Career Best: The Movies of Steven Spielberg, Ranked

Career Best: The Movies of Steven Spielberg, Ranked

There is a sublime center on the spectrum in between approaching a movie critically and shutting your brain off to enjoy one. Few directors are capable enough to make even just one movie that shines brightly at that center, holding up under scrutiny but also providing a visceral experience. Even fewer have made at least seven such movies. Steven Spielberg is one of them.

I don’t mean this to be a hagiography. There are better directors than Spielberg, directors with a lighter touch, directors that can craft a better shot, directors that fill their frames with more nuance. But there is no director that fills my heart with more wonder, no director that can excite me with just a reaction shot, no director that can make me sadder that his movie is over.

What follows is a ranking of every one of his movies (well, with the exception of 2016’s The BFG– sorry, I can’t watch everything). This needs no occasion, but Spielberg is set to release his 31st movie, Ready Player One, so now seems as good a time as any to celebrate his life’s work.

Tier 9: Nobody’s Perfect

29.  1941 (1979)
28. Always (1989)
27. The Terminal (2004)

Even Steven Spielberg has made bad movies. Of course, being Spielberg, there are a lot of moments that work in these films. 1941 has John Belushi, who made everything he did better. The image of him flying a WWII fighter plane over downtown Los Angeles is indelible, but it was not enough to save this early attempt at comedy from Spielberg, which is a mess from start to finish. In Always, the early romance between Richard Dreyfuss’s and Holly Hunter’s pilots is genuinely charming. The ghost story that follows is less so. And in The Terminal, there is a lot to like about the cast, but the movie is ultimately too slight to deserve much more praise.

There are a couple themes here. When Spielberg doubles down on the comedy or romance genre, the gamble has yet to pay off. Of course, there are elements of both that work in his better movies (see any of the Indiana Jones movies for both comedy and romance). But Spielberg serves those genres better in small portions. The other theme is that when Spielberg makes movies about planes, he falls apart. No more movies about planes, Steven.

Tier 8: Trifles

26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
25. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

I am sure plenty of people would place one or both of these late-career movies in the above tier, but I honestly find them both fun. A lot of the unmet expectations of Crystal Skull are muted in hindsight, so it is a lot easier to enjoy. And Tintin, while clearly more of a technical achievement than anything else, is pure fun. Neither is a good movie, but neither is bad enough to be bad.

Tier 7: Well, He Meant Well

24. Amistad (1997)
23. The Color Purple (1985)
22. War Horse (2011)

The story of Spielberg’s early career is that he made blockbusters a thing but longed to be taken seriously by the film world, specifically the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This seems weird to us now, after years of Spielberg as the Academy’s golden boy and Oscar wins for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But in 1985, Spielberg was Hollywood’s boy wonder, and 1985’s The Color Purple was a brazen attempt at more adult fare.

In retrospect, Spielberg clearly bit off more than he could chew. There were some great performances in Purple (Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, for starters), but the movie as a whole is tonally inconsistent, which is a shame, because it is Spielberg’s most diverse cast, and their yeoman’s work deserved better. Amistad and War Horse are post-Oscar Spielberg leaning too far into earnestness without much depth. Amistad is moving, but it suffers from white-savior syndrome, and its broad canvas does not leave much room for nuance. War Horse has some of the most painterly images of his career, but its best-served character is a horse.

Tier 6: Did Spielberg Really Make This Movie?

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

Spielberg’s first theatrical release is far from a classic, but it has a certain ragamuffin charm. Goldie Hawn is great, and it’s worth seeing if only for considering what Spielberg might have been if he had kept trying to make Coen brother movies.

Tier 5: Even a Master Filmmaker Makes Sequels

20. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Sequels get a bad rap, and neither of these movies changed that. They both have their charms though, specifically in superb, well-crafted action scenes, even if neither gets even close to the heights of their predecessors.

Tier 4: We’ve Come to the Middle of the Road

18. Empire of the Sun (1987)
17. Bridge of Spies (2015)

If an up-and-coming filmmaker made these two movies, we would expect big things from them in the future. They would have proven themselves competent, able to craft a compelling, historical story, and unlikely to ruin a movie. Neither movie is particularly memorable, except for some lovely performances: Christian Bale’s breakout role in the former and Mark Rylance’s Oscar-winning cypher of a performance in the latter.

I am probably going to forget about both of these movies immediately after I finish writing this sentence.

Tier 3: Likely Classics, but Not Quite Great

16. Hook (1991)
15. War of the Worlds (2005)
14. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

None of these movies were critical darlings in the slightest, but I expect all of them to last in the pop cultural consciousness, because all three are infectiously enjoyable. Hook, in particular, was critically reviled upon its release, even though people in my generation grew up loving it. Having recently re-watched it, I think it holds up even past my own nostalgia as an action-packed celebration of growing up. War of the Worlds is action-packed but in a non-stop, intense way. Its plot barely holds up and the characters are taped together only by solid casting, but as a disaster movie, it is breathtaking. And Catch Me If You Can, remembered most by critics now for its deliciously retro opening title sequence, is the most delightful of all, featuring an ascendant Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks just coming off his peak- if he ever did come off of it.

Tier 2: Indisputable Classics

13. The Post (2017)
12. Lincoln (2012)
11. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
9. Munich (2005)
8. Jurassic Park (1993)

Now we are getting to the truly great movies, the movies that will undeniably be remembered as classics, even if they are not universally beloved. I love all of these movies and could have easily put them into Tier 1, except I have enough problems with them that I am not quite prepared to put the “transcendent” label on them.

The Post has the luxury of timeliness, its release coming at a time where the press is about as under attack by the United States government as it ever was. But the story at the heart of The Post isn’t even about journalism, but rather that of a woman staking her claim to her place in the world. Steven Spielberg has always been known for his capacity for wonder, but the thing to wonder at here is Meryl Streep’s masterful performance, and that’s why The Post will last as a classic, even if it was completely overlooked at the Oscars.

