Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

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Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

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As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

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Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

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In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

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At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

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Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

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Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

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By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”


Show me what you lie about and I’ll show you who you are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz had an interesting op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend. Using data from Google searches and social media posts, he makes a point about the separation between our public and private lives:

Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

But this isn’t just a useful reminder to check your envy when you see yet another picture of your friend’s trip to the alpaca farm.

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I know it’s hard to not be jealous of how fluffy that hug looks, but try.

This is a strong tool for better understanding the people you create from whole cloth.

Nobody Tells The Whole Truth

We need to draw a distinction between deception and omission.

Deception requires actively perpetuating falsehoods. Omission involves allowing a false impression due to lack of contrary evidence.

The line between deception and omission can be thin.

  • We think things about people that we never say to them, whether these are feelings of affection, disgust, or anything in-between. We omit this information. It becomes a deception if we say something contrary to what we’re thinking about them.
  • We post that picture of an expensive dinner we had, but we don’t share that we used a Groupon to be able to afford it. It’s a deception if we take the Bow Wow challenge and use the picture to talk about how fancy we are 24/7.
  • We show up for book club even though we only started reading the book the day before and nod along to the conversation. The omission lets us enjoy the company of others. It becomes a deception if we skim some talking points about the book from other sources and try to contribute as if they were our own thoughts.

Even though it may seem that omission is just a lesser form of lying, by the very nature of the self, we never truly share everything about ourselves with those around us.

Even people who regularly overshare are engaging in a deception: Wishing to be thought of as a completely open book. But even the person who will tell you every minute, embarrassing detail of their lives is still withholding information from you.

Take a moment and sit quietly. Follow how many thoughts you have in just one minute. No seriously, set a timer…

It’s amazing how long a minute can feel. Now imagine the exhausting task of sharing every single stray thought over the course of a day. Imagine the impossibility of communicating with others if we had to wade through all the noise in each other’s heads.

That’s why we pick and choose what parts of ourselves we present to others.

In a sense, deception is aspirational. Fake it ‘till you make it. An attempt to put forward the image of ourselves we wish we could truly be.

Here again, we need to draw the line: Omissions that don’t give others the whole story are natural and unavoidable. Lies are deliberate attempts to misdirect people toward false impressions.

Lies raise the stakes. You can forgive an honest omission, but a lie increases the burden to earn forgiveness.

These differences between the internal life of a person and the external life they show to the world are important to understand when we want to leverage it dramatically in developing characters and stories.

Deceptions Humanize Characters

As the audience, we have an important advantage over the other people in a character’s world: We can see a character when they think nobody’s watching.

When we see the contradiction between a character’s presented self and their internal self, it helps to make a fictional person feel dimensional and real. We relate to that feeling of having a part of yourself cordoned off from the rest of the world, and we also recognize the discomfort of having that barrier breached.

Singin’ in the Rain starts with a deception wrapped in comedic irony. Movie star Don Lockwood tells the story of his rise to fame to a radio reporter, giving the impression of a dignified, privileged childhood and a clear path to fame and fortune. What the audience sees undercuts his boasting.

The true story of Don and his friend Cosmo’s backstory plays out on screen as Don narrates. While he talks about having a classical education and performing in the finest theaters, we see him and Cosmo as children dancing for coins at the pool hall and playing a circuit of run-down vaudeville theaters.


”Dignity. Always dignity.”

By showing us that Don is putting up a front, the movie makes him not only more relatable, but more intriguing. We want to know why he wants to deceive his fans about his true biography, while simultaneously understanding the desire to remake your identity and present yourself in the best possible light.

Revealing the deception to the audience gives them the best of both worlds: We see the glamorous, enviable star that Don has become while also seeing his bootstrappy, admirable rise from rags to riches.

Judy Hops in Zootopia finishes her first day with the Zootopia Police Department and comes home to a call from her parents. While trying to lie and tell them work lives up to her expectations, the deception falls apart when they see her uniform: She’s been put on meter maid duty.

Judy wants to project a confident, together persona to her parents. She’s hoping the reality of her job will catch up to her aspirations. But the bright orange vest gives her away, and her parents latch on to the problem of her present, which interferes with the projection she’s trying to show them.

These moments don’t always play a major role in the entire story, and sometimes can be a button moment or little splash of character to add color to what we’ve already seen. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a telling moment that re-contextualizes our previous understanding of the hero.

