Trailer of the Hour: Chi-Raq

CHI-RAQ Trailer from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.

I get it. For anyone who has not seen a Spike Lee movie before, this trailer must appear shocking. The movie itself deals with the high number of fatalities in Chicago on a year-by-year basis due to gang violence, and yet it appears to be both a musical and a blaxploitation film, neither of which is a genre that seems heavy enough to handle this subject matter. But Lee is responsible for a movie called Do the Right Thing, which was released 26 years ago and was one of the most insightful movies ever released about race and violence. Now Lee’s releases since then have been spotty at best. But I’d be willing to bet that Lee knows the stakes for this movie are higher than for any he’s done in the past 20 years. The Chi-Raq trailer looks and feels much like the tone of Lee’s 1989 classic, and the satirical approach is arguably the best way for Lee’s message to make the biggest impact. If the movie gets the tone as extreme as the trailer, than Chi-Raq could be the best Spike Lee movie since the best Spike Lee movie.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)


Considering that Netflix is mostly used for binge-watching and chilling, it might seem a strange home for an intense movie about child soldiers in West Africa. And yet the weekend Netflix debuted the movie on its site, it racked up 3 million distinct views. So while it may have only grossed $51,003 at the box office that weekend, Netflix’s bid at prestige has to be viewed as a success.

It helps that the movie is an unprecedented masterpiece. This isn’t the first time Cary Fukunaga has written and directed a foreign-language movie about children growing up through intense circumstances. Sin Nombre, a hit at Sundance in 2009, followed a Honduran girl and a Mexican boy trying to escape into the United States. That one was a well-received little indie. Key word: little. Beasts of No Nation is a high-profile foray by the streaming giant into the world of prestige film. Fukunaga’s stakes are a decidedly higher this time around.


But where the stakes are higher with Beasts, Fukunaga has met them with the film’s quality. Not that Sin Nombre was bad; it’s an excitingly emotional movie, but it feels small in the way you might expect from a movie designated as “indie”. Beasts is a sweeping epic, following young Agu (Abraham Attah) from an idyllic life before a rebel attack on his village through his escape from the rebels to his indoctrination as a child soldier under the tutelage of the enigmatic man Agu knows only as Commandant (Idris Elba). The platoon of child soldiers Agu falls into commit some horrific acts, and you get a sense of the inevitability of their doom. The instability of the government has thrown them into a situation entirely out of their control, and they’re taught to do some truly horrendous things to helpless people. The movie can be a bit hard to watch at times as a result.

Even so, Fukunaga’s camera remains wholly empathetic. There are many scenes built like the famous tracking shots in Children of Men, depicting the gradual escalation of the action until the level of the chaos surrounding the characters settles in and they become numb to it. The difference between Fukunaga’s style and Alfonso Cuarón’s in Children is that Fukunaga’s camera tracks one character through the entire shot where Cuarón’s would have tracked the action. The sweeping feeling of being caught up in the thick of things remains, but the focus on one character (usually Agu) fosters a unique empathy. That combination of epicness and empathy escalates Beasts into an extraordinary elevation of excellence.


And yet as prestigious as Beasts of No Nation is supposed to be based on its quality and Netflix’s ad campaign, the conversation surrounding it appears pretty quiet. There’s not much awards buzz, and the media hasn’t covered it past the week of its release. But don’t get it twisted. Just because Beasts of No Nation hasn’t generated the kind of conversation usually reserved for awards movies doesn’t mean that Netflix will consider it a failure. On the contrary, the goal for Beasts was never a Best Picture Oscar or for it to be a zeitgeist hit. No, Beasts is simply part of a grander plan to add more unique content to their library.

Netflix has always been trying to be the next HBO, albeit with a different methodology of delivery. When HBO Go launched early this year, it was a platform similar to Netflix in form that instantly had its own unique content from HBO’s years and years of creative production- relevant documentaries, prestige movies, iconic shows. In other words, everything Netflix has been trying to build the past few years. They started with instantly iconic shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Last year they began branching into game-changing documentaries with the DiCaprio-produced Virunga, and they continued that process this year with the Nina Simone doc What Happened, Miss Simone? and the Ukraine unrest film Winter on Fire. Now, with Beasts of No Nation, they’re aiming for prestige film.


It’s hard to imagine Beasts of No Nation being made or distributed by any major studio. A story about child soldiers on a continent that’s historically misunderstood in cinema would have been a hard sell. Netflix spent so much money on it (around $12 million) because they weren’t trying to sell it. Beasts made very little at the box office, but those 3 million views matter. It may be hard to monetize views at this point, but 3 million is probably not a number they ever would have gotten had they only released the movie in theatres. Netflix is well aware that having Beasts in its library among all its other movies and shows from other prestigious talents will be valuable in the long run. The more essential Netflix’s library as a whole becomes, the more money they’re going to make on subscriptions.

