Tuesday, December 31, 2013

James Franco vs. The Wolf vs. Mind Control Worms: The Top 10 Flicks of 2013

   Have you seen enough of these yet? I certainly have not, and that is why Dazz is back with the annual Top 10 Flicks of the Year: 2013 Edition. This is one of my favorite articles to write, so strap in and let’s roll.
   Right away, it is apparent that the back half of the year was bloated with quality flicks, mostly dramas, and now, these late bloomers have infected top ten lists like the plague. I mean, a lot of this is for good reason—in fact, half of Dazz’s own list was released within the last two months—but sheesh, when everyone’s list is drama after drama, it can grow pretty old.
   When the According to Dazz staff thinks of 2013, we think of a year where more and more people had the chance to be heard. We think of a year where more types of people were represented and supported than ever before. We think of a year that was diverse in its expression and style. As a result, the Top 10 Flicks list strove to reflect that. There were tons of good movies this year, spanning all genres, and in true 2013 style, we want you to know about the cream of the crop in all of these niches.
   So without further ado, the best films of 2013. Let’s bring it all home, friends.

10. Frozen
   It was the best Disney flick since Tarzan in 1999—easy. The characters were delightfully original, the humor continually on-point, and the music was some of the best since the Lion King. Sure, the story might have been plugged up with a few of the all-too-convenient Disney clichés, but the company took another huge step forward by injecting their classic princess formula with a more modern feel. The characters were some of the most interesting and multi-dimensional personalities that we have seen in an animated movie, and they were well-served by a mature, yet universal thematic approach. Frozen will soon be a Disney classic—it is that impressive.

9. Upstream Color
   Some might be turned off by the convoluted presentation, but make no mistake, Upstream Color is a technically-brilliant and surprisingly-poignant achievement in film. This is the sophomore outing for writer, director, and lead actor (!) Shane Curruth, and can be considered a grounded sci-fi of sorts, one that explores the concept of mind control in a way that simply has not been considered before. The film’s highly-limited release and distinct lack of exposition might make it seem unapproachable (indeed, background reading and plot summaries are almost mandatory), but when the work is done, something highly-memorable emerges. This is Dazz’s hidden gem of 2013, so head over to Netflix (it is available to stream!) and give it a watch. It will punish your brain and warp your mind, but you will be hard-pressed to forget it.

8. This is the End
   Say what you will, but the funniest movie of the year deserves a spot in the Top 10. In a year when the idea of the celebrity exploded into even more absurd proportions, it was hysterical to see a group of A-listers who were finally willing to laugh at themselves. The whole thing feels like a giant inside joke that everyone can be in on, and every scene from the Exorcism of Jonah Hill to the debate over the Milky Way completely delivered. What is more, this one boasts a surprising amount of re-watchability, ultimately setting it apart from the other comedies of 2013. Hilarious, self-aware, and totally appropriate for the times we live in, This is the End is money. And can you beat that ending? No way.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis
   While other movies on this list (as we will later see) did well in conjuring more tangible emotion, Inside Llewyn Davis hit me the hardest several hours later, when I found myself still thinking about the powerful songs, the beautiful imagery, and the marathon of hard knocks endured by the title character. It was a stirring reminder of the loftiness of our dreams, and how, quite simply, things might not always work out. The Coen Brothers add another stellar flick to their canon of exceptional movies, and this one above all others might do best to represent the everyman. Exploring the 1960s folk scene alongside Llewyn Davis was a gloomy ride, but thanks to some powerful acting by leading man Oscar Isaac, incredible cinematography and art direction, and the best soundtrack of 2013, retrospect tells me that I absolutely loved it. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Give me a week and it might crack the Top 3 on this list—seriously.

6. Gravity
   In a year full of “breakout” or “career-defining” performances, Sandra Bullock’s turn in Gravity might just top them all. She was nothing short of spectacular in this one; even more impressive when you consider that she is in just about every scene. Many will call it the most beautiful movie of the year, and for good reason, because it looks like this movie was actually shot in space. Couple this with the sweeping, lingering, I-refuse-to-cut-away-and-give-the-viewer-a-break direction of Alfonso Cuarón and you have a movie that forces you to the edge of your seat and keeps you there. The opening collision sequence (an awe-inspiring uncut shot clocking in at nearly 15 minutes) will go down as one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the year. A visual and technical treat, this one will give film-nerds and casual viewers equal satisfaction. At its core was an incredibly riveting experience.

