this instance, and he is even, perhaps, more articulate in defending his course of political action. But Danton is more relatable. 

Relatability is a key factor at work when formulating a historical parallel. History educators in a variety of contexts are enamored of the idea that if they can come up with the right example, then history will “come alive” for the people learning about it in the here and now. Frankly, it’s simply good pedagogical practice to assume that people aren’t interested in learning anything unless it relates to their lives directly. The majority of historical parallels make the past more knowable by making it more familiar—more relatable

When historical parallels are used to make us comfortable with what’s happening in the present, however, we get into the territory of myth-making. This happened with the French Revolution, particularly in France, but also in other European countries that undertook their own revolutionary actions in later decades and centuries. The French Revolution became an inspiration and a model, a warning and a failure. As each new generation sought to position the French Revolution to suit their own ends, the history underwent reinterpretation. Both Robespierre and Danton only rose in historical estimation in the later part of the nineteenth century, as various political factions reevaluated the legacy of the French Revolution and found new heroes to support their own agendas.

Robespierre’s reputation, in particular, was massively rehabilitated with the emergence of leftist, working-class political movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century Jacobin’s commitment to principles of egalitarianism became a historical precedent for the kind of socialist thought that was gaining currency. As Robespierre’s intellectual contributions were rediscovered and newly appreciated by the European left, his status as the premiere “villain” of the French Revolution shifted. The Danton Case, the play on which Danton is partially based, is a product of this shift.



So Wajda took what was a popular historical parallel in leftist circles—a parallel that was used to give leftist governments an acceptable, Enlightenment-era intellectual heritage—and flipped it to make it uncomfortable. I find Danton so intriguing not because of the historical parallel it makes but because of how it makes that parallel. Danton and Robespierre used to be friends and allies, and their trajectories in the Revolution only diverged at the very end. Wajda understands that only a slight adjustment needs to be made to mount the case against Robespierre—who, it should be noted, is not necessarily vilified in the film. Danton is a variation on a theme, not a rewriting of the story. The dinner scene expertly illustrates Wajda’s approach. On some level, I think the film is designed to force the audience to think about historical parallels and how they work to reinforce national and political identities. It’s all about the framing, quite literally.




*Wajda denied on record that he was trying to make any such pointed connections, but these denials only came after the socialist French government (which had partially financed the film) reacted badly to the film’s perceived anti-leftist attitude. Robert Darton’s essay Danton and Double Entendre” provides the definitive overview of the reasons for the film’s cool reception in France at the time of its release. See: Robert Darnton, “Danton and Double Entendre.” The Kiss of Lamourette (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

**This is all the more remarkable in Pszoniak’s case, since, as previously mentioned, his dialogue is dubbed in by a French actor.

***I’m not sure what, exactly, to call the place where Danton and Robespierre meet. Their room is private, but the building is not. I’ve seen the location referred to as a “hotel” in other pieces about the film, so that’s what I’m going with. If any historians who specialize in eighteenth-century France are reading this, please correct me if you know a better or more accurate term.

POST SCRIPT: If you are interested in fiction about the Reign of Terror, I would highly recommend Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel’s novel follows Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins from cradle to guillotine; and the book gorgeously evokes the atmosphere of the French Revolution through its many twists and turns. The events covered at the end of A Place of Greater Safety and the events of Danton overlap, but the characterizations of each main player differ significantly enough to make the film and the novel quite interesting to compare.



First things first: If you didn’t watch a single new film in 2020, I wouldn’t blame you. Last year, I had entire months where I found it very difficult to focus on anything new, let alone anything challenging. The allure of the Comfort Watch pulled strongly at all of us, and I was certainly not immune to the siren song of the familiar. Frankly, sometimes watching something that required full engagement felt like work for which I didn’t have the mental capacity.

Watching films entirely at home for the majority of the year presented another hurdle. I’m a devotee of the movie theater for many reasons, but I love going out to the cinema first and foremost because, when I’m in the theater, I am forced to pay attention to what’s on screen. It’s immersive, and the rules of the place forbid me from taking out my phone to absentmindedly scroll Twitter or take pictures of my cats. It’s also, to be blunt, hard as hell to keep track of new releases when everything goes straight to streaming. If I wanted to see a new movie before, all I had to do was check what was playing at the cinema—multiplex or arthouse. Finding the latest releases on streaming and VOD can feel like the Wild West in comparison. While critics like Alissa Wilkinson at Vox have been compiling wonderful weekly lists of new streaming releases since March, I still put in more effort last year to keep track of what was out and where to watch it than I ever had to before. If this is the future of movie-going, we’d all better brush up on our spreadsheet skills.

