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.

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Negativity feels like it is at an all-time high right now. One has to assume that things may have been worse when, say, Europe faced the Black Plague or, you know, maybe, possibly, perhaps, in the pre-Civil War South. But everywhere we look, it seems like people think this is the worst it’s been.

I’m not immune to this; one look at Twitter, and I’m convinced everything is headed in the wrong direction. You could assume this is my own fault for following mostly liberal outlets, but the inability to see the forest for the trees is a bipartisan failing. Pessimism is for everyone, the great unifier.

Father John Misty’s Josh Tillman has a reputation in some circles for feeding off that negativity. When he broke out in 2012 with Fear Fun, he was riding a wave of goodwill from his four years as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He garnered acclaim, but he also created skeptics. Tillman had adopted a cynical perspective toward pop culture and toward the world in general, limiting his fan base to the hipster world where counterculture is the culture. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear rectified this to a certain extent, with its honest exploration of committed love, but Tillman still maintained a persona steeped in cultural ennui, continuing to alienate folk purists.

His new album, Pure Comedy, forces you to consider that maybe it’s not a persona and he really means it. That is, maybe the cynicism of Father John Misty is healthy rather than a façade, a means to satisfaction rather than the end of it.

I didn’t want to like Father John Misty. Cynicism is something I struggle with; I perpetually want to believe the best about people and the world despite the fact that I don’t. Listening to Father John Misty is like being forced to hear the thoughts that I try not to think.

But as my beliefs have strengthened in their conviction, listening to Tillman’s music is more rewarding if not less challenging. He’s always been funny and clever, but now I appreciate that rather than resent it. On “Total Entertainment Forever”, when he riffs on “bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”, I hear it as the self-aware joke it is rather than a caustic remark. When he goes on to say, “No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confuse us,” I’m confronting the fact that I too believe this is where we are headed as a society. Before, I would have refused to acknowledge it.

This growing appreciation for Tillman’s mind comes even at the expense of my own. I’m a Christian, so there’s definitely some cognitive dissonance at work when I listen to two of my favorite songs on the album. On the title track, Tillman lets loose his most passionate vocal delivery lamenting and laughing about the selfishness of man, but he also declares,

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits

And on “When the God of Love There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, Tillman sings about the absurdity of a loving deity creating a world of suffering:

Oh, it’s just human, human nature
We’ve got these appetites to serve
You must not know the first thing about human beings
We’re the earth’s most soulful predators
Try something less ambitious next time you get bored

Maybe the real reason I’m so willing to embrace Father John Misty is because he’s created a style of music that I would want to make if I were at all musically talented. Tillman’s lyrical wit is what makes him such a singular artist, but there are definite touchstones for his music, somewhere back in the 1970s. There’s a little bit of Billy Joel’s voice when Tillman allows himself to really howl about a subject, but the closest analog might be Randy Newman. Newman knew his way around a chorus, but he’s also always had a penchant for wordy verses that somehow still manage to roll off the tongue.

The music is not my main draw to Pure Comedy though. Tillman’s philosophical perspective is so different from where mine is and yet so like the road I took to arrive at mine. I’m attracted to the experience of finding myself completely empathizing with Tillman’s cynicism but then having to remind myself, “Wait. I don’t believe that.”

This sequence used to repel me, which is only human: nobody has any perspective but their own, and it is hard work to try to understand anybody else’s, let alone accept it as valid. It helps that Tillman seems to be less above the rest of the human race on Pure Comedy than on past albums; his ire now appears to include himself and is all the sharper for it. And Pure Comedy isn’t pure cynicism. The perspective on which Tillman ends is that the only thing that makes this world worth it is each other. Surely he will forgive me some cynicism of my own, but that sounds like pure comedy.

The Fate of the Fast and the Furious Movies

The Fate of the Fast and the Furious Movies

Bigger is supposed to be better, and, on the surface, that appears to be true of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Each installment has a more ridiculous action set piece. Last movie, it was cars speeding through the window of one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to crash into the window of a neighboring one. This one has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson grabbing a torpedo with his bare hands and altering its course on top of a frozen lake.

