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Ah, the poor Wii U. It never did quite capture hearts the way nearly all of its predecessors did, and I’ll be the first to admit that it never came close to reaching its potential as a home console. Nintendo had the odd strategy of baffling consumers with it and then plopping it onto shelves in the hopes that it would somehow take care of itself.

It never did. We know that. And just four short years later, Nintendo quietly killed it off, like a cast member it could never figure out how to integrate into plots. Last night the company hosted a live debut of The Switch, the Wii U’s replacement console. It’s officially dead, and it’s never coming back.

But there is one small benefit that comes from a console with such a short lifespan: it’s pretty easy to pinpoint its highs. And because it struggled for releases I can honestly say that I’ve played an uncommonly high percentage of games available for the system.

As such, I’d like to present to you the ultimate top 10. And, no, there’s absolutely no Mario here. (Perhaps that was one of the problems?)

As secondhand Wii Us become more plentiful and less expensive, this list might help you decide what to pick up in order to build a collection. And, you know what? If you just played these games, I bet you could trick yourself into thinking this was one of the best systems yet.

I will point out before we start that downloadable games are not exempt from consideration…but none of them made the list. I don’t think there was anything in the Wii U eShop that really demanded download, the way the Wii had with World of Goo, the two classic Mega Man reprisals, the BIT.TRIP series, the Art Style series, Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, and lots more.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that as much as people referred to it as a “first-party system,” there’s a good amount of third-party releases on this list. I honestly didn’t expect that, but I was pleased to see it.

The Wii U had some truly great games. It’s just a shame they were destined to be overlooked.

10) Sonic Lost World

I have no idea why this game gets brushed aside the way it does. I suspect it’s just because of the (rightful) prejudice that’s developed against modern day Sonic the Hedgehog games, because Sonic Lost World is a great deal of fun, and certainly one of the best titles in the series post-Genesis. I do remember reading a lot of grumbling about how closely the game attempted to emulate (or…rip off) Super Mario Galaxy, but having played it myself, I can only conclude that those people are parroting conclusions they couldn’t have possibly reached themselves. It’s nothing like Super Mario Galaxy…unless you count all the times that Sonic runs upside down or on the sides of walls, in which case the series has been ripping off Super Mario Galaxy since 16 years before that game was released. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun, unfairly dismissed, and one that’s definitely worth appraising on its own merits. It won’t change any lives, but it’s a very enjoyable few hours.

9) Nintendo Land

No, it wasn’t Wii Sports. No, grandma didn’t want to play it. No, it didn’t show off the console’s abilities in as urgently engaging a manner. But Nintendo Land was a legitimately great pack-in. Granted, on its own it was pretty dull, but playing with others was a blast. The concept — a themepark-inspired collection of minigames based on Nintendo’s various properties — was solid, and while the games weren’t of a uniformly high quality, the experience had a lot to recommend it. There were arcade games, adventure games, racing games, and even games that were more like puzzles. It was fun, and easily the best implementation of the Miis on the entire console. What’s more, the Luigi’s Mansion game is still probably the single best use of the gamepad, allowing some genuinely tense games of hide and seek between a group of players sitting next to each other on the couch. I’ll admit that I didn’t play Nintendo Land much, but whenever my friends and I did pull it out, I was reminded of just how much fun video games can be.

8) Batman: Arkham City

I’m noticing at this very moment that this is the only game on the list that was never exclusive to the Wii U. I think that may say something. As much guff as the Wii U got for lacking exclusives, the ones it did have were pretty darned good. Batman: Arkham City was playable on all of the major consoles of its generation, and I’m not going to tell you that this is the best way to play it. I don’t know that for sure, and I certainly don’t remember the gamepad giving me much more than a (welcome) map. But I will say that the game was great, superior to its already excellent predecessor Arkham Asylum in every way…except perhaps in focus. Arkham City probably had a bit too much going on, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, I distinctly recall fatigue setting in a few times over. If you self-police, though, and refuse to let yourself get bogged down in the far too numerous sidequests, instead cherry-picking only the ones that seem most interesting to you, you’ve got a great game, with some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever experienced. Some will tell you that Asylum is the better game. Others just as quickly point to City. Either way, though, you’re in for a soaring, dark, bone-crunching treat.

7) Bayonetta 2

I’ll admit, Bayonetta 2 makes this list due at least in part to the fact that the game came with a complete, remastered version of the first game…for no extra charge. I’d never played Bayonetta, so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. It was even better than the rave reviews led me to believe. It was brilliantly excessive and often deeply funny, with an attitude of unbridled, over the top abandon. And, somehow, the sequel had even less restraint. But what really made the game — both games — great was the combat, which seems confusing until you actually start trying the things the game teaches you. It’s the kind of game that seems to have endless combinations of buttons to remember, and which necessitates practice screens to get them right, but once you’re in the flow of an actual fight, it just…works. What seems impenetrable is revealed to be natural, and that’s a fantastic trick. To this day I’m not sure if I ever learned to play the game properly, or if Bayonetta and its sequel are just that good at making your mistakes look so stylish. Bayonetta herself is also one hell (ahem) of an engaging protagonist. Kudos to the games, as well, for taking a hyper-sexualized character and not making her seem hyper-sexualized at all. Bayonetta is just who she is. If that happens to be sexy, then so be it. You can stay there in the gutter; she’s got other places to be.

6) Rayman Legends

Rayman Legends is vastly inferior to Rayman Origins, its predecessor on the Wii. It doesn’t feel as inventive or unexpected (the uphill battle faced by all direct sequels, admittedly), and its mandatory gamepad sequences are, to be blunt, pretty awful. They entirely break the flow and pace of the game, and I can honestly say that I felt my heart sink every time I saw that I was in for another one of those levels. The fact that they seem to take the place of the mosquito-based shoot-em-up sequences from Origins made them even more disappointing; those levels broke format in a way that was exciting and fun. These just clog up the machinery. So why is it on this list? Because it’s still great. It says a lot about how fantastic Rayman Origins was that its far worse sequel is still wonderful in its own right. The levels (the standard ones, anyway) are all fun to play and full of surprises. The animation is fluid and downright gorgeous. The soundtrack is brilliant. And the musical levels? The musical levels are rightly lauded, and deeply rewarding to perfect. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the Wii U’s best games sees the gamepad being its biggest detriment. I’ll give Ubisoft credit for trying, though, and I mean that as a genuine compliment. But in the end, it was just a stone around the neck of an otherwise perfect platforming experience. And even with that hindrance, it’s a standout title of the entire generation.

5) Lego City Undercover

Grand Theft Auto is a fun series, but Lego City Undercover proves that you can have a lot of creative fun in an open world without having to lean on the appeal of mindless violence. (This isn’t meant to take anything away from Grand Theft Auto and its ilk; it’s just a genuinely nice surprise.) I adored Lego City Undercover. It was every bit what I imagined my little cities to be like when I built Lego structures as a kid. Racing around, finding new locations, tearing down and building up new buildings and objects…it was just fun. Much ado was made about excessive loading times, and that’s absolutely a fair complaint, but once you’re outdoors the entirety of Lego City is yours to explore, unbroken, and so the loading times don’t interfere with the action so much as they draw a line between chapters of the story. The writing and voice performances are also brilliantly funny, with silly jokes and sharp wit sitting side by side, peppering every conversation with laughs and making the game that much more of a delight to play. Lego City Undercover looked like a cute, simple kiddie game. But it was actually one of the best open world games I’ve ever played, and one of the few that kept me coming back long after the story was finished. I’m hoping that, one day, we can get a better-loved sequel.

4) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I remember when Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced for the Wii. People went ape. B-) ok but really tho, there was a huge amount of excitement about the return of the classic SNES-era platforming series. And, surprisingly, once the game was released that excitement was actually justified. Donkey Kong Country Returns wasn’t just another sequel; it was a great game. Less fanfare greeted Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That was to be expected, as it didn’t have the immediate “wow” factor of its predecessor. But that’s also a bit disappointing, as Tropical Freeze is absolutely the better game in every regard. Its levels are more varied, its soundtrack more memorable, and its character roster doubled. (The ability to play as Cranky is every bit the reward we always knew it would be.) It also seems to have a much more rational difficulty curve. Whereas Returns hit unexpectedly hard early in the game and never really eased up after that, Tropical Freeze feels more like an adventure of satisfying ups and downs. I’ve played through this one multiple times, and I’m sure I’m not done with it. I’d even say it’s the best Donkey Kong platformer yet. And if you don’t agree, brother, you’re…bananas. B-)

3) Yoshi’s Woolly World

I expected to like this game, but I never expected to love it the way I do. I was a big fan of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I think most people were…even if they wished for a higher level of difficulty. I never understood that criticism; Kirby games certainly didn’t have a reputation for being anything beyond “pretty damned easy,” and, frankly, the fact that you couldn’t die didn’t make Kirby’s Epic Yarn a cakewalk; there were optional collectibles for those seeking a challenge, and many of them were very well hidden. The reason I bring this up is that Yoshi’s Woolly World not only addressed the difficulty concern — both through collectibles and tough as nails secret levels — but it’s a better game overall. What’s more, I’m not even a particularly big fan of the Yoshi series. This one won me over with its perfect blend of platforming and exploration, fairly pitched challenge, and visual aesthetic that clearly lands on the all-time-best list. It’s one of the few games from this generation that I bothered to 100%, which was surprisingly difficult to do so. And I loved every moment of it, and I’m currently playing through the entire game again with my girlfriend. Yoshi’s Woolly World could have rested on many things: its cuteness, its series pedigree, its visual invention. And yet, every aspect of the game goes at least one step beyond expectation. It’s sweet, charming, and deeply fun. It reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. And that soundtrack is just so pleasant and comforting…I can still call to mind specific songs from certain levels, which is something I’m not sure I’ve been able to do since the SNES days. Yoshi’s Woolly World is the best of classic gaming combined with the best of modern gaming. It’s this generation’s unexpected masterpiece.

2) Pikmin 3

Whenever a new Nintendo console is released, you can expect to hear the same questions about a few of its franchises. “Where’s Metroid?” “Where’s F-Zero?” “Where’s Star Fox?” Well, I don’t join in those particular choruses, but I sure as hell wonder where Pikmin is. After skipping the Wii entirely (ports excepted, only one of which, I think, was even available in this country), the series returned on the Wii U. And it wasn’t just the comforting return of a great series…it was the best title, easily. I loved Pikmin from the moment I played it on the GameCube. In fact, much of what I loved about that game came from the biggest criticism other people had about it: the strict time limit. I felt that it added some real stakes and facilitated a different kind of approach to problem solving than I would have employed otherwise. Normally I’m a careful guy; give me a strategy title, and I’m going to take a lot of turns to accomplish my goal, but I’m also going to come through relatively unscathed. Take too long to accomplish Pikmin‘s goals, though, and you suffocate on an alien planet. The game encourages and requires a sort of artful carelessness, which often fences you into having to deal with the consequences of a decision you previously made in a fit of panic. It was beautiful, it was fun, and it was my favorite GameCube game. Sure enough, the sequel eliminated the time limit, and felt inconsequential as a result. I never even bothered to finish that one, whereas I played through Pikmin many times, eventually earning the best ending. Pikmin 3 offers a great middle ground. There is a time limit, but it’s one you can extend by playing well, giving you the chance to progress more or less at your leisure…but punishing you with much tighter deadlines if you don’t take your task seriously. In short, it’s the sequel the first game always should have had. It looks better, it plays better, it sounds better, and it’s a thousand times more focused than Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 would have been destined for this list even if it was a lazy reprise of the first game, because the first game was just that good. But what we got was a phenomenal experience, and one I’d be grateful for even if I enjoyed nothing else on the Wii U. And it’s still not the system’s best title…

1) Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

The Wii U didn’t have a distinguished life. It was never well-loved. It may not even be remembered fondly. But the games on this list aren’t good ones; they’re great ones. And yet when I sat down to write it, I know immediately what the best of the best would be. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is my favorite game on the console, and one of my favorites in years. It’s an incredible, fun, addictive experience that didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved. It was also one of the few to use the gamepad in any truly meaningful way, turning it into the interface for a messenger app used by the characters. So, that’s nice. But it’s not what makes Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE so great. No. That would be the incredible, colorful, memorable visuals. The absolutely stellar soundtrack, consisting of some great, original J-pop songs. The brilliant combat that occupies perfectly the space between complex and frustrating. And the characters. Oh, the characters. While Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE gets flak for its story — which, to be fair, is pretty light — it’s really a game about its own characters. As much as it often seems to be otherwise, it’s not about finding and fighting a big monster. It’s about people discovering who they are. Figuring out what they want to be. Finding the right ways to get what they need. It’s a game about friendship, about support, about coming to understand each other. It’s a game about teamwork, and about the power that comes when you find yourselves pulling together in the same direction. (Ellie best girl btw) It’s an adorable, unforgettable experience, with a long campaign and lots of optional sidequests that flesh out the world and the characters that occupy it. I found myself seeking out as many things to do as possible, just to spend a little more time with the game…and that’s not something that I do often. There was a bit of disappointment surrounding this title when it was released, due mainly to the fact that it was initially pitched to the public as a crossover between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei franchises. The result is a game that isn’t much like either, and that’s understandably disappointing for anyone who was hoping for the best of both. But Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a near-perfect RPG in its own right, and one of the most engrossing I’ve ever played. Not because I wanted to see what happened next…rather because, for once, I didn’t want to leave.

Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson

Vimeo now has Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes available for rent or purchase. That’s fantastic news in itself, but the best part is that they’d like to make more episodes available in the future…episodes that have never been legally available due to rights issues.

Their catalogue right now consists of 80 episodes…which is plenty to keep people busy, but also more than enough to overwhelm the uninitiated.

Episodes are an hour and a half long, after all. It’s an investment of time to decide whether or not you even like the show…and the fact is that they’re not all created equal. Each episode features a riff of a complete movie, which is what causes distribution rights issues, and also either boosts or restricts the comic mileage. Some films are ripe for riffing, others…not as much so.

I want people to support these videos, as this might be the only way we do get proper releases of long-missing episodes. At the same time, I want the people who support them to…y’know…WATCH THE GOOD ONES AND ENJOY THEMSELVES. So here’s a quick and dirty list of 10 legitimately brilliant episodes that are available right now. And since I haven’t seen all 80 yet, please let me know your own suggestions in the comments.

10) Eegah (1962)

(Season 5, Episode 6, Host: Joel)
EegahStarring the recently-deceased Richard Kiel, this is a perfect “gateway” riff for the uninitiated. Every aspect of terrible filmmaking is on display in Eegah, from hilariously awful ADR to incongruent musical sequences. The film itself is about a giant prehistoric man who lives on an (ostensibly) snake infested mountain, and then he goes to a swimming pool. This riff unseats Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure by featuring the single funniest usage of the song “Tequila.”

9) The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)

(Season 8, Episode 12, Host: Mike)
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up ZombiesI’m pretty sure the folks making this movie realized what a pile of shit it was before they released it, which is why it has a title that screams parody…and nothing else about it that does. An evil sorceress and her hideous assistant Ortega do that voodoo that they do so well, I guess, even though the zombies that the film is named after are barely in the thing. There’s also an incomprehensible comic relief character, and it all adds up to one of my favorite underappreciated riffs.

