The Sundae Film Awards 2021

We usually begin these with some reflections on the year that’s been, but you know how the last year has been and it would feel condescending to repeat. Half the films we anticipated we would be writing about this year at the start of last year didn’t even come out, and almost none of those that did got a theatrical release. We usually define the “film year” through a combination of Oscar eligibility, Irish release dates and our own gut feeling about whether a movie is part of a given cultural “season” or not. This year, it’s all gut feeling, so if you’re wondering why I Care a Lot, released February 2021, was eligible, but not Zack Snyder’s Justice League, released March 2021, it’s because we say so.

Just like every year, we gave one award for each of the eight major Oscars: we care about most of the others (except for the fake awards like Best Original Song) but this post would be absurdly long if we picked those too. We each did out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only come from films that both of us have seen and nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each gave a Special Achievement Award for something that doesn’t quite fit the regular categories. You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of this post, which we strongly encourage you to check out if you’re looking for recommendations. There was a surprising number of great films this year, and we only got to award a small fraction of them.

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Burying J.K. Rowling

No question has dominated pop cultural writing over the last decade as much as this: what do you do when one of your faves is problematic? The situation is obviously a lot more nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of the dilemma, the question that people struggle with. How should you feel, and what should you do, when – not if – the creator of a work of art you love does something evil? How should you feel about them? How should you feel about their work? Should you go see their next film or buy their next book?  

Last year, J.K. Rowling publicly confirmed, after years of speculation by fans of her work, that she hates transgender people. Rowling would obviously disagree with this characterisation, but I’m not interested in trying the case against her, I’m just describing my view. She’s often described by critics as a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, but I don’t actually think that label is accurate. I remember when the term “TERF” was first popularised, and the entire point of it was to describe a specific kind of transphobic bigot, a radical feminist who denied that trans women are women, not just anyone who uses any kind of feminist rhetoric to justify their hatred. While some figures involved in recent anti-trans political activity in the UK fit that description, the vast majority wouldn’t be caught within a country mile of the actual political tradition of radical feminism. Those that are feminists at all are almost exclusively liberal feminists borrowing the arguments, but not the principles, of genuine TERFs, just as certain elements of the far-right use the contemporary rhetoric of antiracism to advance a white nationalist agenda

J.K. Rowling is one of those liberal feminists. She’s not a TERF, just a garden-variety bigot trying to coat her hatred in a thin gloss of moral righteousness. I appreciate this might seem like a pedantic point, but I think it’s important to be fair, accurate and precise about people’s political positions, especially those of your political opponents. You can tell Rowling and other anti-trans feminists of her ilk aren’t proper TERFs because they can’t even make their shite arguments as well. They’re just regurgitating dunks they saw on Twitter or Mumsnet, passed on through some massive game of transphobic telephone, without ever understanding the underlying philosophy that motivates them. All their arguments are purely instrumental, just a way to advance the cause, itself motivated by more-or-less unmediated hatred and disgust toward trans people (especially trans women), rather than any even internally coherent set of values or ideas. Not that proper TERFs are less motivated by hatred, exactly, but at least it’s an ethos. These liberal knock-offs (I’m shocked “astroTERF” isn’t a thing yet) say shit like “you can’t just go around changing the definition of womanhood”, because that’s what all the other transphobes – or “gender-critical feminists” – say. But underneath it, even if they were speaking in good faith, it’s doubtful they could elaborate beyond a few more online talking points on how they define womanhood or how trans people’s existence undermines it.  

This is not, despite the title, a takedown of J.K. Rowling’s personal bigotry towards trans people or her political activism to curtail efforts to expand their civil rights, access to healthcare and general ability to live safely in a world so hostile to their lives, not least because the definitive takedown already exists. She’s just a useful tool for thinking about the relationship between the art and the artist. Partly because she is, for better or worse, one of the most famous, influential and successful artists of the last fifty years. Partly because her common habit of publicly asserting things about the universe of Harry Potter that aren’t present in the books – e.g. that a Jewish wizard named Anthony Goldstein attended Hogwarts during the events of series or that wizards used to shit on the floor and magic it away until the eighteenth century – has already provoked lots of discussion on whether fans have to accept, believe or give a shit about what Rowling says is true of the world she created. But mostly because she’s been one of a few constant cultural figures my entire life, someone whose works were formative touchstones of my childhood that I returned to regularly up until a few years ago. I even wrote a (not very good) dissertation on them in my final year of college. Every shift in my attitude towards this question of the art and the artist – a topic I’ve been struggling with for years – has been informed at least in part by my changing relationship to both her work and her public persona. I learned how to bury authors from watching her dig her own grave. 

