Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Top Ten

10. Hell or High Water: I saw someone write last year that Hell or High Water was a movie about “Trump country”, which is one of the more annoying phrases you could include in a thinkpiece. Their point was that the movie is about the sufferings of flyover country, which is fair, but Trump doesn’t come to mind when I watch this. Obviously there are people with big names that have screwed over a lot of people, but watching the taut filmmaking and intimate story of Hell or High Water is a reminder that corruption runs from the top of the totem pole all the way down.

9. Everybody Wants Some!!: Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, is more of a college movie than a baseball movie, but both aspects are crucial to appreciating it. As a college movie, Everybody is rambling and aimless, in a good way; as a baseball movie, Everybody captures the looming uncertainty of a prospect’s future. The combination of the two manages to concoct a rare formula of haphazard poignancy.

8. La La Land: At this point, I’ve mostly forgotten what the backlash was even about. I mostly just remember how wrecked I was after the final scene, one of the most effective endings to a mainstream movie in recent memory. And I mostly just want to watch La La Land again as soon as possible and lets its musical and visual beauty just wash over me.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings: There are franchises and sequels in the honorable mention section of this post, but it’s telling that the Top Ten is made of up of original movies. Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable from the stop-motion masters at Laika, may be the most original of them all. Kubo, a young boy with a musical gift, must team up with a snow monkey and a giant beetle to confront his grandfather (the moon) and his aunts to retrieve his left eye and avenge his- listen, it’s good, I promise.

6. Green Room: Sadly, Green Room ended up being more relevant than I’m sure director Jeremy Saulnier wanted. Featuring an eerie Patrick Stewart performance and the best work of the late Anton Yelchin’s career, Green Room is scary as hell, and not just because it’s a horror movie where white supremacists are the monsters. It also includes some of the most suspenseful scenes of the year with a soundtrack that ratchets up the intensity.

5. Jackie: Jackie is not a traditional biopic. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Jackie gives us a truly intimate portrait of the former First Lady by showing us days following the death of her husband. One could be frustrated with not seeing more of her life, but biopics that attempt to show the subject’s whole life often try to do too much. By showing us only a small glimpse of Jackie Kennedy at her most vulnerable time, Larraín and star Natalie Portman paint a complex picture of a woman who also happened to be an icon. Jackie contains multitudes.

4. Arrival: Science fiction does not have to dabble in the realm of ideas. Cool lasers and aliens are often enough to satisfy me. Yet the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of the themes of discovery and progress, it is hard to find a science fiction movie that does not touch on them. Arrival may surpass them all. With a simple conceit, but a remarkably intricate inner structure, Arrival hits on all levels intellectual and emotional.

3. American Honey: When I first saw director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I tweeted that it was the best American indie movie I’d seen since 2008’s Chop Shop, which was clearly not true, even at the time, since I had already seen the two movies above American Honey on this list. What American Honey and Chop Shop do have in common is that they both personify the fight to survive in the midst of the American dream. Sasha Lane’s character in Honey, Star, joins up with a traveling magazine sales team partly because she needs to make some money. Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the man who recruits her, is a part of the team because he thinks he will hustle his way to prosperity. Everyone on the team is either forgotten by society or used by others as a foothold to a future they will never see, but Arnold finds triumph in the life they build anyway.

2. The Witch: There are three horror movies that have created a ripple in the structure of my Christian faith. I don’t mean to say that they shook my faith, only caused me to think differently about my God and His will. The first was The Exorcist, which is so effective in its terrifying portrayal of the random corruption of innocence that I was forced to consider what the existence of demons truly means. The second was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not a particularly good movie, but which so directly faces the idea that God allows awful things to happen to the people who love Him. The third is The Witch, which deals with the seductive power of the devil in the face of a cold, godless world. The Witch was marketed as a horror movie, and it is certainly creepy and suspenseful, but it is not a traditional horror movie in the slightest. It is horrifying, but more for its ideas than for its jump scares. The ending alone would place The Witch among the horror movie greats, but it’s the slowly unraveling journey there that gives the ending its power and ultimately makes The Witch among the best movies of the year.

1. Moonlight: In the Oscars’ entire 89-year history, there had never been a mistake like the one at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight will always be associated with everything surrounding that error: Warren Beatty’s confusion, the grace and pain of the La La Land producers, the wild applause that greeted Moonlight’s announcement, and the revelation later that one of the accountants messed up because he was trying to get a freaking selfie with Emma Stone. It truly was a historic moment, so if Moonlight forever brings up that memory, that’s okay.