Indiana’s father refers to him as Junior throughout the film and when questioned about it reveals that his son’s true name is Henry Jones, Jr.

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”I like Indiana.” ”We named the dog Indiana.”

Not only does this reveal take the wind out of his sails, undercutting his heroic swagger with a wink just before the credits roll, but it also shows us an important fact about Indiana Jones: He’s a constructed persona. Like an author adopting a pen name, or a vigilante picking a superhero title, Henry Jones, Jr. wanted a name more befitting a part-time professor and full time extreme archaeologist.

These deceptions don’t just give us a window into the individual, but about how their core identity relates to the world around them.

Deceptions Reveal Values

At the beginning of Ghostbusters (2016), Dr. Erin Gilbert disowns her previous work in the field of the paranormal and tries to distance herself from the book she co-wrote with Abby Yates on ghosts, even when a copy of that book shows up in the hands of someone asking for help with an actual ghost.

Erin wants to secure tenure at Columbia University, and in order to portray herself as the kind of physicist she believes they want, she moves from omissions about her past to active deception. It even reaches the point where she tries to convince the dean of her university that an online video of her screaming in glee that “Ghosts are real!” isn’t actually her or real.

It helps the audience understand what’s happening because we know the whole truth. We just saw an actual ghost vomit on Erin. We believe ghosts are real, but we also believe why Erin wouldn’t want to own up to that yet.

At this point in the story, the respect of other scientists is still more important to her than scientific discovery. Her actions reflect her sense of values.

When she’s fired, carrying her things in a cardboard box, she riffs to the students and faculty she passes in the hall about how she’s only changing offices. The degree to which she needs to maintain the idea that she’s a serious, respected scientist is so great, that even in this moment of total failure, her nervous energy demands that she keep up appearances, despite the obviousness of the deception.

Another example of obvious deception comes at the end of The Godfather. Michael Corleone lies to his wife, Kay, saying that she’s allowed this one time to ask him a question about his business and he’ll answer honestly.

When she asks if he ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, he lies, saying he had nothing to do with it.

We know this is a lie. We saw him order multiple murders. We saw Carlo murdered.

This obvious lie combines with the famous shot of Kay looking back at Michael as the door closes to his office, shutting her out of his world, and shutting her off from his interior life.

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Definitely nothing fishy here, Kay.

At the beginning of the film, Michael made a statement of values to Kay after relaying a gruesome story of his father’s business to her: “That’s my family. That’s not me.” Now he leads that family, and his earlier honesty with Kay is only a memory.

Michael’s desire to protect his family doesn’t necessarily mean being honest with them. He sees his job as a powerful protector of those closest to him as one that requires him to be deceptive.

But it also shows how he values their trust. He wants Kay to trust him, so he deceives her into believing that he’s letting her into his confidence. He doesn’t just want his family to be safe, but for them to feel that he has their best interests at heart. To Michael, that doesn’t require transparency.

The family in Ordinary People are all actively engaging in layers of outward deception and self deception. Brothers Buck and Conrad have a boating accident where Conrad survives, but Buck drowns. The fallout from this death and Conrad’s subsequent suicide attempt reveals fractures within the family.

At a dinner party, Beth stops her husband, Calvin, from talking about Conrad entering therapy. She doesn’t want to reveal to their friends about the trouble they’ve been having at home. But even in his admission of Conrad’s therapy, Calvin downplays the seriousness, creating the deception that it’s just “to polish the rough edges.”

When Conrad meets with Dr. Berger for their initial therapy session, he doesn’t want to talk about what the real problems are. He says he wants to feel more in control, and that’s the only reason he’s agreed to see a therapist. Conrad’s problems with his parents and deep-seated survivor’s guilt aren’t even on the table, as far as he’s concerned.

Control. Looking to deal with the outward signs of turmoil instead of looking to the source. Even though we see how different Conrad is from his mother, Beth’s values and influence are right there in how Conrad initially wants to deal with his problems.

The tensions created by these deceptions boil over when the family tries to take a picture together.

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If this were set today, you can be certain Beth would post this with #blessed

Conrad and Beth refuse to be photographed together apart from everyone else. The act of taking a happy family photo together reinforces the layers of deception the family are trying to create, showing what’s behind the need to deceive. They want to show that they’re still a happy, united family. On some level they want to believe it, too.

They value the appearance of unity. That their home life is polished; no rough edges for others to see. But what we see of this family shows they’re not equally committed to the work it would take to bridge the gap between their outward projection of success and comfort and the inner feelings of love and connection required to make that outward projection honest.

