Tentative Top Tens of 2016

It’s Top Ten List season again, and because I’m beholden to the whims of my culture, I must add my voice to the conversation. These lists come with the annual caveat that they will inevitably change when the Bummys rock your world next September. Only 5 movies from my 2015 list made it to the Bummys, and 7 albums made the Bummys cut. I listen to more albums than the number of movies I watch, which is less a product of my priorities and more a product of time and convenience. I’ve likely listened to most of the acclaimed albums, but I haven’t caught up with a lot of the acclaimed movies.

Anyway, here are my Top Ten Movies and Albums of 2016. For funsies, I threw in a book, comic, and TV show I enjoyed.

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Movies

1. The Witch: A perfectly paced horror movie about faith and doubt.
2. Kubo and the Two Strings: The animated movie of the year and another homerun for stop-motion studio Laika.
3. Green Room: A punk band stumbles upon a venue run by neo-Nazis and must fight for their lives, though it’s not as B-movie as a it sounds. Patrick Stewart is the white supremacists’ leader.
4. Zootopia: The animated movie of the year, if you ignore Kubo, which you probably did.
5. 13th: A documentary from Ava DuVernay (Selma) that draws the line from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, a line we want to pretend doesn’t exist.
6. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A wonderfully original addition to the Harry Potter universe. It helps that it’s not beholden to an 800-page plot.
7. Captain America: Civil War: The Marvel movies just keep on keeping on. You’d think the quality would dip at some point, but Civil War belongs with Avengers and Winter Soldier at the top, just below Guardians.
8. Sully: A smart examination from different perspectives about what happened the day Captain Sully had to land a plane in the Hudson River. Clint Eastwood directs.
9. Doctor Strange: Speaking of quality Marvel movies. This one is as singular as Guardians, and if it weren’t for the boring origin story stuff, it might be Guardian‘s equal.
10. The Jungle Book: The animated movie of the year, if you forget all those live-action parts. It’s a beautiful movie, visually and thematically.

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Albums

1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Its title is a good indication of the joy at the heart of this mixtape. Rap has reached peak gospel music integration.
2. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: The country savant pens a letter to his son in album form, upending many of the genre’s conventions without abandoning his wheelhouse.
3. Beyoncé, Lemonade: A landmark visual album, Lemonade is also a vivid work of rhythm and the cheatin’ blues.
4. Sho Baraka, The Narrative: The newly Humble Beasted rapper’s album draws many of the same lines DuVernay’s 13th does, but Baraka considers our state of affairs with Christ in mind.
5. Solange, A Seat at the Table: How on earth the Knowles family got all the world’s talent into two women, I’ll never know, but I’m assuming a Devil-goes-down-to-Houston kind of pact was involved.
6. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: A few years ago, this would have been the best punk rock record, but in 2016, Teens of Denial is our best rock record, no extraneous labels necessary.
7. Alicia Keys, Here: Criminally underrated by critics, this is Keys’s unabashed expression of black power.
8. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits: I’ve only recently discovered our modern jazz funk virtuosos, and Terrace Martin makes his case here for being among their best.
9. Bon Iver, 22, a Million: Somehow, Bon Iver has completely changed his sound from his breakout For Emma, and yet he continues to release powerful and immediate music.
10. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings: A rock solid double album with some of Lambert’s most brokenhearted songs.

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Best Book I Read

Onward by Russell Moore: There are those in the Southern Baptist Church that would see Moore resign as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), but this book reveals a man who is one of the few public evangelical leaders who seems to have a handle on 1) where the church fits in today’s American culture in terms of influence, and 2) how the church should engage today’s American culture.

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Best Comic I Read

March by John Lewis: My next post is about this seminal graphic novel trilogy. Stay tuned.

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Best TV Series I Watched

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson: There was a lot of great art that touched on racism, but few handled it with the aplomb of Ryan Murphy’s supremely entertaining one-off.