This may seem inconsequential to you personally, but it’s this kind of forward-thinking business model that will continue to allow great artists like Cary Fukunaga to make the content on which you rely for bingeing and chilling. Of course, this is the same business model that is about to beget four Adam Sandler movies, the first of which appears to be filled with racist Native American jokes, so let’s not praise Netflix too much. But the kind of creative control Netflix has appeared to be willing to give Sandler is a positive trend for their deals with Paul Reubens (a new Pee-Wee movie!), the Duplass brothers (low-budget indies!), and kung-fu movie master Yuen Woo-Ping (a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!).

HBO has proven giving creative control to artists produces great art, but they’ve also shown that it can produce Season 2 of True Detective. Netflix will have their TD Season 2 (probably in the Sandler movies, though expectations are way lower for those than TD2 so it wouldn’t be a direct comparison). For now, they can be proud of Beasts of No Nation, both for how great a movie it is right now and for what it means for their future.

Song of the Hour: “Sandra’s Smile” (2015) by Blood Orange

R&B is useful for quite a few things. We generally associate it with communicating sexual passion, but it’s also good for kiss-offs or for heartbreak laments. Before this past year it was easy to forget the genre’s rich history of protest music. The most prominent example is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, which is a sumptuous, jazz-inflected record of anti-war, anti-gang violence, pro-environment beauty. “Sumptuous” and “jazz-inflected” also apply to “Sandra’s Smile”, the new song from Dev Hynes dedicated to the memory of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a jail cell after being arrested for a traffic violation last summer, though the song sounds more like Prince than Gaye.

Hynes hasn’t been shy about the intention of this song; it’s not a call to arms but a forceful claim of the right to have an emotional response to tragedies like Bland’s. The grief that the black community has experienced again and again should not be rushed, and it’s not wrong to struggle to forgive. These tragedies have been nothing short of awful, but I’m thankful to God for the way many are responding in the creative community. With “Sandra’s Smile”, Dev Hynes allows himself to be a standard-bearer of the necessary response.

Quick Take: Norte, the End of History (2014)

Norte, the End of History: a mere four hours long.

If you’re the kind of person who likes novels that are over 600 pages long, then a movie over 4 hours long should be a piece of cake. Imagine a 4-hour movie based on a 600-page book! How can you resist? The book is Crime and Punishment, and the movie is Norte, the End of History, which adapts the basic structure of Dostoyevsky’s plot and transposes it into the modern Philippines. Director Lav Diaz is like the Filipino Scorsese or the Coen brothers- somehow making artful movies into popular ones.  He’s made a 9-hour movie before, and the movie he made after Norte (which has yet to be released in the states) is 5 hours. It’s his thing, and he’s sticking to it. But Norte is so starkly violent, so committed to its themes of class privilege, the consequences of sin, and the failings of the Filipino infrastructure, that 4 hours ends up seeming like not enough rather than too much.

Quicker take: If you can watch a 4-hour sporting event, sitting down for one of last year’s richest stories should be easy.

Oklahoma and the Art of Healing


I was cooking in my kitchen. I don’t remember what I was cooking- probably pasta. It was in the beginning of my spring break so I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I heard my wife saying from the couch in the next room, “Aaron, you need to come look at this.” I wiped off my hands and walked over to her, and she turned her computer to me and pressed play.

“There will never be a n**ger SAE! There will never be a n**ger SAE! You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me, there will never be a n**ger SAE!”

I looked up at my wife. My eyes were wide. This was bad.



Three weekends ago, the University of Oklahoma put on a university-wide production of Ragtime, an epic musical about the early 1900s in America. Ragtime is a sprawling show with a lot of characters and complex themes. It’s the kind of show that, if done wrong, has the potential to be an epic flop. But the OU School of Musical Theatre has proven time and time again that they have the will and the talent to pull off complicated productions. In the past few years, I’ve seen their versions of Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage aux Folles, and The Drowsy Chaperone– all nuanced shows on the page, and OU’s productions of them were consistently wonderful. But they reached a new level of quality with this production of Ragtime. It’s not that they did anything noticeably different; the acting was predictably great, the sets were beautifully constructed, and the costumes and props were appropriately elaborate. This was business as usual for OU Theatre.

But Ragtime as a show reaches higher than anything the school has previously done. The themes are more all-encompassing, the story more universal, the production more ambitious. Terrence McNally’s book intertwines multiple plot lines with several historical characters intermingling with well-drawn originals. The songs (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) combine to paint a mural of American culture as a tumultuous melting pot. This makes Ragtime a heavyweight show for any organization to tackle, let alone a program at a school mired in racist controversy.