5. Captain Phillips
   My only gripe is that the title sucks. In no way does it make you want to see the movie—a damn shame, because this was one of the best thrillers of the year, and (buckle up) Tom Hanks’ best performance since Cast Away (way back in 2000!). Both of those aside, however, the real star of this show was Barkhad Abdi and his turn as the Somali captain Muse. More so than many biopics, Captain Phillips truly tells you all sides of the Somali pirate story, and the result is a showcase of talent on both sides of the globe. We receive as much of a look into the lives of the Africans as we do the Americans, and that is not something many Hollywood movies are doing today. At its core is a tight, tense, and utterly captivating flick, but in a greater sense, this is the benchmark of how America should handle “based on a true story”-type movies. Oh, and did I mention that the ending features a military-ops scene that rivals that of Zero Dark Thirty? Believe it.

4. Prisoners
   Let me spew some critical crap at you before we come to the real reason this movie is so great. First off, the performances are powerful, affecting, and grounded. The direction is tight and ideal for a thriller. Finally, the storyline and plot structure is rife with twists that truly and effectively pay off.
   But here is the real reason that Prisoners is so high on this list: it was far and away the best in-theater experience this year (and maybe in many years). A movie about two kids being kidnapped is tense enough, but when this one begins to explore the desperation of the victimized parents, things ramp up to a face-covering, eye-widening, mouth-smothering level of intensity. People in our theater just started crying out loud when they could not take it. Someone screamed. You felt everyone squirm in unison during particularly impactful scenes—no one was ever relaxed during the whole two-and-a-half-hour runtime. My friend Emily and I had our jackets balled up to our faces for at least half the movie, and I was so tense that I was sore afterward. Going to see Prisoners was a movie-theater experience unlike anything else, and if that is not the sign of something great, I just do not know what is.

3. 12 Years a Slave
   Yup, sorry—it is not number one. Here is the thing: 12 Years really is a great movie. It is brilliantly well-done, and it conveys its message so effectively that it is impossible not to leave the theater in reflection. It was one of the most difficult movies I have ever seen, and I will probably remember the shocking brutality and emotional payoff for a long time, but the kicker is this: it was impossible to enjoy, and ultimately, that is why I go to the movies.
   I am not saying that 12 Years is overrated—it is not. It is probably essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand the root of one of the worst evils our nation has ever had. It will probably win Best Picture. It was phenomenal—but it sucked to watch. I go to the movies to be entertained and to watch a great story being told, and while 12 Years told an incredible story, I was far from entertained. I walked out feeling worse than when I went in, and the result is that I probably will never watch it again. It was just too much. It was great—everyone should see it—but it was not the best movie of the year. I want to be able to watch the top movie over and over again and always enjoy the experience.

2. The Dallas Buyers Club
   All hail the indie movie! Many will argue that smaller production companies have had better years than the Hollywood bigwigs, and The Dallas Buyers Club is the pinnacle of why that is. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career as an HIV-afflicted man who resorts to drug-smuggling and membership deals as a way to not only bring the best treatment to himself, but to all others with HIV as well. The result is a fascinating and engrossing look into the time in America was HIV was still the “gay disease,” and McConaughey (along with Jerod Leto in an award-worthy turn as his transvestite business partner) delivers the moments that convince you that this story needs to keep being told. One of the most quietly-disturbing points of social division in America is brought to light by a story that, while underscoring this issue, also succeeds in telling something inspiring, uplifting, and triumphant. We have a sense of the larger social issue that existed, but are also encouraged by the man who was one of the first to defy it. Dallas Buyers Club is poignant and effective in all the right ways, and with the two best acting performances of the year behind it, it tells its story brilliantly.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street
   But let’s cut the crap here. Only one movie this year was captivating, hilarious, and wholly-entertaining from beginning to end, and you are damn right that it was the crass, irreverent, and middle-finger-throwing Wolf of Wall Street. As a group of overly-rich and powerful stockbrokers, Jordan Belfort and the Gang cheat their way up the white-collar ladder to a land of such utter debauchery that many will be shocked and appalled, but all will revel in the epic amount of stick-it-to-the-man-style activity that ensues. Leonardo DiCaprio has his best shot at an Oscar ever with his masterful comedic and dramatic performance as the title character, and the supporting cast (the ever more reliable Jonah Hill notwithstanding) does well to bolster the laughs. Many will be turned off by the absolutely insane amount of sex, drugs, and profanity in this one (truly, at times it serves more to detract from the proceedings), but upon some review, it seems that the excessive amount of . . . excessiveness, I guess, is a total reflection of the characters. Just like its leading man, Wolf of Wall Street sees its biggest fault in the rampant amount of crassness that it explores, but the degree of self-reference makes up for it.
   At the end of the day, you have the most entertaining movie of the year, and its three-hour runtime feels far from drawn-out. Like anything effectively edgy and line-crossing, you keep watching the spectacle just to see what sort of mischief the characters will undergo next. The list of standout scenes goes on and on—the FBI questioning on the yacht, a certain drug overdose, the lunch with Matthew McConaughey (he’s everywhere!), the “sell me this pen” scene . . . this is another killer addition to director Martin Scorsese’s collection of morally-sketchy crime movies. If you want something purely memorable, in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and always entertaining, look no further than Wolf. It is the best movie of the year.

