Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

On the Verge: Year of Bests – 2016

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A few years back, I did not publish a year-end piece on those articles I most enjoyed reading for the period. Routinely, my online browsing turns up a number authors and write-ups that exceed whatever threshold I have in my head. I promised not to get caught flat-footed again. So, I rectified the issue by gathering them up and presenting each quarterly. This the last of such as we put 2016 to bed.

Is that a leaf falling…if so let’s continue, shall we?


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It was a distinct pleasure to read the writings of various contributors to Sammy Juliano‘s wonderful blog series over at Wonders in the Dark. Without a doubt, saving the best for last. Here would be a taste, with Robert Hornak’s at the 14th position:

14. Planet of the Apes (1968)

“The movie’s scope, defined by its intergalactic, centuries-crossing canvas, is illuminated and enhanced by director Franklin Schaffner’s sure wide-screen storytelling. While filling the frame with visceral action, there’s also attention given to the relative sparseness of the world, the near-agoraphobic vulnerability inherent in a tiny ape community from which the empty world extends away forever in every direction and in every variation from desert to sea. There’s an aloneness inherent in the setup, and an anxiety layered in as one sees, from a sardonic god’s-eye view, the numerically insignificant population of this hirsute township organizing itself under the rule of an ape law that requires rigid separation and fanatical obedience to a law set down a millennium before by a mythical-sounding “lawgiver”.”

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Roderick Heath’s at eleventh:

11. Alien (1979)

“I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands.”*

* As someone who did just this prior to heading out to get in line in Westwood Village, this is probably true. Up until you were plastered in your seat, with a whole bunch of strangers in a darkened movie halls who were also losing their popcorn when Kane’s son makes his debut.

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Returning John Greco at the five position:

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an expertly made low budget thriller that slowly builds in tension and never lets up. Filled with perfectly executed cinematography, a pulsating music score (by Carmen Dragon) and top notch acting performances from Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynters in a gallant battle to save the human race from dehumanizing pods. Despite the fact that we see no monsters or strange looking aliens, Siegel and company make us believe they are out there, ready to take us down. Not through any violence or massive destruction but simply by sleeping, sweet gentle sleep. They know, we as humans, no matter how much we fight it, will eventually have to fall asleep, and then they will take us over.”

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Another friend and blogger, J.D. Lafrance bringing in #4:

4. Blade Runner (1982)

“One of the first things that struck me about Blade Runner is its obsessive attention to detail. It is virtually impossible to take it all in upon an initial viewing. Only after watching it several times was I able to properly appreciate how fully-realized the world of Ridley Scott’s film is – a tangible future that “you can see and touch,” the director said in an interview, “it makes you a little uneasier because you feel it’s just round the corner.” This vivid world, designed by Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull with special effects by Douglas Trumbull, is the backdrop to a detective story. Ex-cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of retirement to find and kill four replicants, artificial people that are forbidden to be on Earth, but this is merely a launching pad for Scott to address a myriad of fascinating themes – predominantly, as with the novel, what it means to be human.”

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Roderick Heath’s return for the second slot:

2. Metropolis (1926)

“Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919).”

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Culminating with #1 in Dean Treadway’s capable hands:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

“One of the pioneering achievements of 2001 was its use of front projection photography. Rear projection, where a film is projected from behind a screen with actors positioned in front of it, had long been used to make a cast look like they were “on location.” But Kubrick thought it looked phony (and it usually did). Front projection was new and infinitely more convincing. The effect enabled Kubrick to project slide photographs of African landscapes onto a wall behind the rocky sets. The slide was projected at a very low light—so low that the image would not register as it hit the actors. But on the wall to which the projector was pointed were strips of highly reflective material developed for road signs by 3M. The huge front projector threw out an equally large, sharp, realistic image on the massive wall, which picked it up brilliantly, lending the illusion that the scenes were filmed on location.”


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Okay, time again to revisit the high-frame-rate argument. This time through Daniel Engber‘s fine article over a Slant:

It Looked Great. It Was Unwatchable.

