The Revenant and Iñárritu’s Hollywood Flattery

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“Thank God!” someone behind us said as the credits began to roll for The Revenant. My friends and I laughed, but really, who could blame them? This was a 156-minute, slow-moving slog through snow, mud, blood, ice, freezing water, and a horse’s guts, filled with unintelligible accents, primal screams, and grunts of pain. It was admittedly a hard movie to sit through with a lot of scenes that either make you wince with shock or look away entirely because of the violence. And yet this movie is one of the frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar at the end of this month.

You could point to a lot of factors for why that’s the case. For one, the movie’s star is Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Hugh Glass, a scout for a fur-trading company who gets mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. A lot of the awards season narrative has focused on this year being “his turn”. That’s silly, for a lot of reasons. He’s 42, and ostensibly has plenty of years ahead of him to deliver more Oscar-worthy performances.

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It’s a great performance, insofar as he has any acting to do beyond the aforementioned grunts of pain. DiCaprio deserves an Oscar, I’m just not sure he deserves it for this movie. He’ll win it, and I’ll be happy for him, because he’s my favorite actor, but when we look back on his career, The Revenant isn’t the movie we’ll point people to as a great showcase of his talents. But the Academy has decided to embrace the narrative, so we’ll have to explain to future generations all the movies he should have won it for that came before.

What you’re in awe of when you leave the movie isn’t DiCaprio, or even Tom Hardy, who gives the movie’s best performance as Fitzgerald, the fur trader who betrays Glass and leaves him to die. No, The Revenant is a movie that leaves you in awe of its look, its cinematography. This is a beautiful movie with many shots that linger on the austere landscapes that engulf and dwarf the story’s characters.

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From its opening shot, it’s clear that the movie’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for Iñárritu’s last movie, Birdman), is going to use long takes again. Whereas in Birdman, the long takes felt gimmicky after a while, the long takes in The Revenant are usually during the action scenes, and they put you right in the heat of the battle or the bear attack or the chase scene. You don’t have time to notice you’re under the spell of a gimmick. Regardless of how you felt about the story’s limited scope or the violence or the movie’s length, it’s impossible not to be in awe of how the movie looks. That’s something the Academy responds to.

But if you’re looking for something the Academy really responds to, look no further than flattery. Perhaps there are other reasons why director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s approach to filmmaking carries such weight at the Oscars, but if you look at the narrative surrounding his last two movies, it’s hard not to think that the way Birdman and The Revenant have made the industry feel about themselves hasn’t affected their Oscar chances. Birdman’s very story was about a movie actor forgoing superhero movies to find validation in what he considered a higher form of art. Birdman was essentially telling the part of Hollywood that isn’t making Marvel or DC movies, “The work you’re doing matters.”

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While The Revenant’s story isn’t specifically appealing to the hard-working film industry, the way it’s been talked about must be. From the get-go, the word on The Revenant shoot was that it was “a living hell”, the implication being that they had to go through hell in order to put this art on your theater screens. The talk surrounding DiCaprio’s performance hasn’t been about the care he took in bringing this story of survival to the screen or the ways in which he inhabited Hugh Glass’s mindset. No, we hear about all the awful things DiCaprio had to endure, from immersing himself in freezing water to eating the raw liver from a bison. Suffering for one’s art makes the art seem more important than it really is, and no one is more susceptible to this phenomenon than artists.

I’m not saying that The Revenant is bad, or that it doesn’t deserve recognition. But it’s possible that The Revenant and its filmmakers are getting extra credit for how physically difficult the shoot was. And given that just last year the Academy awarded an Iñárritu movie that flatters the movie industry, it’s hard not to look at the Oscar love for The Revenant and sense a recurring theme for 2016’s ceremony. The thing is, all that physical difficulty that the cast and crew went through? It shows onscreen. The Revenant is nothing if not a visual masterpiece, and while my friends who saw it with me told me afterwards that they thought The Revenant was great but wouldn’t want to see it again, I immediately wanted to immerse myself in it a second time. The Hollywood flattery paid off.