But its win was historic for other reasons too: the least expensive Best Picture winner (by far), the first with all African-American actors in its starring roles, the first with an explicitly LGBTQ character as its main character (you could count 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but because that film basically treats Jon Voight’s character’s sexuality as a pathology, I don’t think you should).

Even if Moonlight was not a historic Best Picture winner, it would have deserved to be remembered. I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks its actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

 Another Fifteen

13th
Captain America: Civil War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Fits
Hail, Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
Moana
Paterson
Pete’s Dragon
Silence
Sunset Song
Tower
Zootopia

Past Top Tens

2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
The Look of Silence
It Follows
Creed
Ex Machina
Phoenix
The Big Short
Sicario
Spotlight

2014

Selma
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Whiplash
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Boyhood
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ida
Snowpiercer
Blue Ruin

2013

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips
The World’s End
Short Term 12
American Hustle
The Past

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

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Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Top Ten Albums

10. Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.: Someday, we are going to look back on 2016 and remember Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. as a great album for all its virtues and not for how it spoke to current events. We will listen to its frenetic rhythms and sweeping melodies, and we will relate to its expression of anxiety, free of any context as a great rock record, a paragon of pop punk. Its biting sarcasm, its contagious choruses, its backdoor hipsterdom- these will be its talking points, and not about how it speaks to “Trump’s America”.

9. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life: Writing about music has become increasingly uniform, to where a handful of artists dominate the media conversation in any given week. I enjoy a lot of these artists that are “relevant”, but an artist like Courtney Marie Andrews gives me a singular kind of pleasure reserved only for artists that feel like discoveries. Andrews, who combines Laurel Canyon vibes with her beautiful, Appalachian-folksy voice, deserves recognition as the best folk artist of the year, though I’m likely the only one that will give it to her.

8. Bon Iver, 22, a Million: Every Bon Iver album is different, yet they are all the same. Each release further deconstructs the reserved folk sound with which frontman Justin Vernon achieved fame, yet each release feels as comfortable as the best examples of the folk genre. 22, a Million is his most fractious work so far, yet Vernon is still crafting melodies that soothe the anxiety buried within his production.

7. Sho Baraka, The Narrative: Christian rap was ahead of mainstream rap with its forays into social consciousness by about a year, with some of its main stars releasing songs about police brutality in response to Ferguson well before any of their mainstream counterparts. The Narrative may be Christian rap’s social justice manifesto, putting into lyrics and beats a working theology of African-American history and emotion. Baraka has always been one of the most creative individuals in the genre (secular or no), and The Narrative finds him firing on all cylinders.

6. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings: Miranda Lambert never ceases to amaze me. After divorcing Blake Shelton following rumors of his infidelity, you might expect a fiery artist like Lambert to unleash the breakup album to utterly end all breakup albums, full of vitriol that would make “Before He Cheats” poop its pants. Instead, she releases her most subdued album yet, stretching it out over 17 songs, and finding as-yet-unreached depths that are far more cathartic than any stereotypical, crazy-ex-girlfriend songs could have been.

5. Solange, A Seat at the Table: This record was not made for me; this is a record made by a black woman for black women. In her thoroughly considered lyrics and her alternately light and forceful voice, Solange tells a story of the duality of a black woman in 2016. Empowerment is the goal, yes, but also affirmation, that it is okay to be angry or frustrated. There are historical touchstones Solange is drawing on here that are beyond my scope of understanding, but the album feels like a historical document, reaching across time to combine styles and ideologies. This was not a record made for me, but there is so much here for me to learn.

4. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: I don’t know what music historians are going to do with the rock music of today. Rock is far from dead, though people like to claim so again and again. The truth is though that people just are not talking about the genre as much as they used to. Whatever the story they will tell, it is clear that a chapter must be reserved for Car Seat Headrest. Whether or not it fit into the national conversation, Teens of Denial embodied indie sensibilities and it embodied a rock ethos, and if indie rock is anything anymore, this is it.

3. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Simpson got a lot of mileage last year as an alternative to the country establishment, so much so that his album was somehow nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, a welcome but unexpected honor. The artist himself plays down his alternative status, probably because he knows that good is good, bad is bad, and alternative is neither. But Sailor’s is truly something different than your usual alt-country. He channels funk, grunge, and R&B at different points, creating a melting pot of styles and vibes. It’s all in the earnest service of celebrating his newborn son and creating art that his son can later experience to learn something about beauty and love.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade: It’s impossible to think about Lemonade the album apart from Lemonade the movie, which was such a titanic statement of black womanhood that it threatens to bury Lemonade the album in history’s back pages. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen (because history will undoubtedly look to Coulda Been a Contender for all legacy issues); listening to Lemonade was one of the great, joyful experiences of 2016. We spend so much time talking about who Beyoncé is apart from her music; she became a cultural icon before she even made her best art, which has continually gotten better since. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is nothing like the five that came before, but it is also the perfect culmination of her life’s work- including her music, her brand, her motherhood, and, yes, her role as the scorned woman. Hell hath no fury like Lemonade.

1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Not only was Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of 2016, it was also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscious, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that his God is about joy.

There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through Coloring Book, after several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two glorious minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And only then does Chance rap, expounding on the idea that true freedom comes from loving God more than the world, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.

Chance is a phenomenon at this point. He may go on to rap about many other subjects that have little to do with his faith. But Coloring Book, in all its gospel-tinged glory, will stand as a new template for how a mainstream rapper fits his music into his faith, rather than the other way around.

Another Fifteen

Alicia Keys, Here
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
NAO, For All We Know
NEEDTOBREATHE, H A R D L O V E
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rihanna, ANTI
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Various Artists, Southern Family
Whitney, Light upon the Lake

Past Top Tens

2015

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

2014

John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord

2013

Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2012

Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae, Gravity
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city

2011

Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele, 21
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé, 4
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Studio horror movies are in something of a renaissance right now. It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood’s idea of a scary movie stretched from cheap J-horror knockoffs to uninspired remakes of iconic classics. Good horror movies have always thrived along the edges of the industry, finding cheap ways to make audiences jump while functioning as metaphors for reality’s ills. That is still the case today, but mainstream studios have caught on to a formula that works too.

This year has been especially great, what with Get Out becoming a veritable phenomenon, Annabelle: Creation overperforming critical expectations, and mother! sparking conversational controversy. But It dwarfs them all in terms of success, seeing as it just became the highest-grossing horror movie of all time this last week. It is poised to cross the $300 million mark within the next 2 weeks, which is insane for a movie without a name actor or director. On top of all that, its word-of-mouth has not slowed down, which means It will stay near the top of the box office for a great length of time.

Bad movies make a lot of money all the time. But It avoided falling into easy horror movie pitfalls by following a formula established in the early 2010s by Insidious and Conjuring director James Wan: tell a character-driven story and let the scares grow organically from there. Other mainstream directors who have successfully pulled this off this decade are Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and then Doctor Strange) and Andy Muschietti (Mama and, whaddaya know, It). These men have taken an approach that has worked forever in indie horror and applied a slick studio budget. Surprise! Movies are better when they not only look expensive but care about their characters.

It, based on the 1986 book by Stephen King (which is 1116 pages, by the way- 1116 pages!), introduces us to a group of seven kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1988. The town is under a curfew, due to the recent disappearances of several children. Our seven protagonists are all social outcasts at their high school; they call themselves the Losers Club. One by one, they have encounters with a terrifying evil force in the town. The force, which they call It and which often manifests as a malevolent clown named Pennywise, preys on their fears, taking the form of whatever will frighten them the most.

It also targets their problems at home to break them down and divide them. The main character, Bill, has a brother, Georgie, who was taken by It; It manifests as Georgie throughout the movie, taunting Bill’s helplessness to save him. Mike’s parents died in a fire, so It takes the form of disembodied arms reaching around doors engulfed in flames. Beverly, the lone girl, has an abusive father, so It plays with her emotions surrounding his perverse feelings for her.

The movie is at its best here, at the intersection of the kids’ insecurities as high schoolers and It’s terrifying presence. Horror movies are usually better and scarier when they are about something, and It, for all of its jump scares and horrifying imagery and the extreme levels of gore, is ultimately about growing up. A lot of movies are about growing up, but It makes growing up seem absolutely petrifying. It’s horrors are supernatural, but the supernatural scares of It expose the natural scares of adolescence in a world where evil is real and doesn’t look like a clown.

I read It when I was in high school and related to its portrayal of outsider kids. I would not have called myself a loser back then, but I definitely wasn’t a part of any cool crowd either. The book put into words that in-between feeling I had as a teenager, scared that people would see me for who I really was, still a child yet not a man. The movie captures this too, in images rather than words. The best horror movies are about something, and It is one of the best.