Part 1 – Joanne 

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Sundae Presents Episode 1

Ciara and Dean co-host The Sundae Presents, a podcast in which each of us makes the other watch films they haven’t seen. For our first episode, Ciara got Dean to watch the Steven Spielberg classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first time. They talk about drunken empathy, Jesus parallels, and penis breath.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial The Sundae Presents

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The Noirs of Melville [Current Affairs]

Film noir is an elusive, amorphous thing, something you recognise when you see it but is incredibly difficult to pin down. There are things you can point to that you expect from film noir—plots from hardboiled crime fiction, cinematography from German Expressionism, private eyes, and femme fatales—but nothing firm. 

Paul Schrader wrote that film noir is defined by its tone—a fatalistic, hopeless one—but even that is slightly too specific. More than a genre, a style or a tone, noir is a vibe: something’s film noir if it feels like it is, and any definition is an attempt to backfill a reasoning. When classic films noirs were being made in Hollywood, the industry wasn’t consciously making film noir, the way people consciously made westerns—as James Naremore outlines in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, the idea was only defined retrospectively. The dozens of tropes, stock characters, and shooting styles that make up film noir don’t have a standard arrangement, or even an obvious connection to one another, but through the act of repetition, they collectively acquired new meaning. Film noir is fall guys, cynical detectives, down-and-out boxers, and struggling writers; it’s shadows cast from Venetian blinds, rain on a city night, low angle shots and first-person voiceover narration; it’s Humphrey Bogart looking as cool as possible while smoking a cigarette.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about one of my top two artists who fought in the French Resistance, Jean-Pierre Melville, and film noir! You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.


UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!

The Social Network and Me: A Love Story

Ten years ago, I saw The Social Network for the first time. It changed my life.

Saying something changed your life is a cliché in personal-essay-inflected media criticism: the truth is usually somewhere closer to “it is good and I like it,” exaggerated to something that might drive clicks. Individual pieces of art very rarely change lives, generally. But The Social Network changed mine. It’s the movie that made me love movies.

I’ve always really liked movies: as a kid, I would watch pretty much anything on TV, and in my early teens, Casablanca blew my hair back and I quickly became a big TCM guy. This gave me a somewhat skewed view of film history, where no-one could possibly think Ordinary People was an unworthy Best Picture winner. My mam showed me Kramer vs. Kramer and said I wasn’t allowed watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, before acquiescing a week later. I loved 1980s teen movies and Farrelly Brothers comedies and Steven Spielberg, and thought Fight Club was the most amazing film ever made. Then when I was sixteen, I saw The Social Network.

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Will You Still Love Me in the Morning?

Happy Madison Productions – the production company founded by Adam Sandler in 1999 – has been so prolific, so successful and produced work so instantly recognisable that its films practically constitute a genre of their own. The company is named for the two films that essentially form the blueprint for their core formula, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and most of their films are just variations on their basic gimmick: a pathetic man goes through a series of humiliations and learns a lesson about himself. 

It’s a story that can be told more or less sincerely, with genuine heart (Happy Gilmore) or none at all (Billy Madison), as a rags to riches tale (Mr. Deeds), a buddy comedy (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), a rom-com (50 First Dates) or a sci-fi action movie (Pixels), but always with that same central character arc and Happy Madison’s trademark broad, vulgar, puerile sense of humour. The most famous and successful usually star Sandler himself, but they’ve produced vehicles for other members of his posse, from the comparatively successful David Spade (Joe Dirt) and Kevin James (Paul Blart) to bit players like Allen Covert (Grandma’s Boy) and Nick Swardson (Bucky Larson). In recent years, they’ve begun to do more ensemble comedies (Grown Ups, Pixels, The Ridiculous 6) and dual-lead films (The Do-Over, The Week Of, Father of the Year) with multiple pathetic men, and they’ve produced films outside that mould altogether (Reign Over Me, Funny People, The Shortcut), but the formula of their core product hasn’t really changed in over twenty years. That is the Happy Madison film. 

Click is the sixteenth film released by Happy Madison. It’s about a guy who gets a TV remote that controls reality. The first thing he does when he realises that he can manipulate the flow of time is fast-forward his pooping dog. Click is also the first film I ever cried at. I’d certainly had intense emotional reactions to movies before, like when a teacher in my primary school showed us Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden and I realised for the first time that my parents would die one day. I remember films before Click that got me choked up or made tears well in my eyes. But the first film I cried at – sobbed at, really – was Click. I’ve revisited it every couple of years since I saw it as a child, and every couple of years, I still like it. Sometimes more than the last time, sometimes less. Sometimes exactly how I remember it, sometimes as if I’m watching it for the first time. It’s not the best movie Adam Sandler has ever done (Punch-Drunk Love) or his best performance (Uncut Gems) or the best film ever produced by Happy Madison (Funny People). But it is a great film, one I’ve loved for most of my life and expect I will always love in the simple, uncomplicated way we love the movies that made us. 