There’s no shame from the filmmakers with these outlandish scenes. Nor should there be! The Fast and the Furious is basically a different kind of superhero franchise, in which the avengers are a diverse group of lower-class nobodies who overturned the system to achieve the American dream. This franchise has single-handedly replaced the bar for what action movies should be going forward, so why should the filmmakers adhere to arbitrary rules about what they can or cannot do? Why shouldn’t they construct a heist in which the main gambit is strapping a ten-ton safe to two Dodge Chargers and careening through Rio?

That scene of kinetic bliss is from 2011’s Fast Five, which might be the purest iteration yet of the Fast/Furious saga. It featured Johnson’s introduction and Vin Diesel’s Dom recovering from the apparent death of his long-time girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). It was the first time the Family as we know it today was all together- Johnson’s Hobbs, Diesel’s Dom, Paul Walker’s Brian, Ludacris’s Tej, Tyrese’s Roman, Jordana Brewster’s Mia, Sung Kang’s Han, and Gal Gadot’s Gisele, minus Letty, of course, though her presence was very much felt. Five is where the series’ concept of Family truly solidified and became the fulcrum for every plot twist and car chase thereafter.

The Fate of the Furious (the eighth in the run that started with 2001’s relatively minor The Fast and the Furious) actually mirrors Fast & Furious 6, in which Letty returns with amnesia and is working against Dom’s crew. This time, however, cyber-terrorist Cypher (Charlize Theron) has turned Dom against his people. Pleas of “But family!” seem to mean nothing to him, and the Toretto crew has to team up with Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, introduced in Furious 7) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, the last movie’s villain) to track Dom down.

Cypher is an effectively cold-hearted villain with a terrible plan for Dom, and the estrangement between him and Letty is genuinely hard to watch. Furious 7 is the emotional peak of the saga, due to the perfect way the filmmakers handled honoring Paul Walker after his tragic death. This movie can’t compare to that, but what could?

Even so, it does seem like this franchise may be wearing out its emotional heft, after a trio of movies in which the “Family” trope became something almost real. In Fate, deaths in the Family lose some of their power. One member’s passing feels like a mere plot point, and Han’s death in Fast & Furious 6 becomes something of a loose end with the team embracing Shaw, who murdered Han as revenge for the Family putting his brother in a coma. Shaw’s induction into the team seems a little too easy and takes you out of the movie. However, it sounds like the filmmakers may address justice for Han later.

Nevertheless, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian JobStraight Outta Compton) has made The Fate of the Furious a thrill ride, and, even with my above questions, exploring the grief induced by Dom’s betrayal only strengthens the Family’s 8-movie history. The box office returns on this one have been lower than Furious 7’s, which produced a lot of hand-wringing by pundits about diminishing returns. There has also been a lot of hand-wringing from critics about a dip in quality. I saw one critic that I respect (and he’s not alone in this) saying Fate might even be the worst of the series, which is pretty much impossible when the series includes Tokyo Drift.

Even if this one is not quite as good as the last one, so what? It’s the eighth movie of a supposed ten in a franchise that has so far spanned eighteen years and will likely extend five more. The Fast and the Furious has already written cinematic history with its box office records, its diverse stars, and with the worldwide ardor it has received. If they want to make two more movies of controlled chaos that are utter garbage, more power to them. They’ve already changed the game. All I ask is that they stay true to this Family and that they blow my face off. For The Fate of the Furious, check and check.

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Had Alynda Segarra released a perfectly innocuous album of folk music this year, critics still might have foisted the protest label on her. Segarra, who has been making music as Hurray for the Riff Raff since 2008, is of Puerto Rican descent. Any record she put out might have been mistaken for a referendum on the current climate for immigrants, even though Segarra is from the Bronx (and even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States…) and has made folk music firmly rooted in the New Orleans scene for her band’s entire existence. The color of her skin is now of political interest, whether or not she makes direct protest music.

With this year’s The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff made something better than a protest album, something richer and deeper. We will always need songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Redemption Song”, albums like What’s Goin’ On and To Pimp a Butterfly, that address head-on the issues of the time. Directness is a virtue, but it has its limits. I’ve always been more partial to albums that tell a story and address issues through characters. Give me a Born in the U.S.A. or a “Fast Car”, works of pop art that paint pictures of the forgotten and beaten-down. These vivid lyrical images move me more than a lyrical jeremiad might.