8) The Final Sacrifice (1990)

(Season 9, Episode 10, Host: Mike)
The Final SacrificeA Canadian action film that reminds the world of why there aren’t more Canadian action films. One of the great joys of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is watching them pull apart a film that means so well…and yet accomplishes nothing. Good intentions and horrid execution are a perfect comic match, and those are the films that lend themselves naturally to hilarious mockery. In The Final Sacrifice, the central pairing of heroes is so bungled it becomes a film-length joke in itself, with mustached pick-up truck enthusiast Zap Rowsdower helping a gangly youth find his father’s lost Lemon Mines.

7) Soultaker (1990)

(Season 10, Episode 1, Host: Mike)
SoultakerBoth films “starring” Joe Estevez make this list, and with good reason. Soultaker is some kind of severely mishandled meditation on fate, mixed with a story of love that outlives life itself, and has Joe Estevez. Joe Estevez plays Joe Estevez to perfection, as a Joe Estevez who takes souls with a little plastic ring he found under the couch. There’s a lurking sense of menace that never actually shows up, because that menace is played by Joe Estevez.

6) Gamera vs. Gaos (1967)

(Season 3, Episode 8, Host: Joel)
Gamera vs. GaosAny of the Gamera films are good choices for download, as, for whatever reason, the giant flying space turtle lends himself well to being made light of. Go figure! I almost chose the first film, Gamera, instead, but ultimately I’d have to give Gamera vs. Gaos a slight edge, as this one sees our meat-filled hero duking it out with a ropey-looking bat monster that appears to be in constant pain. There’s also a blood fountain. Like, one that somebody built on purpose. It’s pretty great.

5) I Accuse My Parents (1944)

(Season 5, Episode 7, Host: Joel)
I Accuse My ParentsMystery Science Theater 3000 is mainly remembered for riffing awful sci-fi and monster movies, and with good reason. However I Accuse My Parents is strong evidence that any kind of film, in the right hands, can become a comic masterpiece. This one is about one young man’s helpless slide into juvenile delinquency…the tragic and direct result of winning an essay contest. (I’m not kidding.) I’m sure somebody’s going to be upset that I put this one well above The Final Sacrifice, but I don’t care. This is one I absolutely love, with its bizarre tonal shifts and bungled moralizing. No, it doesn’t feature a man in a stupid rubber suit, but the riff is brilliant all the same.

4) Mitchell (1975)

(Season 5, Episode 12, Host: Joel)
MitchellIt’s the last of Joel’s riffs, and quite possibly his best. Mitchell is about one heroic cop that doesn’t do things by the book, but he gets results, dammit. Oh, and he’s played by Joe Don Baker, which means that this thrilling, devil-may-care attitude is filtered through an obese, repulsive idiot. As a character, Mitchell embodies perfectly the disconnect between intention and reality that Mystery Science Theater 3000 exploits so well. Mitchell arranges drug deals with elderly ladies, gets in shouting matches with children, and seems to forget what case he’s working on, as the crime that opens the film gets resolved off-camera through a single line we hear on the radio. Oh, and he comes with his own theme music. This one is a must see.

3) Werewolf (1996)

(Season 9, Episode 4, Host: Mike)
WerewolfAnything in the top three is good for an hour and a half of straight laughter…but I admit I have a slight preference for the Mike years over the Joel ones, so your mileage may vary. Werewolf is the other Joe Estevez masterpiece, and it is brilliantly, perfectly, gorgeously awful. It’s also, I think, the only werewolf film that features the titular monster driving a car. The lead actors (and / or the screenwriters) have no concept of correct grammar, and the big twist at the end of the film is something you’ll see coming from the opening credits. Speaking of credits, this one closes with a great singalong that’s worth the price of admission in itself.

2) The Pumaman (1980)

(Season 9, Episode 3, Host: Mike)
The PumamanYou know when a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy comes out and people who see it say things like, “No, it’s really good. Actually good, like a good movie. For real.” That’s because of movies like The Pumaman, which gave a truly terrible name to superhero films, a stigma that lingers to this day. Fortunately, though, this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 justifies the staining of the genre’s legacy. It’s an unforgettable film about an Indian who throws people out of windows, a man who adopts the powers of the puma (including flight for…some reason…), and an awful lot of poorly choreographed fighting…which this movie equates, inexplicably, with jumping from one side of the room to the other. Donald Pleasance is in it, too, in the role that made him wish he’d never been born.

1) Laserblast (1978)

(Season 7, Episode 6, Host: Mike)
LaserblastThis is it. The holy grail of movie riffs. Granted, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate isn’t available for download, but even if it were, I’m sorry…the Laserblast episode is the single funniest thing I’ve seen in my life. In fact, I remember watching this one when it first aired quite vividly. I didn’t know what it was called, but a few years ago I happened to see it again, and so many of the jokes came back to me. The two idiot cops, the absurd alien teleconferences, and a sex scene represented by kneaded back-fat all kept me laughing for weeks on end as a teenager. I think I only saw it once on television, but it’s stuck with me ever since, and revisiting it (which I’ve now done multiple times) never diminishes its charm or its brilliance. If I had to recommend only one, this would be it. Yet I can easily recommend all 10 on this list, and I look forward to reading your own suggestions below.

Tusk.

The final season of The Office began last week, with the lowest-rated premiere the show’s ever had. Even lower than the premiere of the first season, which I’m pretty sure was only watched by people so that they could give it a voodoo curse. As far as season 9’s premiere? I think more people witnessed the birth of Christ. So I thought it would be fitting to look for the silver lining on the cloud of crap, and highlight each of the 10 times that the US version of the show succeeded in not being utter shit.

I know I’ll be accused of exaggerating here, but, honestly, I think I’m totally justified in saying that there were, in fact, ten distinct times that The Office rose above the level of “outright garbage” and succeeded in being “arguably watchable.” You may think I’m being too generous, but I think it’s quite fair.

So join me now as we look back at the ten times The Office managed to narrowly beat the odds, and become something that didn’t reflect poorly on viewers everywhere.

“The Fire,” Season 2, Episode 4

Why It’s Not Shit: Whenever anybody tells you Ryan is their favorite character, they’re unquestionably referring to the Ryan of the first few seasons. It didn’t take The Office long to undo what could have been their richest and most interesting character, reducing him to a generic hipster stereotype and robbing him of his complicated brilliance. This episode sees the Ryan and Michael dynamic at its best, with a truly well-handled and ever-shifting sense of power: first Michael attempts to mentor him, then ridicules him for the vast knowledge he already has, then humbly appeals for guidance himself, and finally, with irrelevant triumph, puts Ryan back in place by taunting him about a small fire he accidentally started. It’s a great, real, character-driven story that shows these two characters being the flawed — often awful — human beings they are, without resorting to caricature or cartooniness.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Jim leads the rest of the office in a few time-killing games during the evacuation. That’s fine, but one of them is the rather baldly intentional “Who Would You Do?” The rest of the desert-island exercises are fun, but openly asking “yo who do you want to stick your genitals in” to coworkers he barely knows comes off as perverse, and a bit revolting. Additionally, it’s odd that Kevin gets yelled at for saying “Pam” before Jim finishes telling everyone how the game is played. This makes it seem as though Kevin behaved inappropriately, which is funny, but ultimately, no, that pretty much is how the game is played…so it’s puzzling that his response was treated with disgust, as though anyone else’s later responses shouldn’t be.

Ending on a High Note: A great, early character study showing Ryan and Michael both behaving like actual people, and Dwight showing real — not overtly manufactured and instantly undone — weakness. Enjoy it while you can.