Movie Magic in Movies About Magic

Movie Magic in Movies About Magic

I knew I was watching something very different from a typical Marvel movie when hands started growing out of Benedict Cumberbatch’s fingers. They began to kaleidoscope on top of one another, endless digits rising out of endless digits, the look on Cumberbatch’s face like something out of a horror movie. The image was reminiscent of body horror, like the surreal effects of The Fly or The Thing.

That short scene is part of a surprisingly long, trippy sequence in which Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange travels the cosmos by way of a bad trip induced by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The sequence was a visual delight after what, up to that point, had been a fairly straightforward story about an arrogant surgeon who mangles his hands in a car accident and turns to Eastern methods as a last resort. It’s safe to say that Strange gets more than he bargains for in Swinton’s guru. She’s no peddler of experimental procedures; rather, she is Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, defender of the planet from hostile external forces and commander of the planet’s magical defenses.

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If that sounds silly or stupid, that’s because it is. But this is the same movie universe with spandex-wearing super-soldiers, Norse gods, and a green anger monster. I think a little magic merits some suspension of disbelief.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the talking raccoon. There’s a talking raccoon in this universe too.

The LSD visuals are the best part about Doctor Strange, but it has other merits too. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor stand out in particular. Swinton plays the Ancient One, Strange’s teacher in the mystical arts and a Celtic woman with a cheeky sense of humor and a dark secret. Ejiofor plays Mordo, another of the Ancient One’s pupils who becomes an ally of Strange as they fight Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, an Ancient One disciple gone rogue. I also enjoyed the action sequences, especially the final battle, which were not only visually sumptuous but endlessly clever.

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Cumberbatch is always a welcome presence, of course, and Rachel McAdams is a grounding force, though she’s underused. Like other Marvel movies with big ideas that don’t quite reach greatness (see Ant-Man and Thor: The Dark World), Doctor Strange feels like its weirdness is bursting at its Marvel Studio seams. While director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and writers Jon Spaights and C. Robert Cargill fill the edges of the movie’s story with exciting new characters and future story possibilities, they feel mildly hamstrung by the need to tell Strange’s origin story. But as we’ve already seen with Guardians of the Galaxy, even the best filmmakers can’t totally break free of their Marvel overlords.

***

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I knew I was watching something very different from a typical Harry Potter movie when Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander walked into the magic world’s equivalent of a speakeasy. The effect of this scene was much like the Mos Eisley cantina scene in the original Star Wars: here, in one room, was the underworld to show that there was a whole world of magical cultures and peoples to be explored. If Fantastic Beasts as a whole is any indication, Warner Brothers fully intends to.

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This movie really should not have worked. It had all the makings of a cash-in, a capital-C Commodity based on a short, one-off book written for charity that would be full of callbacks to the Potterverse, relying wholly on its audience’s nostalgia for any link to the old movies. When you heard they were maybe making it into a trilogy or even up to 5 (5!) movies, the only thing you could think was that the studio knew it had an automatic moneymaking machine on its hands. So imagine my surprise when I found that not only was Fantastic Beasts just as good as any of the Potter movies, it might actually be…better?

Hold that thought for just a second. We’ll come back to it.

Newt Scamander, as played by Eddie Redmayne, is not as charismatic a lead as Harry Potter, as played by Daniel Radcliffe. Scamander, a magizoologist in New York for, well, extralegal reasons, is bookish, reserved, quiet. But like Swinton’s Ancient One in Strange, Redmayne’s Scamander has secrets and knows more than he lets on. He’s a warm protagonist to root for with layers to peel back for our enjoyment. At first, Scamander is detained by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) for being an unregistered wizard. But when a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle, played by Dan Fogler) gets involved, Goldstein and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), end up helping Scamander against the wishes of the magical law enforcement, represented by Graves (an icy Colin Farrell).

