Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2018’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I go through the most underrated movies and albums of the year. I couldn’t find enough movies I’ve seen that fit my criteria (on less than 3 top ten lists), so I’ll just do an albums post this year. Less work for me, less reading for you, everybody wins.

I tried to avoid albums that ended up in my Tentative Top Tens post, but I couldn’t help putting one of them here, since I was pretty surprised at the lack of recognition it’s been receiving from Christian music publications.

01

Colter Wall, Songs of the PlainsFor someone who gets compared to Johnny Cash a lot, Colter Wall sounds very little like Johnny Cash. Those comparisons are well-meant, I’m sure, but just because an artist has a spare, low sound doesn’t make Cash the best point of reference. A better point of reference is Wall’s fellow Canadian, Gordon Lightfoot. They both have a penchant for simple melodies and casual details in their story songs. Plains is transporting, the only album from 2018 that’s likely to make you forget where you’re listening to it.

02

Mark Lee Townsend, 1919: The Ballad of RexfordYou may not have heard of Townsend, but if you grew up in church in the ’90s, you have definitely heard something with his fingerprints on it. He was the guitarist for dc Talk and produced a lot of Relient K’s 2000s output. He’s also had a couple of bands that he recorded with throughout his career, but 1919 is his first solo record, a tribute to his late father’s life and faith. The album plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical, and it jumps from genre to genre pretty seamlessly. If you like Relient K’s “Deathbed,” this is basically that song spread out over an album without losing any of its power.

03

Natalie Prass, The Future and the PastThis was a really well-reviewed record when it was released in June, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle here at the end of the year. Prass’s first record, a self-titled one from 2015, leaned more into folk stylings and was more content to rest in a softer register. The Future and the Past is a big step forward for Prass’s sound, adopting a funkier style and addressing the world’s ills head-on in her lyrics. I think Future is just as bold a record as Mitski’s Nobody, an album that appears to have broad consensus as one of the best albums of the year, though I found it underwhelming. For me, Future was one of the most impressive and unexpected albums of the year.

04

Rae Sremmurd, SR3MM: I get why SR3MM didn’t feature on a lot of top ten lists. It’s far from cohesive, sprawling out over three distinct albums, a solo album for each of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi with one from the duo. There’s nothing on here with the immediacy of “Black Beatles,” and the run length (almost 2 hours!) doesn’t help. But this is Rae Sremmurd at the top of their game, crafting hook after solid hook. Even if there aren’t any hits, SR3MM is ultimately rap’s best duo doing their thing for over 90 minutes, which is hard to beat.

05

Sandra McCracken, Songs from the ValleyThere’s not really a good place to go for Christian music coverage. Christianity Today used to be the best, before they dissolved that department, but it left a void that no place has filled with anything resembling quality writing. So I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that McCracken’s Songs from the Valley had trouble competing with the likes of Lauren Daigle or TobyMac in a segment of the industry where you don’t get any attention if you don’t get played on the radio. But very few albums weighed as heavily on my heart as this one. McCracken’s always been an ace songwriter, for herself and for others, but she’s topped herself with her most intimate songwriting yet on Valley.

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Tentative Top Tens for 2018

These lists will inevitably change by the time I release the official Bummys next September (fingers crossed!). But many of these movies and albums will remain near the tops of my lists. Here are my initial impressions of what the best movies and albums of this year were, along with a couple extras at the bottom:

01

Movies

1. Paddington 2: I get the sense that people scoff at my love for this movie, just because we have a dog named Paddington, but I promise you this movie transcends its children’s movie status and achieves the sort of transcendence I crave in films.
2. Annihilation:
 This is as good as science fiction gets, putting masterful special effects in the service of a beautiful story with rich themes, and taking a bold risk in the last few scenes that risked alienating its audiences.
3. First Reformed:
 This one hit me deeply, getting at the challenge of maintaining faith in your Creator while the world falls apart around you.
4. Black Panther:
 This is the one action movie of the year that got to a higher level of significance while still putting on a cracking good show.
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout:
 I thought this would be higher, because it truly is a masterpiece of an action movie, but it turns out to have just missed a certain bar for me that the four above it cleared.
6. Sorry to Bother You:
 Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I’m not sure I can say much more if I don’t want to ruin it for you.
7. Hereditary:
 This is a horror movie, but it also turns all of your expectations of what a horror movie should be on their heads.
8. BlacKkKlansman:
 As visionary as Spike Lee movies come, in the guise of a comedy.
9. Avengers: Infinity War
This could be higher on level of difficulty alone, but the kind of movie it is eschews depth of any kind- which is fine! Just means there’s a cap on how high it can get on a list like this.
10. A Star Is Born:
What an achievement, instead of what could have been just a melodrama, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga deliver a great melodrama.

02

Albums

1. Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You: I’d be worried about Carlile’s recent Album of the Year nomination making this album uncool, but it was already about as uncool as you get. Earnest, simple, melodramatic folk music abounds on this album, and it’s everything I could want.
2. The Carters, EVERYTHING IS LOVE:
 It’s just effortless for Beyoncé and JAY-Z now. Everything they touch turns to gold.
3. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer:
 No album gave me more fun than this one from Monáe, who has found her sweet spot of Prince-style eccentricity and funk.
4. Robyn, Honey:
 The Swedish songstress had leaned darker as her career progressed, but she’s perfected melancholy pop you can dance to on her comeback album.
5. Sandra McCracken, Songs from the Valley:
 She’s long been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, but Songs from the Valley was McCracken dealing with the grief and suffering following her divorce, and it’s cathartic.
6. Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain:
 I can’t get enough of the alt-country ballads from this former Jimmy Eat World stalwart. Her voice is unparalleled in Americana.
7. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Far be it from me to expect the Grammys to get anything right, but it is outrageous that Ariana Grande’s best album yet, which really is a perfect pop album, didn’t get nominated for Album of the Year, considering its quality and the fact that it’s one of the biggest hits of the year.
8. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy:
 I didn’t think I’d like Cardi’s album, chalking “Bodak Yellow” up to catching lightning in a bottle, but she proves to be a singular talent on every song. No one-hit wonder here.
9. The Gray Havens, She Waits:
 I liked the Gray Havens, a husband-and-wife folk duo from Illinois, after their first two albums, but they’ve reached a new level on their most recent album, pushing them into the upper echelon of Christian artists working today.
10. Various Artists, Black Panther: The Album:
I’m glad no one told Kendrick Lamar that these sorts of movie marketing gimmick albums are supposed to be terrible, because he curated a real winner from front to back.

03

Best Book I Read

The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz: The modern American church culture emphasizes non-fiction more than fiction, which needs remedying. A good place to start: this novel following three pastors in three different time periods in the same little Swedish parish. The nature of showing the same parish spanning different periods of time means the book has a lot to say about faith and congregations sustaining through tragedy and the grinding away of time.

04

Best Comic I Read

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott: The Silver Surfer is a hard character to take seriously, and not just because he rides a surfboard through space (the ’60s were crazy, y’all). But somehow Slott (who also wrote the Spider-Verse storyline that’s been adapted into the new Spider-Man animated movie that is apparently a big hit) makes it work. He gives the Surfer a human love interest to travel through space with and takes full advantage of serial comics’ episodic nature by telling literally any story he wants about the different planets they visit. The diversity of aliens and civilizations they encounter and the free reign Marvel gave Slott to do whatever the hell he wanted result in one of the most poignant comic books I’ve read so far.