“Take Your Daughter To Work Day,” Season 2, Episode 18

Why It’s Not Shit: It’s not exactly an episode that weaves several plotlines together, but its central conceit of introducing children to the office gives nearly everyone at least one great moment, and it also provides a good example of how to sketch out the personal lives of these characters without OH I DONT KNOW SENDING THE WHOLE OFFICE TO THEIR HOUSE FOR SOME SOCIAL FUNCTION NONE OF THEM WOULD ACTUALLY GIVE A SHIT ABOUT. We also see Michael at his most vulnerable, Pam displaying a humanizing (as opposed to irritating) kind of neediness, and Stanley yelling at Ryan…which is indeed genuinely scary.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Everything about Michael’s appearance on the children’s show works fine, until the writers seem to think we need everyone in the room to decide for us what it means. The short moment between young Michael and the puppet should be an act of devastating restraint, but instead it’s followed up by variations on “Hey, that thing you wanted is something you never got, huh?” A little too on-the-nose, and it hurts the moment substantially. Also, it ends with Michael and Dwight singing “Teach Your Children,” which works within the episode but lays the groundwork for every future episode in which the employees sing and dance for no fucking reason whatsoever, and otherwise remind you that the show was never as good as you thought it was.

Ending on a High Note: The interactions between Michael and Toby’s daughter are a series highlight, and this is a great way to give so many characters a fun spotlight without it feeling like the isolated sketch comedy of season eight.

“Grief Counseling,” Season 3, Episode 4

Why It’s Not Shit: The death of Michael’s old boss is met by the rest of the office with a notable lack of emotion, but an opportunity to discuss, explore, and accept death comes in the form of an unfortunate bird who flies into the glass doors downstairs. “Grief Counseling” is a strange episode that manages to be sombre without losing sight of the comedy, and manages to be funny without sacrificing some genuine insight into the human condition. It’s certainly a chance to explore Michael, whose emotional responses drive the action of the entire episode, but it’s also a fine showcase for Pam, who plays into Michael’s depressive fantasies by designing a respectful casket for the bird, and delivering a monologue to her hurting boss under the guise of eulogy.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: MEANWHILE JIM CALLS SOME PEOPLE TO FIND POTATO CHIPS IN THE LEAST RIVETING SUBPLOT THIS SIDE OF TOBY DANCES FOR COOKIES.

Ending on a High Note: The meeting in which Pam, Ryan and Kevin relay the plots of popular movies rather than share their own stories of death is an all-time great. Also, the conclusion of this episode has a great payoff in “The Return,” when Oscar asks about Dwight and Creed replies, “You didn’t hear? Decapitated. Whole big thing. We had a funeral for a bird.”

“Traveling Salesmen,” Season 3, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: Episodes that pair up characters in interesting ways and give them each a chance to shine, in the case of pretty much any show, tend to be quite good. During season 3 of The Office, the writers still remembered how to do that in a way that was organic to the situation, and realistic in terms of the work environment. While the sales calls themselves are brief we learn a lot about how these people operate day to day, while the cameras are off. We see normally suave Ryan falter, learn that the obstinate Stanley has actually built up a valuable network of business relationships, and we see newcomer Andy scheme his way to success, despite demonstrating a complete lack of aptitude. This was back when Andy alternated between conniving and frightening…two very interesting modes for the character that the show has abandoned in favor of making him sing all the God damned time.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: The Phyllis / Karen sales call is really just an excuse for a sight gag, and Angela’s glower during Andy’s final talking head is a bit obvious. But, to be honest, those are minor complaints, and this is a pretty great half hour of television.

Ending on a High Note: The entire thing is a high note, catching the office (and The Office) in a state of flux. New characters have been introduced, and the show is shaking up and developing existing relationships. These are both trends that would continue, but with conclusively diminishing returns. For now, the rewards are great.

“The Return,” Season 3, Episode 14

Why It’s Not Shit: “The Return” sees multiple plotlines — and ongoing dynamics — pay off in a single episode: Oscar’s “vacation,” Dwight’s resignation, Angela and Dwight’s relationship, Jim and Karen’s relationship, Jim and Pam’s flirtation, Andy’s angling for promotion, the dickishness of Jim’s pranks, and Andy’s anger issues. It’s a simple episode in which not much happens, but relationships are changed and characters are further defined. It’s a watershed episode in a show that at the time cared about what it meant when its characters said and did things, and Andy punching the wall is still as shocking a moment now as it was six years ago…only now it’s shocking because we’ve spent so much time with him as a defeated doormat that it no longer seems feasible.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: The party for Oscar and Dwight is a collection of unnecessary visual gags (Meredith in a mustache, Phyllis shaking her breasts around), but the amount of wasted time in this episode can be measured in seconds, and that’s all we can really ask.

Ending on a High Note: It’s about time there was a consequence for Jim’s immaturity, even if he’s not the one facing that consequence. Andy would return, emasculated, but we do get one truly brilliant moment with him before he’s changed forever, as he intends to apply his upwardly-mobile aggressiveness to anger management training itself, intending to complete it in half the allotted time.

“Product Recall,” Season 3, Episode 21

Why It’s Not Shit: The list of Office characters that haven’t become overplayed through the years is a short one, certainly, but Creed manages somehow to be both a continuing highlight, and consistent in his characterization. “Product Recall” is the closest thing we’ve ever had to a Creed episode, and even here he’s used sparingly. His off-camera shirking of his job responsibilities drives the plot, and he only really pops up to descend — beautifully — rung by rung into the levels of despicability. It’s a great and fittingly dark episode from an era in which the writers didn’t feel the need to soften blows and humanize monstrous behavior. We also get a great Andy and Jim pairing, and probably the only genuinely funny prank on Dwight, with Jim imitating his nemesis…and then receiving some payback in kind at the end of the episode. “Product Recall” took a lot of things that The Office so frequently got wrong, and then did them right.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: A Kelly subplot is never a good sign, but this one has a great moment of Oscar / Kevin bonding that more than redeems it. It’s disappointing that the cartoons look nothing like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Andy pining for a high school student is beyond creepy, but there’s enough great stuff here to warrant its inclusion, right down to the perfectly awful moment at the end, when Creed pockets the money he collected for the woman he got fired.

Ending on a High Note: Michael’s apology video may go literally nowhere, but it’s nice to see a crisis situation in this show that isn’t resolved by the staff hoisting him onto their shoulders and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

“Dinner Party,” Season 4, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: It’s all kinds of not-shit up in here. If I were to single out just one episode of The Office to be spared from a nuclear blast, and I do look forward to that day that I am put in such a position, this would be the one. It’s brilliantly acted, terrifyingly raw, and unrelentingly dark. What’s more, it gives the audience credit. While some of the Jan / Michael bickering is a bit heavy handed, we’re left with a lot of blanks to fill in on our own, and even the talking-head moments don’t bother to hammer home the obvious…they’re legitimately funny, perhaps due to the genuinely unsettling atmosphere of Michael’s desperate dinner party. There’s a real feeling of entrapment and helplessness there, and none of the characters involved know quite how to act. It’s true to life and it’s human, even down to the surprisingly moving climax that silently follows each of the characters home for the night. Until this entry, we haven’t had any episodes on this list that feature the staff leaving the office for anything other than work-related (ie: understandable) reasons. Dinner with the boss, however, is a situation both rooted enough in reality to work, and rife enough with awkwardness to make horrifying. The cameras follow the staff for good reason here…not like when they decide to have a charity run for rabies, or Michael gets lost in his hometown (huh?). Like “Product Recall,” it’s an episode that takes a lot of the ingredients of the show at its worst, and reassembles them into a thing of beauty.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Michael ran through a sliding glass door because he thought he heard the ice cream man. For that tiny detail, he must have shifted from well-intentioned-but-a-bit-dumb to Benjy Compson levels of retardation. Also, Jan’s character change (competent executive to raving lunatic) lays the groundwork for all too many other characters to do the same thing…with severely diminishing returns.

