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The trailer for the latest entry into the saga of the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant, dropped this morning;

I have a strange personal history with the Alien franchise. I can remember being ten years old in the year of our lord 1996 and hearing the first rumblings of a fourth Alien film; this coming after the previews alone for Alien 3 kept me far and away from viewing any installment of the franchise thus far. I can vaguely recall a desire to prove my worth to my friends, all of whom had that prepubescent sense of superiority that came from watching the bloodiest, goriest, scariest films they could get their hands on. Strangely enough I decided to begin my journey with part two, James Cameron’s Aliens. As a glance at TV guide one afternoon yielded information that the local Fox affiliate would be airing a special presentation of the special edition version of the film that evening. My parents, lenient as they were with my viewing habits, would likely be perturbed by a request to rent any of the films from the local blockbuster so instead I stayed up just long enough to pop in a blank VHS tape and record the showing while I journeyed off to slumber, secure in my knowledge that the next day I would be able to sit down and watch through the whole thing, fast forwarding through any meddlesome commercial breaks.

I sat down to watch the film the next day and the sensation of anxiety in doing so was palpable. More than anything that was happening on screen, my nerves were gripped by the mystique that had been built up surrounding the mythos of the series by friends and movie magazines. (Yes, even at age ten I was a devout follower of certain periodicals that gave me all the latest movie news before the explosion of the online film community) I sat enraptured, awaiting the first appearance of the legendary creature. I knew enough about the movies from secondhand discussion or lengthy articles detailing the production of the films that the slow build of tension was practically torture.

Keep in mind, I was ten.

After the end credits rolled I had been hooked in. I needed to see the rest of the series. It was imperative. Luckily, I had a friend named Brett who lived a few blocks over whose parents were far more relaxed regarding their son’s consumption of violent media. His parents had an entire boxed set of the trilogy and that weekend I asked him if we could marathon watch them all. He seemed amicable to the idea and I wound up watching all three films over the course of a day with Brett and one other friend whose name I could not remember if you placed a loaded plasma rifle to my temple.

Even so young, I found myself intrigued by the differences between all three films. Where Aliens was dripping with a defiant, last-stand-at-the-Alamo sense of action, Ridley Scott’s original film was a quiet, creeping slow burn that honestly left me feeling underwhelmed at first. In the years since I have grown to love Alien as a true classic of dramatic and horrific tension, and I don’t view it as greater or lesser than its sequel; as they are so disparate in tone and composition that comparing the two is pointless. I even found myself enthralled by Alien 3, a position that seemed bold at the time but one that has seemingly been vindicated by the march of time.

The next year I managed to see Alien Resurrection in theaters and I believe that may be the first time I have ever been acutely aware of magic being broken. While there were certainly elements that I enjoyed in the film it felt a little too detached from the mood and tone established by the first three. I tried to convince myself that I actually liked the film, the same way I would with The Phantom Menace in ’99, but I think in my heart of hearts I knew I was lying to myself. In trying to figure out what it was that didn’t resonate with me I came to understand that there was a lack of severity to Resurrection that I did not wish to engage with. I don’t mean to say that the film didn’t have its moments of seriousness, but there was a degree of dismissive levity to the characters, which I now realize was largely the work of Joss Whedon’s writing, that seemed inappropriate for the series it was inhabiting. That same tone, so out of place in Resurrection, would work wonders for Firefly only five years down the line. But in 1997, aboard a ship crawling with one of the most iconic film monsters of all time, it felt inappropriate and jarring.

And so my love affair with the Alien franchise laid dormant. It was a major shift for me. In the time between discovering the first three films and seeing Resurrection in 1997, I tore through any and all available media I could regarding the franchise; novels, comic books, video games, the whole nine. Then it all fell by the wayside. For about seven years. Then in 2004, as a seventeen year old kid freshly graduated from high school, I found myself ready to be sucked back in by the release of Alien vs. Predator.

The Predator series never grabbed me the way that Alien did. Mostly because up until this point, there had only been two films and of those two I only held one in high regard. I can appreciate Predator 2 for what it is now, but when I was younger I found it to be lacking in most areas. My interest in AvP stemmed from the time I spent consuming all of that tertiary media in the buildup for Resurrection. The comics and novels built on the mythos of those series better than either of the films and I was hoping some of that would carry over into the film version.

I think most people know how that turned out.

For the second time, my hopes had been dashed upon the rocks and my desire to see a film that captured that same sense of excitement I’d had when I was ten and being brought into the warm embrace of the series for the first time was but a fleeting memory. I begrudgingly saw the follow-up film Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem in 2007 but went in with lowered expectations from the outset. I figured my relationship with the series was all but dead.

Then in 2012 Ridley Scott returned to the franchise with Prometheus, and for the first time since watching the first three on a grainy VHS tape I felt a spark in the series. I will be the first to admit that there were some parts of the film that didn’t work for me; Guy Pearce’s terrible old-man makeup, the perceived need to tip-toe around the ties to the original Alien, a general under-utilization of Idris Elba. Those minor gripes aside I found it to be a visually stunning film and one that did one thing right if it failed in any other category; it felt congruous with the universe that had been previously developed and it offered avenues for interesting storytelling opportunities.

It would appear that those avenues are being traveled with Alien: Covenant. I like the continuation of the established themes of crew as family, creeping dread, and claustrophobic terror. I appreciate that with the return to utilizing the franchise namesake in the title their fear in putting the monster on display seems to be gone.

Marketing can oftentimes be misleading, but from what is on display here, it would appear I have cause to be optimistic about the franchise again. Maybe I should pull some of those old novels out and give them a read through again. Just for old times’ sake.