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There’s also a cultish, anti-magic family lingering on the edges of the plot. Its matriarch, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), stands on the steps of banks and street corners spewing fire and brimstone against witches and wizards and their ilk. She takes in orphan children, including Credence (Ezra Miller), which sounds nice, except she also beats them if they show any signs of or interest in magic. It’s a dark subplot that deals with adolescent insecurity and the adults that take advantage of them. Like the Harry Potter movies before it, Fantastic Beasts avoids the pitfalls that may come with combining such real-life themes with spells and magical creatures and instead depicts an effective, coming-of-age analogy.

I said earlier that Fantastic Beasts may be better than any of the Harry Potter movies. This might be recency bias, but unlike the Harry Potter movies before it, Fantastic Beasts isn’t beholden the plot of an 800-page book with a story spread out over a school year. You feel it in the movie’s easy flow, in its characters’ disparate motivations that gradually come together into unity, in the freedom the movie has to fill its edges with the titular fantastic beasts, lingering on their beauty and strangeness, allowing them to become characters in their own rights. You also feel the movie’s originality in the screenplay’s willingness to let the audience figure things out for itself by what’s happening onscreen, rather than dealing with plot through tedious exposition. Director David Yates directed every Harry Potter movie since Goblet of Fire, and finally he broke free of the tyranny of the adaptation and made himself a movie.

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2015

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2015

Top Ten

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10. Spotlight: A movie like Spotlight, about the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002, almost necessitates deeper conversation. It’s an understated docudrama with very little pretense about its own nobility. So director Tom McCarthy wisely lets the facts of the case speak for themselves, populating his movie with actors (like Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo) willing to cede the limelight to the victims’ stories, and no institution comes out unscathed; everyone participated in covering up the vast number of abusive priests, from the community to the Church to the police to the newspaper itself.

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9. Sicario: This is not an action movie, but a movie about fear and 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, begging the question of whether or not right and wrong matter at the macro level.

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8. The Big Short: On February 28th, 2016, Adam McKay won an Academy Award, and the world was never the same. In all seriousness, that McKay, the comedy bro behind Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, won a Screenplay Oscar is mind-boggling, but one viewing of The Big Short, and it’s clear why. The Big Short is a civics lesson disguised as the most entertaining Hollywood farce in a long time, and then it pivots and dissolves into tragedy, mirroring the world we live in.

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7. Phoenix: It was a great year for foreign-language films released here in the states: Oscar winner Son of Saul, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, Taiwan’s beautiful The Assassin. But none were as poetic or memorable as Germany’s Phoenix, about a disfigured Holocaust survivor whose emergency plastic surgery makes her unrecognizable to her husband, who may or may not have had a hand in her capture. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like the final scene of this movie, in which the truth reveals the husband’s true character.

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6. Ex Machina: As young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) tries to determine whether Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has truly created artificial intelligence in the robot Ava (a breakout performance from Alicia Vikander), Alex Garland’s directing maintains an uneasy claustrophobia until the walls crash in on us at the very end. Ex Machina ends up being about what most science fiction is about: we’re foolish to think we have control over the technology we create. But that idea has rarely been explored more astutely.

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5. Creed: I’ve been very open about the fact that I think Creed should have been nominated for all the Oscars, and I would have been very pleased if it had won all of them too. What Creed lacks in subtlety (in one montage, Michael B. Jordan is followed through the streets of Philly by dirt bikes while Meek Mill bumps on the soundtrack, which is not not the best scene of the year), it compensates with sheer intensity of commitment to the underdog story. Yes, we’re seeing a story very similarly structured to every underdog sports movie ever, but the performances by Jordan, Tessa Thompson, and Sylvester Stallone, along with Ryan Coogler’s expert boxing direction, make the formula new again.

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4. It Follows: It Follows (a hilariously apt title that could apply to any horror movie but is also uniquely perfect for this one) is horror stripped down. An undefined monster walks toward you, undeterred by anything in its path, maintaining the same pace, taking whatever guise it fancies, and when it gets to you, it kills you. Add to that formula the idea that the monster starts following you if you have sex with its previous target and that your only method of getting rid of it is to have sex with somebody else to pass it to them- well, this is the perfect horror movie then, isn’t it?