Honorable Mentions:
The World’s End—second-best comedy of the year, excellent humor and a zany plot, all-star British cast, best of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy

Out of the Furnace—revenge flick that chooses subtlety over the typical enraged violence, great performances by Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, good cold opening, memorable ending

Fruitvale Station—deeply moving flick about the San Fran shooting just a few years ago, powerfully acted by Michael B. Jordan, very thought-provoking

Man of Steel—best superhero movie of the year, interesting and original take on Superman, quit you bitching about the over-the-top destruction, because the action was sweet

American Hustle—incredibly acted, but left off the list because of a poorly-written ending and a distinct lack of emotional payoff, a few little changes would have made it truly great

Place Beyond the Pines—best performance of Ryan Gosling’s career, but a just-okay final act fails to live up to the incredible first half of the movie, great message on the nature of legacy

See you fools in 2014,


Monday, December 23, 2013

Alone in the Dark: Why Gone Home is the Best Entertainment Experience of 2013

   We have all had moments in our lives when we come home to an unexpectedly empty house. The lights are off, everything is quiet save for the mechanical hum of the fridge, your room is dark—few things are as irrationally unsettling or disturbing as an abandoned home, but that is exactly what Gone Home has presented, and that is why it is not just the best videogame of the year, it is one of the most memorable media experiences I have had in a long time. Everyone should play it.
   The premise is simple: you play from the perspective of a college-aged girl who comes home after a trip abroad to find her house completely and utterly abandoned. Not just empty—abandoned. Your little sister has left a note on the front door begging you to not tell Mom and Dad what happened, and the voicemail you left from the airport is still on the machine, presumably unheard. From there, you are free to explore the house however you want, and unravel exactly what has happened while you were gone.
   All you can do as Katie, the older sister, is walk around the house, read papers, and pick up objects to examine them, but that is all you need to do. You see, with this simple premise comes a surprising amount of freedom—you can act exactly how you would in real life. For example, right away I decided to run upstairs and check my little sister’s bedroom, in response to the note she left behind. Of course, to tell you what I found there would ruin the story, but just know that the more you explore the house, the harder it will be to explore the house.
   That is because Gone Home masterfully plays on our own fears, both rational and irrational. A flickering light at the end of the hallway could mean faulty wiring, or it could mean . . . well, something else. At the same time, opening the door to your father’s office could reveal the answer to one of your many questions, but that answer could be something terrifying. It makes for an all-too-tangible feeling of fear and suspense—all of the scares come from your own realm of possibility, and it can turn simple actions into giant feats of willpower. Indeed, the hardest thing I had to do in Gone Home was turning on the light in the basement. The darkness, so often your enemy in videogames, was now my ally, just because it was hiding the secrets I was not sure I wanted to reveal. I can still remember hovering over the switch.
   As further testament to the grounded atmosphere, everything in Gone Home carries an immense feeling of tangibility. It feels like a family lives in this house. Things not meant to be seen by visitors, like the inside of a storage closet, are decidedly less neat and organized than those things out in the open. Additionally, things that carry more history to them, like a favorite book or magazine, look more worn and used than others. Even the hobbies and pastimes of your family members are fully-realized, whether that is evidenced in a crude art studio upstairs, or in the numerous X-Files episodes (recorded on VHS) lying around the television set. This feels like a real family, and as you delve more into each member’s public and private life, it becomes impossible not to care about them.
   And that, ultimately, is what makes Gone Home such a memorable experience. The stories you uncover dare to explore themes about family, love, and belonging that other forms of media (books and movies included) regularly shy away from. It looks at things that we experience in our own lives every day, and as you journey onward through the house, you realize that this could just as easily be your family. These could be your parents or your sister. I can tell you with complete honesty that I cared more about the characters in Gone Home than I have cared about any videogame character before. Simply put, I felt connected to them, and I do not think that is something I have ever been able to say about a game before. As I explored the house, I was simply reminded of my own.
   The final result was something lasting, impactful, and profoundly moving. You might attribute it to the unique way I could relate to the story, but the truth is that Gone Home simply has a way to reach everyone. This is not about some superhuman action hero saving the world; this is about people who seem real, dealing with problems that actually are. Everyone can play it because everyone can connect to it, just as I did. It is a prime example of what videogames can be—a wholly interactive method of meaningful, emotional storytelling. It is not a game for “gamers” or “non-gamers;” it is a game for everyone.
   The story, setting, and characters of Gone Home all combine to make it one of the most memorable personal entertainment experiences I had in 2013. It strikes chords with the player that no game ever has, and it is one of the most essential videogames out there. It is $10 right now on their website—download it. I will remember my journey through the house for the rest of my life, and you will be hard-pressed to forget it as well.