Lincoln will mostly be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’s transformative performance, and rightly so. But Lincoln’s screenplay is a fascinating exploration of how the noble act of emancipation came about not through good will but through politicking. It is a little staid and stagnant, but Spielberg navigates the maze of politics delicately, and its overall impact is sealed in the final scene.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a polarizing movie, inspiring adulation and frustration in equal amounts. Spielberg took Stanley Kubrick’s vision for a story of an android who feels as if he is real and turned it into a science fiction epic. The first time I saw it, I was confounded by the ending, but the movie has haunted me ever since.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only example of a successful Spielberg sequel. Maybe it is because the father-son relationship between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Sean Connery’s Henry Jones provided Spielberg the focus his Holy Grail story needed. Or maybe it is because Last Crusade is the funniest movie Spielberg has ever made.

Munich was a critical success, but it seems mostly overlooked in retrospective lists. I suppose this is one of Spielberg’s more generic films stylistically, conforming to the standards of most mid-2000s geopolitical thrillers. But it is at the top of that class of movies, delivering Hitchcockian scenes of suspense and capturing the contradictions inherent in spywork.

Jurassic Park has always been one of my go-to movies to rewatch, but, until recently, its anti-climactic ending brought it down in my mind’s eye. But Jurassic World made me appreciate how deftly Spielberg juggles the ideas behind Michael Crichton’s story of science’s hubris with edge-of-your-seat thrills. It is a landmark film in special effects, but it is also an old-fashioned adventure film of the highest order.

Tier 1: Absolutely Transcendant

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This is where Spielberg as we know him today began. Jaws came first, but this is where the wonder originated. Throughout his career, Spielberg became known for his exploration of the otherworldly and the effects it would produce in us. In Close Encounters, the effect it produces is obsession. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy sees an alien spaceship one night, he becomes fixated with heading to a specific location in the middle of nowhere. The story is kind of tragic- he leaves his wife and children due to his mania. But Spielberg’s reaction shots and commitment to the final scene make it seem…like the right decision? It’s not uncomplicated, but the audience is along for the ride with Roy, and all his decisions not only make sense but seem inevitable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

In 1993, the narrative around Spielberg was that he had been trying for about eight years to achieve credibility with the Hollywood elite, in between making crowd-pleasers like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook. If that seems like a cynical endeavor, the fact that it produced Schindler’s List makes it a worthy one. But I do not buy the idea that Spielberg made Schindler’s List to improve his reputation; it is too personal, too revealing, too devastating. Featuring two of the best performances in Spielberg’s filmography, the movie is the first time Spielberg fully depicted evil onscreen, in Ralph Fiennes’s Nazi Amon Goeth, and the first time Spielberg fully depicted the complicated goodness of which man is capable, in Liam Neeson’s iconic Oskar Schindler.

5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is the less critically-appreciated of Spielberg’s ‘90s masterpieces, probably because it is less nuanced and more earnest. But Ryan is a work of masterful direction, Spielberg brilliantly choreographing the best battle scenes in the history of cinema. The opening D-Day scene is the most remembered, of course, but the whole movie is a testament to the human sacrifice implicit in any war, even a just one. Having already made Schindler’s List, Spielberg had nothing left to prove. As a result, Ryan is the best of Spielberg’s attempts to depict history onscreen, fully balancing his humanist respect with his skill for crafting the most exciting movies.

4. Jaws (1975)

This is the birth of the boy wonder, even if the real wonder came later that decade with Close Encounters. B-movies were popular, but never this popular. The plot of Jaws suggests that the movie should have been relegated at least to cult-movie status rather than great-movie status. But the cast is so completely committed to Spielberg’s vision of a prestige B-movie, and Spielberg’s scene construction is so flawless, that Jaws is justifiably seen as one of the best genre pictures in history. Even in this age of computer-generated effects, Jaws remains chilling and intense, a sure thing if you’re looking for a movie to keep you on the edge of your seat.

3. Minority Report (2002)

One of Spielberg’s underrated qualities is his meticulous attention to detail. While other directors are making action movies of ever-increasing size and scope, the awe in his setpieces has always rested in the little things. No movie displays this better than Minority Report, which gets a knock from critics for its supposedly tacked-on epilogue. But everything about Minority Report is finely tuned, from the thrilling action sequences like Tom Cruise’s character’s first escape to the high-wire tension of the scene where he is being pursued by vindictive spider robots. It’s also quite the science fiction movie, with perhaps the most realistic near-future world in cinema, in the guise of a mystery, with an end result you can see coming but to which you enjoy the ride. I nearly put Minority Report above Raiders, because it’s that perfectly constructed.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If there’s anything I can thank my parents for (besides, you know, the entirety of my life), it’s that they introduced me to Raiders of the Lost Ark at a relatively early age. That meant that I grew up with an imagination, a concept of good and evil, and a joy for the movies. No movie Spielberg has made is more fun than Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor any more inventive. As a child, watching Raiders meant confronting the idea that evil existed in the world, but also that there was a God who cared enough to do something about it. And this idea was in one of the most imaginative and enjoyable movies of all time! Spielberg is a wizard, man.

1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The predominant force in pop culture today is geek culture. A lot of its power resides in the nostalgia factor: we grew up enjoying these cultural artifacts, so they still mean something to us today. An armchair psychologist might presume that the fanboy lifestyle is a result of being unable to let go of one’s childhood. This presumption may very well be correct, for all we know.

If it is, Spielberg movies are my geek culture. I grew up on them, found my capacity for wonder grown by their phenomena, came of age to their stories of adventure. Like fanboys, I’m fiercely defensive of Spielberg. I came across a video essay a couple of years ago that attempted to discredit Spielberg’s bona fides as a director by criticizing the lack of awards attention that actors in his movies have received, and I was livid. I don’t even know who made that video, but it sticks with me to this day, which is silly.

My love of Spielberg movies is not silly though, and I don’t want it reduced to fanboy-ism. There’s nostalgia in that love, for sure; I can’t see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Tinker Bell’s light in Hook, or Indiana Jones’s hat in Raiders without feeling the joy I felt when those movies were introduced to me as a child. But I grew up, and discovered Jaws, and Minority Report, and Saving Private Ryan, none of which are related to my childhood at all, but which I love as much as or more than the movies I watched as a kid.

E.T. is the exception to all of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw E.T., but its images and story are burned into my DNA in the same way as Jurassic Park or Close Encounters or Raiders. I remember being bewildered by it: why was Elliott’s health connected to E.T.’s? What was going on with that frog scene? And how on earth did Elliott’s mom not know there was a friggin’ alien hanging out with her kids?