In stark contrast, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan from In The Mood For Love deceive each other about their mutual attraction. Their relationship desperately wants to bloom like a flower poking through cracked concrete, but their values prevent it.

These two neighbors start off friendly enough, but after learning that their respective spouses are having an affair (together), the tone of their dynamic shifts. What starts as an attempt to role-play the affair and figure out what could have lead their significant others to stray turns into something else.

Their time together becomes more frequent. Intimacy develops. But it never directly replicates the painful deception that brought them together.

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Find someone who doesn’t look at you the way Su Li-zhen doesn’t look at Chow Mo-wan.

They tell themselves “We won’t be like them,” referring back to their adulterous spouses. It’s a deception. They believe they can consciously prevent romantic feelings from developing between them. They believe they should prevent romantic feelings from developing.

It shows that they want to value their marriages, even when they’ve been cheated on. That they value the approval of the people in their apartment building, especially the nosy families that they rent their rooms from.

They want to believe themselves to be superior to those who have wronged them, and that by denying themselves the love that so clearly displays itself in their scenes together, they are doing something admirable.

This clash between values and desires creates a conflict they need to navigate.

Deceptions Create Conflict

In a dramatic work, the purpose of these deceptions isn’t only to reveal character to the audience, but to create obstacles for the characters.

When a deception ties to a sense of stakes; when there’s something for the characters to win or lose due to their maintenance of the deception, that’s when you get conflict.

The show House, M.D. based itself not only on Sherlock Holmes, but on the idea that the answers to diagnosing confounding patients would usually be found by determining what information the patient omits or actively hides from the medical team.


Sure, it’s a hell of a mindset to live with, but it was a theme with enough dramatic fuel for eight seasons.

It could be an omission about their history. An active deception to protect someone close to them or protect themselves from exposure. It could be an unacknowledged self-deception that needs to be overcome, healing the consciousness before healing the body.

This creates an active need to unravel and reveal these deceptions: the patients’ lives are in jeopardy. The stakes of the situation turn this deception from an interesting character detail into a problem that needed to be solved.

In the film The Third Man, Harry Lime lures his friend Holly Martins to Europe with a job offer. Harry has presented himself as a successful entrepreneur, but his apparent death leads Holly to uncover that Harry’s business was selling tainted medicine on the black market.

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Orson Welles never smiled in a way that didn’t look like he was pulling one over on you.

Two things combine to make this deception into a source of conflict:

  • Harry isn’t actually dead, but faked his death to avoid arrest.
  • His business of selling tainted medicine has killed children, and he hasn’t let being “dead” stop his business.

Given the sense of stakes created by these circumstances, Holly is faced with a choice: Go home and accept that his friend was a duplicitous war profiteer, or help bring him to justice. The conflict evolves based on Holly’s choice to stay and bring Harry’s deceptions to light.

Vincent Freeman in GATTACA has one wish: To become an astronaut. However, he was born in a not-too-distant future where genetic engineering is the norm for children, and Vincent was conceived naturally. In this world, Vincent’s high probability of disease and early death prevent him from pursuing his dream, or anything close to it (as genetic discrimination is casual and common).

Vincent’s deception comes when he meets Jerome, a genetically-engineered former athlete willing to donate blood, urine, and tissue samples to Vincent and allow him to pass as Jerome in order to apply for astronaut training.

Because of the heavy punishment for this kind of identity theft, and the ease with which it could be discovered (since even an eyelash could reveal Vincent’s true identity), this creates conflict every time he goes to work.

This conflict is pushed forward because Vincent’s DNA is recovered from a crime scene at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. A flight director was murdered, and while nobody believes “Jerome” did it, Vincent knows that he’s now the prime suspect. One more slip up could cost him his dream and his freedom.

It’s not just protagonists who deal with these kind of weighty deceptions. In The Matrix, the ally/antagonist Cypher works to deceive the rest of his crew on the Nebuchadnezzar and deliver Morpheus to the machines in exchange for having his mind wiped and his body re-inserted into the Matrix.

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To be fair, that looks a lot better than Tasty Wheat.

Cypher’s nostalgia for life in the Matrix as opposed to the real world could be an interesting expression of character; a way to show not everybody likes having their mind freed and being thrust into the human resistance.