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2017

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2017

For some reason this took me forever this year. I’ve had the list made for months, I just got to writing other things. Oh well.

Top Ten

20

10. Lady Bird: Around Oscar time earlier this year, some of my friends commented that they didn’t quite understand why Lady Bird was in the Best Picture race; they liked the movie a lot, but something about it didn’t strike them as a Best Picture kind of movie. I’m inclined to agree with them, but I think this kind of coming-of-age movie, when done right, really appeals to artists. Lady Bird sees herself as wholly unique from everyone around here, and what artist doesn’t feel the same? The screenplay and performances are directed into such a perfect imitation of life that her experience of being humbled as she starts her life is all too relatable.

21

9. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Yorgos Lanthimos (this year’s contender The Favourite) made one of my favorite movies from 2016, The Lobster, but where The Lobster is unsettling in its weirdness, Sacred Deer is unsettling in its terror. Colin Farrell stars as Steven, a surgeon who is faced with an impossible decision given to him by a strangely powered young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan): he must kill one of his family members or all of them will die. Lanthimos never explains how Martin is able to inflict the debilitating, paralyzing disease on Anna (Nicole Kidman), Steven’s wife, and their kids, or how he might be able to cure them if Steven follows through with Martin’s demands, but that’s the beauty of Sacred Deer. Nothing is explained, so the unsettling nature of the stark filmmaking is allowed to take on a life of its own.

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8. Star Wars: The Last JediLost among the Neanderthal frustrations some people had with the more diverse cast and some misinterpretations of Luke as a character were genuine critiques that made a lot of sense: the jokes didn’t feel like they fit organically with the tone of the other Star Wars films, there are some storylines that feel unnecessary, and, oh yeah, Leia can fly through space without dying now? I heard those criticisms many times over the last year, and I do think they’re good, valid points of contention. I just don’t care. I loved The Last Jedi so much for its balance of theme and action, for the way it turns the entire franchise on its head, for the almost balletic action sequences – it’s not perfect, but to me, it’s damn close.

23

7. The Shape of Water: I’ve already written extensively about Sally Hawkins’s performance in this wonderful little fable of a movie, and how her mute performance speaks for all those people who cannot speak for themselves, so I’ll try not to rehash that entry here. Instead, I want to take a moment to appreciate how unlikely this movie is. Somehow, a fantasy movie that couldn’t be more in-your-face with its own weirdness, a movie that became known as the “fish sex” movie, ended up winning Best Picture. It’s a testament to how well the film works on multiple levels: as a fairy tale, as subtext, and as a big-picture allegory.

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6. After the Storm: My enjoyment of After the Storm, a small Japanese movie made by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, also brilliant), is probably reflective of why The Last Jedi works so well for me: it doesn’t bother me when a plot doesn’t have a definite purpose. If it troubles you when a plot meanders, then After the Storm won’t be for you. But if you think it sounds constructive to sit through a movie that is basically a mostly uneventful day in the life of a failed writer and his family, a snapshot of his life, then find this movie however you can. I found it at my library, and I’m better for it.

25

5. A Ghost Story: If you think The Shape of Water is weird, A Ghost Story may be a bit too much for you. I’m having a hard time coming up with comparisons for the story that A Ghost Story tells, which focuses on a ghost (played by Casey Affleck, with a sheet over his head) watching the life of his wife (Rooney Mara) play out without him until she moves out of their house, and then things get weird. The closest analogs I can come up with are Malick’s The Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey, movies with an epic scope and epic themes. Director David Lowery went from making the great, family-friendly Pete’s Dragon with Disney to making this oddity, and I hope he keeps balancing out his more straightforward movies with bold ones like this.

26

4. DunkirkI had friends last year who were left cold by Dunkirk, saying the movie never quite lets you get to know its characters enough to involve you in the story. It’s a fair criticism, to be sure, and Dunkirk may be the most your-mileage-will-vary movie of last year. But for me, Dunkirk eschews a lot of the clichés that run rampant through war movies by pulling back from the soldiers and looking at the big picture. The story of Dunkirk isn’t one that could be told by isolating your focus onto a single group of soldiers with different personality traits; there were too many moving parts, which makes it the perfect story for the master of storytelling-via-editing, Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk is a story about heroism and the way men either fail to live into it or rise to the occasion. Obviously it’s the selflessness of the English citizens that gives this movie its soul, but Tom Hardy’s pilot, knowing there is no way he comes out of this without being killed or captured and choosing to spare the soldiers a little more time anyway, is the movie’s heart.

27

3. The Florida ProjectIndie filmmaking at its best, the kind of filmmaking that isn’t hampered by obligations to studio interests, is the most exciting kind of filmmaking. While you may be acutely aware of the effects a lower budget has on a movie (fewer locations, amateur actors), you can still get lost in a well-presented story. And the upside is, literally anything could happen. Which is exactly what happens in The Florida Project, the second release from director Sean Baker to receive major attention after 2015’s Tangerine. You think you’re following a pretty straight-forward (if exceptionally acted by Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and breakout Brooklynn Prince, seen above mischievously licking her ice cream) story about a down-on-her-luck mom and her daughter at a motel in Orlando. But in the very last scene, Baker takes the camera down a rabbit hole I never expected, leaving me both broken-hearted and full of joy.

28

2. Get Out: I thought I had put Get Out a little lower on my tentative Top Ten list at the end of last year, but it’s actually at the same spot. What changed is that Dunkirk dropped a little bit past Get Out while Get Out remained as close to the top as you can get without actually being at the top. But the fact that Get Out is still at No. 2 doesn’t reflect how my estimation of the movie’s quality has changed. I’ve seen more movies since I made that list; there are six movies on that one that dropped out of the Top Ten and into the honorable mentions below, replaced by movies I hadn’t seen yet, but Get Out remained at the top, because my appreciation for it increased after seeing it for a second time. After seeing it in theaters, I was unsure if it was a sharp, smart horror movie or a transcendent, historically great movie. Seeing it again around Christmas last year, I became convinced: it’s both.

29

1. Call Me by Your NameComing-of-age movies can be hard to resist. If any part of you sees any part of your childhood on screen, the nostalgia factor can lock that movie into a certain status in your brain and throw away the key. I had this experience with 2009’s Adventureland– not that I worked at an amusement park, but that I had a crappy summer job before college, and I remembered the aimless restlessness of that few months before leaving. Adventureland may not have been as good as I remember; I may have been drawn in because I saw enough of my own story in its story.

There’s a danger of that happening with Call Me by Your Name as well. Not that I spent much of my life in Italy (I’ve been once though! It’s as beautiful as it looks in this movie.) or that I had a fling with my father’s older graduate assistant. But I see myself in Elio’s insecurity, his shame, and his desire to be special. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think all of that is up there on the screen. I wrote a little about this when I put Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio as No. 2 in the Top Performances from last year. He captures the in-between of your late teens so well, which is crucial to a coming-of-age story.

But Call Me by Your Name goes a little farther than most coming-of-age movies in its scope. The bare bones of the story fit into the genre, but its themes are more ambitious. Elio, 17, falls in a sort of love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24. Call Me by Your Name, in its luscious cinematography and languid screenplay, revels in the time that Elio and Oliver have together in which they just enjoy each other. But it also deals honestly with the decision any couple has to make: what does this relationship actually mean for my life?