Despite these unusual circumstances, I managed to experience new films that charmed, confronted, edified, unsettled, moved, enraged, and electrified me. As people more knowledgeable than I have noted, the general lack of tentpole releases dominating the cultural landscape left room for a greater variety of films to reach a wider audience. The cultural conversation felt less mandated (very rarely this year was everyone talking about the same movie at the same time) and more passionate and idiosyncratic. Cinephiles of all stripes found room to vocally advocate for their favorite smaller new releases—which now, because of the pandemic-accelerated streaming revolution, more people than ever could actually watch. I found much value this year, even more so than usual, in recommendations shared by film critics and friends. My hope is that you might find similar value in this list. I put this list together in the spirit of sharing, and, as such, I would love for the sharing to go both ways! I encourage you to add your favorite films of the year in the comments and start a conversation.

So, without further ado, here are my 14 favorite films of 2020 (plus a guest pick by Keith), listed in alphabetical order because I avoid ranking things whenever possible.*


Still from the film Another Round, profile of a man drinking from a champagne bottle with a crowd of young people behind him


Another Round 

The premise of this Danish film sounds like the set up for a raunchy, The Hangover-esque comedy of escalating disasters: a quartet of middle-aged men, dissatisfied with the ways they’ve settled as they’ve gotten older, decide to conduct an experiment in which they keep themselves day drunk every day of the week. They want to see if maintaining a buzz will improve their lives. What follows is a remarkably humane, non-moralistic exploration of male friendship, midlife crisis, and the role that alcohol occupies in the fabric of social life. Director Thomas Vinterberg pulls off an astonishing tonal balancing act and makes it look easy with the aid of his leading actors. Vinterberg’s frequent collaborator Mads Mikkelsen has received deserved praise for his work in the film—the movie’s final scene, all Mikkelsen’s, is sublime—but the film’s three other leading men turn in equally sensitive and fully-realized performances. / Where to watch: Another Round is available for digital rental.

The Assistant

Documentarian Kitty Green brings an observational style to her first narrative film, about a single day in the life of an executive assistant named Jane (Julia Garner) who works for a lightly-fictionalized—and never shown or named—version of Harvey Weinstein. When Jane finds potential evidence of her boss’s sexual misconduct, the abusive and complicit office culture discourages her from taking any meaningful action based on her suspicions. This quiet film depicts the crushing environment of a truly toxic workplace with devastating accuracy, but any woman who has worked an office job will recognize, to some degree, the power dynamics at play. The film takes an understated approach to the material, recognizing the way that, in real life, these power dynamics are so insidious because they are always understood but never spoken. / Where to watch: The Assistant is available to stream on Hulu or for digital rental.**

Dick Johnson Is Dead

This unconventional documentary poses the question, “How do you prepare yourself for the death of someone you love?” With Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson attempts to face the imminent loss of her elderly father by repeatedly staging and filming his death by horrific accident. If that sounds weird and maybe a little uncomfortable, that’s because it is. The film inevitably deals with heavy subject matter, as Dick’s slow decline due to Alzheimer’s disease sits at the tragic heart of the project; but Johnson, by and large, treats these “death” scenes (and the accompanying “afterlife” scenes) playfully, positioning them as surreal imaginative exercises. Ultimately, the film works as an experimental and heartfelt corrective to our cultural taboos around discussing death and as a celebration of its subject’s life. / Where to watch: Dick Johnson Is Dead is a Netflix exclusive.


Andrew Ahn’s delicate drama knocked me out when I watched it last May. The film starts when Kathy (Hong Chau) takes her young son Cody (an outstanding Lucas Jaye) with her to clean out her sister’s house after her sister’s unexpected death. Kathy’s sister, it turns out, was a hoarder, and getting the house ready to sell will take more work than Kathy anticipated. Cody, trying to find a way to fill his time while his mom cleans, ends up befriending his new neighbor, a Korean War vet named Del (Brian Dennehy, in his final performance). Driveways deals with loss, loneliness, and alienation; but the film is mostly about the balm of finding community where you least expect to find it. This one is a must see. / Where to watch: Driveways is available for digital rental.