Trailer of the Hour: Free State of Jones

If there was ever a role that Matthew McConaughey seemed born to play, Civil War deserter would be at the top of the list. We’re a couple of years removed from the McConaissance triptych of MudDallas Buyers Club, and Interstellar, not to mention his instant-classic performance in season 1 of True Detective. Apart from a few car commercials, McConaughey’s been relatively quiet. I, for one, am excited about the prospect of watching him tear into a juicy role, but the Free State of Jones trailer seems to promise a story that he won’t have to carry. The tale of deserters who rebel against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi is rife with possibilities. Of course, it could be just another stuffy war picture, but the scene in the trailer with the women joining the fray and the inclusion of Gugu Mbatha-Raw have me hopeful for something with a little more depth.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones Is Just What Marvel Needed

The Hollywood gender wage gap has been getting a lot of press lately, with Jennifer Lawrence throwing the weight of her considerable stardom behind the recent movement. Add to that the well-documented bias in Hollywood towards telling stories about men, as well as the fact that women’s roles generally are defined by their relationships with men, and the gender-related tension is reaching an all-time high. Marvel Studios hasn’t remained immune; people have been frustrated for some time with their failure to produce a Black Widow movie, especially after heroes with lesser current intellectual property, like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, found their own blockbuster budgets greenlit.

This isn’t simply a matter of doing what’s right, though that’s part of it. Providing actresses with roles equally as complex and nuanced as their male counterparts is unquestionably the right thing to do. Paying women the same amount for equal roles is undoubtedly the right thing to do. And producing movies that tell stories about women and not only about their relationships with men is undeniably the right thing to do. But more than that, it’s good business sense. There’s been a faulty assumption in Hollywood for some time that movies about women won’t make big box office, and it’s being proved wrong over and over again. The good news is that Hollywood is beginning to listen, even if they’re admittedly unfashionably late to the diversity party.

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This includes Marvel. They’ve planned a Captain Marvel movie, as well as a Black Panther movie, which will be steps to telling stories about more than just white, male superheroes. But beyond increasing questions about the whiteness and maleness of their movie lineups, there have been questions about the continued bankability of their superheroes in general. Avengers: Age of Ultron (which I thought was better than the first, but I seem to be in the minority) was less of a box-office success than its predecessor, and their only other bigscreen offering this year was Ant-Man, which was their least successful movie, both critically and financially, since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. You could argue some attrition was always in the cards for Marvel Studios, but there does appear to be growing sentiment that we’re nearing the moment when the superhero bubble pops.

So Marvel’s Jessica Jones couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The first season dropped on Netflix last November, and they just announced that the second season has been picked up. Jessica Jones is exactly the kind of show Marvel needed to release, both for the kind of show it is and for its quality.

Let’s start with what kind of show Marvel has made. Jessica Jones stars Krysten Ritter as the titular private detective who acquired super-strength after a freak car accident. Her best friend is Trish (Rachael Taylor), the daughter of the woman who took Jessica in after the car crash killed her family. Trish hosts a popular radio talk show, but she also helps Jessica with her cases when she can, and the case Jessica is tackling over the entire season is the disappearance of a girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), which Jessica learns is linked to a man from her own past, Kilgrave (David Tennant). Kilgrave is like Jessica- “gifted”, though his ability is that he can control the actions of those within earshot of his voice.

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This is still a superhero show; Jessica’s and Kilgrave’s powers come into play in the plot of every episode, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a man with impenetrable skin and super-strength, has a recurring role. But Marvel has allowed Jessica Jones’s showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, to commit the show more forcefully to the detective show genre. Marvel’s Daredevil, released earlier in 2015 and about a small-time lawyer who moonlights as a superpowered vigilante, had some of the same grittiness and noir-ish sensibilities, but Daredevil was less willing to divorce itself from superhero origin story tropes. I mean, the series ends with Daredevil in a legit superhero costume. I won’t spoil Jessica Jones’s ending, but I will say that the last line doubles down on the idea that this is first and foremost a crime show.

Jessica Jones shows an awareness on Marvel’s part that they can’t continue to produce only superhero content. They have to adapt to the inevitably changing demands in the entertainment market, and part of that is committing to telling genre stories that transcend the superhero genre, which is going to go out of style at some point. If you don’t believe me that an uber-successful genre could eventually fall on hard times, kindly explain to me why romantic comedies or Westerns or musicals no longer get greenlit by big studios. Also, it should not be lost on anyone that Marvel went all in on a series that stars mainly women, with storylines nearly totally about women, and run by women. That’s Marvel admitting that they don’t have all the answers.