“For decades now, forward-looking filmmakers have tried to prove that when it comes to frame rates, more is really more. Douglas Trumbull, who did the visual effects for 2001 and Blade Runner, has advocated for higher frame rates since the 1970s. By eliminating flicker, he argued all those years ago, filmmakers could produce a smoother picture—a sort of “liquid realism” that would be more affecting and engaging. According to an essay on high-frame-rate cinema by film scholar Julie Turnock of the University of Illinois, Trumbull tested out his theory by measuring the brain waves, pulse, and skin conductance of people as they watched movies with different frame rates. All three measures would increase, he claimed, as he raised the rate to 60 fps.”


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I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the related criticism to the very popular The Walking Dead will not sway the devoted to abandon their series. They’ll have to come to that conclusion for themselves, as I’ve said to my daughter. Here then is the best argument, by Matt Zoller Seitz for Vulture, that gives voice to my feelings toward the show (and yes, I’ve tried to watch it more than a few times) and why I care little for it:

The Empty Violence of The Walking Dead

“I’ve been writing about this medium for 20 years and watching it for more than 40, and I can’t recall a major TV series marketing cruelty and trauma as cynically, even gleefully, as this AMC saga. The rampage was hyped by a lengthy, thorough ad campaign spotlighting not any regular cast member, but Negan and his weapon. If you lived in a major city during the past seven months, it was impossible to spend a day outdoors without seeing a bus ad or subway poster featuring the grinning Negan and his bat, christened Lucille, after his late wife.”


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Can’t have a Year of Bests without the good folk over at Art of the Title, and highlighting a classic ’90s horror film, to boot.

Candyman (1992)

“The opening of Candyman is an elegant and ominous overture to a brutal and tragic narrative. The title sequence features a series of flowing aerial views captured by helicopter pilot Bobby Zajonc looking down on the winding freeways of Chicago, its Hitchcockian influences laid bare, setting up one of the major underpinnings of the film: architecture as a malevolent force. The credits, designed by studio Heart Times Coffee Cup Equals Lightning, zoom in and out of frame to mimic the smooth movement of the cars below. Elevating all of this is a fantastic synth and choral score composed by Philip Glass, celestial and foreboding, portending doom while lulling with its grace.”


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Speaking of horror, time once again to look back upon a seminal film that brought us the type of zombies that continue to overrun us in pop culture. We speak of George Romero’s ’60s flick and Ferdy on Films does the honors over on her blog:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life.”


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Much like horror films in October, this film makes its annual showing soon after All Hallows Eve finishes, almost like clockwork. Just as chilling, too. It’s been paraded and adored ad nauseam, but now the other side of its nature has been explored in recent years. Almost as predictably. This time by Christopher Orr for The Atlantic. Enjoy:

Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time

“So take the film on its own titular terms. What does Love Actually tell us about love, actually? Well, I think it tells us a number of things, most of them wrong and a few of them appalling. Now, anyone who goes to the cineplex with any regularity knows that the last decade has seen more than its share of bad romantic comedies. But Love Actually is exceptional in that it is not merely, like so many other entries in the genre, unromantic. Rather, it is emphatically, almost shockingly, anti-romantic.”


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I like to think my mother would have appreciated a Star Trek: TNG episode she never got to see (which I highlighted some years back). Sure as shootin’, she would have gotten a kick out of Mirah Curzer‘s take of it. Her Medium article drew upon aspects mom would have gravitated toward, I’ve no doubt, if she’d have lived to see it:

Star Trek’s Feminist Statement: Believe Women

“Star Trek is no stranger to making radical statements — this is the show that had the first black woman as a regular cast member, that featured the first interracial kiss, that puts a woman on the bridge crew whose skill set is literally empathy. But there is something really special going on in the TNG episode “Remember Me.” I was re-watching it recently, and the episode’s overt feminism practically knocked me over.”


The rule of three rises again. One film in particular this Fall has made the type of waves, cinematically, Oscar-wise, and personally, that makes it a must-see. Three reviews got my attention and naturally made this highlight reel. First, Marilyn Ferdinand‘s:

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Moonlight (2016)

“Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.