What creates conflict is the deception driven by this desire. He kills members of his crew and places all of their lives in danger in order to double cross them. He pretends to be working with them while slowly building toward the point where he has no choice but to reveal his duplicity and hope to receive his reward.

What makes this deception intriguing beyond the conflict it creates is the understanding that Cypher’s reward is a form of self deception.

It speaks to his values when he says the cliché “Ignorance is bliss,” and the nature of his deception shows how deeply committed he is to that notion. The lives of other people are nothing to him compared to his own ignorant comfort.

And one more thing…

Returning to Stephens-Davidowitz’s article for a moment:

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always ” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

It’s worth remembering the actual point of this article as well: Don’t compare yourself to what you see of others.

This is a needed mantra for writers, who are prone to imposter syndrome and needing the occasional pep talk.

Be mindful of the fact that when you look at the work of others, you’re only seeing the polished, produced material.

You’re not seeing those rough edges. You’re seeing the Instagram version of their #writerlife. You don’t get to see the hidden basement full of unsuccessful Ripley Clones.

I mean this as a metaphor. I don’t think any writers actually have this in their basement. Probably.

Rating your unfinished work too heavily against the produced work of other writers isn’t fair to you. It’s a form of self-deception.

Even the most successful writer starts with a blank page. Everybody deletes.

So don’t compare your first draft to Zootopia.

What I Watched In 2014

I started this last year feeling like I was losing touch with my love of movies, so I started an experiment. If I spent time to watch a movie, whether or not I had seen it before, I wrote it down.

For your consideration, here’s the occasionally annotated list. This isn’t a critical analysis. This isn’t breaking down my viewing patterns for data. But it’s my way of measuring how I chose to love movies this past year.

Note: Titles in italics are movies I have watched before.

1 – Star Wars

The plan was to watch this on New Year’s Eve and sync the destruction of the Death Star with midnight. We even got Star Wars party plates. However, the night wound up involving a lot of other activities and Star Wars was bumped to the morning.

No complaints. A good way to start the new year.

2 – The Empire Strikes Back

Of course we put in Empire after Star Wars finished. It was New Year’s Day (the day of zero expectations or obligations).

3 – Europa Report

4 – L’Argent

This was a movie I’d meant to watch for years. Back in school we watched a short clip of the movie that emotionally devastated me. If you watch this, wait for the scene with the woman carrying coffee, and you’ll understand.

5 – Mean Streets

6 – Grosse Pointe Blank

This movie will always have a special place in my heart, both as a Michigan ex-pat and a lover of 80s music. In high school I could quote this movie chapter and verse, and found that I could still remember a surprising amount of it.

7 – Frances Ha

This was the first real discovery of the year. When the movie finished, I was full of a sense of total, ecstatic joy.

8 – Her

Just when I thought I’d seen every idea they could explore based on the premise, they found a new wrinkle to exploit. It had been a long time since I had felt such a genuine sense of surprise while watching something.

9 – Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Yes, I had never seen this entire movie. It was always shown as clips in classes and somehow I never got around to it. Well, I fixed that. And I am so glad I did.

10 – The Aristocats

11 – Waitress

I have no excuses for why it took me so long to see this. It’s a well-crafted story that prominently features pie. That should have made it an immediate must-see.

12 – Tangled

13 – The Avengers

14 – Up!

If the first act of this film doesn’t make you cry, you’re a replicant.

15 – Mitt

I wanted more. A big part of the desire to watch this film was to think about a person not just in terms of their politics. And I felt like it came up short, both in running time and in my sense of feeling like I could see past the election.

16 – Frozen

There’s a lot of praise for this movie, and a lot of bile spilled about what it’s metastasized into.

But when something becomes popular, it’s always for a genuine reason. If you could force a majority of people to like a film or a song, the game would be over. The formula would be there and we’d buy whatever was being sold to us. But that’s not the case.

Anything popular got there because it resonated with the audience. Something that resonates as strongly as this film deserves appreciation and study.

17 – The Great Mouse Detective

18 – The Mark of Zorro (1920)

19 – Moonrise Kingdom

20 – Newsies

Once again, how had I waited this long to see this? Worth the wait since it allowed me to imagine it as an alternate Batman Begins.

21 – Ghostbusters

I love this movie. This isn’t the nostalgia of a kid who owned the firehouse playset for his giant tub full of Ghostbusters action figures. This movie holds up under the most intense, post-film school scrutiny.