One thing besides the show’s inherent quality that makes Ragtime stand out from most other Broadway shows is the fact that one of the storylines is a specifically black story. Broadway, like America’s other mainstream pop culture media, is notorious for failing to represent the wide span of cultures between America’s shores. African-Americans are vastly underused on the Great White Way, giving the industry’s nickname a sinister double meaning. It’s not that there haven’t been musicals with stories about black culture. But like TV and movies, musicals have told white stories for the majority of their existence.

So it was refreshing when I saw the first chorus of black actors come out during the opening number. There were a lot of them; more than I was used to seeing onstage at the same time, sadly. I knew in that moment that we were getting a story that would not only include black people but be about black people. And indeed, Ragtime tells the story of a black couple who, through tragedy both circumstantial and intentional, become caught up in violent racism and violent retaliation. It would be impossible for any work of art to cover the spectrum of black experience in America, but Ragtime feels like it comes close.

That the School of Musical Theatre chose Ragtime at this point in time should not be lost on anybody. If the decision was coincidental after everything that happened- not just the SAE fallout, but the continued conversations surrounding diversity on campus and the tension therein- then it was extremely fortuitous timing. Regardless of the program’s intent, the effect the show had was cathartic. To have so many African-American actors participate in the telling of a story that was distinguishably theirs was precisely what the Oklahoma campus needed.  The process of healing had already begun, and it’s far from finished now, but Ragtime was a step in a powerful direction.



We were on campus late in the morning on the day of OU’s homecoming, waiting for the parade to go by. More importantly, we were waiting for two of our friends to get engaged. They had been together for a really long time, since high school, so it was a momentous occasion, to say the least, and we were all really excited. I glanced at my phone for a second and saw I had a notification from Twitter. I unlocked my phone and stared at it in speechless disbelief.

“@NewsOn6: Von Castor tells us two people are dead and numerous others injured at homecoming parade.”

I immediately showed my wife. Our parade had just begun. Our friends were newly engaged. And tragedy had just struck Stillwater.



The next night we were in Tulsa to attend a Ben Rector concert at Cain’s Ballroom. He had just released a new album in August, which I love; it’s like peak James Taylor circa Sweet Baby James. Ben Rector is from Tulsa and performed his first concert at Cain’s. So it was a homecoming of sorts for Rector, the same weekend as our homecoming and as OSU’s.

We had VIP tickets, because Rector is my wife’s favorite artist; she’d seen him at least four other times before this. VIP meant we were able to watch him give an acoustic performance of two of his songs. He answered questions and posed for pictures with each VIP ticket holder. It was a really cool experience. He seems like a very warm, genuine person. But his actual concert was even better. He performed a healthy amount of new songs and old hits, including performances with his full band as well as solo iterations of his quieter songs. Of the Rector concerts I’ve been to, this was his best backing band. Even on songs that sound production-heavy on the albums, the band felt full and alive.

The largest contingent in the audience was a group of OSU fans. Tulsa is pretty close to Stillwater, and a lot of Ben Rector’s family are OSU fans, so it’s only natural that the majority of the people in attendance rooted for the Pokes. When Rector performed “When a Heart Breaks”,  I couldn’t help but think of the meaning the song might have for that group. The song starts, “I woke up this morning /and I heard the news / I know the pain of the heartbreak”. The song goes on to explore the ambiguity and confusion that come with grief. The lyrics aren’t necessarily cathartic, but the way the chorus soared live was.

All of Rector’s choruses soar though, so they’re built for moments of catharsis. His lyrics are honest, so they appeal to people like him, to people who are in the same life stage as he is, and to people who have been where he’s been- so, respectively, creative people, married people in their late 20s or 30s, and college students. When an audience feels like an artist gets them and appreciates them- knows them- the concert experience is ten times better. Rector has mastered this skill. And in Oklahoma, he’s one of our own. He praises God when we praise God, and he cries out when we cry out. That night, we needed to forget about death and have life affirmed through the joy of singing along to great music. He gave us that.



Oklahoma’s history is deeply linked to tragedy. I didn’t grow up here, so I hardly feel qualified to write about it. But having lived here for eight years now, I can’t help but feel deeply as if this is my home. I was here only a few miles south at the time of the deadly Moore tornado, and I’ve seen how the state rallies together when tragedy strikes. It’s rooted in events as far back as the Trail of Tears and the Dust Bowl, and more recently in the Oklahoma City bombing. You could hardly blame a state as red as Oklahoma for feeling like they don’t fit in with the rest of the states, even the other red ones. But add to their outsider status the heavy number of tragedies, and it should come as no surprise that Oklahomans have a chip on their shoulders, or to feel as if no one else could understand what it means to be an Oklahoman. And yet the comment we get most from visitors: “Oklahomans are just so nice.”