…and Ruth‘s over on her FlixChatter blog:

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FlixChatter Review: Moonlight (2016)

“In terms of story-telling, Moonlight is certainly one of the most unique as well as challenging. Some might think it’s similar to Richard Linklater Boyhood (though I haven’t seen it yet) with the protagonist played by two actors. In Moonlight, the life of black-American Chiron is portrayed by three actors, from young adolescence (Alex R. Hibbert), mid-teen (Ashton Sanders) and young adult (Trevante Rhodes). The casting is impressive as all three actors, despite not looking that much alike, somehow shares a certain quiet grace about them and ability to conveys much with so little.”


…and finally Daniel Simpson‘s on his PG Cooper’s Movie Reviews blog:

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Moonlight Review

Moonlight’s episodic structure can probably be compared to that of Boyhood, but Linklater’s decision to drop in year after gave his film more of a narrative flow. Now that I think about it, Moonlight might in fact be closer to another Linklater work; the Before trilogy. Like those films, Moonlight skips a lot of years between episodes while what went down during that time is hinted at and inferred. Despite what might seem a broken up narrative, Moonlight does have a very clear linear progression and character growth. The parts of Chiron’s life highlighted are not random, but are pivotal points in the man’s growth. Part of what makes the film so fascinating is simply seeing the pieces of Chiron’s life and how that informs his growth. Additionally, writer/director Barry Jenkins does a great job finding the drama in Chiron’s life while also keeping things restrained. There are in fact a number of over the top/melodramatic paths this kind of story could have fallen into, but Jenkins sidesteps this nicely.”


panic room

I can see you need a break, so take in the Art of the Title‘s look at another David Fincher effort and try to relax…oh, never mind:

“In David Fincher’s Panic Room, home is the battleground, the safe spaces all upturned and infiltrated. When the home invasion thriller was released in 2002, American audiences were still reeling from the September 11th terror attacks in New York City. Similar to the home invasion flicks of the ’60s — like genre classics Lady in a Cage (1964) and Wait Until Dark (1967) — Panic Room emerged in a time and place that was tense and tightly coiled.”


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Speaking about panic, writer and record store owner Matt Wake, for L.A. Weekly identified something music enthusiasts should be truly worried about:

Master Recordings — From Abbey Roadto Born to Run — Could Be Lost Forever, Without Archivists’ Help

“The biggest challenge McEowen faces as an archivist? “The condition of the tapes, because they’ve been stored for so long,” he says. With his glasses, gray ponytail and beard, he looks both professorial and like a longtime Allman Brothers fan. “Some of them are 40 years old or so. They may have absorbed moisture if they haven’t been stored correctly. And that requires baking, in an oven at 120 degrees for six hours. Oxide loss off the tapes creates dropouts; sounds will either completely go away or it will fade out and come back.”


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Oh, this wouldn’t be a highlight reel without good friend and contributor Aurora herself. Once again, Once upon a screen… pays a fine tribute to a director, actor, and film that has entertained and enthralled me through the decades:

Self-Plagiarism is Style: Hitchcock, Grant and NORTH by NORTHWEST (1959)

“I knew the movie Dean Swanzey was referring to was The 39 Steps right off the bat because of the stabbing in the beginning of the movie, which doesn’t happen in North by Northwest. Otherwise the similarities between the two movies are indeed striking. In fact, the reason I so adore North by Northwest, which I’ve easily seen 100 times, is its endless Hitchcock-ness. North by Northwest is Hitchcock’s ode to Hitchcock, a brilliant amalgamation of Hitchcockian cinema in its purest form. We’ve seen every element in this film before, including the plot as the email above suggests. Yet North by Northwest manages to remain fresh, exciting and ever entertaining. It’s a miracle and perhaps – on its own – testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius.”