But underneath my bewilderment was fascination. Here was a story with a happy ending that didn’t leave me feeling happy. E.T. got to go home, but that meant he and Elliott couldn’t be together anymore. Even as a child, I was conflicted about this. The exhilaration of E.T.’s escape from the feds was caught up in the sadness of saying goodbye. I knew there was something universal about E.T. before I knew what the word “universal” meant.

My parents don’t drink coffee, but my grandparents did. I spent a week with them every year for most of my childhood into my adolescence. They’d take my sister and me off my parents’ hands while they went on a trip together for their anniversary. I tried coffee several times with them, and never liked it, but they had it every morning. I would wake up to the kettle whistling, and I’d know they were getting that gross drink prepared. They’d let me come get in bed with them and read books to them while they drank their smelly coffee. I’m drinking coffee right now while I write this, and I’ve had it every morning since grad school. The day feels wrong without it.

In the same way that coffee means something different to me now as a grown-up, so does E.T. I can see now that the mom didn’t notice there was an alien in her house because she was a single mother, grieving the loss of her marriage and her children’s father. I can see now that Elliott’s connection with E.T. is related to their shared sense of abandonment. I can see now that the one government character we get to know genuinely wants to help E.T., which I think was a little generous of Spielberg. I’m sure E.T. will mean something different to me after I have children.

But I don’t think I will love it any less. E.T. is such a perfectly made movie that understands so many different universal truths about family and growing up and the desire for a more abundant life. It doesn’t talk down to children, and it doesn’t ignore adults. The sense of loss at the end is just a palpable as the joy of the experience of knowing E.T. at all. I’ve experienced loss in my life, including the loss of those grandparents who loved me so well year after year. E.T. is the best Spielberg movie, because it doesn’t pretend loss doesn’t happen. But it doesn’t forget the joy and wonder of living either.

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The 2018 Academy Awards

The 2018 Academy Awards

Every year is a good year for the movies. Even while certain segments of the blogosphere were declaring the death of cinema while television reached a fever pitch of popularity, there was always a plethora of great movies being made. If you know where to look and pay attention in any given year, you’ll find that the end of movies as a great art form has been greatly exaggerated.

However, sometimes the great movies within a year have a higher profile, and that year seems to be a better year for cinema as a result. 2017 was such a year, and you only have to look at the nominees for Best Picture as evidence. I still haven’t seen a lot of them, but, for my money, there are at least 3 masterpieces (DunkirkGet OutCall Me by Your Name) among the nominees I’ve seen, and, by reputation, 2 or 3 (Lady Bird and maybe The Shape of Water or Phantom Thread) among the ones I haven’t. That’s crazy. Last year, there were maybe 3 (MoonlightArrival, and La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are toss-ups). The year before that there was only 1 (Mad Max: Fury Road).

Your mileage will vary on these movies from mine, and that’s okay. But this was an extraordinary year for movies. You could replace all 7 of the Best Picture nominees with other movies from the top 25 grossers of the year to go with Dunkirk and Get Out, and you’d still have a worthy slate of Oscar contenders. Heck, let’s do it: Star Wars: The Last JediWonder WomanItThor: RagnarokLoganCoco, and Split. There. I mean, none of those would beat Dunkirk or Get Out, but they’re awesome.

Whatever happens Sunday night, 2017 was amazing. Even if both Get Out and Lady Bird get shut out and the internet goes bonkers, it won’t change the fact that 2017 was a particularly good year for movies that are going to be special to people for a long, long time.  Let’s not lost sight of that.

*Indicates a movie I have not seen yet.

Best Picture

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour

Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird*
Phantom Thread*
The Post
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: The Shape of WaterThree Billboards is right there with Guillermo del Toro’s watery fable, but the backlash against Billboards has been louder. Also, Three Billboards doesn’t have a directing nomination for Martin McDonagh, which would suggest that history is against it. The spoiler is Get Out, which would be awesome, but it only has 4 nominations. Its support is probably mostly from new membership, and it won’t be enough.

Should have been nominated: Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The only Star Wars movie to be nominated for Best Picture was 1977’s A New Hope, and Last Jedi is better. *ducks*

Best Directing

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig*
Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson*
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro*

Will win: The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro. I’m not entirely sure why the narrative here is that “it’s his time,” when this is first directing nomination in his career. But people in Hollywood do love him, and The Shape of Water is a celebration of movie history.

Should have been nominated: Logan, James Mangold. The screenplay is nominated (which is crazy!), but I think Mangold’s direction did the heavy lifting. He had to walk a tightrope of making a character study out of a superhero movie, and it was a huge success.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread*
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out*
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.*

Will win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. It truly is a great performance, though the Academy will give it to Oldman because it’s the biggest performance. This award should be Chalamet’s.

Should have been nominated: James McAvoy, SplitGet Out is probably the closest the Academy was going to come to embracing genre fare, but Split is a tension wire of a movie, and McAvoy’s performance is what keeps it from breaking.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water*
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya*
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird*
Meryl Streep, The Post

Will win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This performance is as much of a shoo-in to win as Oldman’s.

Should have been nominated: Zoe Kazan, The Big Sick. The movie didn’t have quite enough support to garner any acting awards, but Kazan’s performance stuck with me more than almost any other I saw from 2017.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project*
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water*
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World*
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The acting races just aren’t interesting this year. This is Rockwell’s award to lose.

Should have been nominated: Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name. Chalamet getting nominated is a win for the movie, but Hammer’s performance, while less devastating, is just as crucial to understanding the romance at the heart of the movie.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound*
Allison Janney, I, Tonya*
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread*
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird*
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water*

Will win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya. Janney has the lowest odds of all the acting locks, probably because Laurie Metcalf’s performance is so beloved…but Janney’s still a lock.

Should have been nominated: Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This is the second year in the row that a great Yorgos Lanthimos film gets overlooked, as well as its best performance.

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Call Me by Your Name
The Disaster Artist*

Logan
Molly’s Game*
Mudbound*

Will win: Call Me by Your Name. It’s the lone Best Picture nominee here, so it’s the frontrunner. It’s also written by James Ivory, who has adapted classics recognized by the Academy for over 30 years. It’s also beautiful.