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However, none of that would matter if Jessica Jones wasn’t good television. And make no mistake, Jessica Jones is great television. Marvel has made the wise choice of having its Netflix series generally separated from its cinematic universe, the opposite of which has handicapped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the course of its three seasons. This has allowed Daredevil and Jessica Jones to tell their own stories, so the story in season 1 of Jessica Jones feels insular and whole. You’re fully invested in the here and now, rather than anticipating what the plot means for Marvel’s other properties. While this would give Jessica Jones free reign to fit itself entirely into the crime show format, Jessica Jones instead upturns your expectations. Most crime shows follow a formula that allows you to predict what’s coming next; in Jessica Jones, you never know where the show is going to go next. This makes the show feel fresh and new.

The show also features fresh and new faces- well, not quite. We’ve seen Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Mike Colter, and Carrie-Anne Moss (as a corrupt lawyer who often employs Jessica) in plenty of guest-starring or recurring roles in past shows or in bit roles in movies over the past decade. But Jessica Jones gives each of these actors a chance to shine. Moss is slimy in a way women rarely get to be; Colter is sexy as the kind of main romantic interest that black men don’t often get to play opposite white women; Taylor is strong in a way that’s antithetical to our expectations for the hero’s best friend, as well as to her blonde, sexpot looks; and Ritter is by turns vulnerable, sarcastic, noble, alcoholic, terrified, stony-faced, and reckless in all the ways that mass entertainment rarely allows women to be- even in television, which has been quicker on the uptake than movies.

Netflix doesn’t release their ratings, so we don’t know how popular Jessica Jones actually is, but estimates place it as one of their more popular shows. Surely releasing it at the end of November, when most network TV shows were ending their fall run of episodes, allowed it to dominate the cultural conversation a little more. Timely themes such as rape and post-traumatic stress disorder allowed it to gain traction, along with its status as one of Marvel’s superhero shows, and its overall quality is helping it to last beyond the initial week-of binges. This doesn’t “fix” Marvel; Marvel continues to rake in the cash and is just over a year removed from their best movie yet, Guardians of the Galaxy. But the studio needed a promising direction, and Jessica Jones gives them just that.

Song of the Hour: “Somewhere in Paradise (feat. Jeremih & R. Kelly)” by Chance the Rapper

Chance premiered this song at his first ever performance on Saturday Night Live, which also just so happened to be the first performance by an independent artist in the show’s history. His independent status is significant, especially in light of the two artists who feature on this song. Jeremih and R. Kelly are both Chicago staples; Jeremih (whose new album Late Nights is really, really good, by the way) has four platinum singles, and R. Kelly is, well, R. Kelly. Chance, on the other hand, has never had a charting single, nor has he ever released an album with a label. All of his releases so far have been self-released mixtapes, and his one studio album (also self-released) was really a group effort by The Social Experiment. But Chance is arguably the biggest artist on this song by now, achieving a level of popularity made possible only by the magic of the Internet and by his own savvy, not to mention the quality of his music.

“Somewhere in Paradise” is a good intro to Chance’s music; he uses gospel-tinged production a lot, and this may be the best fit of that style with the lyrics, which are all about remaining humble in the face of all his success, understanding that it all comes from God. Chance’s songs still feel like revelatory gifts from heaven, unsullied as they are by the corporate red tape of labels. Get on board now while he’s still among the innocent.

R.I.P. David Bowie

I could never write a comprehensive obituary for David Bowie. I know him the way you might know an influential high school teacher- you know, the cool one, the one you know well enough for him to have an impact on you, but not well enough to know anything about his life at home, what he does when he’s not at school. I only know Bowie as the most ethereal of the classic rock musicians. I’m more than familiar with maybe just three of his songs. The rest I’m only vaguely aware they’re his songs.

This might discredit me as someone who writes about music, but in my defense there’s a lot of music out there; I listen to what I can.

I can’t write a eulogy befitting the artist Bowie obviously was, but I can share what little experience of him I have had. I probably first heard of Bowie when I was in elementary school, but I only knew him as the guy on “Under Pressure” with Queen. When I was in 8th grade, I saw the movie Moulin Rouge!, and a snippet of his song “Heroes” appears in the “Elephant Love Medley”, which I can probably still sing word for word for you if you’re ever interested. I do birthday parties, bar mitzvahs- tell your friends.