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Ryan Marshall, part of a wonderful ensemble of film writers for the podcasting them softly site, took on one of the cogently odd and emblematic westerns of the ’70s and did it justice:

MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

“Only a select few films have a kind of palpable density that the viewer feels right in the gut, and as it turns out Altman has made quite a few of them. Throughout the course of just two hours, man himself is challenged (the tragedy of masculinity suppressing all which stands in its path), and everything – land and life alike – has a dollar value. For instance, when McCabe continually refuses the offers from the mining company’s shady representatives, they send over a trio of bounty hunters to seal the deal. Afraid for his life but unwilling to leave the town and business he helped start, McCabe turns to his lawyer for advice, but is instead treated to a spiel that basically amounts to the company’s safety being favored over McCabe’s. The poor bastard’s response is genuinely haunting: “Well I just, uh…didn’t want to get killed.””


This being a year-end piece to one of the most turbulent in the second decade of the new millennium, might as well have a couple of ‘best of lists’ for 2016 from David Edelstein and Vulture:

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The 10 Best Movies of 2016 — and 6 More

5. O.J.: Made in America
And made for television, really, but shown in enough theaters to qualify for encomiums and awards from film critics. It deserves them. Using amazing archival footage and fresh interviews, Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute O.J. Simpson epic pokes and prods, extrapolates and interpolates. We see the fractious world out of which the inhumanly handsome and talented black football star emerged and the impact of that world on his psyche. We see how a man with zero interest in being a symbol for his race became an instrument of black revenge on a police force that had brutalized them for decades.”

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The Best Film Performances of 2016

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. The entire cast of Moonlight is marvelous, but Ali has broken out. As a conflicted drug dealer — a man who’s such a mixture of opposite traits that he could be called tragic — he’s riveting no matter what he’s doing or not doing.”


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Easily, what had to be one of the most intriguing and diverse roundtable discussions of the year, by Matthew Belloni and Stephen Gallowa for The Hollywood Reporter:

Director Roundtable: Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington and 4 More on Paralyzing Fears, Cast and Crew Complaints

“Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned into a spirited debate among peers, touching on their often-paralyzing fears (“I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” recalled Washington of his first directing gig), cast and crew complaints (“They make your life hell sometimes,” quipped Stone), the backlash over The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker’s rape trial (“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Gibson) and the feeling that making a movie is akin to going to war (“You feel like you’re a general and you have troops,” added Gibson). Toward the end, Nair came full circle with Washington, revealing she had cast a first-time actor in a scene with him all those years ago. Responded Washington with a laugh, “I didn’t know she had not acted!””


Paul McCartney

Somebody had to do it, especially around this time of year. Admittedly, when Macca’s Christmas ditty makes an appearance, I’ll listen. It’s an obligatory gesture…Hell, I have this on ‘ye old iPod, in point of fact. So, there must be a reason it’s there, and Annie Zaleski explains why we “…love it or hate it, or love it and hate it” finally, in her Salon music piece.

In defense of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”

““Wonderful Christmastime” also came during a time when music was ready for a change. As the ’80s neared, pop and rock artists were grappling with how to navigate and embrace cutting-edge trends: disco, the roiling punk underbelly and the burgeoning new wave scene. Plus, by 1979, McCartney too was itching for a change. Although Wings toured the U.K. in the fall of that year (and even played “Wonderful Christmastime”), the band had nearly run its course. For better or for worse, McCartney was primed to take a leap of faith and dive headfirst into whatever was coming next.”


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If you’re a fan of John Carpenter and/or Quentin Tarantino, or neither but are a fan of the visual cinematic queues filmmakers put into their work, then this KINO short showcased over at Boing Boing is a must-see:

The Hateful Eight’s homage to The Thing: shots compared

“While it’s not odd that QT, master of the cinematic homage, would be drawing creative and narrative inspiration from elsewhere, it might seem a little odd to some folks that for a western Tarantino would choose to reference a sci-fi monster movie. But look at even the most basic comparisons: both are ensemble pieces (led by Kurt Russell) that take place largely in one room/compound in the middle of polar nowhere; both center on the themes of paranoia and mistrust; and both are violent as all get out. Makes a little more sense now, doesn’t it?”


