Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 3 movies that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten list. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the movie doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If I missed a list, it’s all over, the world, everything. For everyone. I’m sorry.

After the Storm: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a celebrated Japanese director who makes small, quiet movies. Ten years ago, his masterpiece, Still Walking, was released here in the states, and its portrayal of a family still struggling to move on after tragedy got at more truths in single scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. After the Storm does the same, even though its primary focus is not grief or regret but addiction and responsibility.

Alien: Covenant:  I’ll forgive you if you didn’t like Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel from 2012, Prometheus, because it was purposefully ambivalent about providing answers. Covenant is not, and its themes are more contained within the story portrayed onscreen, rather than flailing about at philosophical questions the story cannot quite support. It also gives us another stellar Michael Fassbender performance and some truly chilling horror sequences that belong among the franchise’s best.

The Salesman: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international scene with 2011’s A Separation, which went onto win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That movie provided a window into a family navigating the perilous waters of Iran’s social norms as they underwent a divorce. Farhadi’s subsequent movies (2013’s The Past, 2015’s About Elly) were similarly incisive in their dissection of societal expectations in unusual circumstances, but The Salesman is probably Farhadi’s best since A Separation, taking its situation to its extreme without crossing over into self-parody.

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Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 5 albums that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten lists. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the album doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If it’s a Christian album, I just search the usual way (read: Google) through some of the main Christian music publications. If I missed a list, it’s okay; no one’s life is over.

The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: There have been several artists in Christian music history that have bucked (or set) the industry’s trends, but there are few today outside of hip-hop. The Brilliance have some of the kitchen-sink creativity that most recently blessed Gungor before that band veered into emergent-church territory. This makes sense, since one of The Brilliance’s primary members is David Gungor, the brother of Gungor’s Michael. But where Michael’s band has taken a decidedly meditative tack, David’s has set his rudder directly toward celebration. Beautifully synthesizing several genres, The Brilliance overcome worship music tropes, celebrating a God for everybody with music for everybody.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses: I understand Margo Price receiving all of 2017’s allotted attention for female off-the-beaten-path Nashvillians, because Price is brilliant. But now that 2017 is over, please turn your attention to its forgotten folk artist, Caroline Spence. Her 2015 album Somehow won me over with its plain-spoken heartbreak spiked with hard liquor. Spades & Roses is like Somehow, but with more liquor. This is best exemplified on standout track, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” in which beds and all their accoutrement become a metaphor not for love, but for the hope that this one will make you forget the rest.

David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: I wrote about this album not 6 weeks ago, and I’m still on a high for the response it got. Ramirez himself retweeted the post and said it was “one of [his] favorite reviews for the new album,” and I could have cried. You write about an album you love and you hope someone reads it. You never expect the artist to read it and, much less, appreciate it. Ultimately, I just want this album to get attention, because it’s a devastatingly good folk album from one of Austin’s best resident musicians.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: You’ll be forgiven if you’re not into Americana and haven’t heard of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Carolina-based outfit from the prolific M.C. Taylor. You’ll also be forgiven if you are into Americana and can’t remember which album of his is which. But holding this against him is like complaining that Cary Grant plays the same character in every movie- he does what he’s good at, and he’s the best at it. Taylor has a tried and true sound, a mélange of soul and backwoods blues befitting his scruffy look and family life. What makes Hallelujah Anyhow special in light of the rest of his discography is an unabashed celebration of life in the face of life’s mundanity.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Another Americana artist on this list, yes, but Shelley is quite unlike any other Americana artist we are familiar with. That’s partly because she doesn’t even consider herself an Americana musician, but mostly because she’s a singular artist. Her first few albums trafficked in Appalachian folk music, but Joan Shelley is a slight change in direction for the Kentucky artist. Her transfixing voice is still the focal point here, but she’s less reliant on her usual guitarists to give her voice its home. Instead, she travels outside her comfort zone to songs with barely any production at all, and more of a reliance on plinking keys rather than plucking strings, and her music has broadened with her world.

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

I cried a lot during this movie. I’m not ashamed of it – I’m not the only grown man I’ve talked to who cried during this movie. I think it’s a chronic thing, an epidemic of sorts among grown men who see Inside Out, and I want all you other grown men to know ahead of time, so you can practice hiding your faces from your significant others and sniffling quietly enough to not attract any attention.