   Deep, poignant, and profound, Gone Home is an incredible feat of storytelling. Without a doubt, piecing together the dark mystery of its host family will stay with me for years to come.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Queen's Subjects: Why Beyoncé Fans are Ruining Beyoncé

  Hold it right there.
   This is not an article saying that Beyoncé is bad. This is not an article saying that Beyoncé is overrated, or not as good as her fans think she is, or not deserving of the crown our popular culture has placed upon her head. Beyoncé has done incredible things for the pop industry, and currently stands as one of the single most marketable, impressionable, and influential artists in music today. I am not saying Beyoncé is not fantastic.
   I am just saying that those who love her most are also destroying her.
   Now, I need you to know what side of the tracks I am coming from. I would consider myself someone who simply appreciates Beyoncé—I would not say I am a fan. When her fifth studio album dropped this weekend (in a pretty badass way—under the cover of darkness), I was not one of the first to listen to it. I still have not listened to it. I think I come from a place that fully understands the empowerment, the strength, and the serenity that Beyoncé represents, and while I appreciate it and think she does really great things, I will not pay to see her live or to listen to one of her albums.
   Now, if you have a problem with that, keep reading, because this was written just for you.
   In the wake of (or leading up to) important Beyoncé news, there tends to be a very specific kind of reaction. Obviously, people can become a little excited, which is normal. After all, if my favorite artist was about to perform live or had dropped a new single, I would be pretty pumped as well. I have no problem with people being excited for Beyoncé. They are fans—that is what they are supposed to do—but fans of the “Queen of Pop” tend to take things to another level.
   A comparison: about a week ago I found myself in a discussion with a good friend about the merits of Kanye West as a musician. I said that from what I had heard, I did not see why Kanye was that great, so my friend encouraged me to check out My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy and Watch the Throne—two of Kanye’s most successful albums. I did, and while I was able to grant some merits to his producing abilities, I still found his lyrics lacking, and when I reported back to my friend, he accepted it and we went off down our different paths of musical taste.
   When you tell someone you do not like Beyoncé, something different happens. You see, the excitement that people garner around Beyoncé events begins to transform into something exclusionary and competitive. Beyoncé is God, Beyoncé. Albums. Are. Everything., going to her concerts become religious experiences, and let’s not forget, her daughter is so cute that the fans “can’t even.” There is no one more perfect in the universe, and if you dare disagree, then you are stupid, an idiot, or a r*tard. Your opinion is invalid because it is not just wrong, it is downright blasphemy.
      As for your adverse musical tastes? Well, according to many of her fans, the moment Beyoncé comes onto the scene, it is like Vince Carter doing the double-windmill 360 in the Slam Dunk Contest. That is, it’s over. Your preferences, doomed from the start, were (according to the Twitter account below, courtesy of Buzzfeed) just “s*** on,” or thanks to this gif, wiped completely off the table. Your tastes were not wrong because Beyoncé put out something better, they are wrong just because they were not Beyoncé to begin with. Pretty much a no-win situation for those who choose not to follow the doctrine of Mrs. Knowles-Carter.