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3. The Look of Silence: By and large, I prefer fiction to non-fiction, drama to documentary, because I believe that while non-fiction clearly conveys details about the real world, fiction better illustrates truth. The Look of Silence, which is the sequel to the 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, upends my preferences completely. The first movie followed the filmmaker’s attempts to get Indonesia’s upper class to reenact the acts of genocide they committed years ago, while this movie chronicles a victim’s family member as he confronts them one by one, and the results are nothing if not powerful.

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2. Inside Out: It’s not the first Pixar movie I’ve cried during, but it’s the first one that I bawled during. Co-directors Pete Docter (Up, one of the other Pixar movies I cried during) and Ronaldo del Carmen and the whole screenwriting crew that crafted this story understood something fundamental about how our emotions work and how they tie us to other people. There’s something about how simple they made everything involving our emotions, and how they uncovered truths that don’t get discussed often in movies at all, much less children’s movies in particular, that reminded me of my own childhood and forced me to look ahead to parenthood. They uncovered a truth that our society tends to ignore and a truth that even our churches could stand to learn from as we minister to people who are hurting. We all want joy, but we need sadness. And they’re not mutually exclusive.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road: Everyone with whom I saw this movie came out of it thinking that it was a singular experience, that we hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. I’ve loved the recent spate of special-effects-laden movies from Marvel and the Fast/Furious franchise, but Fury Road was refreshing in a different way. Fury Road made those other movies look like cartoons. I like cartoons, but if that’s all you watch, you might forget what you’re missing. Fury Road was intense from beginning to end in its nonstop action and in the details of the immersive world that Miller and his crew created. A movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat with suspense and excitement doesn’t often end by giving its audience the feeling they just watched something important and groundbreaking. Fury Road does just that.

Another Fifteen

About Elly
The Assassin
Beasts of No Nation
Bone Tomahawk
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Cartel Land
Furious 7
Heaven Knows What
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The Revenant
Son of Saul
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Timbuktu
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Inception
127 Hours
Tangled
Winter’s Bone
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Secret in Their Eyes
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2015

Top Ten Albums

albums0110. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: It’s fitting that the two best rock albums of the year were fronted by a women. In a year that found our culture confronting its darker, oft-hid demons, and in a genre with a long, misogynistic history, Courtney Barnett was the rock and roll ambassador we needed. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrics and her punk aesthetic fit right in next to the lexicon of iconoclasts like Dylan and Springsteen, and it’s about time a woman in rock got the kind of respect she deserves.

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9. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home: Dark Bird is Matsson’s most personal album, recorded in the wake of his divorce. I suppose that makes Dark Bird a breakup album, and the lyrics do suggest a previously unexplored depth of mournfulness characteristic of the classic breakup albums, while the music explores sound textures beyond his trademark acoustic guitar. It’s almost as if allowing himself room to work outside his guitar gave him the space to open himself up to us.

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8. Ben Rector, Brand New: Listening to this modern piano man’s most recent album, which depends more heavily on storytelling than past albums, I thought of James Taylor. Sure, Taylor was more of a guitar guy, but Brand New is chock full of the kinds of diary details that have been Taylor’s bread and butter on his best songs. It’s this brand new commitment to personal authenticity that makes Brand New Rector’s best album since 2008’s Songs That Duke Wrote.

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7. John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat: Oklahoma has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in the singer-songwriter department of late, what with the last year seeing banner albums from Parker Millsap, Ben Rector, and Samantha Crain, the last of which could have easily replaced High on Tulsa Heat at this level without any complaint from me. But Moreland gets the top spot for me because of his uncanny ability to tie his heartbreak and longing to specific places in my home state. I’m surely biased, but people from all states can appreciate the catch in his voice and his way with a phrase.

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6. David Ramirez, Fables: On past albums and EPs, Ramirez has never been afraid of making his unique voice heard, calling out industry fakery and political correctness. Ramirez’s most recent album is his most personal yet and has the most to say about love and commitment from front to back. But, true to the troubadour sensibility, even while Ramirez is pouring his heart out, he never fails to save some space for convicting protests.