The two tragedies in this post obviously differ in extremity. One involves what has become four deaths and the other references violent hate crime, but they’ve both rocked communities. They both inserted themselves into the state’s long history of tragedy. They might be examples to the rest of the nation of Oklahomans becoming weakened. They are both examples in Oklahoma of Oklahomans growing stronger together.

Ragtime and a Ben Rector concert may seem tangential to these tragic events, but this is how communities heal. There are debates to be had after the SAE video about what systemic changes need to be made on campus. But instead of empty words and indefinite promises, one department at OU took action and decided to tell a story that, in the past, would have gone unheard. The OU Theatre audience, which is half OU students and half old, white season ticket patrons, was witness to a story that was not their own. I can attest to the power in the students’ performance of that story, and my hope is that the audience gained empathy from it. Telling one another’s stories is imperative for reconciliation; the School of Musical Theatre began that process with Ragtime.

Ben Rector hasn’t achieved the Oklahoma hero status of an act like the Flaming Lips, who after the 1995 bombing provided consistent release by dedicating songs to specific victims and by their contributions to the local art community. He lives in Nashville, and has ties to other states as well. But Rector is a proud Oklahoman making art with the power to both transport you away from tragedy and to force you to confront it. The concert that night was not a direct attempt to provide a balm for healing, but the compassion in his lyrics did just that anyway.

To the outside world, Oklahoma might be defined by its tragedy. Before the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, the city’s main attraction was the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the victims of the 1995 bombing. And it seems now as if the state makes national news only for the worst of news. But for those of us who live here, we know the strength we have within our community, and we’ve watched over the years as our arts culture has grown to reflect that. Culture isn’t meant to be the only means to the end of healing; there are so many other steps to the process. But perhaps our culture will be a means to the beginning.

Quick Listen: All a Man Should Do (2015) by Lucero


Lucero has been around long enough to merit conversation about their legacy, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to All a Man Should Do, which has the immediacy of a record from a younger band. There’s middle-age insecurity and ’90s nostalgia too, as well as tributes to Warren Zevon and Big Star, but Ben Nichols’s lyrics sound too hopeful to signal that the band is anywhere near the end of the road. Even their choice of a Big Star cover, “I’m in Love with a Girl”, on which Big Star member Jody Stephens sings backup, reflects a youthful excitement. A lot of up-and-coming bands strive to achieve a wisdom beyond their years; it takes a special band to maintain their vitality, still crazy after 17 years.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Horror isn’t exactly an exciting genre in 2015. That’s not to say that there aren’t good horror movies being released. There are indie gems like The Guest and It Follows to enjoy, as well as mainstream fare like The Cabin in the Woods and The Conjuring. But the former two are a part of a movement of nostalgia horror, movies that draw on styles and atmospheres that originated in the 1980s. And the latter two may be standouts among studio fare, but they don’t add anything new to the mix.

It’s been over a decade since the last time a horror movie really shook things up. Successful movies like Insidious are nice, but the genre has been stagnant since the early aughts. We had a three-movie run from 1998 through 2001 that truly changed the game for horror: Japan’s Ringu in 1998, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and the US release of Audition in 2001. Ringu began a stylistic shift in American horror away from the slow burn of slasher flicks to the dread of unsettling Japanese effects. The Blair Witch Project was the precursor to the more recently annoying found-footage style, though the world was so shocked by Blair Witch that it took a few years for the trend to fully catch on. And Audition set the example for torture-porn to which the Saw and Hostel movies owe a debt of gratitude.


But the best horror movies of recent years are either throwbacks or, like The Cabin in the Woods, clever about playing with the genre’s tropes, which isn’t the same thing as being innovative. It’s a fun quality to have in a movie, but cleverness isn’t transformative. Horror is a vital movie genre; traditionally, horror is how we process the very real fears in the world around us. Standard horror movies can do this, but if they’re just repeating styles and plots from the past, they’re going to cease to be relevant.

In the buildup to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, it felt like the kind of movie that could be a swing movie one way or the other. Based on del Toro’s past work in movies like the Hellboy films and Pan’s Labyrinth and from the promising trailers, it was fair to expect del Toro to bring his darkly creative sensibility to the horror genre. The monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth were like nothing we’d seen before; surely del Toro would be able to add something equally as fresh to a ghost story? Then again, if you saw Pacific Rim, you’d be forgiven for worrying Crimson Peak would be another example of del Toro taking another specific subgenre (kaiju movies in Pacific Rim’s case, gothic horror in Crimson Peak’s) and merely making an enjoyable installment to be forgotten in the annals of film history. With del Toro’s checkered filmmaking history, Crimson Peak could have been visionary or merely unremarkable.