   The worst thing about all of this is that it takes the figure of Beyoncé, one of the most influential women in our popular culture, and turns her into something people want no part of. Instead of Beyoncé-news being something we can all be excited about, the whole thing becomes a strangely repellant phenomenon. It is exhausting for a non-Beyoncé-fan to go online and see all of the talk and all of the hype and screaming and OMGs and comparisons to queens and Gods and Jesuses and perfection. It feels like everyone joined a hyper-aggressive cult, and you, the heathen non-believer, are stuck on the outside looking in.
   Does this not defy everything Beyoncé is trying to say with her music? This is a woman who stresses empowerment, strength, and self-security with her songs, but her fans, with their caps-lock ravings and their cries of worship, are counteracting these exact messages. How are young people supposed to be secure with themselves if a large part of social media is telling them that Beyoncé is rendering their opinions worthless?
   It is perfectly alright for fans of the world’s biggest pop diva to be excited about her accomplishments—no one can blame them for that. Problems arise, however, when the discipleship to Beyoncé turns hostile and obnoxious—it does not make people want to join them in their following. They should practice what their fearless, independent, irreplaceable leader preaches, and help her to help others feel just as confident in themselves as she makes them feel. The music world would be a better place for it.

   And hey, it would sure make the Queen proud.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The 10 Best Space Jam Mash-ups You Can Find On The Internet

   I take this job seriously. I really do. But sometimes, the Internet just plain wins. It takes something seemingly unimportant and insignificant and transforms it so that it simply demands my attention. As a result, fine pieces of journalism such as this are born.
   What I want you to understand, as a prelude to all that you are about to experience, is that this is no half-assed, thrown-together, copy-and-paste crap in list form. No. Rather, over two dozen prime candidates for this particular Top 10 were considered. The research was extensive. The analysis, with excellent contributions from Dylan “Roommate of the Year” Rogers, was critical and definitive. No expense was spared.
   Why Space Jam though? Well, as one of the most consistently-excellent and time-resilient phenomena of the 1990s childhood era, the movie deserves an article in its own right, but when you factor in the sheer strength of the cult following that continues to this day, it is clear that you have something special on your hands. If you ask me, the flick is nothing without that great theme song. It is catchy, memorable, and perfectly in line with the movie’s terrific cool-fun tone.
   No further introduction is needed. Sometimes, the Internet just does magical things, and the best that we can all do is sit back and listen. Ladies and gentlemen, the Top 10 Space Jam mash-ups that your browser can find.
   Just click the links and discover greatness.

   Our list starts out with a pure blend of the classics. That is right: the Space Jam theme blended with the Space Jam theme. Essentially, the artist just laid one version of the song over the other, but you cannot deny that the result does a fantastic job of a) still being really darn catchy, and b) maintaining the integrity of the original. There might not be a lot of points for creativity here, but things still sound great.

   The pounding bass of the Imagine Dragons tune blends surprisingly well with the more snare-centric Quad City groove, which adds great contrast. Credit to the artist for doing an actual mix of both songs rather than falling for the lazy tack-them-on-top-of-each-other trap. Bonus points are awarding for that great tagline: I feel the slam in my bones. It might be higher on this list if it was not for poor use of Radioactive’s terrific inhale effect in the first verse—you expect something great here, but it ends up muddled in the background. Lame.

   I will admit it, the opening is a tad weak, but the song quickly grows on you as you keep listening (this might be helped a little bit by the hilarious Photoshop-job of Chuck’s face on top of Carly Rae’s, but credit where credit is due). Things really hit their stride when Call Me Maybe contributes that infectious six-note string segment in the chorus—it meshes well with the verses in the Jam song. Would be a tad better if some Carly Rae vocals were added in to give some contrast, but at the very least you have something creative to be found here.

   At first, the slowdown is off-putting, but this is truly the best mixing we have seen on this list thusfar. The artist switches up the tempo, highlights certain bass notes during transitions, and blends the vocals of each song in excellent fashion. The Verve sounds great sped-up, and the long stretches of Bittersweet Symphony that highlight the crooning oohs and ahhs of lead singer Richard Ashcroft blend well with the raps of C.C. Lemonhead. Yes, that is one of the Quad City DJs, thanks for asking.