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5. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Courtney Barnett’s dominance of the indie rock world last year was total and complete, and Brittany Howard’s dominance of mainstream rock was just as potent. Though Howard downplays the significance of her race in the making of her art, it’s hard to overstate how good it feels to see an African-American woman reclaim blues rock in such a big way. After the comfortable surf rock of Boys & Girls, Sound & Color’s epic, psychedelic sweep from song to song is quite the statement.

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4. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell: Written as he struggled to cope with his mother’s death and with his ensuing drug use and alcohol abuse, Carrie & Lowell bears none of Stevens’s past affectations and is better for it. You get the impression you’re finally getting the real Sufjan. There are several points on the album that have me near tears every time- a small price to pay to experience such an intimate album.

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3. Phil Cook, Southland Mission: In the tradition of some of the best roots rock music, Phil Cook’s second album went largely unnoticed. That’s a shame for the Megafaun member, because this is the kind of effortless folk music that deserves a platform. Some of the songs get at middle-class angst, but ultimately Cook is a master of celebrating life for what it is.

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2. Leon Bridges, Coming Home: Sam Cooke is not a name that it is easy to evoke. He was a classic soul singer whose aesthetic was as much about devotion to Jesus as it was about his voice’s smoothness. I can’t think of a single artist that has even come close to matching the velvet in his voice, the devoutness of his delivery. But Bridges, with only one album to his name, does deserve the comparison. His songs are new hymns, written with the clear idea that Jesus is master, intoned with the clear idea that beauty is the best form of worship.

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1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Some albums are undeniable classics before they’ve even aged a year. This one was a classic before it had even aged a month. A conglomeration of black history, black culture, and black power, To Pimp a Butterfly was bigger than 2015. In one record, Kendrick Lamar painstakingly mapped out the heart of the everyman in America- only unlike virtually every other use of that term ever, this “everyman” was black. And TPAB was also perfect for 2015, the year that cultural awareness of black oppression finally became something everyone (including white people) in America had to face. Some chose to continue to pretend it does not exist while getting angry at black people for deciding to talk about it. Others, like me, were overwhelmed with their own implicit role in making the lives of my black brothers difficult. But like any facet of the Black Lives Matter movement, TPAB didn’t need your approval or your permission to have an impact. Some works of art, and some movements, contain too much truth to be denied. Kendrick spoke, we couldn’t help but listen, and the world couldn’t help but change.

Another Fifteen

Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf
Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue
Justin Bieber, Purpose
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
KaiL Baxley, A Light That Never Dies
Kamasi Washington, The Epic
One Direction, Made in the A.M.
Sam Outlaw, Angeleno
Samantha Crain, Under Branch and Thorn and Tree
Sara Groves, Floodplain
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2015

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Movie star acting is harder than it looks. Charming the audience isn’t always a natural act, and it can take more preparation than acting out an emotional scene. Director Ryan Coogler found himself a man who can do both in Michael B. Jordan. Adonis is a hard role to get right; Creed, in general, should not have worked. Coogler and Jordan found the right note between deference to the underdog story of the original movie and the swagger that Adonis has as a black man who had to prove himself time and time again. This new modern Rocky is an entirely different animal than the Italian Stallion. But the attraction to Jordan’s performance isn’t its modernity. No, this is a classic performance, through and through, and it will be remembered as such.

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

This one the Oscars got right. Well, kind of. They actually gave one to her for The Danish Girl. But history will remember her for her role as Ex Machina‘s android, Ava. There was not a more nuanced piece of acting this year, and few others in any other year. It’s hard to make robots interesting, and harder to pull off a robot who wants to be human. The last shot of Ex Machina, Vikander’s crowning achievement, contains volumes.

Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Another performance passed over by the Academy. Elba, who radiates charm in most of his roles, takes on a con man’s sleaziness here. He’s convincing both as the strutting commandant and then as a passed-over, drunken mess. It’s a role that could have been one-dimensional, nothing more than an accent. In Elba’s hands, it’s the pillar that holds up the movie.

Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Binoche has her Oscar, so she’s received her due as an artist, but how the awards groups turned a blind eye to this poignant part is beyond me. This part was tailor-made for other actors to give it attention- she plays an older (a relative term- Binoche is only 52) actress hired to act again in the play that began her career, but this time in the older role. Binoche grows increasingly desperate throughout the movie, finding the prospect of her career drawing to a close disheartening. The movie itself is rather dissatisfying, but the exactitude with which Binoche approaches her part stays with you.

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

For all the attention The Revenant was given for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance (and make no mistake, it was a good performance), I would have preferred more of it be sent Tom Hardy’s way. He was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar, but he should have won. More than one person has described Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald, as animalistic, but that’s because they mistakenly perceive his deep need to survive as inhuman. The key to Hardy’s performance is that he understands the most basic of humanity’s traits and makes it palpable: selfish greed.

Fifteen More

Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Brie Larson, Room
Maika Monroe, It Follows
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Tessa Thompson, Creed
Jacob Tremblay, Room
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Past Top Fives

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Christian Bale, The Fighter

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Top Twenty-Five: 25-11

songs0125. Ben Rector, “Paris”: I vividly remember falling in love with my wife in Norman, Oklahoma, but when I listen to this song, I momentarily believe every second of it happened in France.

 

songs0224. Nao, “Apple Cherry”: I don’t have Apple Music, so I haven’t heard Blonde yet, but it’s hard to fathom anything on it being smoother or sexier than this.

 

songs0323. Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”: Kendrick doesn’t do diss tracks, he does atomic bombs.

 

1545closed_GLUE22. John Moreland, “Cleveland County Blues”: There’s a lot of great folk music being made right now, but this is an Oklahoma-centric anthem that expresses what heartbreak is like out here in flyover country.

 

songs0521. Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”: The Shakes took a leap in their newest album, and the psych-blues on this single are the perfect example of their newfound looseness.

 

songs0620. Sara Groves, “I Feel the Love Between Us”: Groves is an all-timer at this point, and this love song to marriage fits into her canon easily.

 

songs0719. Drake, “Hotline Bling”: If earworms are an art form, then “Hotline Bling” is its Campbell’s Soup Can: distilled down to its purest form, and walking the fine line between brilliant and stupid.

 

songs0818. Jason Isbell, “If It Takes a Lifetime”: Sobriety sounds downright impossible on the highlight from Isbell’s Something More Than Free, but he also makes it sound like the only option.

 

songs0117. Ben Rector, “Fear”: It still feels new to hear Ben Rector’s single “Brand New” on the radio, but I feel like I’ve had “Fear” with me my whole life.

 

songs0916. Shura, “2Shy”: A lot of pop songs take a direct approach to love and sex, but “2Shy” is the rare song that gets the subtle what-ifs exactly right.

 

songs1015. Tame Impala, “‘Cause I’m a Man”: Residing somewhere between AM and FM radio, “‘Cause I’m a Man” has nothing to say about sexiness or coolness, and everything to say about stumbling through life like a drunk.

 

songs1114. Chance the Rapper, “Somewhere in Paradise (feat. Jeremih)”: The first real hint of the gospel heights he would reach on Coloring Book, “Somewhere” is Chance’s freedom song, so it’s ours too.

 

songs1213. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”: TPAB is Kendrick grappling with what it means to be black in America in 2015, and “Blacker” is its thesis.

 

songs1312. The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: I love Kristian Matsson’s music for its simplicity, but “Sagres”, a lament for the emptiness that follows a broken relationship, benefits from the space that his expanded production creates.

 

songs1411. Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”: Country music thrives on wordplay, and with couplets like “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy”, Musgraves is clearly the queen of the genre.

