Self-congratulation is gauche, but as long as we’re doing it anyway: it’s pretty unbelievable we managed to stick so rigidly to our “no hot takes” policy in a year that featured the most consistently hot topic of our lifetimes. Amazon literally released a show about a pandemic caused by a bat virus jumping to humans, seemingly as a result of a vast conspiracy by liberal elites, and we just had to be like, nah, not gonna write about that. Expect our frigid coronavirus takes circa 2030.
Instead, we wrote what we’ve always written: deep dives into movies and shows that stick in our brains for months or years, screeds against the state of the entertainment industry and essays about the way we understand and misunderstand art. We also published great pieces from guest contributors and started our very own podcast, The Sundae Presents, where we take turns showing each other favourite films of ours the other hasn’t seen.
For long-time readers, this is our year in review. For newer readers, this is our sizzle reel. And if you’re here for the first time, this is a pretty good look at what we’re all about, as are the previous four times we’ve done this, so check them out.
Here’s the best of The Sundae so far since last so far.
God Sent Me to Piss the World Off is Ciara’s magnum opus: a book about Eminem that she published for free on the Internet, like a loon. Each of its four parts focuses in on a major aspect of Eminem’s artistry and public image through both a close reading of his work and a sharp analysis of its cultural context. Part 1 is a reclamation of shock humour that deals with Eminem’s use of persona, not just as Slim Shady, but as Marshall Mathers and Eminem, three persons in one rap god. Part 2 is a vivid defense of free speech and an ode to transgressive art, tracing the development of modern debates about censorship through Eminem’s career and the shifting cultural response to his work. Part 3 is a slow disentangling of the concept of cultural appropriation through the racial themes of his work and his embodiment of the white rapper in the popular imagination. Part 4 is a love letter to the cinematic masterpiece that is 8 Mile and its beautiful portrayal of working-class life in post-industrial Detroit. You can read each part here or download the whole book as a PDF!
“The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.”
Guest contributor Natalie Wall draws on the three most powerful forces in the universe – gothic fiction, body horror and Judith Butler – for a thorough analysis of the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, zeroing in on the female body as a site of horror, through the violence it both suffers and inflicts. She deals with not just its narrative themes or scenes of violence and horror, but the visual framing and costuming of its three leads – journalist Camille (Amy Adams), her mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) – as the brutal murders of two teenage girls fray the seams of their quiet Missouri town. Natalie digs down past the surface to pick at and pull apart all the tensions, contradictions, inversions and reflections that make up the show’s complex themes around gender and body horror.
The Sundae was honoured to publish Stephen Chambers’ stunning, lyrical essay on Mickey Rourke: an actor who, in Chambers’ words, “showed up to the bank robbery with a loaded gun and the confidence to approach the teller without hesitation. He just didn’t have an escape plan.” It takes us through the arc of Rourke’s career, from sensitive artist to macho tough guy and then, in The Wrestler, sensitive man in a tough man’s body. Chambers incisively analyses Rourke’s craft – drawing comparisons to Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen – and the difference between an actor and a star. All with prose as captivating and off-centre as a young Mickey Rourke.
The Last Jedi was, somehow, one of the most controversial films of all time. People talked about it for years, elevating it to a level of cultural importance that a Star Wars movie made by Disney in the 2010s couldn’t possibly sustain. In an incredibly polarised discourse – where Last Jedi had to be either a masterpiece or total dogshit – Dean forges a middle path by pushing aside all the bullshit commentary and really engaging with a movie that has too often been reduced to a proxy for political commitments. It’s the kind of writing that reminds me how much I love film criticism: that the point of it, the joy of it, isn’t hot takes responding to whatever bullshit people are saying on Twitter, it’s digging into the film itself until you see all its depths.
Whether you loved The Last Jedi or hated it, whether you love reading about it or never want to hear about it again, you should read Notes on The Last Jedi. It’s the definitive take on a film that launched a thousand takes.
Remember when Joker was about to come out and a bunch of serious people very seriously said it would inspire incel terrorist attacks? You probably don’t, because it got shoved down the memory hole pretty quick when the general public got to the see the film and it was about, like, the deficiency of mental healthcare in America. But The Sundae remembers. We remain ever fascinated by declarations about art’s alleged capacity for inspiring violence, despite it never having actually happened. Dean – while also writing beautifully about the film itself – dissects the goofiest moral panic of recent years, and what it tell us about liberal critics’ contradictory understanding of “harmful” art.
Nathan Barley, a satirical sitcom about alternative media from Chris Morris (Brass Eye) and Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror), has got an exceptionally raw deal in both the popular and critical memory. Usually, if you ever hear about it anymore, it’s either commemorated as a massive flop that became a cult hit or it’s some anniversary piece about how its title character predicted the future because he’s stupid and shallow and obsessed with the Internet.