   Seems natural, right? Well, it is. Major props to this artist for the incredible blending of Daft Punk’s infectious four-word chorus with the lyrics of the Space Jam theme. So far, this is easily the most dance-ready mash-up we have seen. The verses give you a terrific straight beat, while the chorus provides for solid freeze-frame potential. Oh, and the breakdown at the 3:00 mark takes the whole thing to another level. We are entering the cream of the crop with this one.

   Did you hear that opening build?! Amazing! This is truly what this list is all about—an effective mash-up that uses real creativity. It would have been easy to just tack on the Funkytown keyboard riff onto the Space Jam theme, but no. This artist did a killer job of combining the classic verses of Space Jam with the Funkytown chorus. This is easily the most exciting song on this list so far, the problem is that it is just too darn short. Finish strong, YouTubers!

   It is time to stop messing around. Here is far and away the most inventive mash-up on this list. A classic Christmas tune meets a classic 90s flick—who would have thought? The best thing about this particular combination is that it takes an orchestra, meshes it with a hip-hop tune, and then creates something that is headbangingly good. A new genre out of two entirely different genres! It is surprising in the absolute best way. And the closing forty seconds are absolutely epic. The made Space Jam sound huge.

   Sometimes great artists hone their craft for years and years until they reach perfection, but sometimes you just catch lightning in a bottle. Ladies and gentlemen, here is a fine example of the latter. How the hell does this work so well?! I cannot even say for sure—maybe it has something to do with the crowd yelling “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” in the background while the Space Jam crowd responds to C.C. Lemonhead’s shouts for the Na-na-nas. The mixing is especially strong in the second half of the song, but I am sure you know that already. Science rules.

   When I was playing this back for myself as I wrote this paragraph, I still cracked up. I have listened to it a solid eight times now, and it is still consistently hilarious. The combination is so unexpected, yet so brilliant, that there is no choice but to just sit and enjoy it. You wonder why Celine Dion never borrowed the Space Jam groove to begin with—it takes her pop-ballad and makes it clubby and beautiful and dance-worthy all at once. A major highlight of this one is also the build-up to the climactic final chorus around the 3:20 mark. Creativity level: expert. It has been an honor slamming with you.

   Give me a second, I am still applauding. What an amazing tune. This mash-up with one of the most well-known classic rock songs out there took a lot of guts and a lot of heart, but this artist totally had what it takes. The levels of each tune are perfectly balanced, we can hear all the Space Jam lyrics without drowning out the numerous face-melting guitar solos from Kansas. I also am a total sucker for the quick cut-outs with the “Don’t you cry no more!” wailings, but the best part is easily hearing the Space Jam crowd burst into applause as the piano kicks off the opening verse (around 1:00). Flat-out gives you chills, and whoever thought the Space Jam tune could do that?! This is the perfect blend of two wildly-different tunes, and it works to absolute perfection. This is why the Internet exists. What a way to go out.

   Slam on, friends. Slam on.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

12 Great Kinda-Christmas Movies You Have An Excuse To Watch Now

   This started out as a Christmas-movie top-10 list (that’s right—Christmas-movie. Quit your moaning. The next time there is a Hannukah-movie, you call me), but some problems kept arising. These often came in the form of: Well, Nightmare Before Christmas is great and all, but is it really a better movie than Die Hard? No. Not even close. But can you count Die Hard as a Christmas movie? Some might, but purists might not. The movie takes place on Christmas Eve. Is that reason enough? This is stupid. I love Die Hard. I want it on this list. and so on. So I scrapped that idea. Sometimes, one movie is just better than another, no matter how Christmas-y. So here is the new column—movies that you can kind of sort of count as holiday flicks, but they are so freaking good that there is no excuse not watch them around this time of year. The bottom line: this is my blog and I can do what I want. So without further ado, here are the best kinda-Christmas-movies to watch this year—though unconventional, no one will protest these around the fireplace this year.