I wrote that two years ago in my last review of a Pixar movie. Replace “Inside Out” with “Coco” and this would be a fitting introduction to Pixar’s newest movie. It’s worth wondering if Pixar is actually good at conjuring emotions at the drop of a musical cue or if I’m just prone to blubbering. I hope you’ll believe me when I say that both are true.

Coco focuses on a boy (the winsome Anthony Gonzalez) of about 12 years who gets trapped in the Land of the Dead and sets off to find his great-great-grandfather to help him cross back over to the living. All signs point to his great-great-grandfather being the most famous Latin singer of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (a surprising Benjamin Bratt), who is also from the boy’s hometown. The boy happens to love de la Cruz’s music and wants to be a musician himself, but his family despises music and shuns all traces of it from their lives, due to the boy’s great-great-grandfather leaving his wife with a young daughter to pursue his dream of being a musician.

The boy’s name is actually Miguel, not Coco. Coco is Miguel’s great-grandmother, the aforementioned young daughter of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, and she is still alive, though she barely talks, and when she does, what she says is either incoherent or irrelevant to the conversation. You won’t understand why the movie isn’t named Miguel until you see the whole thing. Coco is the movie’s emotional hinge; the floodgates don’t open without her.

And you’ll see from a mile away that they’re about to open, to be honest. While Coco is an engaging story with good voice work from its cast and a poignant ending, much of the movie is fairly predictable. The middle section of the movie had the potential to be something new, much in the way that Joy’s and Sadness’s journey in Inside Out was wholly original, but the movie is more concerned with hitting the plot beats that get you to the ending you already know it coming. Predictability is not necessarily a fatal flaw; I still enjoyed the movie, and there’s something comfortable about knowing where a movie is going. But you mourn for what might have been.

But oh! How beautiful is the Land of the Dead in Coco! For any regret I had for the story Coco could have been, I had twice the excitement for how it looks. The colors pop, the lines of the architecture stir the spirit, the physics of creating such a world boggle the mind. Pixar has always been ahead of the curve among mainstream studios at treating each screenshot like an individual work of art. Coco’s swirls of brightness and rich detail take this to another level.

And in the end, it didn’t matter that I saw the ending coming, because I cried like a baby anyway. If you’ve ever witnessed an older relative begin to disappear within themselves, you will too. I expect a lot from Pixar movies, and even when the studio stumbles in its storytelling, it still has a better handle than anyone else on the emotional connections at the heart of families. So who cares if Coco took a conventional approach? The conventional approach worked.

Merry Christmas 2017

In honor  of the fact that we can say “Merry Christmas” again without facing atrocious persecution, I named this post “Merry Christmas 2017,” because I have definitely never written any posts with “Merry Christmas” in the title before.

Anyway, this post is an opportunity to feature some of my favorite Christmas albums so that you can listen to them before we run out of time to listen to the eargold that is Christmas music. This year I didn’t listen to as many new albums as I wanted, but I’ve got one new favorite, an old favorite, and a new old favorite.

A New Favorite

Weston Skaggs, Stories for Christmas! EP (2017): I’m generally a classicist when it comes to the music I listen to at Christmas, which means that I prefer the standards to artists’ often lame attempts at writing original Christmas music. Christmastime is built so much on nostalgia that new songs often fail to capture the feel of the season. Instead, they feel cheap and artificial, which is not the kind of Christmas I prefer. Weston Skaggs, however, has made an EP entirely out of originals, and it’s perfect. Skaggs is a worship leader out of Cleveland, so most of the songs deal directly with the Christmas story (the sobering “Wise Men Still Seek Him”, the galvanizing “Prepare Him Room (feat. Anthony & Chris Hoisington)”), though there are a couple that deal more with the season in general (the earnest “Dickens Song”, the lilting “Winter Song”). I wasn’t familiar with Skaggs’s music before this, but his style is not what you expect when you hear the term “worship leader.” His delivery is more akin to a call-and-response folk singer, and his instrumentation is appropriately spare. For a classicist like me, his songs will fit right in with the old stuff.

An Old Favorite

Bing Crosby, White Christmas (1955): This album hardly needs my endorsement given that “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time. The album itself is nearly as popular, having undergone many different releases over the years to the point that the most recent edition of the album has a completely different tracklist than the original with different recordings of several songs. Crosby will always be synonymous with Christmas. Part of it is that his singing style is the standard that so many artists held for what Christmas music should sound like, so now listeners think this is what Christmas sounds like. But White Christmas isn’t just popular because it’s popular. Crosby sings these songs with such tenderness and ease, eschewing any kitsch that’s naturally present in the secular carols and overcoming any stiltedness that comes with the hymns. Nat King Cole did a similar thing 6 years later with The Magic of Christmas (which we know now as the reissued The Christmas Song), and now both albums are bona fide classics. It’s not a formula everyone could follow to craft a brilliant Christmas album, but trying a little tenderness is always worth it.