But Ciara is here to set the record straight. Nathan Barley is the most 2005 thing ever: “a vivid if parodic rendering of a very specific moment… when we had mobiles but didn’t yet have smartphones, when the internet was in common use but wasn’t yet sucked into a handful of giant monoliths”. People are constantly trying to prove things aren’t “dated”, to insist they not only “hold up” but are actually extremely relevant to, or even “predicted”, our current era, because they think anything released more than five minutes ago needs to be “relevant” to be worthwhile. Ciara says fuck that and argues that it’s exactly its time-capsule specificity that makes it such a brilliantly funny, weird little show, alternating between unabashed silliness and jet-black shock humour.
J.K. Rowling’s decision to make the journey from “celebrity who posts too much” to “transphobic hate campaigner” prompted a lot of discussion about how we’re supposed to now feel about Harry Potter. This whole debate – whether it’s about J.K. Rowling or the many other familiar debates about art and the artist – is “suffocatingly focused on how to work out your personal feelings about how you relate to the art you engage with.” Dean takes on a debate that generally has no logic or reasoning and so ends up with inconsistent and arbitrary conclusions. He seeks a general theory of how to think about the relationship between art, artist and audience. And he pulls it the hell off.
Dean has revisited the topic of how to treat the work of immoral artists several times, but Burying J.K. Rowling is the zenith. Despite the title, J.K. Rowling is – alongside the good man Zack Snyder and the scoundrel Joss Whedon – just a case study: one of the most significant pop culture figures for our generation, and many millennials ground zero on whether you should give a shit about what the artist says.
Way too many documentaries coast on their subject being so interesting that they don’t even bother trying to be interesting films. You just film a bunch of talking heads saying what happened and call it a day. (Play a game of Russian roulette with some Netflix true crime docs and you’ll find almost every chamber is loaded.) But if you’ve not yet seen Asif Kapadia’s trilogy of documentaries about troubled prodigies – Senna (2010), Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019) – Ciara is here to tell you what you’re missing.
Each of these stunningly beautiful films is constructed almost entirely out of archival footage both private and public, woven together into films with all the vividness and urgency of great narrative drama. Senna alone is possibly the greatest sports film ever made, and the three together are a stirring reminder of all that documentary movies can be when they’re not stifled by their own conventions or shunted off into a corner with the other films that don’t count as films. Ciara writes about them all with obvious love and, not to brag, but Asif Kapadia said he liked it on Twitter.
Hugely influential and iconic within the genre and virtually unknown outside it, Say Anything, the vehicle for the incomparable Max Bemis, were one of the best bands in the history of pop punk. Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, one of the greatest pop punk albums ever and one which Bemis spent years trying to get out of the shadow of with experimentations like a hip hop album and an album with no guitars. But before Say Anything called it quits, Bemis decided to return to …Is a Real Boy for a sequel. Oliver Appropriate is about the protagonist of …Is a Real Boy as a washed-up, middle-aged ex-punk rocker subsisting on drink and drugs. Dean analyses it as an outstanding queer horror story, tapping into the marvellous history of challenging, transgressive, vulgar queer art that is too frequently pushed aside for safer, more comfortable LGBT narratives.
Speed Racer, the Wackowskis’ Matrix follow-up, is one of Dean’s favourite films of all time, a thrilling, joyful and ground-breaking work full of pretty colours. It made Ciara want to throw up. In the fourth episode of The Sundae Presents, we hash out our polar opposite opinions about this live-action anime that went from blockbuster flop to cult film. Are the digital effects astonishingly good or astonishingly awful? Does it look like Lazy Town? Is the kid and the monkey fun and cute or just annoying? Is it about capitalism? Can blockbusters even be anti-capitalist? Listen and find out.
In the latest edition of Cancelled Too Soon, Ciara pays tribute to another yet another casualty of the horrific churn of Peak TV, David Fincher’s Mindhunter. It’s simultaneously an elegy for a beautiful show cut down before it even entered its prime, a paean to everything that made the formative days of prestige TV so great and a rage against all the ways the streaming era has turned television into a chore.
We live in an age of bland shows with bloated seasons and overlong episodes that either end in cliffhangers for the sake of encouraging a bingewatch or, more infuriatingly, at completely arbitrary points, as if the show is just a film that rolls the credits once an hour. Mindhunter was a show with enough confidence in its characters to rely on them to carry the weight of its serialisation so it could focus on what makes television not just great, but television at all: the art of the episode. Ciara underscores the tragedy of its cancellation as the passing of more than just a great show, but an entire age of television.
We’re not saying this episode was a backdoor pilot for a whole separate podcast just about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but we’re not not saying that. In what has already become, in these early days, a longstanding institution of the pod, Ciara introduces Dean to the third film he’s ever seen by Gus Van Sant, the oft-referenced but oddly underpraised Good Will Hunting. We talk about its rich portrayal of class conflict, its elegantly-constructed screenplay and all the ways that people have misunderstood Ben Affleck’s brilliance as an actor. No spoilers on whether Dean liked it or not, but he did subsequently spend August watching every film Gus Van Sant has ever made.