Unfortunately, it’s the latter. This is a very serviceable gothic romance/horror movie, but not much more beyond that. We follow Mia Wasikowska’s Edith as she rushes into a marriage with Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas and travels to England to live with him and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), in their magnificently rotted old manor. It doesn’t take long for Edith to begin seeing ghosts, though we see them coming long before she’s even aware anything is amiss. There’s something off about Thomas and Lucille from the beginning, and if you’re familiar with gothic horror, you’ll see it coming a mile away. But that’s okay; the performances are strong enough and the visuals rich enough to make the plot feel merely familiar rather than predictable.

What’s not okay is how rudimentary the horror is in Crimson Peak. The ghosts, while reminiscent in their movements of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, are pretty standard. Del Toro makes good use of the color red, with its origins in a special kind of oozy clay into which the manor is sinking. It seeps into every frame, obviously mean to evoke thoughts of blood and murder. It’s a striking visual, but it’s not in service of much. You’d think that if del Toro meant to make a standard gothic horror, he would have written a much more gonzo story, fully giving into his own Lovecraftian impulses. As it is, Crimson Peak’s twists and turns are fairly standard; the old black-and-white gothic horrors are more effectively disturbing.

Maybe I had unfair expectations of true innovation. But the promise of the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth (which remains one of the best movies of any genre in this century) suggests the potential for Guillermo del Toro to be the person to take horror into new territory. Before seeing it, it was easy to imagine Crimson Peak having a new take on the ghost story and thus injecting the horror genre with new life. But Crimson Peak ends up being the same old take on death.

The Classic Movies from the Year 2000

I have a theory: it takes about fifteen years (give or take a year or two) for us to start determining what’s classic and what’s not. It takes a little bit longer with music- nearly all critics acknowledge Kid A as the best album of the 2000s (I don’t, sue me), but it doesn’t really feel classic yet. It still feels like it belongs to this time. Give it another five years, and we’ll probably be talking about Kid A the same way we talk about Nevermind now.

But movies age faster. There’s something about music that gets deeper into our psyche to where we hold onto it a bit longer. Movies belong to their own time more; they’re more fleeting.

I decided to make a list of the movies from 2000 that we can say with some certainty are now “classic”. I don’t have any legitimate authority over the actual status of these movies, though it would be nice if someone in Hollywood would throw me a bone on that front. (Just a little power, that’s all I ask.) To be clear, this list is not the same thing as the Bummys. These aren’t my personal favorites, just movies that I think have endured in the culture and will be remembered. Remembering is fun, so that’s why I made the list.

The movies can be broken down into five categories:

Undisputable: I don’t have a dictionary, but I think this should actually be “indisputable”. I guess I could look it up. Okay, just did- it’s “indisputable”. But in the interest of not caring, I’m going to leave it as undisputable. Anyway, it’s pretty self-explanatory. These are the movies that it would be very difficult to argue against including.

Critical Consensus: These are the movies that are and will be classics based on the strength of their support from critics. Generally these movies aren’t as popular with general audiences. It’s not that they don’t like them, per se, just that critics are and will champion these movies more.

By Popular Demand: And this is the opposite. Non-critic audiences liked these movies more when they were released and still do.

Performance Enhancement: These movies have endured and will continue to do so based on the strength of one or more performances in the movie, rather than the quality of the movie as a whole.

Cult Status: These are movies that weren’t popular with audiences when they first came out but have achieved a special kind of popularity on DVD.

2000 was a transition year for movies. The 1990s, like with many other mediums, saw the success of excess. Big movies with hefty running times were the order of the decade. 2000 saw the tail end of this trend combined with the beginning of more successful small movies. The independent scene that saw its roots in the 1980s finally began to catch on with wider audiences. The classics reflect this. Here they are:



Almost Famous: Nearly universally regarded both as Cameron Crowe’s best movie and as the only good movie he’s made in the 2000’s, Almost Famous is the semi-autobiographical story of a 15-year-old boy who pretends he’s older so that he can follow a rock band on the road for Rolling Stone. This one was always going to be a classic; pretty much every critic loved it, and it has found word-of-mouth success as a DVD. But Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing solidified it, making his scenes in the movie as a jaded rock critic simply iconic.


Cast Away: Robert Zemeckis’s films so often have a gimmick; the animation/live-action combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the insertion of Tom Hanks into historical footage in Forrest Gump, the austerity of the island scenes in Cast Away. But his gimmicks are often in service of great stories, and Cast Away, the story of a man who survives a plane crash only to spend years marooned on an island, has a story that has endured. If the permanence of “WILSON!” isn’t enough to convince you of Cast Away’s classic status, I don’t know what is.