I’ve had friends express concerns over pederasty and the power dynamic therein; while such concerns are valid on their surface, the movie doesn’t reveal any problematic abuses of Oliver’s power as an older man. Indeed, I think the situation in the movie is far more complex than such concerns credit it as. The movie isn’t so much “age ain’t nothing but a number;” rather, their ages do matter, but they’re both discovering who they are, and the conclusion they come to at the end of the movie says more about who they are than their ages.

I feel as though some of my Christian friends have let these concerns over pederasty (or even just homosexuality) keep them from seeing this movie. Everyone is entitled to well-considered convictions, so I would never say everyone should see any movie. I only hope that such concerns are truly well-considered and not simply the result of not wanting to be challenged. Call Me by Your Name is a technical marvel, beautiful by any standard. It’s also wonderfully empathetic and sees right through its characters. It could help you see right through yourself as well, if you let it.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

Baby DriverThe best music video of the year.

The Big SickThe best romantic comedy of the year.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2The best Marvel movie of the year not named Logan. In all seriousness, as clever as the first with nearly as much heart and a tad more nuance.

ItThe best horror movie of the year, because Get Out isn’t a horror movie.

John Wick: Chapter 2: The best action movie of 1999.

Logan: The best Marvel movie of the year not named Thor: Ragnarok. In all seriousness, a great example of how genre enhances themes.

The Lost City of ZThe best movie of 1949, and truly the most beautiful-looking movie of the year that wasn’t set in Italy.

mother!The most biblical movie of the year. I realize that’s not saying much. But really, mother! is an experience.

MudboundThe best Netflix movie of the year- as good as any released in cinemas, to be sure.

OkjaThe best Netflix movie of the- damn it, I used that one already, didn’t I? The best movie with a super pig in it, not including Casey Affleck.

Phantom ThreadThe Paul Thomas Anderson movie of the year that everyone praises, no one understands, and everyone will regret not putting higher on their list ten years later.

The PostThe best movie of the year that is in no ways prescient or relevant at this political moment in time, not at all, no sirree.

Thor: RagnarokThe best Marvel movie of the year not named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In all seriousness, this was the funniest movie of the year.

War for the Planet of the ApesThe best movie about our inevitable future of the year.

The WorkThe best documentary of the year. Seriously, this one’s a doozy.

Past Top Tens

2016

Moonlight
The Witch

American Honey
Arrival
Jackie
Green Room
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land
Everybody Wants Some!!
Hell or High Water

2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
The Look of Silence
It Follows
Creed
Ex Machina
Phoenix
The Big Short
Sicario
Spotlight

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Top Ten

01

10. Lorde, Melodrama: There used to be a tendency among critics not to take pop music seriously, dismissing it as frivolous and trivial. The norm now is to equate pop music with the seriousness of any other genre, though sometimes publications go a little too far, anointing any catchy song as a pop “gem,” or any high-profile pop album as “good.” Lorde’s Melodrama deserves its own special designation. Written and recorded at the end of Lorde’s teen years, this is an album for adults, danceable but daring, dramatic but universally so. If it’s a “gem,” it’s a hard-edged one; if it’s “good,” it’s because it sets the bar for pop music.

02

9. Joan Shelley, Joan ShelleyShelley’s brand of folk music has always been minimalist. She herself said of this self-titled album that it was “an exercise in understatement,” which feels like an understatement. If that sounds boring, let me assure you that Shelley has an ear for the kinds of melodies that seep into the crevasses of your brain and remain their forever. She enlisted the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for this album, but he keeps things spare- just the way Shelley likes it. Indeed, the only thing to distinguish this album from the rest of her sterling catalog is that literally every song feels essential.

03

8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Consistency can be a boring thing to write about, and there’s no one who has been so consistent over the course of his career as Jason Isbell. From his elevation of an already great band in the Drive-By Truckers to his solo career starting in 2013 after he found sobriety, everything Isbell has touched has turned to gold. The Nashville Sound finds him rejoining his post-DBT band for a more robust record. Southeastern and Something More Than Free were intimate, personal. The Nashville Sound gives its full-bodied sound more panoramic subject matter, tackling racism, tribalism, and mental health.

08

7. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: At first glance, The War on Drugs may appear to have the same consistency as Isbell. They certainly have been consistently good, but A Deeper Understanding is something profoundly different for them. 2014’s Lost in the Dream was anthemic, engineered to give you catharsis or release at each song’s climax. It was one of my favorite albums of the year, and in that respect, A Deeper Understanding is no different. But its effect on me has been unique, sweeping me up in its epic scope and its measured introspection, which is a wholly different experience, but no less great.

04

6. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: The album that came after 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was bound to be disappointing, because that record was one of a kind, a generational masterpiece of its genre, or any genre for that matter. And while I liked DAMN when I first heard it, I couldn’t quite give it the same devotion I gave TPAB, but time has told a different story about Kendrick’s deeply intimate diary of dread, dreams, and desire. If I first listened to it in TPAB‘s shadow, DAMN casts its own shadow now, firmly establishing Kendrick in his own damn tier as a musician. Don’t let the fact that there are five albums ahead of his on this list; the margins are small, and it’s only personal preference. Kendrick is king, top ten lists be damned.

05

5. Father John Misty, Pure ComedyAt one point during 2017, I would have Pure Comedy at the top of this list, and it wouldn’t have been close. Josh Tillman sings the way that I think, which is definitely not pretentious on my part and may in fact be an insult to Tillman. Indeed, Tillman is pretentious, cynical, and self-righteous, but also intuitive, empathetic, and insightful, which describes me on my worst days and my best days to a T. I associated with this album to such a high degree that I think it eventually wore me down to where I appreciated its artfulness less. I still think it’s a masterpiece (I put it at No. 5 for a reason!), but it’s not my favorite masterpiece on the list anymore.

If there’s one quality I don’t share with Tillman, it’s hopefulness, and this is not a hopeful record. That said, it is a truthful one, especially on album standouts “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which dissect worldviews until there’s nothing left. Pure Comedy is intense, so steel yourself before you give it a listen.

311

4. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The NavigatorI was a theater kid through middle school and high school, appearing in plays as varied as Fiddler on the Roof and Grease at school and in a junior company in Dallas. I loved acting and performing, and I still miss it. The Navigator moved the theater kid in me.

While Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous album, Small Town Heroes, was a folk album that leaned hard into Creole and swamp influences, The Navigator plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical. Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, split the album into two acts, making it into a loose concept album. In the first act, the Puerto Rican main character survives on the streets (“Living in the City”) and discovers a toughness within herself (“Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”). In the second act, she awakens to find everything stripped away from her people (“Rican Beach”) and calls them to action in response to oppression (“Pa’lante”), completing a work of art that empowers the downtrodden, the used- indeed, the riff raff.

09

3. Propaganda, CrookedNo artist has made music that challenges my perspective as deeply as Propaganda. His first solo album with his current label, Humble Beast, included a song called “Precious Puritans,” which called out evangelicals who deify American Calvinist forefathers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, without ever confronting the fact that they owned slaves. I had to wrestle with this, and that was good for my soul.

Prop has always been unafraid to address social ills in his music, and Crooked takes this to a new level. There are songs called “Gentrify” and “Darkie,” and they’re as unabashed as they sound. For most of its recent popularity, Christian rap has largely kept its lyrical content to biblical truths that are easy to swallow for most evangelicals regardless of race. That’s beginning to change, thanks to Prop and other artists like Sho Baraka, and Crooked is the most recent record that serves as an example for rebuke, and the best.