Should have been nominated: It. Again, the Academy is generally not about genre fare, but if we can get Logan nominated, why not one of the most popular movies of last year, adapted by a best-seller from one of the most popular authors of all time? It was a great horror movie, yes, but it was also a great coming-of-age movie, and making a great coming-of-age movie out of a thousand-page book is quite a feat.

Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

The Big Sick
Get Out

Lady Bird*
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: Get Out. This is the one award Get Out will win. The “old white man” segment of the Academy is severely underrating this movie, but enough members will want the movie to win something, and this is the most logical place at which to make that happen.

Should have been nominated: After the Storm. Writing nominees tend to be pretty white. The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani is only the 5th nominee of Asian descent in Oscar’s history, and the only Asian-language film to be nominated in this category was Letters from Iwo Jima, which is a Clint Eastwood movie. Suffice it to say, a Japanese drama like After the Storm never would have been nominated. But its unlikelihood doesn’t make it right. After the Storm writer Hirokazu Koreeda has a history of getting at the things families never communicate to each other, and this movie is no different.

Best Cinematography

Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour

Dunkirk
Mudbound*
The Shape of Water*

Will win: Blade Runner 2049. It’s a beautiful movie to look at. But more importantly, its cinematographer, Roger Deakins, has 14 nominations for The Shawshank RedemptionFargoKundunO Brother, Where Art Thou?The Man Who Wasn’t ThereNo Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in the same year (!), The ReaderTrue GritSkyfallPrisonersUnbrokenSicario, and now BR 2049, but he has never won. He’s…what’s the word…due.

Should have been nominated: War for the Planet of the Apes. For some reason, the Academy hasn’t recognized the extraordinary achievement that is this franchise. It really shouldn’t have worked- ask Tim Burton- but director Matt Reeves made it work. He made it look good in the process as well, with the help of cinematographer Michael Seresin, who also worked on Dawn.

Best Animated Feature

The Boss Baby*
The Breadwinner*

Coco
Ferdinand*
Loving Vincent*

Will win: Coco. It’s well-deserving, even though I haven’t seen the others, just for its visuals alone.

Should have been nominated: I didn’t see a ton of animated movies this year, but it baffles me that The Boss Baby is on this list over The LEGO Batman Movie.

Best Documentary (Feature)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail*
Faces Places*

Icarus*
Last Men in Aleppo*
Strong Island*

Will win: IcarusFaces Places has the lowest odds, and it would be kismet with director Agnes Varda winning an honorary Oscar this year. But I find it hard to believe Academy members really get Varda. Icarus is the most accessible of this group, and its the most timely, since it’s about the Russian doping scandal.

Should have been nominated: City of Ghosts, a tense look at refugee activists reporting to the world on the heinous acts ISIS is perpetrating in Syria. Last Men in Aleppo probably siphoned attention away from it.

Foreign Language Film

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)*
The Insult
(Lebanon)*
Loveless (Russia)*
On Body and Soul (Hungary)*
The Square (Sweden)*

Will win: A Fantastic Woman, about a transgender woman struggling with the death of her partner, is the most zeitgeist-y. The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, might squeak by, but it’s pretty weird. A Fantastic Woman is more straightforward.

Should have been nominated: I haven’t even seen the nominees, let alone any foreign-language films that should have been nominated.

We Don’t Deserve BLACK PANTHER

We Don’t Deserve BLACK PANTHER

I don’t think I can write about Black Panther. I loved it and have a lot of thoughts about it. But why would you read my thoughts when there are dozens of well-written articles from black writers out there? It’s not that I don’t think I have the right to write about black culture. I’ve written about plenty of albums and movies from black artists before, and I’ll write more in the future. But the level of joy I want to communicate about this movie…that requires a writer of color. So I’m sitting this one out.

Below you’ll find some great content about Black Panther from African-American writers. They’re all well worth your time. Enjoy!

Zito Madu, GQBlack Panther and the Search for Home

Jelani Cobb, The New YorkerBlack Panther and the Invention of “Africa”

Carvell Wallace, The New York Times Magazine: Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America

Waris Dualeh, Twitter: Thread on African tribes/cultures featured in Black Panther

Jenna Wortham & Wesley Morris, Still Processing: We Sink Our Claws into Black Panther with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. These were supposed to be blockbuster albums, one more in a succession of successes. reputation was supposed to solidify Taylor Swift’s status as a full-on pop music superstar after 1989 . Man of the Woods was supposed to be another bid for Justin Timberlake to have shed his boy-band image after 20/20 Experience laid the foundation for a grown-up, mature JT. This should have been easy.

It would be hard to claim that neither reputation nor Man of the Woods has been successful. Swift’s new album is already 3 times platinum, and it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Timberlake’s debuted at No. 1, and it’s no shame that the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack unseated it, given the fact that Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. If sales or streams are your measuring stick, then you can pack up and go home, because these two albums are slam dunks, home runs, etc.

But if you care about quality, narrative, and legacy, the verdict is a little murkier. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad albums, but in the pop culture world we live in now, “not bad” isn’t really good enough. Before these albums were released, Swift and Timberlake were among the unquestioned elite in pop music, on equal footing reputation-wise with Beyoncé, Adele, or Kanye. Is that still the case now?

You could argue both are still in that upper echelon. After all, the quality, narrative, and legacy of a record are critics’ concerns, not a general audience’s. That’s largely true. Today, in the here and now, the, well, reputations of reputation and of Man of the Woods do not depend on a media consensus. But how a record is remembered is a matter of history, and the writers of history are writers. The fact that these albums are generally disliked by music writers matters. Will Swift’s and Timberlake’s places in the pop music elite survive long-term despite their album’s poor reception?

taylorswift02Critics didn’t actually hate reputation. Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME all gave the album positive reviews, after all. But most critics were mixed if not ambivalent about reputation, and some prominent outlets were outright negative, like Pitchfork, AllMusic, and Consequence of Sound. The preponderance of reviews were simply underwhelmed.