Die Hard
   The most common flick thrown into the not-a-Christmas-movie-but-totally-should-be debate, Die Hard combines a Christmas-party setting with what is quite simply one of the top-three action movies of all time. Bruce Willis is never better, the action scenes are rugged, gritty, and tense, and Alan Rickman as the leading terrorist is nothing short of a genius casting move. The Christmas tone is evident throughout, so feel free to wrap up with a blanket and a plate of cookies as you watch John McClain strap some C4 to an office chair and send it down an elevator shaft. ‘Tis the season, indeed.

Rocky IV
   You have opened the presents. You have eaten the brunch. You have shooed the in-laws out of your living room and posed for all of the footie-pajama pictures that you can handle—now what is there to do on this bright Christmas morning? Easy—watch the greatest boxing match to ever take place on December 25th. That is right, the legendary bout between Rocky Balboa and the Soviet behemoth Ivan Drago took place on this exact day, and if you want to honor one of the great American triumphs of our time, then it would serve you well to watch Rocky IV once things wind down in the gift-giving department. What better way to spread holiday cheer then to see Sylvester Stallone beat it into the juiced-up communists across the Pacific? Honor the anniversary of our Savior’s birth by honoring the defeat of all that is evil and anti-American. God bless us, everyone.

Cast Away
   Let’s tone it back—we have had a lot of fighting and explosions and good vs. evil so far, so let’s take a breather. Instead, we should turn to a movie where one man loses everything he has and struggles to maintain his spirit as he is marooned alone on an island for four years. Yes, Cast Away is perfect for replicating that Christmas feeling where we all really understand the value of everything we have, because in Cast Away we watch Tom Hanks as he is flushed down the proverbial toilet. Plus, all of Tom’s woes start on Christmas Eve! He even wears an ugly sweater in the beginning! When you throw in the trials of Wilson (Hanks’ unforgettable volleyball companion), you even have some great friendship themes for good measure. Just a great holiday movie, period.

Step Brothers
   What do you mean, Cast Away bummed you out?! Tommy Hanks’ breathing speech at the end is incredible! Sheesh, well thank goodness Step Brothers gives us one of the best comedic Christmas scenes of all time with their fantastic sleepwalking segment. Additionally, since we have already been through the themes of friendship, the triumphs of the American way, and overall ass-kicking, it only seems appropriate that we go into the realm of family. Most of us have those siblings that make us want to bury them alive, and most of us have those siblings that make us want to go do karate in the garage together. Therefore, Step Brothers is the perfect holiday movie—we will laugh, argue, tear each other’s hair out—it is just like the real thing! Plus, it will appeal to other holidays too—even the Hanukkah people are welcome, because we have plenty of fertilizer!

The Bourne Identity
   Ok, look, here is the deal: at some point in this movie you kind of see some Christmas lights in the background, and there’s generally snow on the ground, and . . . and . . . it is just an awesome movie, alright? Jesus, if the movie takes place around Christmas, that is reason enough, and The Bourne Identity gives us some of the greatest chase scenes, cat-and-mouse moments, and car sequences in the last 20 years, so I think its inclusion is more than justified. Highlights include Matt Damon being a superspy and killing people with a fountain pen. Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.

   You want a real Christmas movie? Coming right up. The full name of this flick is actually Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and it stands as one of the most acclaimed movies of all time (it is actually tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the most Academy Awards ever). While the large brunt of the movie revolves around our main man Judah Ben-Hur undertaking awesome action scenes, such as the infamous chariot race, or dealing with some shifty Roman leaders in some truly great moments of intrigue, the flick is bookended by what is essentially the Jesus Christ Highlight Reel—namely, his birth and death/sacrifice. This is the movie that introduced the world to the “epic” genre, and is the reason we have sprawling cinematic masterpieces like Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, or Schindler’s List today. Not only do you find a purely excellent movie experience here, but you also have one of the best depictions of the Christmas Story ever put to the screen. It is three-and-a-half hours very well-spent.

Lethal Weapon
   Hold on, everyone. Mel Gibson’s upset. He is upset that his story of the Christ did not make this list. Well, here is the deal, bub, while Passion of the Christ is a great flick, it is definitely more of an Easter movie. For the holiday season, audiences are much better off turning on his timeless buddy-cop flick Lethal Weapon. After all, there is that quality Christmas dinner scene when (the secretly racist) Mel goes over to Danny Glover’s house. Aside from that, however, you have one of the best buddy-cop movies of all time, complete with incredible one-liners and fuzzy friendship themes. Plus, you have one of Mel’s all-time greatest hairstyles with the shaggy mane-mullet combo. It is terrific fun—perfect for the holidays.