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2. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom HighwayOver the last few years, purely by coincidence, I’ve read a lot of books that deal directly with the wounds left on the African-American psyche by America’s history of slavery and racism. It started with Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was still in college, but then more recently I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. In all of these stories, slavery is presented in its unvarnished brutality, forcing a reckoning in my soul on the soil American is rooted in.

Freedom Highway feels like a continuation of the story those books tell of America’s scars and their wicked origins. Giddens, who has long been a leader in the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, released her first solo album in 2015 with producer T Bone Burnett. They were well matched to fill out the album, which was mostly covers, with a rootsy vibe. Freedom Highway is more attuned to Giddens’s personal perspective; nine of the twelve songs are co-written by her, and they traverse the history of Southern America. Opener “At the Purchaser’s Option” contemplates that the singer, a slave, has no autonomy over her children, her sexuality, or her work. This helplessness is translated into a quiet anger on “Julie,” in which a slave confronts her owner, who claims to love her, for selling her children to another owner. And the heaviest and most hopeful song, “Birmingham Sunday,” a Joan Baez cover, details the 1963 bombing of a black church by the Ku Klux Klan and its aftermath.

Growing up white and privileged, my understanding of America’s foundation was unknowingly colored by my color. America’s principles of liberty, independence, and unity seemed natural and sewn into the fabric of our culture, when the reality is that they’re fragile and tenuous and far from pure. On Freedom Highway, Giddens joins a long history of uncovering this truth and inspiring hope for a better future.

06

1. Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness: There are more important things than relevance in pop art, but it undeniably matters. If an album moves me, but no one else I know has ever even heard of it, how much import can that album really hold? Does a movie matter if no one saw it but one person who loved it?

Gang of Youths forces me to ask this question, because there was no place I could put their second album on this list other than the very top. This album is the one that has stayed on repeat more than any other, the one that shot up to the top of my to-buy list as soon as I heard it, the one that I found myself thinking about long after I had turned it off to head to bed. If Father John Misty sings the way I think, Gang of Youths sings the way I feel. It’s bombastic, dramatic, and emotional from front to back; frontman Dave Le’aupepe doesn’t take breaks.

But the intensity isn’t for its own sake; Le’aupepe and his band, whom he met at Hillsong Church in Sydney, are processing real questions of mortality and purpose. Opener “Fear and Trembling” advocates for celebration and worship in the face of aging and death. The ballad “Persevere” is about the death of his best friend’s baby. Le’aupepe sings, quoting his friend, “‘But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast / There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan / Not some vindictive motherfucker, not is he shitty at his job;” it’s a powerful examination of faith in light of grief. And my personal favorite, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows,” contemplates what it takes to “bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being.”

If this sounds melodramatic, that’s because Le’aupepe gets it: life is a melodrama, and you have to embrace it.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetical)

Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
HAIM, Something to Tell You
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
JAY-Z, 4:44
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Margo Price, All American Made
The Porter’s Gate, Work Songs: The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, Vol. 1
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
Taylor Swift, reputation

Past Top Tens

2016

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Beyoncé, Lemonade
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Sho Baraka, The Narrative
Bon Iver, 22, a Million
Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.

2015

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Every year is a good year for music, because there is so much of it being released all the time. There are people decrying streaming and how it is flattening the playing field and making everything sound the same. These people haven’t listened to the novelty band filler in the Top 40 in the ’60s and ’70s; most music is bad, and a flattened playing field is just this generation’s thorn in its side.

But there’s so much good music out there too, music that begs to be bought and owned rather than just streamed. People haven’t forgotten how to make art, even as the masses forget how to work for it. Capitalism has never really been able to quench the youth culture. So onward, rebellious youths!

Anyway, there’s a lot of women on my list this year. I had some friends tell me recently that they prefer male artists to female artists, which I don’t understand. There’s probably no discernible reason why anyone prefers one voice to another, and I can’t discern one for why those preferences would break along gender lines among reasonable people. I can discern that I don’t suffer from that malady; women and men move me in generally equal numbers.

Anyway, here are the contenders and winners for best songs of the year:

Top Twenty

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20. Kesha, “Woman (feat. The Dap-King Horns)”: There are probably a lot of conventional reasons why this song shouldn’t be in my Top Twenty. But being conventional is boring. Empowerment has never been this fun or, as Kesha says, “loosey as a goosey.”

02

19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Last of My Kind”Isbell has been on a tear since 2013’s Southeastern, and The Nashville Sound is the first time Isbell’s peak songwriting powers have been applied to the full band sound of the 400 Unit. But “Last of My Kind,” the album’s opener, eschews that sound for a more acoustic atmosphere. As light as a single guitar sounds, the song weighs heavy on your heart as Isbell considers a small-town boy’s disappearing world in the big city.

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18. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”: It’s impossible to remove the visuals from the music video from mind when listening to this song, but that doesn’t diminish its effect in the slightest. If there was any song from DAMN. that hit as hard as anything from To Pimp a Butterfly, it was “HUMBLE.” You can speculate about if he’s talking to himself or not, but regardless, this is a brutal takedown that should make other rappers give up diss tracks altogether (paging Drake and Push).

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17. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: Most of reputation is filled with great hooks, some of it feels like posturing, and a select few songs feel transcendent. For better or worse, we’ve watched Taylor Swift grow up in public. “Delicate,” which takes a welcome turn into dream-pop, is Taylor Swift exploring what it means not to be growing up anymore.

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16. St. Vincent, “New York”: I learned today that St. Vincent began her career with the Polyphonic Spree. Her brand of avant-garde pop-rock was already as far from that band’s twee-ness as music can get. And yet, if it’s possible, “New York” gets even farther, with its earnest lament over a lost relationship.

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15. Gang of Youths, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”: I wasn’t sure any Gang of Youths songs would make it onto this list, since they all tend to push the same buttons in my heart when I hear them. But “The Deepest Sighs” is perhaps the golden mean of Gang of Youths songs.  It has the most earnest lyrics and the most soaring melody, and it’s the most mostest by far on an album of most.

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14. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”: And I thought this song would make it much higher on the list, given how completely it took over my brain last summer. Before she released her album this spring, I was worried that Cardi’s appeal existed only because she enunciates more than other rappers, much like Eminem is only still popular because he’s louder than other rappers. That turned out not to be the case- Cardi is a boss, not a worker bitch- but “Bodak Yellow” is the best-enunciated rap song since Eminem was last good, so 16 years ago.

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13. The War on Drugs, “In Chains”: The War on Drugs are another band like Gang of Youths whose entire catalogs could make a Top Songs list for me. But “In Chains” in particular stood out to me from A Deeper Understanding last year. Whereas frontman Adam Granduciel usually revels in the abstract nature of his lyrics, “In Chains” boasts some of the most direct exclamations we’ve gotten from him yet, leading to the band’s most purpose-filled song.

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12. Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”: If reputation felt like a misstep at the time, it became one of my most-listened-to albums of the year because of songs like this one. Even while Swift overreached for bad-girl credibility, she didn’t lose her ability to write lyrics with eminent relatability. In “New Year’s Day,” about loving through celebrations and let-downs alike, “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” is such a lyric.