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The year has come and gone. It was a big one for me; bought a house, published a new novel, got engaged, saw the new Star Wars in theaters. Lots of ticks off the bucket list in 2015 for sure.  I can’t say it was a good year overall. I mean, police brutality, terrorism, Donald Trump…do I really need to go into detail? Probably not. But I will go into detail with regard to the things that didn’t make me hate the very concept of existence.

J. Goodson Dodd’s Top Films of 2015

I think it is telling that I can’t even do a top 10 list this year. Granted, I missed a few films that looked like surefire winners (Straight Outta Compton, Creed, The Good Dinosaur, Crimson Peak) but all the same, it was a rather week slate altogether. But the good ones sure as hell did stand out.

I don’t pretend that these are the most technically sound films, or prestigious. These are simply the films that stayed with me or impressed me the most over the course of the year.

Beginning with…

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5. The Martian

Ridley Scott is such a hit or miss director these days. I personally loved Prometheus but I know it gets a lot of hate. Then you’ve got less than stellar Exodus, The Counselor, and that misguided attempt at Robin Hood with Russel Crowe.

With The Martian, however, Ridley Scott shows what made him such a respected name in the game of film in the first place with a masterfully paced adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel of the same name. While much of the credit for the film goes to the folks who wrote the thing, Scott’s direction and steady hand go a long way towards cementing it as one of the best of the year. That’s to say nothing of Matt Damon playing the ever-loving hell out of Mark Watney, someone who the audience demands be charming enough that we believe it is worth the effort exerted to bring him home from his extra-terrestrial exile.

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4. Ant-Man

This time last year I was one hundred percent certain that Ant-Man would be overshadowed by Age of Ultron. Which is a shame, I told myself, because I love the character and lesser-known heroes deserve a chance to find love from the greater public at large.

So how did Ant-Man manage to be the best superhero film we got this year? Not only by virtue of only having to compete with garbage like Fantastic Four and the mediocrity of Avengers : Age of Ultron, but by having the sort of wit and charm that works best for left-field characters like Scott Lang. Having one of the best ensemble casts of any major film this year didn’t hurt, because Michael Pena could salvage even the worst of films.

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3. The Hateful Eight

I was sure this was going to be number one for me. I was sure of it. And it is only by virtue of the strength of other films that this gets the bronze medal. Quentin Tarantino turns in what, after careful consideration, might be his most carefully constructed piece of writing to date, filmed with expert precision, making it by far his most stunningly shot film. Looking at the man’s filmography, The Hateful Eight is the culmination of everything that is Tarantino. It has the excess of Kill Bill with the claustrophobic tension of Reservoir Dogs and the steady focus of Inglourious Basterds. It is a difficult film. One that will be divisive and off-putting to most, but over time will likely be appreciated as one of the finest pieces of cinema produced not just by Tarantino but any director working in the modern age.

Thematically, it is the grandest of anything Tarantino has ever done. His statement on the concept of race relations and violence in America is pointed and vicious. This is a timely film. Only minor tweaks would be necessary to bring the film into the present day and the message would remain the same. That is part of the brilliance of Tarantino’s design. There is a bit of dialog in the film about the “disarming” characteristics of a certain letter that Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren has in his possession. So too is there a disarming quality to the idea of a violent Quentin Tarantino film. He has long been regarded as a man more inclined to style over substance but with The Hateful Eight he truly does have something to say and he is going to say it loud, painting a thematic slogan across the screen in blood all the while filmed in glorious Panavision 70mm.

I had a lot of conflicting ideas about this film. I think I’ve worked through most of them and have settled on a final opinion. For my original review, you can check out my Tumblr post.

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2. Star Wars – Episode VII : The Force Awakens

I cried. Let that sink in. In all of the prequels, I don’t think I ever had a single emotional response to anything presented on the screen. I had the same emotional attachment to the franchise, but it didn’t connect.

So what changed?

The fact of the matter is that the reason the latest Star Wars film works is because it has an emotional core. While the script may have some pretty glaring flaws, the result of unending rewrites and tinkering, the overall construction of the film is rooted in an emotional ideal. Our new leads are connected to something that we have an affinity for, but we could have easily wound up hating the ever loving bejeezus out of them. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have the unenviable task of being the new faces of Star Wars and not only do they do an amazing job, the managed to get me emotionally invested in their stories.

The “Hero’s Journey” trope has been rode into the ground and beaten within an inch of its life. So having that same story pattern brought up again and applied with Rey, my brain should have rejected it and dismissed it outright. Instead, the vibrancy with which she is brought to life makes me invested in the journey itself. I don’t mind familiar beats being hit again because when the beats land, they do so effectively with none of the clumsy handiwork of the prequels.

This feels like Star Wars again. On every conceivable level. And when Star Wars is good, it’s really really good. There’s a reason it is so long-lasting and endearing as a franchise beyond simple merchandising. There is magic in that universe. The Force Awakens proves that.

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1. Mad Max – Fury Road

I have never seen a film so visceral and economically minded with regard to storytelling as the fourth film in George Miller’s Mad Max saga.

This film is a modern marvel.

It should not work. Thirty years have passed since Max was on screen. Mel Gibson isn’t back. The continuity has been shot to hell. There’s very little in the way of dialog, which means virtually no exposition. How the hell were modern audiences going to react to a film that demanded that they fill in gaps with their imagination and critical thinking? Surprisingly they took to it like a fish to water and it became what has to be one of the most universally praised films I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know many people who didn’t think this thing was a masterpiece of cinematic genius. I know general consensus doesn’t amount to a whole lot but I’ll be damned if I’m not in awe of how universal the acceptance of Fury Road as a stunning benchmark in the name of cinematic achievement has become.

I really can’t say much more about the film. It stands on its own. It was the single most impressive film I’ve seen this year. I doubt we will see anything like it for a good long while.

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