A New Old Favorite

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow (2014): Like Skaggs, Over the Rhine, made up of married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, hails from Ohio, though from Cincinnati. Unlike Skaggs, I’m very familiar with their music; I’ve listened to every one of their albums, and they’re one of my favorite bands. So it’s not like I had never heard Blood Oranges before (I listened to it when it came out), but I really love Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album, Snow Angels (2007), and Blood Oranges isn’t really like that one. Like Skaggs’s Stories, both albums are made up of originals, but Snow Angels is downright cheeky, and it seems to come from a place of optimism and celebration (even if the first song is “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue”), like the nog was spiked in the studio. Blood Oranges is a little more sober, and also somber. Two of the songs are titled “My Father’s Body” and “If We Make It Through December,” not to mention their play on “Auld Lang Syne” which is about staying home instead of enjoying old acquaintances. I don’t mean to suggest these songs are negative, but they seem written for a Christmas after a hard year full of beatings, to bring joy to the world rather than celebrating the joy in the world. I’ve had a good year, but the Christmas music of the broken-down and weary speaks to me more and more.

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

Without fail, upon the release of a new Marvel movie, critical cynicism reaches a new peak. Make no mistake, Thor: Ragnarok has gotten good reviews. But even the favorable reviews seem skeptical this gigantic Marvel experiment. An otherwise positive notice at Vox notes the “current glut of superhero TV shows and movies.” The writer isn’t wrong- it feels like there’s too much of everything at this point- but the phrase is a microcosm of critical feeling about Marvel movies: there’s too many of these things, and we’re tired of watching them.

It’s an understandable feeling, but audiences don’t seem to agree. The three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released this year (including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming) are all in the top half of all the franchise’s opening weekend totals (17 in all), which suggests audience interest is still high. And when people see the movies, they’ve told other people they like them; all three are now in the franchise’s top ten grosses (and Ragnarok will likely rise into the top half), suggesting word of mouth continues to be strong for Marvel’s movies.

Of course, if you’re looking at my use of the movies’ popularity as an argument for their quality and about to tell me that popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, I’m way ahead of you. A lot of movies make a lot of money and are still bad movies. What I’m pointing out is the discrepancy between the appetites of audiences and critics. Critics want to be thoughtful about movies, and many people in the general populace couldn’t care less about thinking about movies.

One of the reasons it’s hard to be think critically about a Marvel movie is that many of them have been tied to setting up the next one, especially a lot of them between the first Avengers and the second. Movies that don’t stand alone don’t stand up well to critical thought. But the three Marvel movies released this year suggest Marvel may be changing its model, and critics and audiences both win as a result.

For one, Marvel appears to be relaxing its grip on the tone of its movies. Thor: Ragnarok is the most extreme example of this yet. Taika Waititi, celebrated in indie circles for What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, strikes a much lighter chord in this direction than any Marvel director yet. Even James Gunn with his Guardians movies and Peyton Reed with Ant-Man were a little more beholden than Waititi to the Marvel tone, which allows for humor but never allows it to be the point of a scene. Humor is the whole point of Thor: Ragnarok’s entirety.

That’s not to say Waititi doesn’t take these characters seriously. There are real arcs to all the main players: Thor (a Chris Hemsworth who finally gets to really let his comedy chops loose) gradually comes to accept his role as Asgard’s protector, Hulk (a manic Mark Ruffalo) finds belonging, Valkyrie (a scene-stealing Tessa Thompson) regains her purpose. These are legitimate plotlines given weight by a director who cares about these characters. But part of their growth involves flying into a wormhole named the Devil’s Anus. The humor is baked into the plot, which makes for a movie with joy and delight at its core.

Marvel also appears more willing to allow its movies to function on their own without constant callbacks to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is completed devoid of references to the other Avengers. But Ragnarok’s plot appears to be unconnected to the main thrust of Marvel’s current phase, allowing Waititi to tell a complete story from beginning to end. The movie’s themes are the better for it: a nation-state’s value lying in its people and not its land, a hero learning to take ownership of his fate, coming to terms with the sins of our fathers, etc. None of these would have been better served by a movie beholden to other plots outside of its own, without a true beginning or end.