Chicken Run: It was Pixar or nothing in the world of animation back then, since the studio had seen wild success with the first two Toy Story movies and A Bug’s Life, and Shrek hadn’t launched the new wave of snarky DreamWorks movies quite yet. Chicken Run was the first feature-length from Aardman Animations, the studio that makes the Wallace & Gromit shorts, and the studio’s stop-motion debut showed that there was a different way than CGI. Of course, the studios didn’t learn their lesson, doubling down on trying to catch up to Pixar and DreamWorks, but that doesn’t alter Chicken Run’s status as one of the best animated movies of the 2000s.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: While China’s reaction to Ang Lee’s masterpiece was a resounding “meh”, CTHD was a huge hit here in the States. And no wonder: on top of the magnificent effects and sumptuous cinematography, CTHD distilled kung fu movies down to their essence. The gravity-defying fight scenes are highly stylized and exciting, but they complement the love stories and transcendentalist themes at the movie’s center.


Erin Brockovich: This is Exhibit A in my argument that this isn’t just a list of my personal favorites, because I barely like this movie. But it’s an integral part of the culture now, reestablishing the standard for based-on-a-true-story activism set by Norma Rae in the ‘70s. And it has a dynamite performance from world treasure Julia Roberts, so it belongs on this list despite my personal misgivings with the movie.


Gladiator: Subsequent sword-and-sandal movies like Alexander, Troy, and Ridley Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings have muddied the waters around Gladiator. The trend it kicked off in 2000 certainly hasn’t produced any other classics, but Gladiator remains as wonderfully epic now as it seemed 15 years ago. Scott has always been good at bringing blockbuster production design to relatively small human stories, and Gladiator is one of the best examples of his unique sensibility.


Meet the Parents: Another example of this not being the Bummys. Some movies that are unfunny end up enduring despite themselves. Maybe it was the pairing of Stiller and De Niro that made this movie a hit, but it’s one of the highest-grossing live-action comedies of all time, and I don’t understand.


Traffic: Steven Soderbergh is one of the most inscrutable directors to me; I’ve never understood his enormous appeal to critics. I’m not a huge fan of Erin Brockovich, and I thought this crime movie that interlocks stories at various ends of the drug trade was merely “very good”, while most critics think it is “great” and “one of the best crime movies ever”. But I just watched sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh’s 1989 debut) and loved it, so maybe I just need to revisit his movies.

You Can Count on Me: Widely regarded as one of the best indie movies ever, it combines what you expect from an independent movie (low budget, small story) with what you wouldn’t expect (a total lack of quirkiness, movie-star acting- that’s cheating a bit, since neither Linney nor Ruffalo was a movie star yet). Featuring breakout performances by two underrated actors (both then and now) in Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, director Kenneth Lonergan captured sibling love perfectly. The complete dearth of movies from Lonergan after You Can Count (until Margaret’s tortured release in 2011) has only served to increase its quality in retrospect.

Critical Consensus


George Washington: One of the first indies I ever saw also happens to be one of the most championed by critics. It’s a small film about children in a low-income neighborhood who legitimately act like children and not like child actors. David Gordon Green has never lived up to the promise he showed as a filmmaker in this one.


The Gleaners & I: A documentary by French avant-garde filmmaker Agnes Varda that, typical to Varda, shines a light on a largely unseen segment of the population. Gleaners are basically scavengers, though without the negative connotations of that word; historically they would  gather whatever crops were left over after the harvest. Varda’s film includes street gleaners (essentially dumpster divers), and it’s considered one of her best.


High Fidelity: In retrospect, it makes sense that High Fidelity wasn’t a hit. Being released in the same year as Almost Famous would be difficult for any music-centric movie, especially one where John Cusack routinely breaks the fourth wall and refers to everything through top-five lists. But critics continue to extol its many virtues, including its insights into masculine entitlement and music criticism.


Yi Yi: I know very little about Yi Yi. I know it’s Taiwanese; I know it’s a family drama; and I know critics describe it with the breathless praise usually reserved for masterpieces. While it’s supposed to be slow-moving and will probably never catch on with the wider public, I have to assume that the effusive noise from the critics will carry Yi Yi well into the future’s estimation of the movies of 2000.

By Popular Demand


Bring It On: This is a bad movie that I like a little bit in spite of myself. Again: this list is NOT about telling you which movies from 2000 were the best. This is about movies that have endured in the culture and that I think will be remembered from here on out. Bring It On, to my generation, is a seminal movie that both upended and defined its own genre. “Jazz hands” will always be a thing, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.


O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Coen brothers were already elite filmmakers by the time they made O Brother, having already made Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski (WOW.). O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a lark for them and for George Clooney, and yet it’s among their most popular movies. Why? I’m the wrong person to ask, because I don’t like this movie at all. I think the popularity of its soundtrack has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact that neither the Coens nor Clooney has ever been involved in anything like this before or since that its uniqueness makes it stand out. Its weirdness is its own reward, I suppose.