The Navigator is a concept album about a Puerto Rican girl named Navita who seeks to escape her childhood hometown by enlisting the help of a witch. The witch’s influence eventually wears off, and Navita returns to her city and mourns the loss of her family’s culture. The album comes with liner notes mimicking a Playbill, and musical theatre’s influence can be felt all over the contours of The Navigator’s music. But as performative as this album is and as theatrical as the production sounds, it is hard to digest The Navigator as anything other than a reflection of Segarra’s real life.

On the first half of the album, in which Navita is attempting to escape her past, Segarra sounds like her old self, committed to the folk vibe she’s made her bones on until now. This could have been Act II of Hurray’s last album, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Shades of Caribbean and Latin influences feel their way into the music, foreshadowing the album’s midway shift, but she’s largely focusing on the same Americana beats she’s trod over the last 9 years of her band’s existence, only with a new focus.

Segarra’s always had an eye on female empowerment (hear: “The Body Electric” off Small Town Heroes), and that’s no different here, though this time she’s exploring the theme through the power of story. “Living in the City” finds Navita shaking off chauvinism and the confines of growing up in a place a lot like New York. “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” explores Navita’s commitment to herself over the prospect of romance, knowing that one or the other will shape her life. They are powerful songs in and of themselves, but the through line of Segarra’s narrative imbues them with a shared catharsis, an empathy that a lot of girl power anthems sacrifice for a catchy hook.

The story turns around track 7, “Halfway There”, when Navita realizes the idea of escaping your past is a lie. By the next song, the fiery “Rican Beach”, Navita has returned home, and Segarra sings of the victims of white colonialism and the thievery therewith. It is a historical fact that every race has lost something to white people, and Navita is coming to terms with what her response to that should be. The song ends with a repeating mantra, “I’ll keep fighting to the end.”

The whole album is great, but the final five songs really clarify the album’s purpose for Segarra. “Fourteen Floors” has Navita return to where her childhood tenement used to be, and she finds a connection between the removal of her old home and what the system has taken away from her people. Segarra has been vocal about the folk music community’s failure to live up to their genre’s role as activists, remaining largely silent in the face of rising xenophobia. The first half of Navigator suggests Segarra feels complicit; the second half promises: no more.

The album’s climax, both narratively and musically, is the penultimate track, “Pa’lante”. That song title is important to the history of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland. It translates to “onward, forward.” It is a call to arms, a battle cry, but, one distinct to her culture. So much of the recent protests have been to call outside attention to long-standing injustices; “Pa’lante” is an encouragement to her people, a plea to “be something”, a prophecy meant to unite. As her will crescendos with the music, she cries, “From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, pa’lante!”

It would be a struggle not to feel of one mind with Segarra on this song and, by association, on this album. The Navigator tells a story that equates life’s value with moving onward and forward, and not with how much anyone or anything is holding you back. There’s a temptation on the right side of the aisle (especially the alt-right side) to find complaints of victimhood in any mention of oppression or injustice. The Navigator is a fine argument that one of the greatest forms of strength is admitting victimhood and still choosing hope over despair.

Get Out Is More Than a Horror Movie

Get Out Is More Than a Horror Movie

Nothing about movies makes me happier than a movie upending mainstream norms to take the box office by storm. There are a lot of big studio movies that I enjoy, but something about seeing the system turned upside down gives me more joy than a well-tailored blockbuster. By all conventional wisdom, Get Out, the new horror movie from Jordan Peele, should not be a hit. It should not have made $162 million domestically. For context, the next highest grossing horror movie with a similar budget in recent years was 2016’s Don’t Breathe, and that made $89 million.

There are a lot of reasons why Get Out has been so successful, not the least of which is how relevant it its subject matter seems on the surface. Get Out follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as she takes him home to meet her family. Rose is white, and Chris is black, but Rose thinks this is no big deal and hasn’t told her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keene). This bothers Chris, but he tries to play it cool. When they arrive, however, It’s pretty clear that something is different about Rose’s parents and the community they live in.

There will be spoilers later in this post, so if you don’t want anything spoiled, stop after this paragraph. But it’s not spoiling anything to say that the weirdness surrounding Rose’s family’s estate has everything to do with their whiteness and Chris’s blackness. At one point, Chris tells a friend on the phone about Rose’s parents and their friends, “They all act like they’ve never met a black person that hasn’t worked for them.”