Still from the song Eurovision Song Contest, a man dressed in a Viking costume walking toward the camera with a woman in a white dress behind him


Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

At last, a comedy! Lars (Will Ferrell) has desperately wanted to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest since he was child. Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) is less ambitious, but she makes music with Lars because she loves to sing (and because she loves Lars). Through a mounting series of mishaps, the Icelandic duo finally manages to fail their way into competing at Eurovision, where the majority of the film’s action takes place. The movie functions as more of an homage to the real Eurovision than a satire of it, and this enthusiastic and sincere appreciation of the song contest’s bombastic absurdity is the film’s greatest strength. Pop producer Savan Kotecha put together a soundtrack of ridiculously catchy, legit-sounding Eurovision-style bangers for the film; I dare you to watch it without getting at least one of the songs stuck in your head. Bonus: Dan Stevens delivers one of his best performances to date as the scene-stealing Russian contestant, Alexander Lemtov. / Where to watch: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a Netflix exclusive.***

First Cow

In the Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, two very different men (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee) cross paths as they seek to make their fortunes on the frontier. They have no startup capital and no resources to their names, so they band together and engage in a harmless act of theft to get their business going: they clandestinely milk a rich landowner’s dairy cow every night. With the milk, they make “oily cakes” to sell in town. The oily cakes are a hit, and the men’s fortunes start to look up until the landowner starts to suspect them of dairy theft. Kelly Reichardt directs this quiet but stealthily powerful reexamination of prevailing myths about the wide-open economic opportunities of the American frontier. / Where to watch: First Cow is available for digital rental.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Writer, director, producer, and star Radha Blank broke through in a big way at last year’s Sundance Film Festival with The Forty-Year-Old Version, her semi-autobiographical debut film. This sharp comedy follows “Radha,” a mid-career playwright, as she struggles to maintain her artistic voice and integrity in the face of market demands as well as her own fears of wasted potential. When “Radha” gets one of her plays produced, a piece about gentrification in her Harlem neighborhood, she finds herself artistically unfulfilled as she realizes what kind of script the (white) producers actually want. “Radha” starts writing raps, casually at first, until she realizes that rapping might be more personally rewarding than the play she’s working on. The film, shot in beautiful black and while, looks gorgeous, and Blank gives a charismatic, winning lead performance. The Forty-Year-Old version provides a meta-answer to “Radha’s” conundrum, standing as an assured and delightful example of what results when an artist refuses to filter her own viewpoint into something less singular and personal. / Where to watch: The Forty-Year-Old Version is a Netflix exclusive.


Still from the film Kajillionaire, a woman in a white jacket pushes a shopping cart and another woman walks beside her both facing the camera



Multi-hyphenate artist Miranda July strikes again with Kajillionaire, her latest film. Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio, a twenty-something woman who has spent her entire life running bizarre, small-scale cons on behalf of her parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins). When Old Dolio’s parents rope a charming stranger, Melaine (a sparkling Gina Rodriguez), into their scheming, Old Dolio starts to become jealous of the way they treat the newcomer. To say more would be to spoil too much. Kajillionaire operates in July’s usual whimsical, off-kilter register, but the film is far from twee. July creates a dreamscape in which to explore what it means to accept your biological family, even if you might not exactly love them, and what it feels like to discover your own found family. / Where to watch: Kajillionaire is available for digital rental.

Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock is the second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films, which focuses on the lives of West Indian immigrants in London from the 1960s to the 1980s. Some of the films in the anthology are based on historical events, while others, like Lovers Rock, focus on everyday lived experience. Lovers Rock depicts a house party, tracing the energy of the evening. That’s it. It’s simple, universal, and humming with the promise of sex; it’s complex, particular, and humming with the threat of violence. An unforgettable, euphoric sing along scene serves as the film’s centerpiece. Clocking in at just 68 minutes, Lovers Rock is a perfect little gem. / Where to watch: Lovers Rock is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

The Old Guard

Birds of Prey and The Old Guard kept swapping places on my list and in my  honorable mentions. They’re both hugely entertaining, and they both play with superhero movie genre conventions in exciting ways. The Old Guard won out for two reasons. 1) I watched Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film multiple times this year, but I have yet to revisit Birds of Prey. The Old Guard has a soulful melancholy at its core that I found irresistible. I mean, any good movie about immortals has to be at least a bit moody. 2) It has my favorite on-screen kiss of the year. / Where to watch: The Old Guard is a Netflix exclusive.