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Top Five

5. Sasha Lane, American Honey: Lane has an easy story to root for; director Andrea Arnold found her spring breaking on a beach in Florida and cast her in the lead role in her next movie on the spot. She grew up on the poverty line in Frisco, Texas, a mixed girl in a white world, not too far from my own hometown of Plano. There are a lot of factors that made American Honey one of the year’s best movies: the soundtrack, Shia LeBeouf’s charisma, Arnold capturing the beauty in the struggle to even dream the American dream. But none of it matters without Lane, whose naturalism is more than a reflection of her amateur status. Sasha Lane is a star, able to convey charisma and vulnerability within a heart’s beat of each other.

4. Colin Farrell, The Lobster: Colin Farrell has had a very strange career for someone that has played along the edges of the A list, but The Lobster is the strangest and best thing he has ever done. The role received a lot of attention for how much weight he had to gain for it, but forget that for a second. Also, forget every other role he has played, because David in The Lobster is nothing like them. He is a schlub living in a world devoid of romanticism that requires an absurdist level of social norms. Farrell takes the absurd and makes it normal, ultimately making us believe that true love is worth whatever sacrifice it takes.

3. Amy Adams, Arrival: Amy Adams’s performance, like the movie it appears in, came out of nowhere. We have seen a lot of sides of Amy Adams: the bright innocence of Junebug and Enchanted; the hardened experience of The Fighter and The Master; the downtrodden oppression of American Hustle and Big Eyes. With Arrival, we see unconditional love, peace, joy. For all its obvious science fiction characteristics, the strength of Arrival is in the pure religion of Amy Adams.

2. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight: One of the shames of the Best Picture snafu on Oscar night this year is that now, when we look back at the movie and its performances, the first thing we will bring up is La La Land or Warren Beatty. My sincere hope is that people see the movie without comparing it to La La Land, largely because I want them to experience Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer, in Moonlight, but he does not fit your stereotypes of what you think he should be. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when the main character, Chiron, tries to understand his own sexuality by asking Juan hard questions. In the process, Juan has to face some hard truths about himself, and it’s one of the best examples of unspoken vulnerability I’ve seen onscreen.

1. Natalie Portman, Jackie: And this may be the best example I’ve seen. Before Portman in Jackie, I may have said the paragon of portrayals of real-life icons was Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, or maybe George C. Scott as General Patton. You could even make a case for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, even if the movie doesn’t quit live up to his transformation. But none of those actors exposes his soul the way Natalie Portman does here. We are familiar with Jackie Kennedy’s story following the assassination of her husband: the moment where she reaches out over the back of the car to retrieve the bits of her husband’s skull; that she remained in her pink suit, stained with her husband’s blood, during President Johnson’s swearing-in. But Portman takes us deep into the grief Kennedy must have been feeling. Not grief for a loving husband, though that too. But grief for her public identity as his wife, grief for a lost way of life, grief for the grand ideas that would die with him, and, yes, grief for her own loss of power and importance. Portman portrays Kennedy as far shrewder than popular history ever has. John F. Kennedy’s death would have been a tragedy had he never had a wife. But after seeing the event unfold through Portman’s eyes, Jackie Kennedy’s perspective feels like the only necessary one.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Viola Davis, Fences
Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Andre Holland, Moonlight
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
Ashton Sanders, Moonlight
Emma Stone, La La Land
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Denzel Washington, Fences
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Anton Yelchin, Green Room

Past Top Fives

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Viola Davis, The Help
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Tom Hardy, Warrior
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Top Twenty: 20-11

20. Lizzo, “Good as Hell”: If you looked only to the radio in 2016 for empowering anthems, you missed out on one of the best. This banger (which featured on the soundtrack of the most recent Barbershop soundtrack) from the talented Minneapolis artist had one of the most ingeniously infectious choruses I can remember: “Do your hair toss / check my nails / baby how you feelin / feeling good as hell!”

19. The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”: Decadent Weeknd has his charms (see: all of his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness), but I think I prefer in-love Weeknd. Daft Punk knows how to bring the best out of great singers, and Abel Tesfaye is at his lightest and happiest here.

18. Chance the Rapper, “Blessings”: There are great songs on Coloring Book before “Blessings”- all of them, really. But everything on this 5th track- from Jamila Woods’ irresistible hook to Chance yelping “Good God!”, from Nico’s proud trumpet solo to that final question asking if you’re ready for the blessing- fits perfectly into its title’s promise.

17. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”: Alternative music took a backseat in the music media to pop and R&B last year, but there were still plenty of gems worth celebrating. Olsen’s insistent chorus burns itself into your mind, as powerful a statement of sexual desire as indie punk has to offer.

16. Young Thug, “Kanye West (feat. Wyclef Jean)”: I first heard this one when it was called “Elton John”, which seemed appropriate given the plaintive piano that features so prominently. Not sure why he renamed it to “Kanye West” other than that the chorus of “wet wet” sounds kind like “West West”, but it does feature Kanye-level inventiveness in every bar.

15. Beyoncé, “Daddy Lessons”: Over the last four years, Beyoncé has embraced her music being seen as culturally significant, rather than just pop music. “Formation” was the clear statement, but Beyoncé performing the defiant “Daddy Lessons” on the CMAs with noted rebels Dixie Chicks was her most successful act of protest on the year.

14. Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs”: I was initially more taken with the upbeat songs on Coloring Book, but the melancholy “Same Drugs” grew on me over time. Chance has said it isn’t even about drugs, which feels right; it’s really about the loss that comes with time as you move out of youth.

13. Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”: I didn’t take “Bad and Boujee” seriously until Donald Glover dubbed it the “best song ever” at the Golden Globes. I still don’t take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to stop listening to it.

12. Bon Iver, “22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bob Moose Extended Cab Version”: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a song combine anxiety with hope so beautifully. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been public about his struggles with anxiety, and I like to think creating this song was a balm for him.

11. Chance the Rapper, “All We Got (feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)”: This celebration song isn’t just a joyous ode to the gift of music. It also has 2016’s best lyric: “I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie.”

10-1

10. Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”: I wonder if I’m supposed to grow out of songs like this. I’ve been worried lately that I’m becoming a cynical person. But the way my heart soars during this song’s chorus gives me hope that my soul has not been calcified by the world just yet.

9. Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”: It is easy to be skeptical of famous people claiming to be victims of their fame, but “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)” is something different. Lecrae, who is the most successful “Christian rapper” in the genre’s short history, raps about his depression following not only the police killings of black Americans but also the widespread evangelical dismissal of those killings. A lot of introspective rap feels forced and full of self-help platitudes, but Lecrae’s best song since “Church Clothes” in 2012 finds him at his most natural and humble.

8. Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”: If “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” gives me life-affirming hope, “Fill in the Blank” affirms the hope in my cynicism. Frontman Will Toledo yelps about a world telling him he has to be okay, that because of his privilege, he has to be happy. But this is a song that exists in the real world, and it’s okay not to be okay.

7. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”: The track’s co-producer, Raphael Saadiq, turns everything he touches into golden funk. But let’s give credit where credit is due here; this is a vocal performance that few could pull off. Even as Solange plunders her own psyche to try to understand why she feels left behind and pushed aside, her voice is unbearably light until it isn’t, until she hits the word “cranes” with just enough strength to make you wonder where it all comes from.

6. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”: Critics can be forgiven for overrating art after its creator has passed away. That is not what happened with Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”. Cohen’s voice is hardly singing on this song, but it is hypnotizing, and the accusations he lays before God here are chillingly real.

5. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”: “No Problem” ultimately may be about the threat of record executives telling Chance what he can and can’t do. But it came to stand for something far more interesting than that. When Chance burst into a stuffy boardroom with 2 Chainz and Weezy on Ellen, their energy was so infectious that the video became a sensation, even by Chance’s standards. On his tour, fans dance and sing along to every song, but “No Problem” becomes a verifiable dance party. In a year where the country desperately needed joy, Chance’s music promised a club where joy was possible. “No Problem” was the bouncer.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”: There’s some question surrounding works of art involving white people wrestling with problems involving race. I’m not here to tell any person of color what they should or should not feel about white people entering black spaces. All I can report is how I feel, and I feel that “What It Means” is one of the most affecting songs I heard last year. Patterson Hood has always been an incisive songwriter. “What It Means” finds him grappling with the terrible truth that he doesn’t have answers for why his (and my) race keeps treating other races like shit.

3. Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”: Rihanna has always played along the edges of dancehall, and on “Work” she dives right in. There are lighter songs, bouncier ones with catchier hooks in her discography. But “Work” drills into your mind, finding its purpose in its repetition. Of all Rihanna’s singles, it’s maybe the most effortless, the truest to who Rihanna has been all along. There’s no forced techno beats, no pop hooks manufactured in a studio lab, no pretense of any sort- just the beat and Rihanna’s insistence that all that matters is her voice.

2. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”: Probably most famous for its backing of the ubiquitous mannequin challenge meme that thankfully is no more, “Black Beatles” is bigger than a stupid video sports teams did to look hip. On Rae Sremmurd’s 2015 debut, SremmLife, they tapped into the trap aesthetic for a potent slice of party music. SremmLife 2, and “Black Beatles” in particular, had different aims. There were still party songs, but overall, Rae Sremmurd were out to deconstruct the scene, rather than celebrate it. “Black Beatles” drips with malaise, even as it wallows in rock star hyperbole; the tension between the two is what separates the song from anything else with the “Mike WiLL Made-It” signature.

1. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”: This song still sounds incomplete to me. I don’t mean that as a negative. I mean that Kanye and his multiple collaborators appear to have tapped into a musical reservoir, and this song’s 5 minutes do not feel like they’ve plumbed its depths in the slightest. Kanye is always ahead of the curve. Whatever style he invokes on his albums, that seems to be the direction hip-hop writ large takes for the foreseeable future. “Ultralight Beam” ushered in rap’s newfound appreciation for gospel music. That’s not to say that gospel had no place in hip-hop’s history before this; that would be asinine. But “Ultralight Beam” is pure gospel with a little bit of rap. Kanye is barely even on this record; “Ultralight Beam” only technically qualifies as a rap song because Chance the Rapper drops a fire verse midway through. No, “Ultralight Beam” isn’t a rap song; it’s a prayer.

Another Thirty

The 1975, “If I Believe You”
Aaron Lewis, “That Ain’t Country”
Alicia Keys, “Blended Family (What You Do for Love) (feat. A$AP Rocky)”
ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
BJ Barham, “Unfortunate Kind”
Bon Iver, “00000 Million”
Brandy Clark, “Big Day in a Small Town”
Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Chance the Rapper, “How Great Thou Art (feat. Jay Electronica & my cousin Nicole)”
Charles Bradley, “Changes”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Christon Gray, “Follow You”
Courtney Marie Andrews, “Irene”
David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Drake, “Fake Love”
DRAM, “Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty)”
John Legend, “Penthouse Floor (feat. Chance the Rapper)”
Justin Timberlake, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!”
Maren Morris, “My Church”
Margo Price, “Hands of Time”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Black Man in a White World”
Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
NEEDTOBREATHE, “HARD LOVE”
Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
Rihanna, “Love on the Brain”
Sho Baraka, “30 & Up, 1986 (feat. Courtney Orlando)”
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Whitney, “Golden Days”

Past Top Tens

2015

Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

2011

Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

The villain often makes the movie. This has especially been true of the Spider-Man movies in all their iterations. As Spider-Man’s cinematic villains have dipped in quality, so have his movies. Even if the movies had other redeeming qualities, if the villain sucked, those qualities went out the window. Luckily for this year’s installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest villain may be the wall-crawler’s best yet.

Michael Keaton, who plays Homecoming’s Vulture, is certainly better than any of the baddies from the last two Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) featured a toothless (not literally) Lizard that failed to get at the inner conflict between the monster and its human alter-ego, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) featured not one but two lackluster villains. One, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, was a rehash from the older movies. The other…well, the less said about Jamie Foxx’s Electro, the better. The movies themselves were not all bad. Director Marc Webb, previously best known for the inventive (500) Days of Summer), crafted a fun romance between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who had real chemistry. But that quality relationship was lost in the mess.

Even the original Sam Raimi movies were hit and miss with their villains. The most glaring example of a miss was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, a veritable villain binge with Venom (Topher Grace), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Green Goblin (James Franco) all competing for screen time. None of them were interesting; all of them were annoying, and all were responsible in some part for Spider-Man 3‘s lasting infamy as a truly terrible superhero movie. However, Spider-Man 3’s flaws often obscure how good Raimi’s first two movies were.

The original Spider-Man in 2002, along with 2000’s X-Men, were basically reinventing the cinematic language of superhero movies. They were reacting against the camp of the 1990s Batman movies and attempting to catch the genre up with the changing tastes of an audience with less patience for cartoonish effects. Bryan Singer was a natural choice to introduce the X-Men into a world that needed a balance between style and realism, after the neo-noir The Usual Suspects had made such an impression a few years before.