This directness about the social experience of being a black man in a white world is refreshing and is surely one of the reasons why it has received such great word-of-mouth, and great word-of-mouth is surely the main reason it has been such a successful movie at the box office. It received great reviews (99% on Rotten Tomatoes, 84 on Metacritic), but critics can only have so much effect on audience turnout. Movies outside of established franchises need good reviews from the audiences themselves, and everyone who has turned out for Get Out has gone on to tell their friends that this wasn’t just a good movie, it was a movie they had to see.

And they have to see it, because it is such a unique movie-going experience. There have been plenty of good horror movies released lately, but few that deal so explicitly and effectively with social issues. Personally, I was tempted to be skeptical about how one of a kind Get Out truly was before I saw it. There’s not a shortage of socially conscious horror movies throughout movie history. Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie movie, and Candyman deal directly with race in sharp, striking ways. And two movies that director Jordan Peele cites as influences on Get Out, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, tackle gender equality by exposing a special kind of dread that can only be described as sociological anxiety.

Get Out makes use of the same kind of suspense as those latter two movies, slowly ratcheting up Chris’s paranoia as the weird event tally racks up around him. It’s too soon to compare writer-director Jordan Peele to a director like Roman Polanski (the director of Rosemary’s) or to a writer like Ira Levin (the author of both stories from which those movies were adapted), but Get Out is a truly astounding achievement. Its box office success is a triumph, but it’s more impressive that Get Out is a great movie.

Peele is clearly walking a tightrope. There is a scene near the end in which a black man clearly takes pleasure in shooting a white woman. I was forced to confront my own prejudices in this and in other scenes- seeing a black man do something violent to a white woman invoked a weird discomfort in me, more discomfort than I likely would have had seeing the reverse. I have to face the fact that I have that prejudiced inclination. This movie is full of such challenges to the status quo (read: whiteness), and it wears them with quality.

Get Out is not about to solve any problems or heal any wounds; the only things that can do that are people themselves and time (and God, but that’s another conversation for another post). But seeing this movie may be the first time some white people understand even in the slightest that being black is scary. That in itself is a great argument for diversity in the movie industry. The perspective of a black man like Jordan Peele offers an opportunity for a studio like Blumhouse Productions to expand the spectrum of the stories it tells. That is the lesson I hope other studios take from Get Out‘s massive success.

As my friends and I walked out of our showing of Get Out, someone walking ahead of us said, “I can’t believe we paid money to see that.” They were white, which may be incidental, but probably isn’t. It is hard to confront that your very race predisposes you to certain prejudices that yield barbarity, especially when you grow up in a world that works hard to teach you that it’s the other races that are barbaric. Not every white person is going to commit the kind of atrocities committed in Get Out, but every white person needs to deal with the fact that whiteness is a direct factor in a lot of atrocities.

There have been shitty white people in lots of movies, though, both in front of and behind the camera. The genius of Get Out isn’t in the racial dichotomy at the heart of its thrills, though that juxtaposition is fascinating. The genius is in the universality of Get Out’s white villainy. These villains aren’t Ku Klux Klansmen- they voted for Obama, they probably give money to social justice causes, and they probably enjoy political correctness. It would be easy to resent Get Out for making whiteness the villain, even if Peele was more specifically targeting white liberalism. It is more challenging to confront Get Out‘s central theme, that liberal moralizing is worthless, even dangerous, without first humanizing.

The 2017 Academy Awards

The 2017 Academy Awards

I say to my wife almost every year (she probably doesn’t even notice I say it anymore) that the Oscars are my Super Bowl. I’m well aware that the actual show is usually kind of boring. But I’m nonetheless fascinated by what upsets will take place, what winners will say onstage, and who the last tribute will be in the In Memoriam montage. I find a lot of joy in the movies, and I appreciate the Oscars as a celebration of that.

This year, they feel like the Super Bowl in more ways than one. For one, they feel unnecessarily politicized. During the Super Bowl, I fell into the trap of rooting against the Patriots because of Tom Brady’s and Bill Belichick’s ties to President Trump- as if there aren’t myriad other reasons to root against New England. That almost ruined my enjoyment of what ended up being the Pats’ historic comeback.