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11. Propaganda, “Darkie”: Propaganda is the most interesting Christian artist working today. He isn’t the only one to attempt to reckon with social truths (look to Lecrae and Sho Baraka too, and if you’re starting to see a theme, I’d also point you to Gungor and The Brilliance), but he’s been the most consistent at elevating the conversation with excellent production and presentation of his themes. Here, he wrestles with the concept of black beauty being refracted through the lens of a white-dominated culture.

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10. Julien Baker, “Appointments”: I’m an emotional wreck when I listen to this song. Baker, who is queer and Christian and unafraid of the expectations associated with either of those identifications, reveals some truths that we are usually afraid to talk about, like “Maybe it’s all going to turn out all right / And I know that’s it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.” Faith means holding both hope and fatalism in the same hand with an eternal perspective, and “Appointments” captures that dichotomy perfectly.

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9. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”: I’ve gotten lost in this song more than once over the last year and a half. 11-minute songs are a hard sell, but The War on Drugs are so good at what they do right now that it almost seems like it was the logical next step in their careers to make an epic on this level. As I said above, Granduciel almost wallows in abstraction, but there’s specificity in these lyrics that doesn’t sacrifice relatability.

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8. Propaganda, “Gentrify”: One of the top ten songs of 2017 was about- *checks notes*- housing policy? Maybe this song is boring to other people, but I hear those horns and Prop yelling “Whole Foooods!” and I get excited. There are probably myriad academic papers on the subject of gentrification, but I find it hard to believe anyone has summed up the issue better than Prop in this searing indictment of white paternalism.

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7. Lorde, “Green Light”: Remember that time the Grammys didn’t ask Lorde to perform at the ceremony even though she was nominated for Album of the Year? Man, good times in the patriarchy. Anyway, I’d like to think that appearing on this list is a nice consolation prize for Lorde, given that “Green Light” is one of the best pop songs of the last five years, and probably the only one to reference The Great Gatsby so directly without feeling like a high school book report.

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6. Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday”: Giddens, most famous for her role in the bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a stellar songwriter in her own right; for reference, look up “At the Purchaser’s Option” from last year’s Freedom Highway, or listen to the whole album while you’re at it. But her take on this Joan Baez classic blows the original out of the water. Originally written by folk songwriter Richard Fariña about the four little girls who died in a bombing at a Birmingham church in 1963, Giddens’s version captures the tragedy in the story, but she also better harnesses the hope in the line, “And the choirs keep singing of freedom.”

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5. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”: When Trump was elected, there were weirdos whose reaction was to look forward to the good art that would result from an administration that was likely to enact oppressive policies. In the two years since, maybe music by white artists has been inordinately influenced by the election, but by and large, artists of color were already diving into music that tells the stories of the voiceless rather than the privileged, including Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, who is an American of Puerto Rican heritage. In this epic song, she expertly hoists the Puerto Rican battle cry of “Pa’lante!” to rally those considered sub-human to move onward and forward in the face of ignorant oppression.

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4. Kesha, “Praying”: Speaking of oppression, it’s hard to imagine someone following Kesha’s story over the the last few years and not being moved by “Praying.” I know some critics dismissed it as overly sentimental, or maybe allegations of rape that don’t result in felony rape convictions don’t move you to anger of any kind (which means you believe women 0.7% of the time, I suppose), but I can’t separate what I know Kesha has accused Dr. Luke of and how desperate she sounds in this song. This song is inextricably linked to the story of how Dr. Luke allegedly raped Kesha in 2008, and Kesha sued to escape her contract with his record label six years later in 2014. We will never know exactly what happened between Dr. Luke and Kesha, so we have to choose who to believe. Kesha’s accusations are neither surprising nor incredible, so I believe Kesha.

Their terrible saga began well before #MeToo reached its height and before I even knew what “blaming the victim” meant, but “Praying” dropped in July of 2017, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and it became an anthem of the movement, culminating in an emotional performance of the song at the Grammys. What’s amazing about “Praying” is that it’s not vindictive but redemptive, combining the need to be heard with a desire for Dr. Luke to see the truth of what he did and to beg God for forgiveness on his knees. I can’t imagine the strength it took to write it, and I’m endlessly glad that I’ve heard it.

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3. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”: This was my favorite song of 2017 for the majority of 2017 and 2018, until the top song on this list overtook it and I realized the second song on this list came out in 2017 and not 2018. It was stuck in my head for most of the last year, finding its way into my whistling or humming more than any other song. This song is infectious, contagious, an epidemic strain of perfect pop melody and earworm magic.

I’m not special for liking this song, but I like to think a lot of myself when a pop song rises to the top of one of my lists, as if liking a pop song is revolutionary. No, critics ate this song up, a first in Gomez’s career. I’m contrarian, so that made me look for reasons not to like it. But the truth is, “Bad Liar” displays a confidence and effortlessness that Gomez hadn’t shown us yet, and that confidence is inescapable once you’re exposed to it.

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2. Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”: I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible in these end-of-the-year superlatives. Well, here’s me trying to avoid hyperbole as much as possible: Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” might be the greatest folk song of the last 40 years. Oh man, I stepped right into hyperbole, didn’t I? Not by much though, I promise.

It’s not complicated; “The Joke” is about the marginalized, the underrepresented, and the least of these. One of my coworkers and friends said the other day to explain a decision she made, “I have a bleeding heart.” I had forgotten this phrase, but I suppose it’s the phrase you would use to describe me, because I often tear up during “The Joke.” But I guess we need a phrase like “bleeding heart” to describe people who care about other people?

I find “The Joke” not only moving but galvanizing. The verses are directed at boys and girls who are beaten down by people in power. In interviews, Carlile has specified that she’s singing to people in the queer community, undocumented immigrants, and disempowered women. Carlile shows in the verses that she sees those people and their pain. And then in the chorus, as her voice reaches its full power (and her voice has power), she gives them hope. “Let ’em laugh while they can, / Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind. / I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, / And the joke’s on them.” Carlile knows how this ends; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

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1. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not think of the movie in which it appears, Call Me by Your Name. Stay tuned for more on the movie when I post the Best Movies of 2017. It’s up there.

While we were watching the Oscars this year at our friend’s annual Oscar party, one of my friends (who is also my pastor) asked the room why, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, was Hollywood so okay with a movie in which a man in his 20s has a relationship with a 17-year-old. Now, he hadn’t seen the movie, but he wasn’t pretending he had. I also have to add, before anyone assumes anything about my friend because of his vocation, that he is a good, thoughtful pastor who engages with culture on its terms, but with a critical eye. This was not a question about the culture wars (nor a veiled attempt to discredit the movie’s focus on a relationship between two men), but an honest attempt to understand.

It’s a fair question. Anyone who has not seen the movie should be skeptical of the power dynamic involved. But I told him, and I’m telling you, that there is no such power dynamic in Call Me by Your Name. You never feel as if the older man (or the younger, for that matter) is taking advantage of the other young man or that he has any social or official authority over him in any way. There is a mutual attraction that they act upon, and it’s almost as simple as that.

But I think Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” gets underneath the idea of attraction at something deeper involved. It’s not just that they’re attracted to one another; they’re connected in some way, and there’s no way to explain it. In the movie, they don’t even try to explain it, only to process how their lives will be different now that it’s there.