Sam Raimi, on the other hand, was a strange choice for the director of the Spider-Man movie. He was best known at the time for directing the Evil Dead horror comedy series, which had just started to reach cult hit status. Other credentials included Darkman, a fantasy movie about revenge; The Quick and the Dead, a Tarantino-penned Western; and For Love of the Game, the Kevin Costner baseball movie that isn’t Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. This is hardly a ground-shaking resume for the potential director of a blockbuster. But Raimi’s love for the Spider-Man comics won him the job over the likes of David Fincher, Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan.

His passion for the comics is evident in how lovingly he treats Peter Parker’s origin story. Re-watching Spider-Man now, it is remarkable how much time Raimi devotes to every detail of the saga. Not only does he cover the radioactive spider-bite and the death of Uncle Ben, but he creates ample space for a hilarious scene of Parker’s short-lived career as a professional wrestler, which is a detail that barely gets a few frames in the original comic. Raimi also spends several scenes with Parker (Tobey Maguire) figuring out just how his powers work, including a clever segment in which Parker tries out a bunch of different hand signals to discover just how his webs shoot from his wrist.

But the true signifier for Raimi’s deep love for the Spider-Man character lies in how he developed the movie’s villain, Norman Osborn, or the original Green Goblin. Osborn is well-cast, with Willem Dafoe finding a happy medium between devilish and fatherly, and Raimi plays out the dynamic between Osborn, Parker, and Harry (Osborn’s son and Peter’s best friend, played by Franco, pre-Goblin), as if he is making a first-class family drama. But Raimi’s commitment to telling every detail of this story is a double-edge sword. The Green Goblin costume, though less silly than the comics’ version, is still pretty dang hokey and not a bit scary. And while the action involving the Goblin on his glider might have played better in 2002, it’s kind of rinky-dink now. If Raimi had not played his chips so heavily on his villain, his first movie may have been a little stronger.

2004’s Spider-Man 2 does not have that problem at all. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Doctor Octopus) was the best Spider-Man movie villain before this year, and it has not been close. To be fair, Molina’s performance is lifted up by the quality of the movie around it. Spider-Man 2 has a case as the best superhero movie of all time. The first movie set up the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme, but Spider-Man 2 forced Peter to decide between having a good, normal life and truly using his powers for the greater good. The action setpieces are amazing, the themes come out effortlessly through the dialogue, and the movie features several indelible cinematic images, including grateful New Yorkers passing Spider-Man’s limp body to one another as a Christ figure and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing her wedding with her white dress bundled up in her arms.

Molina’s performance also does some heavy lifting though. Octavius’s arc, as he moves from hero to villain to martyr, mirrors Peter’s perfectly. He begins the movie as a mentor to Peter, bonding with him over science’s great achievements and over their shared hope for Octavius’s work in fusion. When he becomes Doctor Octopus in a freak accident (which precedes one of the underappreciated horror scenes), his newfound power fills him with a need for revenge and for power. Then (spoiler alert!), as he watches Peter sacrifice himself over and over to save his fellow New Yorkers, Octavius comes to his senses and gives his life to save the city.

The stakes in Spider-Man: Homecoming are not quite so high, and that is part of its charm. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is not a genius like Doctor Octavius or a wealthy madman like the Green Goblin. He’s not the victim of a freak accident like so many of Spidey’s villains, and he barely has a bone to pick with Peter Parker, at least at first. Toomes is just a guy looking to make a better life for himself that stumbles across an opportunity in the alien technology left over from the aftermath of the first Avengers movie.

Toomes begins to sell off the technology that he is able to recover, and he uses some of it to create a flying suit to assist his team with both stealing and protecting the goods. Keaton has always had an everyman quality to him, and it works to his advantage as Toomes. Even when Keaton shifts expertly into a more sinister mode in one of the movie’s best scenes, it is frightening, but we understand where he is coming from.

That scene, where Toomes reveals his more sinister side, is the true climax of the movie. Up to that point, Homecoming feels a lot like a John Hughes high school movie, where seeing your crush at the school dance is the scariest part of life. Then Peter Parker ends up alone with Toomes (I will not spoil how), and Keaton’s shift toward threatening pushes Peter to confront that being a hero is more than just trying to be famous as an Avenger; it requires true sacrifice.

Keaton’s Vulture, like Molina’s Doc Ock, did what the other villains could not, even when their directors tried their best to stay true to the comics (like Defoe’s Goblin and Ifans’s Lizard). Toomes and Octavius bridged Peter Parker and Spider-Man in a believable way, so that what we watch in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming is the story of a person, and not just the spectacle of a comic book character. Some comic book movies are good, even if they maintain a cartoonish quality. But the best ones find a real note to play, and Spider-Man: Homecoming found one in Keaton.