The Oscar layperson won’t think about this, but anyone following the pre-ceremony hype will have seen thinkpieces aplenty about the supposed La La Land vs. Moonlight rivalry. The two movies are being pitted together much like New England and Atlanta- white vs. black, Trump’s America vs. the Resistance, evil vs. good.

That’s stupid, and frustrating. Both are great movies. Both have zero to do with the politics of our time, at least directly. It would be a stretch to make an argument that either is attempting to participate in current polemics one way or the other.

Moonlight‘s very existence and the attention it is receiving is a political statement within the industry, but that’s about it. Moonlight‘s director, Barry Jenkins, has spoken about the La La Land backlash and clearly respects the art that Damien Chazelle and his team created. The movies exist apart from any faction or political ideology. They are both moving, complex, life-affirming works of art that deserve more than easy narratives.

Narratives aren’t necessarily bad, but in this case they are unnecessary. They make cultural events like the Oscars and the Super Bowl more accessible, and they often add stakes to the proceedings. But tomorrow, forget the political narrative, and just appreciate that whatever wins Best Picture this year will likely be worthy of the distinction.

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Best Picture

Arrival*
Fences*
Hacksaw Ridge*
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion*
Manchester by the Sea*
Moonlight

Will win: La La LandMoonlight or Hidden Figures could upset, but movies don’t get 14 Oscar nominations without winning. First time for everything though…

Should have been nominated: Zootopia. Animated movies never get enough respect, but Zootopia deserved a place in the sun.

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Best Directing

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve*
Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson*
La La Land, Damien Chazelle
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan*
Moonlight, Barry Jenkins

Will win: La La Land, Damien Chazelle. If the La La Land backlash has retained its full force, Jenkins could upset.

Should have been nominated: Kubo and the Two Strings, Travis Knight. Again, animated movies don’t get their due. The degree of difficulty on a stop-motion movie like Kubo is so high, how is the industry not better about rewarding directors of such movies?

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Best Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea*
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge*
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic*
Denzel Washington, Fences*

Will win: Denzel Washington, Fences. Affleck’s sexual assault will linger in too many minds, and Denzel is too much of a force of nature. He’s given voters enough of an alternative to Affleck to ease their consciences.

Should have been nominated: Colin Farrell, The Lobster. It’s an awkwardly earnest and selfish character that anchors one of the year’s most overlooked movies.

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

Isabelle Huppert, Elle*
Ruth Negga, Loving*
Natalie Portman, Jackie*
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins*

Will win: Isabelle Huppert, Elle. Where there’s an easy way not to vote for La La Land, I think people who believe in the backlash will take it. Huppert is a legend, and many will think it is her last chance to win.

Should have been nominated: Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch. Horror movie acting is probably supposed to be easy, but existential dread isn’t. She did both beautifully in 2016’s breakout horror film.

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Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea*
Dev Patel, Lion*
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals*

Will win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight.

Should have been nominated: Anton Yelchin, Green Room. This isn’t just a reaction to his tragic death. His performance in Green Room is visceral and a career best.

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Viola Davis, Fences*
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion*
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea*

Will win: Viola Davis, Fences.

Should have been nominated: Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures or Moonlight, take your pick.

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Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Arrival*
Fences*
Hidden Figures
Lion*
Moonlight

Will win: Moonlight.

Should have been nominated: I dunno…Sully, I guess?

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Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea*
20th Century Women*

Will win: Manchester by the Sea.

Should have been nominated: Hail, Caesar!

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Best Cinematography

Arrival*
La La Land
Lion*
Moonlight
Silence*

Will win: La La Land.

Should have been nominated: The Witch.

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Best Animated Feature

Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana*
My Life as a Zucchini*
The Red Turtle*
Zootopia

Will win: Zootopia.

Should have been nominated: Eh, nothing I saw.

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Best Documentary (Feature)

13th
Fire at Sea*
I Am Not Your Negro*
Life, Animated*
O.J.: Made in America*

Will win: O.J.: Made in America.

Should have been nominated: Under the Sun.

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Best Foreign Language Film

Land of Mine (Denmark)*
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)*
The Salesman (Iran)*
Tanna (Australia)*
Toni Erdmann (Germany)*

Will win: The Salesman.

Should have been nominated: Microbe & Gasoline (France).