Shirley doesn’t give author Shirley Jackson the biopic treatment. Almost nothing about Shirley is factually accurate to the author’s life; instead, director Josephine Decker pays homage to the real Jackson by artfully evoking the atmosphere of her horror stories and placing a fictional Jackson (a deliciously scenery-chewing Elisabeth Moss) inside of it. When Jackson’s husband invites one of his graduate students and his wife to stay at the Jackson home, Shirley starts playing mind games with the wife. Like Moss’s Shirley, this film is wickedly smart, wildly unpredictable, and just menacing enough to keep you on edge the whole time. / Where to watch: Shirley is available to stream on Hulu or for digital rental.


Still from the film Sorry We Missed You, a man sits in the back of a delivery truck with a young girl


Sorry We Missed You

Ken Loach’s latest takes a hard look at the social cost of the unchecked rise of the gig economy. The film tracks Ricky, the patriarch of a working class family in northern England, as he takes a contract job as a delivery man for a thinly-veiled Amazon-like corporation. (If you’ve ever wondered how Amazon Prime one-day delivery works, this is it.) The mounting indignities of working a contract job eventually overwhelm Ricky and his economically precarious family. This angry, bleak movie succeeds both as tough social commentary and as an intimate family drama. It’s a tough watch, but it should be required viewing as more laws like California’s Prop 22 show up on ballots in states nationwide. / Where to watch: Sorry We Missed You is available to stream on the Criterion Channel or for digital rental.

Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed absolutely dazzles as Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Darius Marder’s film, made with the input and involvement of members of the deaf community, sensitively shows Ruben’s journey as he tries to come to terms with being deaf. The film also treats its lead character’s sobriety with unusual care; this is a rare film about sobriety, not addiction or relapse. Although the star turn belongs to Ahmed, the supporting cast also does uniformly excellent work, particularly character actor Paul Raci (in what I hope turns out to be a breakout role). I also must mention the exemplary sound design, which throws the viewer into Ruben’s new auditory world to disorienting and anxiety-inducing effect. Anticipate some deserved love for this film in the below-the line Oscar categories, as well a Best Actor nom for Ahmed. / Where to watch: Sound of Metal is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

Sylvie’s Love

I would say, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” but the truth is that they never made ‘em like this. First-time director Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love takes the mid-century romantic melodrama and reimagines it with two Black leads and a mostly Black supporting cast. The movie feels decidedly old-fashioned, but in the best way; Ashe’s decision to center a Black couple in this type of movie, without totally deconstructing the genre, is quietly radical. Well-bred Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and jazz musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) meet when he applies for a job at her father’s record shop in Harlem. The film follows their relationship and chance encounters over several years, from the late 1950s to the mid-’60s. This sweeping romance works on the strength of the leads and the impeccable production design, with an assist from the lush jazz soundtrack. / Where to watch: Sylvie’s Love is an Amazon Prime exclusive.


Still from the film The Vast of Night, close up of a teenage girl at a telephone operator switchboard


The Vast of Night (Keith’s Guest Pick)

Set in 1950’s New Mexico, the movie opens as a small town is setting up for the big high school basketball game. That night, while everyone else is at the event, a call containing a mysterious signal interrupts what would otherwise be a quiet night for the switchboard operator, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). A puzzled Fay calls the local disc jockey and audio guru Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) for help. Everett plays the signal on the air, hoping to get more information from anyone listening. Channeling classics like The Twilight Zone, this throwback sci-fi follows Fay and Everett as they attempt to understand and decode what they’ve heard. This film is an exciting journey of discovery that gradually leads Fay and Everett further toward the paranormal and keeps the audience guessing in unexpected ways. One of my favorite parts of this character-driven film is how skillfully it shifts in pace and tone, and some of the witnesses that our main characters find have some truly engrossing tales to tell. — contributed by Keith Downie / Where to watch: The Vast of Night is an Amazon Prime exclusive.



*All provided information about streaming availability is specific to the U.S. and up to date at the time of posting. If a film is only available on a specific streaming service, I have noted it as “exclusive” (i.e. “Netflix exclusive”). “Digital rental” means that the film is available for on-demand digital rental through the major services like iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Prime. “Amazon Prime exclusive” means that the film is only available to stream with an Amazon Prime Video subscription; these titles are not available to rent via Amazon Prime. I know, I know. Like I said, it’s the Wild West.