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The line “We could be heroes” is the emotional climax of that song, and it was my favorite part to belt out, even though I couldn’t reach the notes. I first watched Moulin Rouge! with my first girlfriend, and the passionate, near-obsessive love that forms the backbone of the movie formed the backbone of our young idea of what love was supposed to be. We could talk about how terrible a role model the relationship in Moulin Rouge! is, but I do think that something about the excerpt from “Heroes” in the movie resonated with me beyond that first relationship.

Romantic love shouldn’t look like the ill-advised codependency of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, but in that moment on top of the elephant when they both exult about the possibility of touching “just for one day,” they hit on something true about the heights of love. The love in “Heroes” is an aspirational love with hope and blind optimism about the future. Even in the real world, love should feel like an open door, an ascendant ladder to something even greater.

“Heroes” is still one of my favorite songs. David Bowie would go on to tell more complex stories about romance and passion in more nuanced songs. But the simplicity of “Heroes” remains just as powerful and relevant today. Maybe even more so, now that the man who wrote it is gone.

Academy Award Nomination Predictions

I don’t usually do this, because it’s a fool’s game to predict what the Academy is going to do. But I guess I decided it’s time to stop pretending I’m not a fool. Predictions are fun, and I like fun.

It feels like they say this every year, but this year’s Oscars genuinely feel like the most open race in years. No movie is ahead of the pack; no movie feels like a clear and obvious choice. Also, if it shakes out the way I predict, this may be the most diverse group of plots, genres, and target audiences among the nominees in a while. And variety makes everything better.

Best Picture

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Carol
Creed
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Spotlight

Before Christmas, I didn’t really expect Bridge of SpiesMad Max: Fury Road, or The Martian to make the cut. I thought more awards-bait fare would keep them out, like RoomBrooklyn, or The Hateful Eight. But those movies have received less attention from critics and guilds alike, and the former three movies have gotten much more love. The outlier in this group, the movie that no one saw forcing its way into the conversation, is CreedCreed may not receive much attention in other categories, but the 5-to-10-nominee structure in this category means the most-loved movies make it in, and Creed is very well-loved. The favorites here are still Spotlight and Carol, though The Big Short has shown itself to have a surprising number of supporters in the industry.

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For your consideration: Inside Out. Before Creed was the critical and box-office darling it became, I assumed Inside Out would get its slot as the well-loved crowdpleaser. Animated movies almost never get nominated for Best Picture- only Beauty and the BeastUp, and Toy Story 3 have managed the feat. But Inside Out was one of the most imaginative movies of the year, and it packed an emotional punch. It deserves to be in this group.

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

This one’s almost written in stone. Michael B. Jordan or Johnny Depp could squeak through in Damon’s or Cranston’s place, but it’s unlikely.

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For your consideration: Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation. This group of performances is generally pretty weak. If the Academy was a little more adventurous with this category (as it has been in the past with Best Actress), they might have looked outside the awards bait for some independent gems. One such performance is Attah’s. He’s only a teenager, but he ages decades as a child soldier in Beasts.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

This is the most stacked Best Actress pool in a while. I’m most confident in Blanchett and Larson, but Jennifer Lawrence, Maggie Smith, and Helen Mirren from JoyThe Lady in the Van, and Woman in Gold could easily supplant the other three.

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For your consideration: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road. The star of the most surprisingly feminist movie of 2015 deserves some love.

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

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For your consideration: Benicio del Toro, Sicario. He achieved a new level of menace as a Colombian assassin with a hidden agenda.

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

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For your consideration: Mya Taylor, Tangerine. For Tangerine, a movie filmed on an iPhone and made for far less money than the next cheapest movie mentioned in this post, Taylor stands out the most as the likeliest candidate to get a nomination. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez won me over eventually in the lead role, but Taylor is magnetic from the very start.

Best Directing

Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian

McCarthy is the only unsure thing in this bunch, since Spotlight is much more notable for its cast and its screenplay than any visual style. Maybe Spielberg takes his spot for Bridge of Spies, or Ryan Coogler pulls off the coup of all coups for Creed.

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For your consideration: Denis Villenueve, Sicario. It takes supreme control to maintain the modulated dread that permeates every frame of this movie.

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies
Inside Out
Sicario
Spotlight
Trainwreck

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For your consideration: Ex Machina. Alex Garland’s twisted screenplay is both thought-provoking and engrossing.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short
Carol
The Martian
Room
Steve Jobs

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For your consideration: Paddington. This a hill I’m willing to die on.