Ending on a High Note: Almost nothing but great lines in this one, though the standout goes to asskissing Andy, when Michael half-heartedly asks him and Jim if they’d like to think about investing $10,000 in Jan’s home-made candle business. “Thought about it. I’m in.”

“Prince Family Paper,” Season 5, Episode 13

Why It’s Not Shit: As many of the episodes on this list are turning out to be, this one is a great character showcase: in this case, Dwight. The show doesn’t always know what to do with Dwight. He’s a psychotically-devoted businessman, an ignorant farmboy, a sensitive romantic, a violent maniac, a playful child, a sycophant and a flailing comic boob, cycling through those roles as any particular script dictates. In this case, he’s firmly in the first category, and that’s good, because that’s what should drive him as a character. In “Prince Family Paper” he pairs up with Michael for some reconnaissance work at a small rival firm. What they find there, though, is a small family running an honest business, more interested in securing their own futures than in taking down the competition. Michael, of course, goes soft when the family extends the sort of human kindness to him that he wishes he could always expect from others. Dwight, however, has a different view. “It’s not personal,” he says, and as callous as he is he has a point. “It’s business.” This is why Dwight is the most successful salesman. This is why Dwight is so devoted to his work. This is why Dwight is almost always capable of being a more interesting character than he usually gets to be. He will sink a family as long as it’s business, just as quickly as Michael would spare one in spite of it being business. It’s a great and appropriately heavy episode which more than earns its bittersweet resolution.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Unfortunately around a third of the episode is given over to a pointless and unfunny office debate about whether or not Hillary Swank is hot. It’s garbage. Fuckin’ trust me.

Ending on a High Note: While the episode would have been far better as a Dwight / Michael adventure with little or no input from the rest of the staff, the A plot is more than strong enough to carry the episode. Also, Michael’s “bittersweet” speech at the end of the episode is one of the only times the show truly nailed the mix of comedy and pathos that should end an episode like this.

“Dream Team,” Season 5, Episode 22

Why It’s Not Shit: The Michael Scott Paper Company arc is not only the last truly great thing the show ever did, it’s arguably the single best thing the show ever did. New boss Charles Miner lends such an air of uncomfortable change to the familiar surroundings that pretty much any arc that sprung from it would have been welcome. But Michael crashing hard against reality when he tries to start his own rival paper company is both a perfect fit for the character, and an excellent way to ground a show that was already becoming a bit cartoony. “Dream Team” may or may not be the best episode of the arc — it’s hard to say, because this particular storyline is more heavily serialized than anything else — but it’s a great distillation and exploration both of Michael’s tendency to dream too big, and why one needs to feel satisfied in his or her own life. Everything from Michael’s panicky overcooking of French toast for breakfast to Ryan stealing shoes from a bowling alley to Nana’s lucid refusal to invest in the company fills in the blanks in such a way the The Office really should have been doing since day one. And Pam’s emotional collapse toward the end of the episode leads to a genuinely moving conversation between herself and Michael. It’s a mixed moral — the fact that she quit her job is never quite presented as a good decision — but it feels like its own kind of happy ending. After all, if we have to go down, we might as well go down together.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Ryan popping up for this arc makes perfect sense. Ryan sticking around after this arc makes no motherfucking sense whatsoever.

Ending on a High Note: Charles Miner installing Dwight as his number two, making Kevin the receptionist and keeping Jim at arm’s length makes for some great character comedy, as our perspective is tweaked just enough to make familiar situations feel fresh. Also, the fact that Pam ultimately returns to the company as a salesperson leaves the reception desk wide open for the last great character the show ever created: the infectiously bubbly and adorably daft Erin.

“Counseling,” Season 7, Episode 2


Why It’s Not Shit: Toby’s role in the show as Michael’s foil so rarely got a chance to shine, as Michael was always fast to dismiss him cruelly and Toby — we see clearly — was fast to believe he deserved such dismissal. In this episode, however, Michael is forced to undergo a marathon six-hour counseling session with his nemesis, and it results in probably the last truly interesting character interaction this show’s had. Michael cycles through refusal, fabrication, anger, abuse, and finally acceptance in a script that feels like it could have been written for a two-man stage show. Toby never quite gets a handle on the situation the way he wishes he did, but he means well, and even has a genuine moment of breakthrough with Michael…though, of course, once Michael’s aware that he’s opening up to Toby, he shuts it down immediately, and storms out of the session. It’s a way for both characters to have a mutually-fulfilling experience, without sacrificing the inexplicable one-sided hatred that’s fueled the dynamic between these characters all along. In the end, they bond briefly over the uselessness of Gabe in a conversation that would seem at least slightly meta, if the writers could be counted on to realize that these two are right, and there’s really no reason for that guy’s continuing presence. Oh well, at least he dressed as Lady Gaga in the Halloween episode and oh boy was that fucking funny my God this show sucks.

Why It’s Actually Still Kind of Shit: Dwight’s Pretty Woman subplot genuinely feels like a rejected idea from Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s absolutely terrible, and probably a pretty good indicator of what a Dwight Schrute-centered sitcom would look like. THANK GOD NOBODY’S DOING THAT RIGHT. The better subplot revolves around Pam bluffing her way to Office Administrator. Why they felt they needed the Dwight garbage when they already had plenty of stuff going on in this episode is beyond me.

Ending on a High Note: Dwight’s idea for a daycare center in the building is kind of worthless, but I do like the sight-gag of an Insane Clown Posse poster on the wall, with “Insane” and “Posse” crossed out. It’d be a lot funnier if the camera didn’t obnoxiously zoom in the make sure we got the joke but what can you do.

Were there any other episodes that weren’t shit? If not, let me know in the comments below. And also you’re wrong.

I’ve been playing a lot of Mega Man lately, which is what tends to happen when I’m still alive and breathing. I’ve also been listening to a lot of music, for much the same reason. So I got to thinking…what if I could combine the two? I’d be rich! Then I found out that a lot of other people already beat me to it. Let’s take a look at 10 songs that politely share their names with bosses from the Mega Man series. We’ll also try evaluate just how well they’d slot themselves into the series as replacement stage music.

1) “Fire Man” – Burning Spear
Fire Man, Mega Man


Applicability to the Robot Master: I’d say it’s about 70% applicable. Of course, since 70% of the lyrics are “fire down below,” that’s pretty much a gimme. It also mentions people running around, which is a suitable image for Fire Man’s dropping of those little flaming bastards eveywhere. Burning Spear gets caught up in an homage to “I’m a Little Teapot,” which muddies the waters a bit though.

As Replacement Stage Music: The infective reggae groove is a bit laid back for the industrial hazards of Fire Man’s stage, but it certainly brings to mind feelings of scorching heat, and that’s really all we can ask.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. Come on.

Overall: A good fit for the stage and for the boss. Probably what Fire Man kicks back and listens to when he has a mellow afternoon off.

2) “Ice Man” – Filthy McNasty
Ice Man, Mega Man



Applicability to the Robot Master: Around 60%. The song is sung from an ice delivery man’s perspective, and it’s full of double entendres about the women to whom he delivers his load. (There’s one right there.) Such relentless punning is a suitable fit for the Mega Man series, which is based on some thematic rock-scissor-paper wordplay.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s certainly repetitive enough to fit on the original Mega Man soundtrack.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: It’s longer, so, therefore, no.

Overall: Both Ice Man and Filthy McNasty would have a blast laughing their asses off over the fact that there are multiple meanings to the word “pussy.” For everyone else, this song is pretty annoying.