Of course, if you know anything at all about the comics, it’s not hard to draw the lines from Ragnarok to the rest of the MCU. Hela (Cate Blanchett, devouring the CGI scenery), Thor’s sister, is the goddess of death, and upcoming MCU villain Thanos commits many of his most heinous acts in the comics to impress Death. Also, apparently Thanos and Hela recently made out in the comics. So the lines are there, but unlike in previous MCU installments, you aren’t forced to look at them. Ragnarok feels like a movie that shapes the MCU rather than one shaped by it.

The best way Marvel shows in Thor: Ragnarok that it is learning is Tessa Thompson. Of course, there’s the fact that she’s a black actress integral to the plot, which is a nice change of pace from blockbusters in general, not to mention from the largely white, male MCU. But the comic-book character her role is based on, Valkyrie, is a blonde, blue-eyed woman from a clan filled with blonde, blue-eyed women. Seeing as all of these characters are derived from Norse mythology, their complexion and hair color makes sense. So Marvel’s decision to cast Thompson in the role feels like a deliberate statement about what they value in their characters (at least going forward), and it’s not their race.

Waititi surely had a lot to do with the decision, as did the fact that Thompson has proven herself to be among the best actresses of her generation already in multiple roles. But whoever’s decision it was, Marvel had to approve it. They also had to approve Waititi’s conscious effort to include the aboriginal people of Australia in the production crew and cast, seeing as much of the film was made there. This isn’t Marvel’s normal way of doing things, and the willingness to allow modifications to their process is encouraging.

Marvel could keep doing the same thing and would likely make a lot of people happy and continue making a lot of money. But they are gradually changing how they function as a creative organization, and it’s showing in the quality of the movies. Critical cynicism may never go away, but if Marvel continues in this direction, it will undoubtedly decline. And we will undoubtedly win.

Tentative Top Tens of 2017

Man, looking back at last year’s tentative top ten lists, I still hadn’t seen Moonlight or La La Land. Needless to say, in between now and next September when the official Bummys are posted, these lists are going to look very different.

Nevertheless, because I must capitulate to our culture’s norms, I must release lists this December. It will ever be so.

Movies

1. Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s movies have always been editing marvels, but this one takes the language of movies to a whole new level, redefining bravery and honor in a language singular to cinema.
2. Get Out: Not only the breakout movie of the year, but Peele’s genre masterpiece brought social depth back to horror movies.
3. Logan:
A superhero movie only by default, a great movie by sheer, gory effort.
4. After the Storm:
Understandably, no one stateside has seen this Korean drama, but I dare anyone who considers themselves a movie fan to check it out- American movies rarely reach these heights.
5. War for the Planet of the Apes:
The unlikeliest of success stories, this franchise reaches its peak in an old-fashioned western of a finale.
6. The Big Sick:
Romantic comedies used to be a dime a dozen, but this one manages to be a rarity in the genre: wholly original.
7. It:
This movie needed only to be scary; it did not need to be an insightful look at teenage longing, but that it was.
8. Thor: Ragnarok:
Recency bias may be in effect, but this Thor is the best Marvel movie since- well, since Iron Man.
9. A Ghost Story:
One of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, but it moved me deeply, and I won’t forget it.
10. John Wick: Chapter 2:
The original was a high octane ride, and the second somehow enriched its world without sacrificing any of the intensity.

Albums

1. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy: A surreal journey from doubting the heavens to faith in humanity, this is what I’d like to think I’d sound like if I made an album and were smarter and funnier.
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator: The best piece of protest art released this year is also a masterpiece of roots music that isn’t shy about its roots being Latin.
3. Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Shelley sings and plays in an unassuming style, but there is a world of feeling in her delivery and lyrics.
4. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: More languid than its predecessor, if you can believe that possible, but just as rich in its sweep.
5. Propaganda, Crooked: At this point, Jason Petty has established himself as Christian rap’s poet laureate; Crooked is his magnum opus.
6. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life: Terribly underrated by a criticism community conflicted on how to cover rock music, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a continuation of the band’s pure vision of idealist rock.
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Isbell is a wonderful storyteller, but Nashville Sound‘s strength is its ideas about morality.
8. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: If the more introspective DAMN. doesn’t end up as beloved as TPAB, it will be because its themes are more personal than communal, and not because K-Dot has lost a step, which is decidedly not the case.
9. David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: Folk troubadours across the country should look to Ramirez as a shining example of writing personal lyrics without navel-gazing.
10. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway: Like #2 on this list, this is a piece of Americana whose roots are “non-traditional” (read: non-white) and that enriches our American story immensely.