22 – Pacific Rim

If you weren’t already aware of some of the reasons I love this movie, check out this previous post on it.

23 – Man of Tai Chi

I’m a sucker for Keanu Reeves movies and a sucker for martial arts films. This was satisfactory.

24 – The World’s End

25 – Computer Chess

I felt like it had been too long since I’d watched something strange. This film did not disappoint.

26 – Dogtooth

I was still feeling the need for something bizarre, and this film completely satisfied that desire.

27 – Veronica Mars

28 – Frozen

Haters to the left. I really dug this one.

29 – Good Will Hunting

30 – Shut Up And Play The Hits

31 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This movie is the litmus test for whether or not you think Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is working. It united plot threads from other stories the way The Avengers united Marvel’s characters.

32 – All Is Lost

I stayed up past my bedtime to watch this. I was that into it. I’m a sucker for films that let you absorb process and detail. A master class in escalating tension.

33 – Annie (1982)

34 – The Empire Strikes Back

35 – Romancing the Stone

36 – The Muppets Take Manhattan

37 – Matilda

Some friends stopped by with a copy of this and ice cream sundaes the night I was planning to watch the next movie on the list. I decided to go along with their plan instead, and I was not disappointed.

38 – Man of Steel

Everything I had been told from friends and the internet suggested that I would not find anything to like about this movie.

Turns out that was wrong. The scenes between Pa Kent and the young Clark were moving, and Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane. It didn’t completely win me over, but it did remind me not to judge a movie by its spoilers.

39 – Le Samourai

See previous comments about loving movies that show process and detail. If you want a great noir about a hitman, look no further.

40 – Godzilla (2014)

I already covered this film (and the original Godzilla) in detail in a previous post.

41 – X-Men: Days of Future Past

If you don’t think that anybody knows how to offer a sincere apology anymore, watch this film. It’s a feature length mea culpa for X-Men 3.

42 – Hook

43 – X-Men

44 – X2 – X-Men United

45 – Assault on Precinct 13

46 – Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

47 – Home Alone

48 – An Autumn Afternoon

49 – Pillow to Post

50 – Boy Meets Girl

Let us never forget that James Cagney was a terrific comedic actor.

51 – Contact

There’s too much going on with this movie and my reactions to it to slip into here. It would make an intense double feature with Interstellar.

52 – The Great Muppet Caper

53 – Pacific Rim

No, seriously. I love this movie.

54 – Popeye

This was one of the stranger movies I watched this year, and that’s saying something. Delightfully strange, though.

55 – Johnny Mnemonic

See previous comments about Keanu Reeves, plus loving 90s representations of cyberspace and computer hacking.

56 – Mean Girls

57 – Guardians of the Galaxy

58 – The Lego Movie

My wife said it best: “This movie has no right to be as good as it is.”

59 – Intolerable Cruelty

60 – The Third Man

A movie very close to my heart that I’ve already written about here.

61 – Duel At Diablo

62 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

63 – The Lego Movie

Seriously. This movie had no right to be this good.

64 – Boyhood

A total gut punch. Maybe it was because I was soon to be a parent when I saw it, filled with hopes and fears. Maybe it was the way the actors grew into their relationships with one another. Or maybe it was Patricia Arquette’s final scene in the film, and the way it just cuts away, leaving you unresolved to her sense of emptiness and exhaustion.

65 – The Wild Bunch

66 – What About Bob?

Yet another one for the running theme of “How have I not already watched this?”

67 – Oldboy (2013)

68 – A History of Violence

69 – Sneakers

70 – Kill Bill Vol. 1

71 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

72 – Return of the Jedi

73 – Singin’ in the Rain

Stop reading right now and watch this movie. I don’t care how many times you’ve seen it already. It is always worth watching. I’ll wait for you to finish.

74 – Zero de Conduite

75 – The Baron of Arizona

76 – Southland Tales

I took a religious studies class with Professor Ralph Williams my freshman year of college. In one lecture, Prof. Williams said, “If you truly want to understand a religion, look for the thing which it pains them to affirm, but they affirm it nonetheless.”

I love this movie, but I should not.

It is a mess. It has digression on top of digression. It requires extra-textual reading to understand large chunks of it. It’s meta to a fault. And yet…

It’s sprawling and ambitious. It’s full of individual moments that stick in your brain. Lines of dialogue that bear repeating (“I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”). It is too full of ideas and imagination. Too full of potential. It’s like the scene from Alien: Resurrection with the failed Ripley clones, but the scientists were trying to splice Saturday Night Live and Philip K. Dick.