3) “Top Man” – Blur
Top Man, Mega Man 3



Applicability to the Robot Master: The lyrics really don’t apply to Top Man at all. Imagine that! He doesn’t reside in a desert, he doesn’t ride a magic carpet, and he doesn’t puke on the pavement. He may or may not like his women clean and shaven, though…his agent has yet to return my call about that.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s got a fun and bouncy beat that would actually mesh quite well with Top Man’s bizarre ferns-in-glass-casing stage, but it’d certainly give the experience a far less urgent feel.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: No. Top Man’s original music is among the best in a series that’s almost uniformly great. Sorry, Blur…ya can’t stop the Top.

Overall: Not really applicable to Top Man, so there’s little to enjoy about the coincidental title. “He’s a little boy racer” is about the only line that could even conceivably apply to him, and even then it’s not particularly evocative of the NES game. Blur should be ashamed of themselves.

4) “Needle Man” – Skrewdriver
Needle Man, Mega Man 3



Applicability to the Robot Master: At first I’d have said a solid 0%, but after listening to the song I realize that this is providing valuable background information for the notoriously spastic Needle Man: he’s a junkie! No wonder he’s such a beast…the poor guy’s been tweaking in a dark room for weeks on end before Mega Man shows up. Needle Man probably thinks he’s fighting Nazis or something. It also explains his incredible strength and speed. Drugs kill, kids…but in the meantime they sure can make life Hell for the people you slap around.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’d work. Needle Man’s current theme is pretty weak as it is, with a strange kind of meandering salsa that never gets anywhere. This would give the stage some much needed energy.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Without question.

Overall: We now know that the Needle Cannon Mega Man gets is firing dirty syringes…just to further complicate the “war for peace” morality of the series.

5) “Starman” – David Bowie
Star Man, Mega Man 5



Applicability to the Robot Master: I’d say 50%. It’s perfect thematically and the chorus is dead on, but the rest of the lyrics speak of an interglactic rock star, and I’m not sure Star Man harbors the same moonage daydreams. Regardless, “There’s a Starman waiting in the sky” might as well be a warning from Dr. Light, and the floaty, expansive nature of the music fits the low gravity stage and boss fight quite well.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s pretty perfect. Bowie knows better than any musician alive — barring, maybe, the members of The Flaming Lips — how best to paint majestic starfields with just some guitars or synths. It’d mesh quite well with the gameplay of that stage as is.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. Some people say that Star Man has the best music in Mega Man 5. Don’t trust those people; they are obviously liars or insane. (Charge Man bitches.) Whatever anyone might think, though, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a superior album to this Mega Man soundtrack. THERE I SAID IT.

Overall: Let all the children boogie.

6) “Plant Man” – Gary Young
Plant Man, Mega Man 6



Applicability to the Robot Master: 100%. There is only one lyric in this song, which repeatedly states that Plant Man knows if / where / that the plants will grow. Uh…no argument there, Gary.

As Replacement Stage Music: The song is atrocious, but…sure, why not. If we’re playing Mega Man 6 we deserve the punishment.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. It has notes and a melody, and is therefore superior to every track in this game.

Overall: A perfect fit. Speaking of “perfect fit,” Gary Young’s astroturf tuxedo in this video is the same one that Plant Man wore to his junior prom. When he went to his senior prom he didn’t have to wear anything…because he was somebody’s corsage! Fucking lol!

7) “Cloud Man” – Grieves
Cloud Man, Mega Man 7



Applicability to the Robot Master: A whopping 80% or so. It’s not only a song with weather conditions as a major theme, it has a deliberate and contemplative detachment that suits Cloud Man’s isolation and permanent scowl perfectly. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Cloud Man is a bit depressed. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s weak to fucking soap bubbles.

As Replacement Stage Music: I’d say it’s appropriate. The downtrodden, sluggish pace of the song absolutely mirrors the dark and rainy sections of Cloud Man’s stage, and…well…it’s just a pretty great song period. It’d stand in interesting contrast with the sunnier, brighter visual approach to Mega Man 7.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Debatable. Overall I’d say it definitely nudges it out, but Cloud Man’s theme is already pretty great, and this kind of overt moodiness would probably feel out of place among the game’s other tracks, however refreshing the change in atmosphere (see what I did there?) might be.

Overall: This music’s sad and you should feel sad.

8) “Astro Man” – Jimi Hendrix
Astro Man, Mega Man 8 and Mega Man & Bass



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no idea. 0%, 100%, or anything in between. I have no idea what this song is about, but I’m pretty sure Astro Man, whoever he is in this song, is calling Superman a faggot.

As Replacement Stage Music: Not at all. Jimi’s guitar is as fiery as ever, but Astro Man’s space- and technology-themed stages (he has two) would probably benefit more from some straight, swirling techno than screaming six-string theatricality.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. His current stage themes sound like rejects from a Jane Fonda workout video.

Overall: Astro Man sucks.

9) “Magic Man” – Heart
Magic Man, Mega Man & Bass



Applicability to the Robot Master: Apart from the “he’s a Magic Man” assurance, I’d say nothing. Though, arguably, “try to understand” could be Capcom imploring us to accept the fact that they were so dry on ideas that they had to resort to a Magic Man at all. Otherwise, it’s doubtful that the Wilson sisters would be irresistibly seduced by this robot master, who, to put it politely, looks like Pee-Wee Herman and Steve Urkel got together and had a gay baby.

As Replacement Stage Music: Not really. It houses a great jam, but it wouldn’t at all fit Magic Man’s carnival approach to stage design. The passionate defense of the “Magic Man” in the song though would suit the game nicely, as it’s often derided along with Mega Man 8 as being well worth skipping.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: No question. Magic Man’s stage theme sounds like it’s lifted from an SNES Barney adventure.

Overall: Magic Man wishes someone would sing about him like this. Until then, he sits alone doing card tricks. And masturbating.

10) “Tornado Man” – Las Aspiradoras
Tornado Man, Mega Man 9



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no fucking idea. It’s pretty clearly not in English so I can’t understand it…but damn do I love it.

As Replacement Stage Music: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Absolutely perfect for the rainy, thundery, thousand-mile-high gauntlet of Tornado Man’s stage. Tornado Man’s level is a brutally addictive experience, much like this thrashing, gorgeously filthy nonsense.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Nah, Tornado Man’s theme, like everybody’s theme in this glorious game, is utterly brilliant.

Overall: Would be a great fit…but Tornado Man’s already well served by his current tune.

11) BONUS: “Sword Man” – His Majesty Baker Jr.
Sword Man, Mega Man 8



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no idea because I couldn’t find it on youtube. But look at that album cover. Yes, there’s a song called “Sword Man” on this album. This one. By a guy who calls himself His Majesty Baker Jr. with some pretty confusing capitalization.

As Replacement Stage Music: I mean, what is he doing? What is this? No part of this cover makes sense to me. It’s a man with a big smile wearing a green pinstripe suit, a leprechaun hat, and leaning against a pile of money that’s far too large to be legal tender.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: And he’s doing this against a backdrop of more money, with the figure $30,000 indicated above. That’s a lot of money, in a way, but in another way, if you’re going to invent sums to make yourself seem rich wouldn’t you reach much higher than that? It doesn’t register as being particularly large…or small…it’s just somebody’s annual salary, and it’s nobody who could afford to be caught wearing a suit like that in public.

Overall: I don’t understand what I’m looking at. What is this? He has gold rings on every finger of his right hand. And how many points does his God damned handkerchief have? I hate this. I’m going to bed.


[Note: This article originally appeared in an earlier version on Noise to Signal.]

With the looming release of Moonrise Kingdom, it’s a given that we’ll soon find ourselves awash in reviews that, predictably, betray their authors’ confusion at what it is Wes Anderson — in a word — does.