A lot of this can be chalked up to expectations. The four albums preceding reputation (Fearless, Speak Now, Red, and 1989) found themselves all over critics’ year-end lists. Her songwriting was endlessly praised, as well as her ability to master multiple genres and sounds as she transitioned away from country music and toward pop. If people grew tired of her tendency to depend on her dating life for lyrical material, she made up for it with hooks impeccably crafted to paint themselves onto your psyche. After 1989 made her biggest shift into pop music yet, it was reasonable for people to expect Swift to continue her run of greatness.

The first few singles tempered expectations a little. The first, “Look What You Made Me Do,” while boasting some of Swift’s most pointed satire, has a nearly atonal chorus that almost begs you not to like it. (Who is she talking to, anyway? What did I make her do?) This was a huge left-turn for the Taylor Swift that had leaned hard into sweeping synth melodies on 1989. “Ready for It?” was a more typical Swift hook, but not quite up to her standards. As in, it didn’t take over the world like any of the singles from 1989 did.

And there was bad press leading up to reputation’s release as well. A segment of the alt-right movement began to use her lyrics as a rallying cry while claiming that she is a closeted neo-Nazi. To be clear, these are claims with no basis in any sort of evidence whatsoever. But Swift never adequately addressed these claims, and so a blogger at PopFront claimed there were white supremacist dog-whistles in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, while condemning her “political silence” during the volatile 2016 presidential election. Instead of simply denying these claims, Swift threatened the writer with a cease and desist letter.

The blog post is a pretty poorly reasoned argument. A simpler and more generous reading of Swift’s “political silence” (Swift did eventually endorse Clinton) would come to the conclusion that when she’s not supporting an album with a tour and interviews, she values her privacy over the attention that advocacy of any kind brings. This fits with what we know about Swift: her life is meticulously controlled, outsiders not allowed in without invitation, rumors leaked by her camp when she chooses.

But Swift could have solved all of this by simply condemning the alt-right movement. By remaining silent, she left the door open for enough people to question her motives that she lost control over her career’s narrative, control she held so preciously before.

And honestly, the themes of reputation don’t help her case much. A lot of the songs (“Look What You Made Me Do,” “End Game,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) deal with Swift embracing her dark side. A lot of the “bad girl” stuff on reputation is on the nose and overdone; I mean, there’s a song called “I Did Something Bad,” for goodness’ sake. It also comes across as cynical, which is the wrong tone to strike after accusations of bullying and associations with racism.

Despite the bad narrative surrounding the lead-up to the album, I love reputation. I’m turned off by a lot of the cynicism inherent in Swift’s attempts at a bad-girl image, but I think that’s less present in the music itself than in how she chose to promote it. Much of this album is Swift grappling with what romance looks like as a 28-year-old, and much of it is actually the opposite of cynical. “Dress,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” and “Call It What You Want” are celebrations of committed love. Even “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is a Kanye kiss-off, is overflowing with good humor and the joy of finally getting to speak her mind.

reputation is also chock full of Swift’s trademark vulnerability. She made her name on appealing to the insecurities she shared with all young people, and this continues on reputation. “Delicate” is a pitch-perfect examination of turning to short-term romance to fill the holes in your soul. And “New Year’s Day,” the album’s best song and closer, details the fleeting nature of your efforts to make memories in any relationship.

I enjoy reputation, even though it’s unfocused and messy, jumping from theme to theme without the level of cohesion I’m used to from a Taylor Swift album. It seems to be a reflection of Swift’s own current messiness, adding to a discography that perfectly mirrors the trajectory of a white, middle-class girl growing up. I don’t expect many other people to share that opinion, given all the bad faith surrounding the album’s release narrative, some of it contrived and some of it legitimate. Maybe ten years from now, there will be a flurry of blog posts that revisit reputation and call it an underrated classic, but I doubt it. It’s not as good from front to back as 1989, and I’m sure it will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

justintimberlake01Speaking of bad taste: Man of the Woods. Even though Justin Timberlake has had an invincible career up to this point, and even though he had the lay-up opportunity that is the Super Bowl halftime show, no one took Man of the Woods seriously from the start. The album’s trailer could be an SNL digital short, with its misplaced attempts at sincerity paired with unnecessary amounts of flannel. The cognitive dissonance of watching Timberlake run around a pasture with horses while the R&B single “Supplies” plays in the background? That’s the whole album in a nutshell. Timberlake wanted to make music that reflected the place he’s from, and he ended up making…the same kind of music he’s always made.

Like reputation, bad narratives preceded Man of the Woods. To be fair to Timberlake, it was pretty poor timing for #MeToo to explode right before his album cycle began. While JT has never had a sexual harassment scandal, his career trajectory is inextricably linked to the career bombing of two former pop superstars who happened to be female.

Other people have pointed this out in more detail in recent weeks. In fact, as Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show drew closer, a lot of outlets began publishing reconsiderations of Timberlake’s success, given his (literal) hand in setting back Janet Jackson’s career during his last Super Bowl appearance. He’s always felt more like an unwitting product of a dick culture rather than an actual dick(in-the-box) himself. But even if he wasn’t directly responsible for ruining the careers of the women around him, he never was able to fully articulate a properly repentant or apologetic defense, and that’s been enough to cloud the hype of this album release.

Being reminded of his (surely unintentional) participation in the downfall of both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson did nothing to help my opinion of Man of the Woods. But neither did the album. If Timberlake wants to get serious about his love for his wife, his son, and his home, that’s great. I’d even go as far as to say that’s what his fans expect. After all, he did that really well on The 20/20 Experience, which has held up well in the last 5 years thanks to “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” and an awesome concert tour, which I was lucky enough to see with my wife.

Man of the Woods takes its concept too seriously, shoehorning it in as often as possible, as evidenced by songs titled “Supplies,” “Flannel,” and “Livin’ off the Land,” all of which would be far better songs without being tied to a faux-rugged existence that is so clearly not Timberlake’s reality. In “Flannel,” Timberlake literally utters the words, “Here’s my flannel / The character’s in the way you wear it / It takes your shape while you keep it on,” which is something no one who actually wears flannel has ever thought. In “Supplies,” which is about how the apocalypse is sexy(?), Timberlake somehow thought it was a good idea to make the chorus “I got supplie-ie-ies,” and…yep, that’s it. That’s the whole chorus.

I might have been okay with the ridiculous lyrics and thematic gambles. I mean, this guy made an album called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it worked. But the music isn’t really up to his standards. Having come off the biggest hit of his career, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is one of the earworms of the decade, Timberlake thought it made sense to release “Filthy,” which barely has a repeatable melody.