As an opening titles enthusiast, this Cinefix video, with all its references and substantiation regarding this particularly keen cinematic and graphic art form, of their 10 best is not to be missed. I mean it:


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There’s alway mixed feelings when a project comes to an end. Joy, surely, when it’s accomplished, and perhaps a bit of sadness in putting to bed something that became part of your life. Even if it is a revisit, of sorts. That came to mind when friend (and fellow TCM Classic Film Fest participant) Richard Kirkham closed out his marvelous undertaking of his favorite year in movies, 1984; finishing it most appropriately:

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

“It takes a large portion of the nearly three hundred pages of the novel, to explain the social strata in the world of Oceania. The idea of “thought-crime” and it’s ultimate solution “Newspeak” are central to the written text but are not the main focus in the film. Visualizing a totalitarian society where the oppressed voluntarily participate in their own subjugation requires a visual aesthetic not a narrative track. The poverty and abandonment of the “proles” or non-party members of the culture are portrayed in exceptionally depressing ways in the film. There is a morbidly disgusting scene where Winston recalls visiting a prostitute in the prole areas of the city. The visualization is nearly enough to make you want to join the Anti-Sex League yourself.”


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It goes without saying that remain a big fan of Marlene Dietrich. So when Margaret Perry highlighted this magnetic movie star within the backdrop of a Billy Wilder film on her blog, and putting it in historical, cultural, and social context, it had to join the year-end list:

Marlene Dietrich’s Re-Education of American Female Sensuality

“The duality of Marlene Dietrich’s star persona in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), first as a German ex-patriot and secondly as a patriotic American film star, serves to establish three distinctive heterotopias within the film text, enabling American postwar audiences to navigate the complexities of Berlin’s zonal divisions as represented in the film. Within these heterotopias, the Dietrich persona offers layers of discourse related to time, place, and nationalism, which allow her to re-educate Congresswoman Frost (Jean Arthur) on the expectations of womanhood in the new patriarchal order of a world divided by the Cold War.”


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My lovely spouse of almost three decades can assure you I don’t need another motivation to purchase music. I’m sure if she reads this it’ll only aggravate the situation — so, let’s keep this list by the good folk at The Vinyl Factory to ourselves as we close out the year, shall we?:

The 20 best soundtracks of 2016

“This year’s Oscar season was met by a few soundtrack firsts that were simply too juicy (for the establishment) to resist. Master of the playlist, Quentin Tarantino’s first ever originally commissioned score for The Hateful Eight was delivered by none other than maestro Ennio Morricone, marking his first Western soundtrack after forty-odd years from the frontier. It scooped best score then but now, by December, the competition – from the likes of Jóhann Jóhannsson, Alex Somers, Cliff Martinez, Nils Frahm – is fierce.”


Will add this final image to the highlight reel for it is fitting and heartfelt:

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) actress, author, screenwriter.

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) actress, author, screenwriter.


The entire series can be found here.

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21 Responses to “On the Verge: Year of Bests – 2016”

  1. ckckred

    You know, I never cared much for The Walking Dead either. I remember watching part of season 1 and although I found parts of it entertaining it didn’t really grabbed me and couldn’t compare to the high standards AMC set with Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Yeah, I think it quite a drop from the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, too. Well, at least we have a new season of Better Call Saul to look forward to. 😉

      Thank you and Happy New Year. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. ruth

    Thanks so much for including my review, Michael. That’s one of my fave reviews I’ve written and it’s a film I’ll be rooting for at the Oscar this year. Definitely agree w/ Edelstein’s pick of fave performance, Mahershala Ali will be in my top 3 of the year when I get around to doing my top 10 list. Have a blessed New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Oh, I was so happy to include it, Ruth. We’re like-minded re: the work of Mahershala Ali. What a year for him. Happiest of New Year’s, my friend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • ruth

        I just saw Ali in Hidden Figures last night, another great film everyone should go see. He didn’t have a big part but still, it was great seeing him on screen!

        Like

        Reply
  3. Novroz

    I have to be honest that I don’t read them all as it is too long…but I applaud your time for compiling it.

    I really like that Quote for Alien.

    Happy new year Mike 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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