**The Assistant was the last film I saw in a movie theater before everything shut down in March. I went to a screening at the Angelika in Manhattan, and there was a Q&A with the director afterwards. My kingdom to be able to do this kind of thing again soon!

***I think Eurovision is my most-watched movie of the year, at three viewings since June. That’s how much joy it brought me. I also learned to play “Ja Ja Ding Dong” on the ukulele “as a bit.”


Four men in a 1930s recording studio, still from O Brother Where Art Thou


I don’t remember precisely the first time I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I may have caught some of it as a kid one afternoon, as my mom watched it, thinking my sister and I were busy. My mom may have let me watch the whole thing when I was still too juvenile to appreciate its picaresque rhythms. I know that I saw at least part of the movie when I was pretty young, because I do remember two things clearly:

  1. I had never seen the white, hooded robes of the KKK before I saw the cross burning scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I don’t think I really knew about the KKK at all before I saw this scene.
  2. I had never heard the word “miscegenation” until I heard it in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I vaguely remember my mom explaining to me what it meant, but maybe I just put it together later.

(It bears mentioning that the film, despite being set in the Jim Crow South, doesn’t substantively engage with anti-Black racism. But, then again, neither did my education up to that point.)

I can recall the first time I took pleasure in watching the movie. In my freshman year of highschool, I had English class with a “cool” teacher. He was young and a real hipster, which, in 2007, was still cool to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds. In retrospect, he tried very hard.* (I should say that, at the time, I liked this teacher and thought his assignments were fun. Although, to this day, I’m not sure if I remember his class because he was a good teacher or because his class was the only one I shared with the boy on whom I had a raging crush that year.) After we read The Odyssey, this teacher showed us O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and we had to write about how the film worked as an adaptation. I think he skipped the cross burning scene entirely to avoid getting into any potential trouble with the school.

This English class viewing finally unlocked the film’s humor for me. For months, I couldn’t stop quoting the movie. I made my mom and sister watch it with me again at home fairly soon after I saw it in class. Particular favorite quotes included:

  • “R-U-N-N-O-F-T”
  • “Damn, we’re in a tight spot!” (x3, naturally)
  • “Well ain’t this place a geographical oddity? Two weeks from everywhere!”
  • “They loved him up and turned him into a… a horny toad!” 
  • “I’m the damn paterfamilias!”

Each subsequent viewing of the film has opened up new avenues of enjoyment and frameworks for interpretation. Nothing about the movie changes, of course, but every time I rewatch it, something new reveals itself. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the rare movie that I appreciate not just in different ways but that I appreciate more every time I watch it. I couldn’t Revisit, with a capital R, the film for the twentieth anniversary because I revisit it—casually, like an old friend, with a lowercase r—whenever the fancy takes me. I seem to come back to the film every few years or so. It’s not a well-worn old favorite, exactly, but these repeated viewings over such a long period of time have made the film feel foundational to me in some way.


View of the back of three musicians facing an audience, still from O Brother Where Art Thou


The film’s influences include Greek myth and epic poetry (specifically, The Odyssey), Depression-era South Americana, and 1930’s Hollywood screwball comedies (notably, the film’s title comes from Preston Sturges’ 1941 Depression-set comedy Sullivan’s Travels**). The film isn’t necessarily interested in recreating any of these things faithfully; rather, the Coen Brothers take these influences, remix them, and present them in sepia-filtered digital photography that looks like the forerunner of the faux-vintage early Instagram aesthetic. O Brother is sort of a satire, sort of an homage, and sort of confounding.

Critics sometimes consider O Brother to be minor Coen Brothers. In a recent ranking of the directors’ films for The Ringer, Sean Fennessey called it, not unkindly, “a vibe more than a movie.” If you’re into that sort of thing, rankings of the Coens’ filmography rather consistently place O Brother somewhere in the lower middle. A consensus appears to have formed that the success of the movie’s Grammy-winning soundtrack, assembled by producer T Bone Burnett, transcended the film. Indeed, most of the pieces published so far for the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release have been about the soundtrack album, not the movie itself.

As chronicled in an anniversary deep dive for Pitchfork published earlier this year, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack had lasting reverberations in the music industry. Music critics widely credit the popular soundtrack for reviving mainstream interest in Appalachian folk and bluegrass music and, perhaps indirectly, leading to the indie folk revival of the late aughts and early ‘10s. Considering the soundtrack in isolation, as an album divorced from the context of the film, is certainly possible and occasionally interesting

I like the soundtrack album, which my mom bought after it won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2002. She would play it in the car, where the new CDs usually got put on rotation, and, after a while, in the house when the mood struck her. The soundtrack, along with The Chicks’ album Home (also from 2002), unquestionably served as my introduction to bluegrass and instilled in me a love of the genre. In some ways, my relationship with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack follows the narrative traced by music and entertainment journalists alike.