Cinematography

Bridge of Spies
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario

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For your consideration: It Follows. David Robert Mitchell and his cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, do things with symmetry and panning that make you forget you’re watching a low-budget horror movie.

How We Should Respond to Spotlight

I am a member of Providence Road Church in Norman, and I wrote about Spotlight for their blog. Here’s an excerpt:

“But while we acknowledge the problems within the Catholic Church’s authority structure (and are careful to keep our own leaders humble lest they forget who is really in charge), we have certainty that this ultimately comes back to our shared depravity as human beings. This doesn’t excuse the Catholic Church. And it doesn’t excuse our church if we become careless with our pastors’ authority. But understanding that sin is the foundation for every injustice gives us the perspective we need to be angry at the right things. We want justice, but we want correct justice.”

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2015’s Top 10 Lists

Every year there are the consensus albums that end up on all the end-of-year lists, and then there are the albums that I loved that don’t get any love. This year, the critics seem to agree on Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Barnett, and Sufjan Stevens, all of which ended up on my own tentative top ten list. Other artists on that list receiving a little end-of-year attention were Alabama Shakes, Phil Cook, and Samantha Crain.

This is a list of the albums that got zero mentions in top ten lists, mine or otherwise. In past years I’ve included albums that got less than three, but that seems disingenuous, and, as a public figure, I must maintain the trust of my many fans. That means Jimmy Needham, Ben Rector, Gungor, and The Tallest Man on Earth aren’t on here, even though I can’t find a single list with them on it except my own. It also seems like a waste to include albums I’ve already written about, so no Amy Speace, Belle and Sebastian, David Ramirez, Dawes, KaiL Baxley, Lucero, Nicole Dollanganger, Sam Outlaw, The Weather Station, The White Buffalo, or Worriers. Basically this is just an excuse to catch up on writing about the artists I missed over the past year.

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Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter: Carlile recorded every song on her fifth studio album in one take, and the roughriding approach is apparent in the DNA of every song. She’s released good albums before, but she had the problem that a lot of singer-songwriters have, of having a sound that was too staid to do justice to her roughly hewn lyrics. The Firewatcher’s Daughter fixes this problem in one fell swoop with its first track, the rollicking “Wherever Is Your Heart”, which sets the tone for the barn-burning Americana to follow.

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Caroline Spence, SomehowWhere Carlile’s record shows how strong folk music can be when it’s set loose, Caroline Spence’s Somehow is an example of how great Americana can be when it stays home. There aren’t any risks and there are few flourishes. Spence displays an earnestness that, in a lesser songwriter’s hands, might have been cloying, but with strong metaphors and clever turns of phrase, her record is instead comfortably satisfying.

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Curren$y, Canal Street ConfidentialCurren$y’s latest studio album just came out this month, so the critics can have a little slack for not including him in their roundups. But since I’ve never seen his albums or mixtapes on year-end lists in the past, it’s probably safe to say that the stoner rapper’s newest would have gone similarly unheralded. It’s his most polished effort so far and his album with the most famous featured artists yet (Future, Wiz Khalifa, Weezy), but it still retains his blunt sensibility, which is a more defined sensibility than any of those featured artists have had of late, by the way.

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JD McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll: Rock doesn’t get a lot of mainstream critical attention anymore, and that’s fine. But you can still find great rock music if you know where to look, and JD McPherson’s Let the Good Times Roll is a good place to start. He scratches a rockabilly itch that nothing in the wider cultural conversation is really getting near.

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Lord Huron, Strange TrailsOn their 2012 debut, Lonesome Dreams, Lord Huron was a little too in love with the same propulsive dream-folk rhythm that permeated every song. It was their calling card on that album, and they revisit it on Strange Trails, but with more variations, allowing for syncopation and even some swing to enter their musical vocabulary. The result is a compilation perfect both for the road and the campfire.

Underrated Songs

Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”
Chromatics, “Just Like You”
Janelle Monae & Jidenna, “Yoga”

These were three of the best pop songs of the year and yet have received little to no end-of-year attention.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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So I saw the new Star Wars on Friday. I loved it. I somehow managed to avoid spoilers beforehand, which was nice. I was unable, however, to avoid reactions completely. So, while the majority were positive, I did notice a couple of critical tweets.