The Entire Harry Potter Series
   Consider this—all of the times when you wanted to be at Hogwarts, when you really wanted to be at Hogwarts, were during all of the Christmas scenes. The Great Hall lined with tree after tree. The bang of wizard crackers echoing through the corridors. Warming up by the common-room fireplace with a Weasley sweater. Heading out to the frozen lake to ice-skate or to have magical snowball fights. Hogwarts is truly at its most fanciful and inspiring around Christmastime, when the snow lends a new sense of wonder and imagination to us, the readers, year in and year out. What better way to ring in the holidays, and Christmas especially (Makes me wonder—how many people celebrated Hanukkah at Hogwarts? The faculty certainly didn’t, and it was never evident if there were any Jewish characters), than to join our favorite wizards on one of the most beloved, sprawling, incredible sagas of our time? There is a reason ABC Family does this every year—it just fits. The Potter series will take you back to being that little kid on Christmas morning, or . . . or Hanukkah night, I guess. I just wish my presents came from an owl. So much.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
   Robert Downey Jr. opens this detective-movie-satire by telling the audience that he is going to share the story of what happened last Christmas, and thus launches one of the funniest action movies of the 2000s. This one holds the kinda-Christmas genre a little more securely than the others on this list—lead actress Michelle Monaghan (very underrated in the looks department, by the way) wears a skimpy Santa outfit for a good stretch of time, and there is even a Christmas-themed party scene, where Val Kilmer offends a bunch of barely-clothed females. If it all sounds absurd, that is because it totally wants to be. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is Downey Jr.’s best movie, hands-down. It would be criminal to not include it in your holiday marathon. Funny, tense, and chock full of smart intrigue and zany hijinks. Watch it.

The Godfather
   What are the holidays without a slew of back-stabbing betrayal? Aside from being right up there with (or even above) Ben-Hur as one of the best movies ever made, The Godfather contains some truly great Christmas-centric scenes. This is, of course, in addition to its phenomenal casting, intricate plot, and numerous twists and turns. With the baptism scene, the numerous holiday-centered mob hits, and the church segments aplenty, this flick will definitely coax a Christmas mood out of you. Duvall, Pacino, Brando, Keaton . . . there is a heck of a lot to love here. Plus, all those classic mob moments will certainly give you a ton of ideas to deal with those in-laws.
   Just kidding. That was twisted. Forget I said it. Seriously.

First Blood
   Let’s end where we started, shall we? Just pure, unbridled ass-kicking—you gotta love it. In the first Rambo movie, you have Sly Stallone (He appears twice on this list! Wow!) going into a remote town, at Christmastime of course, and taking some names as a badass Vietnam veteran. He sets some traps, uses a chain-gun, and makes some crazy cliff jumps—all part of the holiday tradition for Rambo, and it can be a part of your holiday tradition too. Sure, are the real Christmas themes totally present? No, but you do see some lights at one point, right before the gas station blows up, so it counts. Plus, with a low body-count and some interesting PTSD themes running throughout, this is an old-school action movie that manages to deliver on the badassery and originality alike.

Catch Me If You Can
   However, we have to close out our list with the movie that might just have the best Christmas-in-a-non-Christmas-movie-scene in recent memory. It comes with the terrific chase flick Catch Me if You Can. First off, it just would not be Christmas without Leonardo DiCaprio—fact. Second off, this list did not have enough Tom Hanks in it—fact. Third off, this movie brings the drama, the laughs, the sheer entertainment, and yes, it brings the Christmas. One of the numerous high points of this one revolves around the holiday, when FBI agent Tommy Hanks, cops in tow, finally corners Leo the Con Artist at his house (don’t worry, the movie is full of flashbacks and flash-forwards, so this spoils nothing). In the background (and eventually the forefront), one can hear the classic tune. That is right—it is A Christmas Song.

   One of the best scenes in crime movies is accompanied by one of the best carols. It is simply the best pure Christmas scene out of any movie on this list. Other flicks might present Jesus in an exceptional way, or include a well-adorned tree in the background, but Catch Me If You Can takes the cake for its purity and simplicity. When you watch that scene, it feels like Christmas, and it feels pretty damn good.