Call Me by Your Name does a very good job of telling a very specific story, while “Mystery of Love” universalizes it. The wonder and misery at play in Sufjan Stevens’s lyrics are an expression of the complexity of love. Any time someone tries to give a simple explanation for what love is, it’s never enough. Sufjan combines the antithetical sentiments of “woe is me” and “will wonders ever cease” into the chorus. He sings “to see without my eyes” and “drowned in living waters,” leaning into the paradoxical nature of an unexplainable phenomenon.

Call Me by Your Name never even says the words “homosexual” or “gay,” maybe because such labels limit the nature of the love involved, constricting the experience to science or sociology. It’s our choices that are binary and categorical, not love. What “Mystery of Love” does is revel in the unknowable truth of it all, the wonder and the woe alike. Love would make a terrible god, but there’s a divine mystery there nevertheless.

Another Thirty Contenders (alphabetical)

Big Thief, “Mythological Beauty”
Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
The Brilliance, “Turning Over Tables”
Calvin Harris, “Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)”
Charli XCX, “3AM (Pull Up) (feat. MØ)”
Charli XCX, “Boys”
Chris Stapleton, “Either Way”
Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Father John Misty, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
HAIM, “Little of Your Love”
HAIM, “Want You Back”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Living in the City”
J Balvin & Willy William, “Mi Gente (feat. Beyoncé)”
Japandroids, “In a Body Like a Grave”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “White Man’s World”
Johnnyswim, “Say Goodnight Instead”
Kehlani, “Hold Me by the Heart”
Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito [Remix] (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Margo Price, “All American Made”
Migos, “Stir Fry”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Smoke Signals”
The Porter’s Gate, “Establish the Work of Our Hands (feat. Aaron Keys & Urban Doxology)”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Highway”
Sam Outlaw, “All My Life”
Syd, “Insecurities”
Taylor Swift, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

Past Top Tens

2016

Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”
Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”
Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”
Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”
Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”
Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”
Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

2015

Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”

2014

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

2013

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

2012

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

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Oscar season has begun, so what better time to look back at last year’s best of the best? Awards season is always busy and fraught with narrative. It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the midst of so much noise. I always benefit from months of remove to determine what I actually prefer.

It was a good year for the movies, but a great year for performances. A few notable performances that did not make my list:

  • Margot Robbie or Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I love Janney, but her character is cartoonish in this movie. Robbie is very good, but the movie and its characters didn’t resonate with me at all. I found the screenplay very surface-level and uninteresting, playing at stereotypes rather than nuance.
  • Sam Rockwell or Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: I liked both of them in this movie, but neither of their characters has that many notes to play in this screenplay. Also, they both pale in comparison to Frances McDormand, at no fault of their own.

Here are the contenders for the best performance of 2017:

Top Ten

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10. Robert Pattinson, Good TimeIf you don’t pay attention to indie cinema, you probably only know Pattinson as the sparkly Edward from the Twilight series, but Pattinson has been quietly building a reputation as a serious actor willing to take risks in collaborations with directors as varied as David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), David Michôd (The Rover), and James Gray (The Lost City of Z). There are times in the Safdie brothers’ (Heaven Knows WhatGood Time where you could convince yourself that Pattinson’s Connie truly cares about his brother, but by the end of the movie it’s hard to believe he cares about anyone but himself. Pattinson gives us a portrayal of a true con man: he’s conning himself too.

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9. Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer: I could have easily slotted any actor from Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Lobster; they’re all that good. But Farrell is the natural choice, since the central conflict- one of his family members, his wife, his daughter, or his son, must die to save the other two- revolves around his decision-making. The impossibility of both the decision and the circumstances surrounding his family are evident in the tension in Farrell’s body and face throughout the entire movie.

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8. Zoe Kazan, The Big SickAs great as The Big Sick is, it would not work without an actress as strong as Kazan. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious, and this role (as himself, which couldn’t have hurt) is the most natural he’s ever been onscreen, but without Kazan’s mix of confidence and doubt, The Big Sick would just feel like a showcase for Nanjiani as a comedian. With Kazan, the story feels like it’s about real people.

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7. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: When I first saw Get Out, I appreciated the movie far more than I appreciated Kaluuya’s performance, thinking of him as a cipher that the brilliant story carried along with it. But rewatching the movie, it becomes clear how much work Kaluuya is doing at every point in the movie, whether it’s to maintain his cool surrounded by weirdness or to hold on to reality before falling into the Sunken Place. Kaluuya is not an emotive actor, but that’s a good thing; his strength in Get Out is how he portrays Chris actively trying to hold up a front while his emotions burst through anyway.

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6. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled: Nicole Kidman continues to make wonderfully offbeat choices for her career, eschewing mainstream roles (which probably also speaks to the quality of the roles offered to a woman in her 50s) for prime starring roles under talented directors like Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola in The Beguiled. As the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War, Kidman struggles to hold the school together after a Union soldier turns up wounded on the school grounds. The sexual tension that plays out after his arrival is delightful, and Kidman’s character is not immune, but it is a joy to watch her choose between her desire and her principles.

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5. Meryl Streep, The Post: Oh, how original, putting a Meryl Streep performance in the Top Ten. Yes, but did you see this Meryl Streep performance? While Tom Hanks chews the scenery as Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (and I mean that as a compliment), Streep’s turn as the newspaper’s owner grounds the movie in real concerns over a woman’s (lack of) power and control in a field dominated by men.

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4. James McAvoy, Split: This role could have been so laughable- a multiple-personality horror-movie villain? Give this role to an actor who’s not ready for it, and it could derail the whole concept. But McAvoy is a revelation, jumping easily between personalities as varied as an uppity British woman named Patricia to a frightened little boy named Hedwig.

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3. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: Saoirse Ronan is 24 years old and already nominated for three Oscars, so she doesn’t need any praise from me to validate her talents. But I’ll do it anyway: Ronan is the best young actress of her generation. At some point they tried to make her into a young-adult star, but thank God that failed, because watching her thrive equally well as a willful Irish woman in Brooklyn and as a lost Catholic schoolgirl in Lady Bird has made Oscar season fun the last few years.

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2. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your NameThere’s a lot to process about the quality of Chalamet’s performance in this movie. He certain doesn’t stand alone. He has a great script that provides him ample opportunity to showcase emotions and internal reactions. Chalamet also stars in the best-directed movie of the year, with beautiful shots and locations to frame his character’s coming-of-age story in the most idyllic way possible. And his costars are seasoned performers at the top of their games, so surely their presence elevated his performance.

There may be a mathematical way to separate out all these factors and truly rate a performance for what the actor does on his own, but I don’t know it. I can only report how I respond to a performance, and Chalamet’s performance moved me deeply. I saw so much of myself in his character, Elio, as he stumbled along the path to discovering a little more of who he is.

The clip in the link is a great example of how I felt much of my teenage years: struggling to project confidence while actually being self-conscious about my imperfections and body and sexuality. There is another scene in the movie in which Elio collapses in tears against Oliver (Armie Hammer) out of shame and fear that he will lose him. It’s by God’s grace alone that I don’t perpetually live in that state.

Chalamet also featured in another Best Picture contender from last year, Lady Bird, as an aloof sexual partner for Ronan’s Lady Bird. He actually has one of the best lines in the movie: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in in your life.” Elio could never say that line; he could never be cynical enough, and it’s a sign of Chalamet’s talent that both characters feel real. Chalamet has the potential to be a big star, an Oscar winner (this year, maybe!), and a generation-defining actor. If he does do big things, it will all have started with this simple, sad, soulful performance.