While watching the movie, I noticed things I didn’t like. Some of them mirrored the critical tweets I had read. But I still loved the movie. It’s possible to be aware of a movie’s messiness and to still think it’s one of the best movies of the year. That basically describes my feelings about every David O. Russell movie.

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A normal review of mine would include thoughts on the movie’s flaws. But Star Wars is different. It’s tied to feelings of child-like excitement that I’d rather embrace than suppress right now. So here are the five things I absolutely loved about The Force Awakens:

The special effects: A lot was made before the movie was released about how Abrams made the return to the kinds of practical effects used in the first trilogy that made that universe seem full of real places. But, of course, George Lucas didn’t make a conscious decision to use practical effects in the first trilogy; he just used what he had available, and he did the same thing when he did the prequels, unaware (as most of Hollywood was at the time) how much jumping into the deep end of digital effects contributes to the lack of life in a movie. Abrams has the benefit of hindsight, and he uses it in Force Awakens to craft new planets and action setpieces that feel like they’re taking place in a three-dimensional world. One of the joys of the original was that the universe that Lucas created felt like a place that if you closed your eyes and concentrated hard enough, you might just sink into it. The lightsabers leave behind marks, the ships have wear and tear, and the alien creatures don’t look like they were programmed on a computer. Speaking of which…

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The creatures: One thing that the prequels got right was the creativity they brought to all the different kinds of aliens in the Star Wars universe.  But Lucas went overboard, expanding the roster of unique creatures but forgetting the specificity of the aliens from the original trilogy. In real life, you don’t encounter many different cultures everywhere you go; likewise, in the original trilogy, there are only a few scenes in which the breadth of the universe’s life forms is hinted at: the cantina, the bounty hunters on the Imperial cruiser, Jabba’s palace. Force Awakens mirrors the original trilogy in this way. The creatures are creative, but Abrams remembers that less is more.

The old cast: Abrams has gotten a lot of flack for doubling down on nostalgia and not much else in films like Super 8 and Star Trek into Darkness. Personally, I think he evokes those feelings so well that it strengthens the weaker aspects of his movies. And, in Force Awakens, simply bringing back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill (not to mention Chewie, R2-D2, and C-3PO) is enough to bring about those feelings. But the arc that the screenwriters have given Han and (now General) Leia deepens those characters in ways the prequels failed to do with any of its holdover characters. The decisions they make are central to the movie’s themes and move the plot along past the point of pure nostalgia.

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The new cast: And yet what makes The Force Awakens such a fun experience are the new players. Daisy Ridley’s Rey makes an exciting everywoman to root for with an appealing independence that differentiates her from the whiny Luke in the original trilogy. She’s a joy to watch, especially when paired with John Boyega’s bumbling stormtrooper Finn. And Oscar Isaac’s Poe has the potential to become the roguish, one-lining Han Solo an action-adventure movie needs. The Force Awakens was a well-made movie all around, but these three actors made it enormously thrilling.

The potential: So the movie was an amazing experience, but what made it transcend the 135-minute runtime was the potential for the future. Abrams not only made a standalone classic sci-fi action epic, he set the stage for endless possibilities for the future. We know what the next movie will involve- Abrams’s breathtaking final shot, pulling taut the tension between the past and the future, saw to that. But it seems as though Abrams got most of his dependence on the past trilogies out of the way in this one, including a throwback plot involving a Death-Star-like weapon. So that means the next two movies in the trilogy could lead anywhere. After such a strong first entry, what we’re left with is a new hope all over again.

Quick Take: Sidewalk Stories (1989)

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If you have something against black-and-white or silent movies, then no amount of effusive praise from me will convince you to see Sidewalk Stories. But you’d be missing out on a magical experience. With the sensibility of the Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character and the modern wit of The Artist (twenty years prior, I might add), Sidewalk Stories tells the story of a homeless man (Charles Lane, also the film’s director) who finds himself in possession of a child after he witnesses the stabbing of her father. Like City Lights before it, Sidewalk Stories finds the right tone to present a realistic experience of life on the streets while still making you laugh in every scene. The significant difference in this film is that nearly every major player is black, telling the kind of story that the movies of the silent era never deigned worthy.

Quicker take: It’s a 1989 movie, but it’ll still be one of the best silent movies you’ll ever see.