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

One of pop culture’s truisms is that the book is always better than the movie. Anyone saying that has clearly not seen The Godfather. But there are far more examples of its truth than its counterexamples. Anecdotally, I remember the Harry Potter movies always finding the books’ fans (read: me) frustrated by everything the filmmakers had to leave out.

This is true of comic book movies too. Most people go to a comic book movie like Captain America: Civil War or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with simple measures of how they enjoyed them: they laughed, they were thrilled, they were intrigued by a plot twist or two. Fans, on the other hand, expect to recognize something special just for them. And often, they are disappointed. These characters have vast histories in continuities spanning decades; filmmakers can’t possibly pay homage to everyone’s favorite panel.

Marvel has been the best at the balancing act of combining fan service with actual quality, but even they can’t help but falter every now and then. In creating their own cinematic universe with Easter eggs and callbacks, Marvel has subtly undermined the very medium with which they create. Comics are naturally more like television in their episodic nature than movies, and Marvel (and DC, in their lesser efforts) have succeeded in making their movies more like television episodes, to their ultimate harm. Such an approach does not necessarily doom a franchise but can impede its path to greatness.

Guardians of the Galaxy did not have this problem in the slightest. The first movie had the advantage of a clean slate. Precious few were fans of the group in comics form. In fact, it was a miracle this group was getting its own movie in the first place. Upon release, it was a smash hit, mostly because it was a great piece of genre entertainment. Director James Gunn’s voice rang loud and clear through the ingenious action set pieces, the soundtrack choices, and the screenplay pitched perfectly between irony and earnestness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not have the same advantage as the first. There are now expectations, though I’m happy to say the second installment thoroughly meets them all. It is as entertaining as the first and may be thematically deeper to boot, exploring more interesting territory through Kurt Russell’s Ego than any Marvel villain to date. If it is not as effortless as Vol. 1, Vol. 2 makes up for it with a higher level of emotional satisfaction.

Not being beholden to a beloved continuity is a benefit to the Guardians duo. It also foreshadows the future of comic book movies. Marvel has had an impressive run of fifteen (fifteen!) movies that have the trifecta of box office success, audience love, and relatively consistent critic approval. This achievement is all but unprecedented in Hollywood and is thus unlikely to continue forever. The constant after-credits stingers, the neverending waiting game of figuring out how everything is connected- the breaking point is coming, and there is no guarantee of similar success with whatever Marvel decides to do after they reach it.

And Marvel is the outlier in this business. Fox has had two solid runs with the X-Men movies, but the second chance they got with First Class is rare, and the third installment of this second run had the same problem as third installment of the first: bloat. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies weren’t bad but they didn’t connect with audiences, and now they have turned to a partnership with Marvel to right the ship. Warner Brothers’s DC movies have been an outright mess ever since the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies.

All of these movies had big ambitions to appease established fan bases with movies that embodied their characters. These characters have decades of development that cannot be packed into a couple of hours of entertainment. With Logan, Fox decided to do something different. While Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been around since 2000, they set Logan years after the former movies in a world that looked very different. There are few if any mentions of characters or events from the past movies. Even the whole vibe of the movie is different, slower, than the other X-Men movies, with the possible exception of The Wolverine (also directed by James Mangold)./

By filming Logan as a standalone story, Mangold was freer to fill the edges of his movie with the kinds of details that give movies depth, like the Shane references or Nate Munson introducing Laura to pop music. This is in opposition to something that is now the norm in comic book movies: details that are basically commercials for future movies, like Tony Stark’s conversation with Peter Parker in Parker’s apartment in the otherwise great Captain America: Civil War or the hasty introduction of the future Justice League members in the dreary Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These are the details of television shows, moving the plot from episode to episode, not of movies, which are self-contained stories in their ideal form.

Self-contained stories are the future of comic book movies. I am not saying that we are seeing the last gasp of franchises. Better writers than me have proclaimed the death of popcorn movies and the like. We will always have franchises- thus saith the Lord. But those franchises will not survive if they orient themselves around fan service and continuity. Avengers and Civil War (and hopefully Justice League) are exceedingly charming in their scope, but franchises need movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan, which are the incubators of that charm. The books may be better than the movies, but the movies can still be great as long as they remember that they are movies.