Best Book I Read

The Passage by Justin Cronin: I read more relevant non-fiction books (Abram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and Michael R. Wear’s Reclaiming Hope) and more emotionally affecting fiction books (Brit Bennett’s The Mothers). But I’m a sucker for a well-written epic, and The Passage is both of those. It’s also expertly plotted around the theme of hope as the only response to hopelessness.

Best Comic I Read

The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker: I’m a big fan of several of Brubaker’s earlier series, including his run on Captain America and the Lovecraftian Fatale, so a Brubaker-written noir set in blacklist-era Hollywood could only be my new favorite title. Brubaker’s longtime illustrator, Sean Phillips, brings this macabre tale of the underbelly of the film industry to life in sobering detail.

Best TV Series I Watched

Master of None (season 2): The first season was a deft romantic comedy that dealt honestly with dating and friendship as an adult in your 30s. The second was the same but more, including a reimagining of the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief, the best Thanksgiving episode of television I’ve seen, and a reckoning with sexual assault by powerful men before the recent spate of allegations began. Also, the romance is easier to get swept up in than the one from the first season.

This David Ramirez Album Is Not About What You Think It Is About

This David Ramirez Album Is Not About What You Think It Is About

Everything is being framed in reference to Trump. We can’t get away from him. Music, movies, TV, books- writers cannot seem to find another angle from which to view pop culture right now. I understand that his election and presidency are convenient cultural touchstones, but we live in a big world. There’s no need to make his head big enough to fill it.

Even a relatively unknown folk singer like David Ramirez gets viewed through the Trump lens. According to The Independent, his new album We’re Not Going Anywhere “sees him pitch a message of defiance against Donald Trump’s America.” Outlets from Billboard to the Waco Tribune highlight Ramirez’s Mexican heritage, as if this means he would naturally address the orange elephant in the room.

One of the songs on We’re Not Going Anywhere, “Stone Age,” does function as a protest song in response to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the alt-right (read: white supremacist) movement. And opener “Twins” considers how our country has changed since 9/11, wondering if we’ve come any distance at all. But the vast majority of the album confronts feelings of loneliness and isolation that feel very personal to Ramirez. I wish I knew the context, but no one thought to ask, because they got hung up on the “relevance” of a couple songs.

The irony is that Ramirez has always had a knack for the protest song, though he was most often protesting the music business or the culture surrounding Americana music. 2013’s “The Forgiven” rails against the hypocrisy of valuing authenticity while shunning any mention of religion. 2014’s “Stone” lashes out at the music business for prioritizing fame over substance. But Ramirez’s albums are full of songs that are about what most songs are about: love, loss, and longing.

We’re Not Going Anywhere could be viewed as a protest album, in the sense that Ramirez has decided to fill his production with more synths than usual, evoking an ‘80s nostalgia that spits in the face of traditional Americana. That’s not to say this is no longer folk music. It just embraces Tunnel of Love more than Nebraska. This is to the album’s credit. Ramirez, who has always been a strong lyricist, has expanded the palette he’s using to present them.

David Ramirez doesn’t have the machinery to market him like a Sturgill Simpson, and he’s not brand-savvy the way Chris Stapleton has been since his rise to stardom. No, Ramirez is, as he puts it, a “career musician.” And whether he meant it this way or not, this phrase implies that he is most at home on the touring circuit, playing shows at intimate venues in the states surrounding his home in Austin, Texas. His music feels most at home here too, his songs too intimate for an arena, his lyrics too honest to survive long outside of a bar.

The little reporting that followed this record near its debut often highlighted that Ramirez recorded the album in an 18th-century farmhouse in Maine, as if the age of the studio space lends it wisdom or something. But maybe the remove of the location matters. Maybe it’s partly responsible for the clear-eyed way Ramirez views both our world and his own. I’d rather read too much into that farmhouse than just assume the album is about Trump.

Covering the music business is hard, and I am glad it is not my job. There are so many records and so many artists and so many platforms; where do you even start? But artists like David Ramirez deserve to be presented accurately. Ramirez is a great musician, and he has a distinct perspective that is worthy to be praised. Shoehorning him into a narrative does no one any favors- except maybe Donald Trump.