 

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10. Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”: I think it’s important to keep the mystery and spontaneity alive in relationships. But “Coffee” makes the passionate case that sex should be as regular as your morning coffee. Feel free to argue with him, but he seems pretty insistent here.

 

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9. Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”: Two years ago I would have told you I hated EDM. I would have told you it was cold and emotionless, that it lent itself to drug use, and I would have saved special derision for Skrillex. And now his song with Diplo and Justin Bieber is one of my favorite songs, so you might as well not listen to anything I’m saying now because it’ll soon be obsolete.

 

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8. Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”: This was such a left turn from everyone involved that people didn’t seem to know what to do with it. The proper response was total and complete submission to its effortless soul. Paul McCartney’s written countless hits, and Rihanna and Kanye have done big things in 2016, and yet this is the song from all of them that I keep going back to the most.

 

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7. Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”: This is a mean-spirited song disguised as a ballad which is a sort of cruel deception, but I don’t care. It’s essentially a diss track, a kiss-off with a perfectly nonchalant delivery and some truly unforgettable lines. We know Ed Sheeran wrote it but if Biebs didn’t contribute the line about his mom not liking Selena (and she likes everyone), I’ll be crushed.

 

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6. Alessia Cara, “Here”: Nothing was more satisfying than seeing this song, which is about a loner hating a party, turn into a party song. It’s like comic book movies becoming mainstream, or Kawhi Leonard outplaying LeBron in the 2014 Finals. Sometimes the popular kids lose, and the outcasts get a chance to shine.

 

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5. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”: If this was a list of the most important songs of the year, “Alright” would be at the top. Shoot, it may be the most important song of the century, let alone 2015. But this is my list of my favorite songs, so it’ll have to settle for a lowly #5. That being said, no song on this list gets me as pumped up, especially in the face of all that’s happening in the world. I know it’s not a song that was written for me or people like me, but I feel such compassion for the black community that I can’t help but sing along.

 

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4. Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”: Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound from earlier this year is the closest thing we’ve had in the 21st century to What’s Going On. I was disappointed to find that he hadn’t included last year’s “Sandra’s Smile”, an elegy in honor of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found hanged in a Waller County, TX, jail cell. But upon reflection, “Sandra’s Smile” belongs on its own. It’s a beautiful song and would fit right in with the tone of Freetown. But as a statement it stands alone, and should, so that history remembers Sandra Bland, and the thirst for justice her death aroused.

 

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3. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”: Another, less Chance-centric example of his contagious joy in song form. Off of Surf, the debut album of Chance’s musical collective in Chicago, “Sunday Candy” is an explosion of pleasure. It starts with the playful opening piano and Chance’s soft rapping. Then it balloons into a gospel choir and a full-blown jazz orchestra. We know from Coloring Book that Chance and Donnie Trumpet know how to pack their songs with joy, but nothing they’ve made does this as effortlessly as “Sunday Candy”.

 

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2. Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: This song may be the polar opposite of “Sunday Candy”. Where “Sunday” is overflowing with joy, “No Shade” is soaked in suffering. Written after Stevens’s struggle to cope with the death of his mother, the song expresses his inability to find comfort anywhere. As someone who has professed to be Christian and whom many assume is Christian, Stevens showed all his cards with this song. If Christ is supposed to give me peace or freedom or joy, why don’t I feel those things?

 

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1. Leon Bridges, “River”: I tend to be skeptical of comparisons to all-time legends like Sam Cooke, but Leon Bridges earns them. There was a soulfulness in Cooke’s music that no one since him has matched. I’m not prepared to anoint Bridges as his reincarnation just yet. But I’m willing to listen to arguments in favor. The first time I heard “River”, I knew I was hearing something deeper than just a nice-sounding soul song. It starts with the timbre of Bridges’s voice, which reaches an unimpeachable level of purity. It continues with the perfect sparseness of the production: just an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, and backing vocals from a choir. The purity of Bridges’s voice and the production are a reflection of the purity of the song’s spirit. Bridges, on this song, is a deer, panting for water, knowing that there is only one river that will satisfy his thirst. Only the most profound of hymns can articulate that need for Jesus with sufficient artistry; add “River” to their ranks.