My memories of the music and the film aren’t necessarily separate, though. I have a hard time thinking of them independently of one another. I can’t hear “I Am Man of Constant Sorrow” without seeing George Clooney’s Everett launching into the song in front of a tin can microphone, wide-eyed and looking side to side as he searches for Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Tuturro) to come back him up.*** I can’t hear “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” and not remember the sirens, in their wet, white cotton dresses, sitting in the river and sexily doing laundry. “O Death,” of course, conjures the cross burning scene.


Three women in white dresses stand in a river, still from O Brother Where Art Thou


As I watched the film most recently, it occurred to me how much the music bolsters the structure of the movie. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loosely plotted collection of vignettes, ostensibly about Everett returning home after escaping a hard labor sentence. Delmar and Pete come along because, well, all three of them are chained together when Everett makes his escape. This trio’s misadventures constitute the majority of the film, which ultimately doesn’t build a strong narrative arc out of these episodes. If each episode were a Lego brick, the movie would look like… a line of Legos. That is to say, the parts don’t seem to make anything exceptionally interesting when looked at all together.

I don’t feel like the parts necessarily need to add up to anything. The Odyssey is also highly episodic. Do you remember how you read it in class? The teacher would pick the most famous “books”—Circe’s island, the cyclops, Scylla and Carybdis, Odysseus disguising himself as an old man to trick Penelope’s suitors—and you’d read those. The narrative arc of The Odyssey is quite simple, and the excitement comes from the smaller stories within the larger epic.

The music in O Brother complements and reinforces the film’s anecdotal structure. Each vignette (with a smattering of exceptions, because nothing about this film is regular) features a song either sung diegetically in the scene or played non-diegetically over it. I realized that the songs work as markers; I remember the scene by the song or the song by the scene. If pressed, I could probably recount the incidents in the film sequentially because I know the order of the songs. The music organizes the film’s episodes in my memory, and the consistency of the musical style creates a tonal throughline.

Scholars know that ancient epic Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, was sung. Epic poetry was an oral tradition before the stories got written down, and bards would use established systems of meter and melody to semi-improvise the performance of a tale. The bard would know the scenarios and motifs of a story and fit them into the schematic song as he performed. I know film is a fixed medium—what’s depicted on screen doesn’t vary—but watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? after a few years feels like this: I know the music, and the plot details and themes fit with it differently every time I reȅxperience the story.

As my observations and musings about the film pile up with each new viewing, I wonder if any of my thoughts about it will ever cohere into a unifying theory. I don’t subscribe to the idea that any piece of art is a puzzle to be solved, but repeatedly searching for new meaning in a work can sometimes lead to a sense of holistic understanding. But the more I watch O Brother, the more I am convinced that the film is designed to resist comprehensive interpretation. The ideas I’ve laid out here about the integral role of the soundtrack won’t “crack” the film. They’re just my latest reflections on it, prompted by my twentieth anniversary rewatch.

Perhaps the next time I come back to O Brother, and I notice something new, I’ll return to this blog post and add my thoughts. The discursive nature of the movie inspires digressive discussion. I’m never sure what fresh train of thought the movie will elicit or what old memories it will resurface. Only one thing about watching the film remains inevitable. “Man of Constant Sorrow” will be stuck in my head on a loop by the time I get to the end credits.


Three men hold onto a coffin as they float in a flooded valley, still from O Brother Where Art Thou



*A peek into my writing process: Did I Google this teacher while I was writing this, starting down a procrastination rabbit hole? Yes. Is this teacher pretty much exactly how I remembered him, based on his Twitter and his LinkedIn? Yes.

**In Sullivan’s Travels, the main character is a film director who wants to make a serious, social-issues drama called, you guessed it, O Brother, Where Art Thou. The studio heads want him to make an escapist comedy instead, “with a little sex in it,” because they think it will sell better.

***Can we take one moment to pause and appreciate how well George Clooney lip syncs for his life?? Masterclass. Also, for the purpose of this blog post, all song titles refer to the soundtrack versions of the songs.