Even the best songs on the album are dependent on contributions from other artists. “Morning Light” features Alicia Keys in one of the few times on the album where a song sounds effortlessly sexy. “Say Something,” if you can get past its vague message, benefits from the presence of Chris Stapleton, who makes the case with his harmonies that maybe Timberlake should have given the whole record to him. And “Breeze off the Pond” is the only instance where the back-to-his-roots idea works for JT, because it leans heavily on a killer guitar riff from Pharrell, and Timberlake keeps the heavy-handed metaphors to a minimum.

In case my snark isn’t coming through enough, I just want to go on the record: I really don’t like Man of the Woods. But Justin Timberlake still means a lot to me. “Mirrors” came out a few months before my wife and I tied the knot, and it shaped my hopes for our future together. I listened and danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” as an effort to bond with one of my patients, and it ended up being the main way we connected. “Cry Me a River” and “My Love” are still two of my favorite songs from my adolescence.

However, when it comes to deciding who will maintain the goodwill that comes with being a superstar, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taylor and not Justin. More people like reputation, and Swift has built up enough goodwill over the course of her career as a champion of the bullied (“Mean,” “Fifteen”), that I believe she’s poised to survive her recent bad press. Also, she’s done a good job of cultivating the image of a songwriter over any other label. Swift’s success will always be perceived to be hers, rather than attributable to anyone else.

Every week I sit down with one of my patients and watch old Taylor Swift videos. This patient only likes older Taylor Swift, not the new stuff. We watch “Mean” and “Our Song” and “You Belong with Me,” and the patient lights up. It’s been hard to find anything else she likes as much as old-school Taylor Swift. But every time she asks for it on her eye-gaze device, and I pull “Love Story” up on an iPad, she begins smiling and laughing, without fail.

There’s enough on reputation that makes me light up for me to still hold Swift in high esteem. There are precious few moments on Man of the Woods that have a similar effect. They’ll both probably bounce back just fine, but it’s a little more plausible to imagine Swift coming out of this on top while Timberlake transitions into other roles, such as producing, or maybe just perpetually making funny videos with Jimmy Fallon. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Jimmy Fallon is pretty funny.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Challenges Fandom, and That’s a Good Thing

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Challenges Fandom, and That’s a Good Thing

Almost 2 months after its initial release, Star Wars: The Last Jedi finally appears to be out of the movie biz headlines. Usually in show business, any publicity is good publicity, but it felt like all the headlines about The Last Jedi were about negative reactions to it, from alt-right fans purposefully sabotaging its Rotten Tomatoes audience rating to director Rian Johnson constantly having to address fan frustrations on panels and in interviews. Because of all the negative coverage, it was easy to get confused about my actual opinion about the movie, which was 100% positive. I grew up a Star Wars fan, but if all these fans were displeased with the movie, was there something wrong with my fandom?

First of all, no. But the polarization surrounding The Last Jedi is worth discussing. Some in the media tended to characterize the backlash as part of a fringe group of fans (usually associated with alt-right views), but that hasn’t been my experience. While the response to the movie from people in my world was largely enthusiastic, I’ve had enough conversations about frustrations with the movie’s plotholes, unusual humor, and unexpected decisions that the backlash feels legitimate to me rather than fringe.

I think I would have preferred the backlash be less legitimate, to be quite honest. I love Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I loved Force Awakens too, but in a different, less passionate way. Both movies are great at what they try to do, but The Last Jedi is trying to do way more. There are several action scenes in The Last Jedi that have no parallel in the Star Wars canon or outside of it: the beautiful throne room scene, the final light saber fight between Kylo Ren and Luke. Johnson has introduced new planets and creatures that fit perfectly alongside any other iconic Star Wars creation: the porgs on Ahch-To where Luke is hiding, the fathiers in the casino city of Canto Bight.

And the rich themes at play in the entire saga are fleshed out in Last Jedi. An overmatched rebellion needs extraordinary people to lead it against an oppressive empire. Those leaders end up being people from nowhere (Luke in the original trilogy, Rey in this one), relying on a spiritual force to save the downtrodden.

Yet this isn’t just a mere rehashing of those themes, but an enriching of them. The old truth that the Force is the balance between all things, rather than a superpower available to only a few, is reinforced. Rey is from nowhere, like Luke, but she truly is nobody. Luke was always the son of a powerful jedi; it appears as though Rey’s parents have no significance. And the rebellion in The Last Jedi is as powerless as we have seen them, remaining alive and even growing because of ideas rather than people.

This wasn’t enough for a lot of fans, because while The Last Jedi expands upon and strengthens many of the saga’s original themes, it deconstructs a lot of what came before as well. Luke comes across as a very different character than he was in the original trilogy. Long stretches of the movie contain plot points that end up being largely pointless in the end, as Finn’s and Rose’s efforts to save the rebellion fail. And the sacred Jedi tree on Ahch-To is burned down by a lightning strike, potentially signaling the symbolic end of the Jedi Order.

A lot of the backlash comes down to feeling like something has been taken from you. The Last Jedi is a total redefinition of everything that came before it, from plot points and characters introduced in The Force Awakens that turned out not to have much significance at all, to the literal burning down of our understanding of the Jedi’s importance in the scheme of things, not to mention the fact that Luke is no longer the hero of the story. A lot of fans grew up relating to Luke, feeling like they too could rise from nothing and be meant for great things. What is Star Wars without Luke as the center of the story?

When I was growing up, we played “Star Wars” on the playground. Kids wanted to be the heroes: Luke or Han or even Obi-Wan. No one wanted to be C-3PO or Chewbacca. I always ended up being Lando, largely because I was one of the less-cool kids and he was a less-central character, but I also liked Lando. Growing up, I didn’t really understand that Lando was black, so he might be off limits to a white kid like me. To me, he was an outsider, and I felt like an outsider.

Luke was never the hero of Star Wars to me. Sure, he was the protagonist, and, to his credit, he chose the light rather than the dark. But it always felt like Darth Vader’s redemption was the more powerful story being told. Within the story that George Lucas wove in the original trilogy, Luke always felt destined to choose good, the product of fate rather than any real, relatable struggle between the power of evil and the love of good. Vader, on the other hand, had the kind of inner conflict that felt more real than anything else in Lucas’s space opera.