Another Twenty-Five

Adele, “Hello”
Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”
ANOHNI, “4 Degrees”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”
Caroline Spence, “Trains Cry”
Chromatics, “Just Like You”
Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”
Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
David Ramirez, “Hold On”
Gungor, “Us for Them”
Jamie xx, “Loud Places (feat. Romy)”
Janelle Monáe, “Hell You Talmbout (feat. Wondaland Records)”
Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep”
Jimmy Needham, “Vice & Virtue”
Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”
KB, “Ima Just Do It (feat. Bubba Watson)”
Nadia Reid, “Call the Day’s”
Nao, “Inhale Exhale”
Rihanna, “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Sam Outlaw, “Country Love Song”
Samantha Crain, “Elk City”
The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”
The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”
The Weeknd, “The Hills”
The White Buffalo, “Where Is Your Savior”

Past Top Tens

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

2011

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

2010

Andrew Peterson, “Dancing in the Minefields”
Hot Chip, “Take It In”
Ben Rector, “Dance with Me Baby”
Kanye West, “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)”
Broken Social Scene, “World Sick”
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Gungor, “The Earth Is Yours”
Kanye West, “Power”
The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Surfer Blood, “Swim”

My Old Job, My New Job, and In Between

Sometimes you just need a break.

This was how I felt in May, after the school year ended. Three years into my job as a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools, I hadn’t even really thought about looking for another job. It’s hard to find a job with a schedule as enticing as a school job, and I liked working with the students. But in late May I saw a post on Facebook advertising a job at the J.D. McCarty Center here in Norman. I decided to apply.

As I went through the application and interview process, I began to realize something: the workplace where I had spent the last three years of my life was actively making me miserable. For three years, I convinced myself I was not miserable, but a new opportunity forced me to be honest with myself, and with those around me. I hated my job, and I couldn’t stand the thought of going back.

It wasn’t the students, whom I miss and worry about. It wasn’t my supervisors, who did everything they could to help out the many speech-language pathologists working for them. And it certainly wasn’t the schools themselves or my coworkers at those schools, all of whom were just struggling in a flawed system to do the best by their students.

The point of this post isn’t to point fingers or to even to delve into the many reasons why I didn’t enjoy my work. I guess I could blame any number of people if I wanted to. But I could just as easily blame myself. Work wasn’t ever meant to satisfy us; it was always meant to glorify God. Too often, I resented my job because it didn’t meet my expectations for what a job should be. But I know if I had leaned into Christ more, then He would have given me more than enough joy to help me through each day. And I didn’t.

But the past is past. I decided to leave, and J.D. McCarty was gracious enough to give me this new job. I’ve been there for a month, and while I still feel like a new employee, I’m in awe that it’s possible to look forward to going to work. I’d say it feels like home, except my home feels like home, and my work still feels like work. But I think it’s as close as work comes to feeling like home, and I never expected to feel that way about a job.

They say everything happens for a reason, which is fine, except I don’t think that’s very comforting when you don’t know the reason. Thankfully, I have a God who loves me and works everything for my good, even things that suck. I know that there is far worse suffering in the world, but dreading going to work in the morning is definitely a thing that sucks. And I’m fairly confident that all things that suck are designed to draw you closer to God, because they remind you that only God can satisfy you and only He is good.

So I needed a break in May. Not just from work, but also from writing. Honestly, writing started to feel like work, which is silly, since it’s just a hobby. So I took a break from writing, and it gave me perspective on why I write. It’s easy to get caught up in getting clicks and wanting to stay relevant, and I hope that after my hiatus I care less about that and that I just write for the sake of writing.

I only recently started to miss writing, so I think that’s a sign I should write again. I don’t know if this blog will look like it did before or look completely different. All I know is that I’m going to write what I want to write. The alternative is exhausting and work, and it’ll just make me need another break.