I should not love this movie, but I do.

77 – Jackie Brown

78 – Star Trek Into Darkness

79 – Sleeping Beauty

There are few animated films as beautiful as this. The commentary track is insightful and entertaining in its own right.

80 – The Muppets

81 – Clue

82 – Batman (1989)

I forgot how many people Batman kills in this movie. It’s a lot.

Batman may have a no kill rule, but you don’t for one moment believe Michael Keaton would. Keaton’s Batman is unhinged and desperate in a way that other screen versions wouldn’t touch. He plays up the sense of how damaged a person would have to be to think that the best way to avenge their parents’ would be to use their vast fortune to go out and punch criminals one at a time. Keaton makes you believe that his Bruce Wayne would have no issues with that logic.

83 – Interstellar

This is a movie that demands to be seen on a movie screen (though not necessarily an IMAX). It’s a beautiful machine. You can marvel at its quality and precision.

But for all its solid qualities, it’s not that ambitious. It plays out like almost all of Christopher Nolan’s movies: A star-studded long con. It’s successful and assured, but conventional. It teases connections to 2001 without attempting to be its equal.

And yet, that may be enough. These are creative people working at the top of their game. Few working now do it better or more consistently.

84 – Muppet Christmas Carol

85 – Wreck-It Ralph

I expected this to be a decent movie that would play on my video game nostalgia, but what I got was well-crafted and clever.

86 – Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

I don’t watch a lot of things that I know will be bad at this point. It used to be normal to look for things that were so bad they were almost good.

In college, a group of friends had a standing competition where we’d go to a video store, split into two teams, and each pick an awful horror movie. The team that found the better bad film (there were objective criteria, including number of on-screen fatalities) were the winners.

It seemed like we had so much time to burn.

Maybe watching a movie we knew would be bad, and that was constructed to be bad so that it could poke fun at itself, was a way of reclaiming that sense of time to kill. To willingly give up time for something silly and ridiculous.

But that’s a silly reason to watch something this bad.

87 – Galaxy Quest

88 – Miracle on 34th Street

It’s so easy to write this one off as just another Santa Claus film, but there’s something incredible in its construction: A cynical world conspires despite itself to prove the existence of Santa.

Every single person, other than Santa himself, has some kind of angle in play. From the judge who doesn’t want to dismantle his political aspirations to the mail room clerk who wants to get a bunch of old letters to Santa out of storage, everybody has their reasons.

So even though the message of the movie is about how faith involves believing in something that reason tells you not to, the majority of the characters are telling a different story. One where they’re willing to accept a lie or an impossibility just to make their lives easier.

But we get to feel, in the end, that the joke’s on them. Spoilers: He really was Santa Claus. Imagine the philosophical payload of this film if that wasn’t the case.

89 – Moonrise Kingdom

90 – White Christmas

Yes, it’s a Christmas movie. But it’s not specifically about Christmas. It just happens at Christmas. It’s really a comedy about soldiers returning to life at home.

It’s no The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s not playing for raw emotion and pathos. It’s light and full of musical numbers. But the story could substitute a different holiday and still (essentially) work. It’s not a movie trying to make some big point about Christmas, but giving us some wonderful, well-written and excellently cast characters to spend time with on Christmas.

91 – Christmas in Connecticut

Sometimes I think that every classic Christmas movie involves World War II.

92 – It’s A Wonderful Life

Every. Classic. Christmas. Movie.

93 – A Christmas Story

OK. Maybe not this one.

94 – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

I forgot about the part where Rudolph shoots down the German bombers.


95 – Guardians of the Galaxy

96 – Love Actually

97 – Suddenly

98 – Jiro Dreams of Sushi

An amazing documentary. I love films that show process, but this film also showed dedication and drive.

But it was a different sort of persistence and determination than you would see in a western version of a similar story. This was a movie about the banality of passionate dedication. About how people get up, go to work, and hone their craft day in and day out to become amazing without being emotionally unstable or self-destructive. Focus without monomania.

Inspirational. Beautiful. Subtle. Heartfelt. If it had been #100, I would have ended the year here. This movie will also be on my list for 2015.

99 – Ghost World

This was a movie I first watched as a college freshman. I loved it before I had the vocabulary to explain why, and I’m glad to see that I still love it.

100 – Band of Outsiders

101 – The Rocketeer