Johnson did a great job writing that kind of inner conflict for two of the main characters in The Last Jedi, Rey and Kylo Ren. Both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver act that conflict admirably, bringing pathos in scenes of mainly dialogue to the kind of movie that usually has to wring emotion out of laser sword battles. Even more impressively, Johnson has written stellar inner conflict for, of all characters, Luke. Instead of the character that was destined to succeed, we see Luke after the failure of a lifetime. It’s tough to watch at points, but in a way that’s rewarding in the end.

Ultimately, it seems the hardest part for some fans to swallow is that Luke is no longer the hero of this story. He saves the day in the end, but the end is clear that this is no longer his story, but Rey’s. Rey, who is the outsider that Luke only thought he was. Rey, who potentially has no family stake in this war and must fight on principle alone. Rey, who has a chance to right Luke’s wrongs. Rey, who is a woman. These fans don’t even recognize the very thing they think is being taken from them. A hard reality to face: the thing you love wasn’t even yours to begin with.

Now, clearly this is just a segment of Star Wars fandom; I’ve had conversations with several friends, Star Wars fans, that were underwhelmed because of their aesthetic preferences and not some misplaced expectations on the kind of story they were owed. Having preferences isn’t the same thing as holding something hostage to them. Art is dependent on the feelings and thoughts it evokes while being experience, so it doesn’t belong to anyone, not even the people who made it. Star Wars doesn’t belong to anyone. Which is another way of saying, Star Wars belongs to everyone.

If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

If I Ran the 2018 Grammys

I do this every year, and the amount of time I spend on it far outweighs the amount I care about the real Grammys. But damned if I’m not back here again, discovering that the Grammys think Metallica is still making award-worthy music in 2018.

It does feel like this year’s nominees in the main categories line up a bit more with mine than usual, which means, of course, that they’re closer to being right.

A few ground rules for this largely pointless exercise:

1) I’ll give the real nominees with my prediction for the winner in bold. Then I’ll give you who I would have nominated, with my choice for the best in that group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2016-September 30th, 2017 qualifying dates are stupid, but we’re going to keep them in the interest of chaos. I can’t fix everything about the Grammys. So no Taylor Swift, but Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings (from 2016, but released in November) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Father John Misty and Propaganda made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they’re too niche to be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Alicia Keys and SZA also released albums I loved, and they’re plausible options for the big one. But when it comes to the genre awards, anything goes- hence, artists like Joan Shelley, Sho Baraka, and Sheer Mag getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories.

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- London Grammar’s and Lana Del Rey’s albums could really fit into pop or alternative, Phoebe Bridgers and Hurray for the Riff Raff could easily be considered Americana instead of alternative, John Legend might be more of a pop artist than urban contemporary, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Spoon belongs in the alternative or rock category, sorry.

5) Forget the 5-nominee limit! Sometimes the Grammys do this; a genre will have enough contenders that they’ll fit 6 nominees into one category because of a tie. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories up a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve to be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have a little anarchy! Except in the 4 main categories, which will continue to have the rigid 5-nominee rule, because too much anarchy is a bad thing.

Album of the Year:

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lorde, Melodrama
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
SZA, Ctrl

Is this the year when a black nominee finally wins Album of the Year? Seems likely that it will finally be a person of color for the first time in 10 years. But it also would not be surprising for Lorde to win, given how great her album is. On one hand, the Grammys don’t matter, so Lorde winning would be insignificant. On the other hand, award shows like this are touchstones within every year that we use to get a feel for the story our culture is telling. Over the last 10 years, the story has felt like a rejection of the amazing work that people of color have built. Lorde deserves to win, but so does Kendrick, and I can’t help but feel like the Academy will finally choose to reward him. And Kendrick would be my personal pick too, with a slight edge over Lorde. He should have won for TPAB, but DAMN. seems like the kind of record that is going to seem weirdly underrated in comparison to its titanic predecessor.

I could take or leave the rest of the Academy’s choices. I like JAY-Z’s album, but it’s a little overrated for its pop cultural significance. 24K Magic has great singles, but that’s about it. I’ve never gotten into Childish Gambino, but “Redbone” is the shit. I would have rather seen the underrated Here get some love for an artist that really embraced a less pop-driven sound to make a statement record. Lambert’s most recent record, a 2-disc opus, also deserves to be considered. And SZA, the breakout star of the moment, made an album that should not be relegated to the genre awards but seen as belonging among the best of the best.

Record of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”

I understand the difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year, but I’m not sure the Academy does. Record of the Year is supposed to focus on the performance and the production, while Song of the Year is supposed to focus on the songwriting. If they actually vote based on the award’s definition, I don’t see how any song but Kendrick’s wins. But if they don’t, “Despacito” could sweep both song awards.

I wouldn’t be too mad about that; “Despacito” is a banger, for sure. I’m surprised 2 of the obvious songs of the year aren’t nominated though: “Bodak Yellow” and “Bad and Boujee,” both of which dominated the culture during their respective seasons. But my personal favorite belongs to Selena Gomez, who altered her singing style and leaned on Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter to craft the most interesting pop song of the year.

Song of the Year

Real nominees: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”
JAY-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Julia Michaels, “Issues”
Logic, “1-800-273-8255 (feat. Alessia Cara & Khalid)”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito (feat. Justin Bieber)”

My nominees: Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Kesha, “Praying”
Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”

Hard to imagine anything but “Despacito” winning, but if the Academy is going to pick a category to screw up, I can see it being this one. The fact that “Issues” and “1-800-273-8255” are in here suggests the voters did not know what to make of their options. I’m surprised the Weeknd or Harry Styles didn’t get a look from them. I suppose it’s not surprising that Kesha didn’t get a nod, seeing as there are probably enough voters in the Academy who still feel enough of a kinship with Dr. Luke to see Kesha as too controversial. But her “Praying” is the best pop song of the year by far, eliciting tears from me nearly every time I hear it.

I can’t believe I typed that sentence, but here we are.