Not so much what Wes Anderson does with a particular film itself, but what Wes Anderson does as a film maker working today. Reviews often seem to want to discuss all of his films at once, and make grand dismissive statements about wooden characterization, a complete lack of emotion, and the impossibility of any human being relating to the feelings or motivations of his characters.

In response I issue this…a list of what I feel are ten thoroughly, genuinely, painfully affecting moments in his films. Anderson might not handle emotion the way most American filmmakers handle emotion (read: tears, strings and rain), but the films of Wes Anderson provide a clued-in audience with some of the most sincerely (and strangely) moving moments, which haunt and linger far longer than those of his contemporaries. So read on, share, and enjoy.

Oh, and before anyone asks…no. I did not forget about Bottle Rocket or Fantastic Mr. Fox.

10) “That’s a hell of a damn grave. I wish it were mine.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


The Royal Tenenbaums is segmented into chapters, like a novel, or possibly a biography. But one scene stands outside of the film’s literary organization: between Chapter Three and Chapter Four, we have a lengthy installment entitled Maddox Hill Cemetery. It’s here that various characters pair off — and re-pair off — for the sake, yes, of plot development, but also for some of the film’s most truly painful Tenenbaum interaction.

From Royal shaking a few flowers free of his own bouquet for the grave of Chas’ wife to Richie giving his signature silent greeting to a passerby who recognizes him from his glory days, Neither Anderson nor his actors nor his original score composer, stumble at all. Everything is here, either spoken or unspoken. We see exactly why the Tenenbaums, on some level, yearn to operate together as a family, and also — more apparently — why they never can.

It’s appropriate that Maddox Hill Cemetery stands without a chapter number…it exists, moreso than any other sequence in the film, during several time periods, with each of the Tenenbaum children having a flashback that explains at least partly the gap between their glorious childhood and their tormented adult lives.

Composer Mark Mothersbaugh understands this scene on some level far beyond the structural and even the emotional. He understands what fuels the world in which The Royal Tenenbaums exists, and his score for this scene ranks high among his absolutely strongest work. His score here is beautiful, bashful, and aware of its own limitations. This is the music you would hear if you dropped a phonograph needle onto Richie Tenenbaum’s heart, and it stirs that rare, perfect emotion that can only be felt when a brilliant director, a brilliant cast and a brilliant composer work off of each other in profound harmony.

9) “You’re a real jerk to me, you know that?”
Rushmore


One of Max Fischer’s crimes against himself — perhaps his cardinal offense — is his habit of fixing his gaze on objects beyond his reach, and missing out on everything that’s right by his side, just waiting for him to come back around.

He seems to come to this realization himself toward the end of Rushmore, when classmate Margaret Yang stumbles upon him flying a kite. Margaret forces him to face the fact that his self-important social climb has emotional consequences as well. “You’re a real jerk to me,” she says. “You know that?” And we know that her words have taken root, because he actually apologizes — a defining moment for a very-much-changed Max.

He is sorry, because by this point in the film it’s clear his pursuit of Miss Cross has come to nothing…and a young woman who’s given him sympathy and support has been actively hurt by his callous inattention.

There’s more than a little caution — however unintentional — present in the little story she tells him as well: her science fair project was a lie. She faked the results. Max understands the gravity of what she has said here, and it stings. In fact, it’s why, immediately afterward, he decides to atone for his own falsified data by introducing Mr. Blume to his father…the barber.

8) “The battery’s dead, too.”
The Darjeeling Limited


One very interesting thing about The Darjeeling Limited is that its two most affecting scenes are intertwined with one another (structurally, this one is sandwiched between two halves of the other), so that all of the film’s most brutal emotion comes in one continuous hit. Typically Anderson spreads it thin, leaving lines and gestures stranded in places sometimes very far removed from the previous or next display of emotion…not so here.

But that’s not to say he does it any less adequately in Darjeeling. In fact, this particular scene, in which the three Whitman brothers attempt without success to drive their father’s car to his funeral, is among Anderson’s finest achievements, hands down. (In fact, I’d venture to say that it would work better as a short film than Hotel Chevalier did.)

The entire scene is a display of thoroughly misplaced attention, as it’s more important to the Whitmans to drive to their father’s funeral in a symbolic vehicle than it is for them to make it on time, and they end up, it’s suggested, missing the event entirely for all their fussing. It’s symptomatic of the problems they must have faced as a family all along: it’s not that they can’t work together, it’s that when they do work together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.

But it’s still touching, and more than a little painful, when they try their best to do what they feel must be done, and this manic several minutes, deliberately plucked from a very different place and time in their lives, is highlighted by the most impressive display of brotherhood we ever see from the Whitmans when they threaten and stare down a tow-truck driver who nearly crashes into them. Was the tow-truck driver in the wrong? Of course he wasn’t. But even when the Whitmans manage to pull together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.

7) “I’m a little bit lonely these days.”
Rushmore


Dr. Guggenheim’s stroke brings Max Fischer and Herman Blume together again for a brief ride in an elevator that somehow, without really saying anything, says absolutely everything anyone needs to know about these characters.

There’s not so much an obvious awkwardness between the two as there is an unspoken yearning to reconnect. They miss each other. Serious topics are touched upon (Blume’s divorce, Miss Cross’ whereabouts) but neither man is able to say anything much of substance. They bat a few banalities back, and forth and ultimately refuse eye contact.

But there is a love there…that love that rides a mutual respect, and can never quite be killed. Blume’s initial “Hey, amigo,” is a clear linguistic nod to the fact that he would still love to consider Max a friend, but cannot actually bring himself to use the word. And Max’s final line upon Blume’s departure (“Hey, is everything okay?”) is helplessly genuine. Blume’s confession of loneliness is made all the more painful by the logistical fact that, as he says it, he only allows Max a few of the back of his head. As much as they need each other, and even as they reach, they can’t yet let each other in.

6) “I’ve had a rough year, dad.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


When I first put together this list, five long years ago, this was one moment that I considered, and ultimately put aside. Today, I can’t account for that decision, as it’s sincerely one of the most touching things in a movie bursting with emotional merit.

As Royal Tenenbaum attempts to reconnect with his family, he meets with varying degrees of success from each of them. Without any question, however, the most difficult obstacle he has to face is Chas. Chas has been both robbed and shot by his father during the course of his childhood, but what stings most for him is the fact that his dad let the family fail. When his parents separated the children were never the same, and Chas’ channeled his frustration at his parents into shaping his own family unit, providing for them a secure and stable environment that was ultimately ripped away from him by the plane crash that took his wife.

Chas did indeed have a rough year, but that’s not what makes the moment so important. It’s not the confession, but who he’s confessing it to. As much as Chas kept his emotions to himself, it’s ultimately the father who hurt hum so much that gives him the comfort he needs. The tears he cries when Royal buys his boys a new dog to replace the recently departed Buckley are real, and he sees a sincere selflessness in the gesture…one that’s superficially small, but relatively enormous.

Chas lets his father back in, but Royal is not long for this world, and he himself dies not much later. In a twist neither man could have seen coming, Chas is the one who spends Royal’s dying moments with him. It’s a profoundly emotional coda to the most openly antagonistic relationship in a film rife with them, and it’s all elevated by the genuinely moving portrayal of Chas by Ben Stiller. Proof positive that Wes Anderson can work wonders with just about anyone, and a moment as deserving of a spot on this list as any other.

5) “All hands bury the dead.”
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou


We know very little of Ned’s life before he joined up with Team Zissou, and, as far as the interests of the film are concerned, that’s a good thing. It makes his last moments on board the Belafonte that much more significant.

Had we been granted a more comprehensive view of his life, Team Zissou would represent only a small portion of all those he came to know. With our much narrower perspective, the ship’s crew represents everybody we’ve seen him interact with, and their turnout to wave farewell before his final flight is almost overpowering in its significance. None of these characters suspects that they will never see him alive again, and yet they’re all there…seeing him off. It’s just one of those many morbid coincidences that none of these characters would really understand.