Remember the Titans: Critics do not like Remember the Titans. It’s a very simple movie; director Boaz Yakin may not be familiar with the concept of nuance. But my generation loves this movie. It was, for many of us, the first time we saw a Denzel Washington movie and therefore the first time we felt the force of his charisma. Many of us saw Titans when we were kids, so the simplistic, black-and-white plot resonated with us. A lot of movies that end up being classics later are movies that work for the youth of their time, who, when they’re adults, pass their childhood movies on to future generations. If you’re a critic who doesn’t like Remember the Titans: embrace it; it’s not going away.

Performance Enhancement


Dancer in the Dark: Björk wasn’t the first woman Lars von Trier put through the ringer to elicit a classic performance (ask Emily Watson what Breaking the Waves was like), but she’s by far the most famous example.

Pollock: The combination of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock himself and Marcia Gay Harden as his long-suffering wife will always make this often-boring biopic worth seeing.


Shadow of the Vampire: An uneven fictional portrayal of the filming of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Shadow endures solely because of Willem Dafoe’s inspired Max Schreck, who may or may not be an actual vampire.

Cult Status


American Psycho: Somehow this thriller starring Christian Bale as a sociopath only grossed $15 million.


The Legend of Drunken Master: Originally released in China in 1994, Drunken Master was released in America to little-to-no success after Rush Hour catapulted Jackie Chan to stardom, but now it’s seen as an essential comedy to kung fu movie aficionados.

Love & Basketball: I don’t know any basketball fan who doesn’t think this is one of the most underrated sports movies ever.


Memento: It wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s first movie, but it was his first big break, gradually becoming a sleeper hit.


Requiem for a Dream: Audiences stayed away, critics didn’t know what to do with it, but since it bowed out of theaters losing money, Darren Aronofsky’s drug horror movie has reached an unprecedented level of fame as a cautionary tale for addictions of all kinds.

Personal Favorites Left Off

Billy Elliot



I like all three of these movies quite a bit, but they’re not classics. Billy Elliot is still well-respected and it was nominated for 3 Oscars that year (including Best Director and Original Screenplay), but it’s more famous now for spawning a Tony-Award-winning musical than for being the first of a wave of vaguely neorealistic British movies in the early 2000s. Chocolat is now perceived as somewhat of a joke, one of those early-2000s Miramax movies that received more awards attention than it deserved, ruining its long-term reputation. It’s actually a nice little fable that never should’ve been nominated for Best Picture. Unbreakable is the forgotten M. Night Shyamalan movie, the middle child between The Sixth Sense and Signs, even more forgotten after Shyamalan’s cache in the industry took a nosedive after 2006’s Lady in the Water. It’s really a very good thriller with an interesting premise- not his best work, but also not The Happening.

Sicario (2015)


Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, last year’s Best Documentary Feature winner at the Oscars, is a compelling document of one of the biggest moments in our nation’s recent history. It’s an informative movie, but perhaps its most insightful aspect is the tangible sense of dread that permeates through to the bedrock of every scene. Because of what we see onscreen, there can no longer be an implicit trust of the government. Poitras does a great job of letting her camera linger on moments of hesitation and uncertainty about security. Unease replaces trust.

Sicario is the fictional Citizenfour. Not in its subject matter- very little in Sicario’s plot is pertinent to Edward Snowden’s NSA documents. But Sicario, from beginning to end, mirrors the dread of Citizenfour. At its start, we know something is amiss, but we can’t articulate it. By its finish, our paranoia is justified, but we’re helpless to do anything about it.


Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent who specializes in hostage cases. Following a particularly traumatic experience in the field involving an uncovered mass murder in Arizona, Kate is recruited by Matt Graver (a giddily great Josh Brolin), who may or may not be FBI, to track down the man at the top of the cartel responsible for the aforementioned mass murder. Kate doesn’t have much explained to her regarding their mission or her role in it or the identity of the strange man with Matt, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). But she joins their team anyway, because she knows the work she’s doing in Arizona won’t end up making much of a dent in the long run, and Matt and Alejandro promise her that getting to the guy at the top would be like “discovering a vaccine.”

Director Denis Villenueve (you may remember him from the equally dread-filled Prisoners and Enemy) includes several effective and intense points of action. The team goes into Mexico to retrieve an informant, knowing all the while that the cartel is likely to counterstrike while they’re stuck in traffic at the border, and there’s an exhilarating sequence in which they try to determine who in all the cars surrounding them might be with the cartel. Later, Kate has a moment of reprieve, but is then attacked by someone who isn’t who she thinks they are, and it’s at turns thrilling and terrifying. But this isn’t an action movie. Sicario is about fear, distrust. There’s plenty of suspense to go around, but this isn’t the War on Drugs war movie the trailers promise you; Blunt does a little ass-kicking, but this is more like a War on Drugs X-Files episode.


