Rian Johnson Knives Out set

“I just didn’t think it was realistic enough.”

How often have you heard someone’s complaints about a movie essentially boil down to this talking point? If you’ve spent enough time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube comment sections, you’ve heard it. No matter the forum, film-related discourse in the 21st Century undeniably tends to fall back onto realism. Not that this is problematic in and of itself, but look no further than the cottage industry of popular “satirical” video channels that have gained massive followings in the past decade or so and focus exclusively on lazily snarking on factual inaccuracies and “unrealistic” plot elements to see just how easily this mode of thinking can go awry.

But what is realism, anyway? And what does director Rian Johnson have to do with this conversation? This might seem like a dumb question, but any proper discussion of film and filmmaking styles must first acknowledge the historical context. Let’s define our terms.

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Oscars season is a time of the movie-going year unlike any other, seemingly mandating that film aficionados draw imaginary lines in the sand pitting certain works, both past and present, against each other in an occasionally insightful – though oftentimes frustrating – spectacle. Do you think Taika Waititi’s Best Picture nominee Jojo Rabbit goes so far as to make a mockery of sensitive (and unfortunately timely) issues while Terrence Malick’s much less mainstream A Hidden Life deserved the latter’s accolades? There’s likely a viral-ready tweet for that. Itching to examine all the ways that Todd Phillips’ Joker exposes both the strengths and weaknesses of the class commentary in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite? That’s already been fodder for some interesting reviews.

With 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, comparisons to another recent film from a similarly accomplished and distinctive filmmaker came flooding in even as early as its very first trailer, having only increased in fervor since its release. That movie, of course, is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a fairly obvious parallel that strengthens its own case when considering how much Mendes himself has encouraged those correlations through his last several films.

What most sets Dunkirk and 1917 apart from other would-be pairings, however, is in how their inextricably linked subject matter goes far beyond mere surface-level similarities or reductive hot takes. Even with such notable differences in nuts-and-bolts filmmaking (perhaps exact opposites, in fact) and the depiction of two vastly disparate World Wars, both narratives feature purposefully grounded perspectives that are wielded to powerful effect. Despite being billed as ostensible war epics, both commit to premises based on preventing further bloodshed. And most intriguingly, Mendes and Nolan take pains to zero in on a particularly overlooked brand of heroism – the subtle, anonymous, understated kind that can add up to make the biggest difference.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: here’s the problem with our biggest movies relying too heavily on nostalgia.)

The end of any particular year in film and the beginning of the next – to say nothing of the transition between two entire decades – affords us the opportunity to introspect and pinpoint certain filmmaking trends and tendencies that stand out from the crowd, that recur over and over again and become representative of a larger ethos over time. Unfortunately for the ever-vocal “No politics in my entertainment!” crowd, this tends to manifest on an instinctive level for any artist trying to communicate through the movies they make. Human beings are natural storytellers, after all, which is why storytelling encompasses all our combined hopes, fears, triumphs, and flaws of any given moment.

So if movies can’t be neatly excised from the context of their time (as with all art, really), how did this past year put a bow on a decade of pop culture and what did it tell us about our unique and most pressing concerns? Looking back at the films that resonated most tangibly, it seems safe to say that one of the biggest themes of the past year was, well, looking back.

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new star wars trio future

Between the final seasons of Game of Thrones and Mr. Robot, Avengers: Endgame wrapping up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga”, Glass serving as the final installment of M. Night Shyamalan’s unexpected Unbreakable trilogy, and of course the ending of the Skywalker Saga with this week’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019 has lived up to its billing as the year of the finale. 

Unlike any of the others, however, J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, and the entire Lucasfilm team have undertaken the immense task of wrapping up more than four decades-worth of iconography and pop culture-defining mythos. Naturally, the past few weeks have seen an influx of fans revisiting the entire series to prepare themselves for a conclusion that promises to pay off all that’s come before. But that brings us to an age-old question for overly-obsessive nerds such as ourselves…

What’s the best way to watch the main Star Wars Saga films, anyway?

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