Most touching is Klaus’ farewell, which includes, importantly, an olive-branch by way of salute. He wants Ned to know how much it means to him that he worked a K — for Klaus — onto the redesigned Team Zissou insignia, but more importantly he wants him to know that he’s at last ready to accept him as a fellow member of the crew. (And, in terms of the de-facto Zissou family, a brother.)

Steve is the only one who does not get the chance to say goodbye to Ned, though he is present for his final moments, and it is he who pulls his body to shore. It’s more than a little telling, as well, that the sharp cuts in Steve’s “death vision” sequence are so similar in style to those of Richie Tenenbaum. The difference, of course, is that Richie lived a full emotional life with much to reflect upon…while Steve’s visions are nothing more than flat colors, bubbles rushing to the surface, and one fleeting, final glimpse of Ned, who financed the voyage monetarily, and then, with more than a little symbolism, paid for it with his life. Steve falling to his knees on shore with the body of the man who was — for all intents and purposes — his son is a beautifully framed, hauntingly understated moment of silent, unforgettable sorrow. But Ned’s not the only one to come to an early, watery end…

4) “I didn’t save mine.”
The Darjeeling Limited


The turning-point for Peter Whitman (and arguably for the film itself) comes when the three brothers see three young Indian boys fall helplessly into a dangerous river. That’s one boy for each brother, right? And because they’re well-to-do Americans they get to play automatic heroes. There’s nothing at all at stake when the Whitmans dive in after the boys. Mathematically, everything is going to be just fine.

Imagine, then, the shock to Peter Whitman when he fails to save one of the children. He emerges from the river bloodied and bruised, carrying a lifeless body, and he’s so far beyond emotion that he can’t do anything but mutter flat, impotent confessions. “I didn’t save mine.” “He’s dead.” “The rocks killed him.” The audience might believe, initially, that Peter’s blow to the head left him stammering, but it’s clear before long that the real damage was wrought more deeply. His entire sense of life and possibility has been thrown for a loop–he was not the hero he expected himself to be. In fact, he was a failure. He ends up carrying a dead child to a grieving father, in a land he does not know or understand, and though Peter does not cry, it’s not because he feels nothing; it’s because he feels a sorrow too large to convey.

The Whitman brothers spend a good deal of time in this village, and Peter may never be able to atone for what’s happened, but he does come out of the experience with a much matured view of his own impending fatherhood, which now holds an unexpected meaning for him. He may not be a completely changed man but, after this incident, he is no longer the man he was just a few days earlier, when he openly considered leaving his wife before his child was born.

Adrien Brody, as of this film, is a newcomer to Anderson’s menagerie of reliable actors, and as of this precise moment, when he emerges from the river stuttering helplessly about the child whose life he could not save, he establishes himself as a perfect fit. (Also, for the record, Brody wins the Saddest Eyes award for The Darjeeling Limited, which is always a serious achievement in a Wes Anderson film.)

3) “Mr. Blume…this is my father, Burt Fischer.”
Rushmore


There’s no greater change wrought in Max throughout the course of Rushmore than the one so clearly on display when he humbly introduces Mr. Blume to his father. He is letting Blume see a side of him that very few people have been invited to see, but also he is showing it to himself, letting himself, for once, be reflected in his own eyes.

One great thing about this scene that can easily go unnoticed is that the two adults are each aware of more than they’re actually saying. Mr. Blume had earlier been led to believe that Max’s father was a neurosurgeon, and it’s safe to assume that Mr. Fischer is aware that his meager occupation has probably been kept a careful secret by his enterprising son…and yet neither of them speak of it. Blume’s heart breaks, and you can see it in Bill Murray’s supremely expressive eyes, not just because he’s been allowed a glimpse behind Max’s carefully constructed shell, but also because he feels acutely the distance between father and son, preventing both parties from connecting the way they’d each like to — and need to — connect.

“I don’t know, Burt,” says Blume, apropos of nothing, and it’s one of the most honest lines in the film. Something real is being revealed to him here, and he’s incapable of coping with it. Some silent lesson is being preached, and he’s aware that its moral will be at least somewhat lost to him. He envies the simplicity of the barber’s life, and at the same time understands precisely, guiltily, the reason Max aches to rise above it.

2) “I wonder if it remembers me.”
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou


When Steve Zissou finally comes face to face with the Jaguar Shark, there’s very little he can do but ponder the wisdom of his journey, and reflect — wordlessly — upon everything his crew has had to endure in pursuit of his purely selfish, short-sighted revenge.

The submarine (aptly named Deep Search) contains what remains of his crew and his family…along with a business partner, a reporter, an intern, and a representative of the bond company, all of whom have suffered in some tangible way for the advancement of Steve’s goal. And yet, when he finally reaches that goal, he breaks down. He cries openly, for the first and only time in the film. He gains — a long, long way into his life and career — some perspective of the greater world around him, and he sees, at last, how little right he had to so carelessly jeopardize other people’s lives.

The real weight in the scene is the non-presence of Ned, who died in pursuit of the beast, and we suspect that the death of his previous crewmate Esteban sits heavy on Steve’s conscience as well. His emotion is coming from the fact that it took him too long to realize the price of his revenge, and that what’s lost is really lost forever. There’s no way to go back and undo the very real damage he’s done along the way.

He is forgiven, however, in the midst of his wordless reflection, by those along for the ride on Deep Search. One by one, his remaining companions each lay a comforting hand on him. There are no accusations, and there is no anger. They find themselves in a submarine with a captain who has at last become fragile and human, and, one hand at a time, they do their part to hold him together.

1) “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”
The Royal Tenenbaums


There’s very little that can be said of a scene that says everything itself so well. Relied upon — and used — by so many others as the most level-headed and caring of the Tenenbaum family, the viewer is more aware than any of the characters how much suffering he internalizes. And so, when at last he learns more about his adopted sister than he was ever prepared to know, and he walks slowly and quietly out the door without saying a word, we know that something is about to happen, and it’s not going to be good.

Elliott Smith’s terrifying “Needle in the Hay” starts up, and Anderson does something very clever by starting it over an unrelated scene, in which Royal converses hopefully with a hotel manager about a job. A first-time viewer would never catch it, but upon each subsequent viewing those dark, razor-sharp chords bring a very vivid image to mind, and throughout a comic scene we are inescapably aware of a parallel tragedy.

The entire sequence with Richie in the bathroom is cut brutally, hastily…it doesn’t flow; it’s been hacked to pieces. This serves to echo not only the immediate content of the scene, but also the end to which it builds. His cutting away at hair, his beard, and then, desparately, his wrists.

It’s Anderson at his most fearless; he’s triggering emotions, but not allowing anyone to get caught up in them. There is no moment during which any characters take pause to weep. The score is not touching — it’s tough and tightly-squared. It’s played blue and emotionless, which is, of course, why it works so well. We are not asked to align ourselves with anybody else’s emotions…we are supposed to view what is happening from the perspective of an outsider. We are meant to feel growing concern as Richie removes his headband, his hair, his beard, his glasses…as he exposes himself at last to the world he sought so strongly to shut out. Layer by layer he is shaving himself down, becoming more vulnerable. And when he sees what’s beneath — that young man who, at one point, could have had absolutely anything — he attempts to destroy it.

We are allowed brief dips into his thought process by means of abrupt, almost subliminal flashes of film we’ve already seen, and it’s not so much meant to represent a dying man’s last glance backward as it is meant to highlight the agony of a man who can no longer stand to be alive.

Richie Tenenbaum still stands as Anderson’s most tragic character, and certainly the least deserving of his own pain. And that’s precisely what makes him so real.

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