If you know anything about Happy Madison, you know their films are considered lowbrow trash, and not particularly unfairly. I’ve called the entire existence of Happy Madison a scam before, and I’m happy to do so again now, because it is. But just as Vox publishes a lot of great cultural writing while pretending to be a journalistic outlet, Happy Madison has produced good films. There’s a temptation in defending single works of a largely reviled kind to try and distance the particular from the general, to say “I know this is technically one of those, but it’s not really one of those”. That’s not necessarily a dishonest move: Reign Over Me, a drama about a mentally-ill 9/11 widower starring Sandler and produced by Happy Madison, is very much not a Happy Madison film in the sense I described above. But it’s too often less about clarity than not admitting you like something disreputable. I love Click, but I would never claim, as I have with Reign Over Me or Funny People, that it “isn’t really a ‘Happy Madison’ film”. Of course it’s a Happy Madison film. It’s the most Happy Madison film ever made. It’s the vindication of the Happy Madison film as a genre. 

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It’s Unnatural, Innit? Men in Cages

Most people don’t think about prisons very often. Unless you are forced to interact with the prison system in some way, it mostly just hums along in the background. It’s unquestioned. It’s unquestionable. There are some people who are actively into it – who comment “bring back hanging!” on every news article about literally any crime and think high rates of reoffending are due to prisons being too nice – and there are certainly lots of people who object to the criminalising of specific actions, from drug possession to sex work to digital piracy, but for most people, most of the time, prisons just… exist. Always have, always will.

Television as a medium has a long love affair with the criminal justice system, but for the most part, only up until you get to the prison gates. There are an unfathomable number of shows about cops investigating crimes and lawyers prosecuting crimes, that take place in police stations and courts and even jails where the defendant awaits trial, but a relatively tiny few set among convicts in prison. There’s Orange Is the New Black, obviously. Oz. Prison Break. That time Deirdre went to prison on Coronation Street. I could probably name ten if I really tried (whereas I’m pretty sure I could name fifty cop shows in half the time while standing on my head). Partially this is due to the nature of the medium: police procedurals and courtroom dramas are both ideally suited to the hour-long TV episode, telling a self-contained story with characters we know and care about, with twists and suspense ideally timed to the ad breaks. It’s both exciting and familiar, and they always get the bad guys in the end. Truly great police or legal procedurals are, in many ways, what TV does best.

But there’s still something odd about a medium so obsessed with retelling the story of how someone gets sent to prison having almost no interest in what happens when they get there. I don’t particularly buy into on-screen representation as any kind of be-all end-all, but when most people don’t think about prisons very often, and television doesn’t portray prisons very often, it’s hard not to see it as an endless feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The incarceration system relies on this: on us turning away, choosing not to see, not to think, not to question. Cop shows function in large part as propaganda for the police, but the prison system is harder to propagandise for. Cop shows depict a kind of idealised police force, facing down unimaginable danger to catch the bad guys, but there is no similar idealised vision of prison, that makes the audience root for heroic prison officers and glad the bad guys are locked up there. Invisibility is about the best they can do. Television teaches us to root for hero cops, but when it comes to prisons, it asks us to turn away, avert our eyes, keep our heads down. Just don’t think about it at all.

This is part of what makes Porridge such a special show. Originally airing on the BBC from 1974 to 1977, it’s a sitcom set in the fictional Slade Prison in Cumberland. The sitcom may seem like an unnatural format to set in a prison, but that format allows Porridge to depict prison life at a kind of mundane, everyday level. A lot of prison dramas portray the most fucked up, horrible stuff that happens in prison, like rape and violence, but Porridge depicts the thousand tiny dehumanisations that make up prison life even when things are running perfectly smoothly. The oppressiveness inherent to the system, and the tiny victories that make it bearable.

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Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

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2020 in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out in 2020)

Check out previous installments herehere and here.


It goes without saying that 2020 was a bizarre year for films, because it was a bizarre year for everything. But all the same, a lot of insane things happened in the movies this year. Cinemas all over the world closed down and it’s not clear they’ll survive long-term. Several blockbusters that were supposed to draw a billion-dollar box office ended up with a streaming debut, to unclear results. The industry got thrown into such disarray that the Oscar eligibility window was extended and the ceremony rescheduled for April.

By some twist of fate, that’s also when we’ll be looking at the best films of 2020 in the fifth annual Sundae Film Awards. For now, we’d like to look back at some of the gems from throughout film history that caught our attention this year. One of the few upsides to a year in lockdown was a lot of time to watch movies: in our case, literally hundreds. We’ve whittled them down to eight each, from the early thirties through to 2016, covering films as diverse as a war drama about the French resistance, a psychedelic Japanese anime about witchcraft and a documentary about race and class in America through the lens of high school basketball. Check them out and stay tuned for more cold takes from the Sundae in 2021!

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