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1. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water: Hawkins has impressed me before, most notably in Happy-Go-Lucky as an always-look-on-the-bright-side schoolteacher. But she reaches another level in The Shape of Water as Elisa, a mute janitor for a government lab. The Shape of Water is a fantasy movie in which Elisa falls in love with a humanoid river creature. I could write so many words about this movie and the deft way it speaks for those who are silenced by society, but I’ll focus on her performance for now.

We never find out why Elisa is mute, only that there are scars on her neck, so the movie implies her mutism is the result of some sort of trauma. Regardless, she has no voice. No voiceless performance should have the range that Hawkins displays here, giving us moments of pure bliss and then moments of desperation, such as in the clip in the above link. The intensity in her expressions and her signs in that scene are palpable, as she pleads for the life of the creature she loves. She struggles against her mutism to be heard by her best friend (Richard Jenkins), striving against hope to get through to him that they must save her love.

Most of you probably know that I’m a speech-language pathologist, and some of you are most likely aware that I have a stutter. I don’t talk or write about it much, mostly because I don’t find it that interesting. It’s been my reality for 29 years, and on top of how mundane it seems to me, it’s a pretty mild stutter. I promise that isn’t false humility or an attempt to deflect; I may be the only person you’ve come across with a speech impediment that lasted into his adult life, but so many people have much more trouble communicating than me.

That being said, because of my fluency difficulties, I have a small taste of what it’s like to have trouble communicating. The one that gets on my nerves the most is that my jokes don’t land- my stutter ruins my comedic timing. That’s small, but making your friends laugh and seamlessly working a joke into a conversation is a gift, and it’s frustrating that sometimes I just make group situations awkward. On top of that, I know what it’s like for people to make judgments of you based on one characteristic: that I’m not smart because I have trouble telling you my name, or that I’m a nervous person because I stutter when I meet you and can’t look you in the eye while it’s happening.

That’s about as hard as it gets for me though. So many of our patients at the J.D. McCarty Center are essentially trapped in their bodies without a voice or even a functional way to communicate. I’ve had students with debilitating stutters, where they can barely get through one word without stuttering. I’ve worked with stroke patients who will never get their original communication skills back, and the best I can do is tell them we’re going to our best to help them. Their stories are hard when you consider their disabilities alone. Their stories get harder when you realize that some of them have no one advocating for them.

The Shape of Water is a movie, not real life. But I believe stories have power, if not to change the world or change lives outright, then at least to provide the initial push toward that change. Sally Hawkins’s performance as Elisa is speaking for all those people who cannot speak for themselves. The Shape of Water extends this outside of those who truly cannot speak to those who are too marginalized within society to be heard, whether because of their sexuality or their race or their gender.

The movie is great, but it hinges on Hawkins’s ability to communicate that desperation to be heard. I cry thinking about that above clip, because she’s so successful. My hope is that people who have been hardened to the needs of others are softened by her portrayal of the voiceless. I have been.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetically)

2018performancebummys11Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute): Watching a character suffer through AIDS is always tough, but before Biscayart begins his descent, he gives us a man so vibrant and passionate that it makes watching him fade all the more difficult.

 

2018performancebummys12Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project: As the beleaguered manager of a motel near Disney World, Dafoe has never been warmer or more lovable.

 

2018performancebummys13Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread: Day-Lewis needs no more accolades, but it must be said that this may be his most delightful performance.

 

2018performancebummys14Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant: I’ve loved the past two Alien movies, even if they didn’t quite reach the heights of the original, but I have to admit that Fassbender is the main reason for any non-fan to watch either Prometheus or, especially, Covenant.

 

2018performancebummys15Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread: As delightful as Day-Lewis is, he is nearly outdone by Krieps, in her acting debut, as an ingenue who proves to be every bit Day-Lewis’s designer’s match.

 

2018performancebummys16Jennifer Lawrence, mother!: mother! is better experienced than described, but Lawrence deserves more attention than she received for carrying such an ambitious movie.

 

2018performancebummys17Sophia Lillis, It: Lillis’s Beverly could have easily been the Losers Club’s manic pixie dream girl, but she breathes more life into the movie than the rest of a very good cast of kids.

 

2018performancebummys18Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand is a national treasure, and she deserved this Oscar, for all the curse words, yeah, but also for the rare moments in Three Billboards when she lets her guard down.

 

2018performancebummys19Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird: Portraying motherhood in cinema can be a thankless task, even when the role is as well-written as Metcalf’s is here, but her warmth would have lifted any role.

 

2018performancebummys20Carey Mulligan, MudboundMary J. Blige got the Oscar nomination, and she is good in Mudbound, but I came out of Mudbound most impressed with Mulligan’s mix of resilience and desperation.

 

2018performancebummys21Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: This is the kind of performance that the Academy drools over, but Oldman, for all his scenery chewing, gets at the quiet moments in Churchill’s everyday life as well.

 

2018performancebummys22Brooklynn Prince, The Florida ProjectIt’s difficult to judge child actors, because they’re often doing something very different from adult actors, but it’s impossible not to recognize how brilliant Prince is in The Florida Project, because most child actors have a hard time balancing petulance with legitimate feelings, and she seems to have no trouble at all.

 

2018performancebummys23Patrick Stewart, Logan: Stewart must have had so much fun making Logan, more than the other X-Men movies, and not just because he got to curse, but because he got to do more than be concerned about the fate of his students or play at the stern father.

 

2018performancebummys24Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name: The performance on the whole is too slight to be in my Top Ten, but his end-of-the-movie monologue alone deserved an Oscar.

 

2018performancebummys25Izabela Vidovic, Wonder: Wonder is obviously Augie’s story, but my heart went out to Via as his caring sister, who understands why she doesn’t get as much attention as Augie, but still longs to be noticed.

 

Past Top Tens

2016

Natalie Portman, Jackie
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Amy Adams, Arrival
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Emma Stone, La La Land
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Brie Larson, Room
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Maika Monroe, It Follows

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Emma Stone, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dane DeHaan, Chronicle
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises

Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Ten years ago, our cinematic conversations didn’t revolve around Marvel and Netflix. Now those two monoliths dominate the narrative, and blockbusters dominate the year, instead of just the summer. The movie landscape looks different, and you can trace it back to this year.

Obviously Iron Man was released, so the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its industry takeover. But 2008 was when Netflix solidified its commitment to streaming, changing the industry in so many ways. You can blame the expansion of the summer blockbuster season to the whole year on Netflix for forcing the studios’ hands. In order to compete with streaming, studios can only afford to invest their money in movies with the potential for big returns. They can no longer subsist on the mid-budget movies that used to fill the colder months.

It’s only fitting then that two of 2008’s three best movies were blockbusters: The Dark Knight and WALL-E. They’re exemplars for how to use broad cinematic language to tell universal truths. But then the rest of my top movies is filled out with indies. The second best movie of the year may be the least expensive on the list. Greatness comes in many forms.

Top Ten

2008movies01

10. The Class: I haven’t seen anything else that French director Laurent Cantet has made, but if his other movies are anything like The Class, I need to remedy that immediately. This movie follows a white English teacher (François Bégaudeau, who wrote the memoir the movie was based on) teaching in a racially-mixed, interurban school. This isn’t Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers; François’s goal isn’t inspiration but engagement. The movie shows him walking the line between discipline and mutual respect. Having worked on his side of the racial divide in a school, I can tell you that the conflicts that arise are just as frustrating as real life.