The X-Files is a good point of reference for Sicario. One of the best aspects of that show was how nearly every second of it was filled with paranoia about the government. The showrunners revealed just enough to confirm that the government was up to no good, but not enough for Scully and Mulder to really do anything about it.

Sicario does the same thing. Eventually, the government’s corruption is revealed in the midst of their mission, and Kate can’t do anything about it. But Sicario also begs the question of whether right or wrong really matters at the macro level. Kate knows she isn’t accomplishing anything; maybe Matt and Alejandro are. The final scene seems to argue that doing things the right way should matter, because human lives are involved. That sounds correct, but what if doing things the right way allows evil to win? Do we have to play by evil’s rules if we want to win the war against evil?

It’s not hard to imagine things like Sicario happening in real life. We already know the government breaks the rules; the past ten years of Guantanamo, drone strikes, and Snowden have seen to that. We want our government to be pure and free of wrongdoing, but we know that’s not reality. That’s not practical. So I wake up every morning, go to my job at a high school, stand up to say the pledge with my hand on my heart, and live as if there’s nothing to be afraid of. Surely I’ll always be free to do that. Surely.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015) by Gary Clark Jr.


We could really use the blues right now. The current cultural climate is part angry, part ambivalent, and the blues seems like the perfect style of music to give us both an outlet for our anger and a salve for our ambivalence. Hip-hop has replaced the blues in the African-American culture as the chosen medium of protest and expression, so a style that used to be as vital to an entire culture as gospel music has long been the purview of old white people named Eric Clapton. But given the state of affairs right now, it’s not surprising that the past couple of years have seen black artists ride a wave of blue music to fringe popularity, such as Benjamin Booker, Leon Bridges, and Gary Clark Jr. (I guess Leon Bridges is more accurately a soul artist in the vein of Sam Cooke, but if you don’t think Bridges is singing the blues then you’ve never heard him sing.)

Gary Clark Jr. is the most prominent of this new wave of African-American blues singer-guitarists, and he was the first to receive the blessing of the old guard. Specifically, the aforementioned Mr. Clapton invited him to his 2010 Crossroads Music Festival, after which Rolling Stone crowned him the future of blues music. He’s opened for the Rolling Stones and played with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Jeff Beck. Growing up in Austin, TX and mentored by Jimmie Vaughan, blues greatness seems like it’s always been his destiny. And yet somehow both his major-label studio albums have fallen flat.


That’s not to say there aren’t amazing songs on those albums. In fact, almost every song off 2012’s Blak and Blu feels like it’s just a few production choices from being essential. The brand new Story of Sonny Boy Slim is more of a mixed bag, but, again, songs like “Church” and “Hold On” do achieve a special kind of potency missing on a lot of the other tracks. There’s no denying Clark Jr. is a special talent, especially when he starts shredding. His voice is unremarkable for a blues singer, but his guitar play is darkly magical. It’s a shame that sometimes Clark Jr. downplays his strengths by overthinking his own ambition; he is so determined to not just play the blues that he fills the margins with hip-hop and soul flourishes.

The lackluster level of Clark Jr.’s studio albums is especially disconcerting this year when you listen to the lyrics and recognize how badly he obviously wanted this record to speak to the country’s racial tensions. On opening track “The Healing”, Clark Jr. sings, “We stand in formation / While they test and see / They compile information / And try to make us believe”, but responds to himself in the chorus with, “This music is my healing / Lord knows I need some healing / ’cause this world upsets me / This music sets me free.” And later on “Hold On” he addresses things head on: “Seem like new news / Is the old news from a different angle / Another mother on TV / Crying ’cause her boy didn’t make it”. But good intentions don’t make an album great. These sentiments would have been much stronger if they weren’t so suffocated by studio production.


I’m not a musician or a producer, so maybe I’m totally wrong about all of this. Regardless, it seems like a simple fix for Clark Jr. in the future: release only live albums. His live album from last year (appropriately titled Live) features a bunch of the songs from Blak and Blu and a couple stellar covers, and it might be one of the five best albums of the decade, studio-recorded or live. Going from listening to his studio albums to hearing his live album is like exiting a tunnel. The live recording opens the songs up and allows his guitar-playing to wheel freely. Live highlights Clark Jr.’s strong songwriting better than either of the studio albums.

I don’t want to sell Sonny Boy Slim short. There are vital songs on this record, and it’s worth a listen.

Can’t wait for the live version though.