Best New Artist

Real nominees: Alessia Cara
Khalid
Lil Uzi Vert
Julia Michaels
SZA

My nominees: Cardi B
Harry Styles
Julien Baker
Lil Uzi Vert
SZA

Not sure why Alessia Cara is here, since she broke out during the previous qualifying year, but I’m happy she’s getting some love. SZA seems like the favorite here, but it’s not by a lot. Anyone could win in this category, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I would have liked to have seen Harry Styles get honored with a nomination here, though I supposed the Academy may not consider him new, since he was in One Direction and all, but seeing as he released his first solo album this year, I say he qualifies. I don’t understand the Julia Michaels love; her songs have been better interpreted by other artists. Julien Baker, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who took the online indie community by storm with her single, “Appointments,” is who I would replace Michaels with.

Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: Arcade Fire, Everything Now
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Gorillaz, Humanz
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
The National, Sleep Well Beast

My nominees: Big Thief, Capacity
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Hundred Waters, Communicating
Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger in the Alps
Spoon, Hot Thoughts

The Academy loves Arcade Fire, but LCD Soundsystem could be the dark horse for orchestrating a successful comeback, as silly as it may have been. As far as indie electronic music goes, though, I preferred Hundred Waters. Father John Misty made my favorite album of 2017, so he of course gets my bid here, though Hurray for the Riff Raff was hot on his heels. Gorillaz and the National were fine legacy act picks from the Academy to go with LCD, but the best indie legacy act of the year was Spoon, and it wasn’t close. Rounding things out are 2 female-powered acts who bare all through their words, Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief.

Best Americana/Country Album

Real nominees (Best Country Album): Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
Kenny Chesney, Cosmic Hallelujah
Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
Little Big Town, The Breaker
Thomas Rhett, Life Changes

My nominees: Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

There’s a world where Lady Antebellum wins, given their undue past recognition from the Academy, but I think Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is still fresh in voters’ minds, and he’ll take it the night of. That album and Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings rank up there with any other album of this year for me, but Joan Shelley’s self-titled takes the title for me by a hair. Jason Isbell has received plenty of accolades for his newest album, and he’s nominated in the Americana category. I like things a little simpler than the Academy, so I’d lump the 2 categories together and highlight some more obscure acts, like Texas’s David Ramirez and Paul Cauthen, as well as North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger and Rhiannon Giddens.

Best Christian Album

Real nominees (Best Contemporary Christian Music Album): Danny Gokey, Rise
Matt Maher, Echoes [Deluxe Edition]
MercyMe, Lifer
Tauren Wells, Hills and Valleys
Zach Williams, Chain Breaker

My nominees: The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost
CeCe Winans, Let Them Fall in Love
Ellie Holcomb, Red Sea Road
John Mark McMillan, Mercury & Lightning
Stu Garrard, Beatitudes

I find popular Christian music less and less interesting with every passing year. So I haven’t listened to any of the nominated albums, though I’ve heard a few Tauren Wells songs in passing. Wells feels more of the moment than the rest of these acts. The good Christian music struggles to be heard. John Mark McMillan is perennially underrated, and though Stu Garrard was part of one of the most popular Christian acts of all time (Delirious?), he himself is not a Christian household name. Neither is Ellie Holcomb, even though she’s one of the best worship songwriters in recent memory. CeCe Winans is probably the best-known name on this list, and her most recent album is near perfect. But my favorite is the album from The Brilliance, who leave no stone unturned on their quest to properly worship the father in all manners of music-making.

Best Pop Album

Real nominees (Best Pop Vocal Album): Coldplay, Kaleidoscope EP
Ed Sheeran, ÷
Imagine Dragons, Evolve
Kesha, Rainbow
Lady Gaga, Joanne
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

My nominees: HAIM, Something to Tell You
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
London Grammar, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing
Lorde, Melodrama

This isn’t a particularly inspiring category, even if half of it seems kind of laughable that it’s included with the other half. Both HAIM and London Grammar could wipe the floor with that Coldplay EP (which is secretly pretty good), Ed Sheeran, and Imagine Dragons. I think the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement will inspire voters to given Kesha the vote. But the best pop album of the qualifying year should have been Lorde’s to lose. She was inexplicably not nominated in any of the genre awards.

Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Album

Real nominees (Best Urban Contemporary Album): 6LACK, Free 6LACK
Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
Khalid, American Teen
SZA, Ctrl
The Weeknd, Starboy

My nominees: Alicia Keys, Here
John Legend, DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Lizzo, Coconut Oil
Sampha, Process
SZA, Ctrl

There’s so much good R&B right now, it’s surprising the best the Academy could come up with to accompany likely winner Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, and SZA, was 6LACK and Khalid. Any of Sampha, Lizzo, or Kehlani would have been worthier. Both Alicia Keys and John Legend went unnoticed at the end of 2016, even though their albums were the best of their respective careers. I’m okay with Childish Gambino winning, but SZA winning would be the best.

Best Rap Album

Real nominees: JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Migos, Culture
Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

My nominees: Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
JAY-Z, 4:44
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Propaganda, Crooked
Sho Baraka, The Narrative

It’s possible that JAY-Z will take this, since there seems to be a lot of support for his shot at redemption. It’s definitely his best album in 10 or so years, but it’s not anywhere close to as deep and interesting as Kendrick’s. It’s fun seeing Migos, Rapsody, and Tyler get some mainstream Grammy love. It’s not like Drake and Future needed any more attention, even though their albums were great steps forward for both artists. I doubt Christian rap will ever get proper love in this category, but my 2 favorite rap albums of the qualifying year were from 2 bold Christian hip-hop artists, Sho Baraka and Propaganda.

Best Rock Album

Real nominees: Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct
Nothing More, The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

My nominees: Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
White Reaper, The World’s Best American Band

I have absolutely no feel for what the Grammys value in rock music. Two rock bands could not be more different than Metallica and The War on Drugs, and I don’t know what a Nothing More is. I’m guessing they’ve never heard of my pick, Jeff Rosenstock, or Sheer Mag or White Reaper, even though the Internet has been gushing about them for the last two years. Surely they’ve heard of Japandroids if they know who The War on Drugs is? Unfortunately, there’s no way Gang of Youths would have been nominated, since the Australia band has yet to cross over here in America, even their album is the best rock album I heard in 2017. I guess Queens of the Stone Age will win? I have no idea.

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.