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9. Anvil: The Story of AnvilThe title to this movie could not be more appropriate; this movie is indeed about the story of Anvil. So many critics called this a real-life This Is Spinal Tap when it was released. While it’s hard to argue with that epithet, it’s still not really enough of a descriptor. Anvil was the most heart-breaking movie of 2008, and not because the band never really achieved fame or success. No, it’s heart-breaking because this band still wants fame and success after all their failure.

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8. In BrugesNot enough movies are able to hold both comedy and tragedy equal within their run-times. We either get lower stakes because the movie really just wants your laughs, or the jokes are just window dressing to lighten up the mood every once in a while. In Bruges somehow commits fully to both, eliciting uproarious laughter one second and tears the next, over and over again. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are superb as bumbling hitmen with feelings, and Ralph Fiennes is a sinister yet empathetic mob boss. The real star is the Belgian town it all takes place in (pronounced “broozh”), with its fog and its canals, though the town isn’t as funny as the people.

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7. Let the Right One In: There are some movies that go places you never would have dreamed of. Let the Right One In is such a movie. On the one hand, it’s a vampire movie, filled with similar tropes to what you expect. On the other, it’s a movie about children and trauma, viewed through a supernatural lens. It’s horrifically disturbing at points, but never anything less than true.

2008movies05

6. Slumdog MillionaireThe Best Picture winner at the 2009’s Oscars was my favorite movie of 2008 (until I saw the top movie on this list). I understood that the story was contrived, but the fairy-tale nature of it hooked me and reeled me in. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the movie and the circumstances surrounding its making, including the well-being of the child actors pulled from the slums, are troubling. But director Danny Boyle gives the voices of the story to the Indian actors, telling the story through their eyes rather than a white man’s or woman’s. It’s fantastical, but never nonsensical, and it still works on me, even though I’m ten years more jaded than I was when I first saw it.

2008movies06

5. Tell No OneGreat mystery movies are few and far between, because it is too easy to see plot points coming, or the plot is too convoluted or contrived to continue caring. Tell No One is a perfect puzzle of a mystery movie, and it comes out of France from director Guillaume Canet, who has directed nothing else of note. That may be appropriate, because it’s hard to imagine that all the ideas packed into Tell No One left anything in Canet’s brain. The plot of the movie plays like a film noir, but one set in a lush, colorful dream world. You may see the ending coming, but I did not, and the story was rich enough that it did not matter either way.

2008movies07

4. Milk: Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will HuntingDrugstore Cowboys) has directed 17 movies to date, but it seems that he reserves one movie per decade to be the movie that he pours his heart into. The ’80s had My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix, the ’90s had Good Will Hunting, and the ’00s got Milk. Much of Milk, which is a biopic about Harvey Milk’s political rise and assassination, stays true to the biopic formula. But there are several scenes in which Van Sant’s own staging and cinematic eye elevate what could have been just a hagiography into art, including a campaign party montage that gets sexual and the assassination scene itself. Sean Penn’s performance as the first openly gay man in public office in America grounds the movie in its themes: freedom needs to be fought for, and the fight isn’t over.

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3. The Dark Knight: The best superhero movie of all time is still The Dark Knight and, up until this year, it wasn’t close. The Nolan Batman movies all did something a little bit more with the concept of the superhero than any other attempt has. All three movies, but especially The Dark Knight, subsist on more than just plot and action: they feast on the very idea of heroism itself. It would be easy to dismiss The Dark Knight as only a showcase for Heath Ledger’s brilliance. But the movie itself is meticulously constructed to turn heroism and our expectations of our heroes upside-down.

2008movies09

2. Chop Shop: With the advent of unlimited special effects possibilities and the potential for sequels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that big-budget movies should be bastions for imagination and creativity. You can truly tell any story when money is no object, you might say. But history has taught us that the more dollars involved, the more reasons to say no. For this reason, even with all its budgetary limitations, independent film is the unlimited industry. When making money isn’t the goal, people’s stories get told that you would have never looked twice at before.

Chop Shop, by Iranian-American indie auteur Ramin Bahrani, is what happens when you believe any story is possible. Two Latino children, Ale and Isamar (played by Alejandro Polanco and a luminous Isamar Gonzales), struggling to survive on the streets of New York, would never be the stars of a studio tentpole. Their story of the American dream, saving up to buy a taco truck, would never be the plot of a blockbuster. The imagery Bahrani’s cinematography uses, especially in the last shot of pigeons soaring into the sky from the ground, could never be matched by the highest-tech computer effects. Chop Shop isn’t just indie cinema at its best; it’s cinema at its best.

2008movies10

1. WALL-E: Once in 2011 when I told a friend that Rango was my favorite movie of the year, he gave me an incredulous look and said, “An animated movie?” I’m not sure if the stigma is that animated movies are for kids or just that they don’t tell the same kinds of stories as live-action movies, but I’m here to tell you that animated movies are often far more imaginative. There’s a sense with animation that anything is possible, and there are no limits.

This has never been truer than with WALL-E. It’s not hyperbole to say that WALL-E changed the industry and expanded the boundaries for the kinds of stories animation could tell. There is a rich history in 2-D animation of using the full expanse of the wide-screen, but CGI had barely scratched the surface up to this point. Attempts with the form were clunky (Treasure Planet) or under-realized (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). I guess when this is the perception of CGI movies going for something big, then I should expect surprise when I rate them highly.

Usually you either have to skimp on the visuals or sacrifice the story, but WALL-E is beautiful in its story and its images. Normally, a movie that deals with robot loneliness in its first act and environmentalism in its second would not be appealing, but director Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoFinding Dory) and his Pixar animators find the pathos in the titular character’s cogs and gears, and we feel both his loneliness at the beginning and his hope when he meets the newer robot, EVE. A marriage of classic cinematic influences with a forward-looking story helps elevate the second act into more than just a screed against toxic wastefulness. It’s a vision for a way forward; you almost forget it comes from a computer.

 Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

2008movies11Ballast: A beautiful indie about the violence of poverty and broken homes.

 

2008movies12Bolt: I was skeptical of this non-Pixar Disney offering, but it’s surprisingly strong.

 

2008movies13Cloverfield: Somehow this turned into a franchise, when it feels more like a great, stand-alone one-off.

 

2008movies14The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Overwrought and overlong, yes, but that’s kind of the point?

 

2008movies15The Edge of Heaven: Turkish-German director Fatih Akin returned to acclaim last year with the Golden Globe-winning In the Fade, so it’s worth going back to watch this little gem, about how happenstance becomes significant in one’s life story.

 

Film Title: Forgetting Sarah MarshallForgetting Sarah Marshall: It will forever be known as the movie in which Jason Segel goes full-frontal for laughs in the opening scene, but this is a smart, soulful comedy that deserves more attention.

 

2008movies17Gomorrah: It’s been adapted into a relatively acclaimed TV show on SundanceTV, but the movie is an evocative exploration of the Italian mafia’s impact on ordinary people in Naples.

 

2008movies18Happy-Go-Lucky: A wonderful showcase for one of The Shape of Water‘s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins, as a grade-school teacher who is…well, you know.

 

2008movies19Iron Man: Where the franchise began, and where the franchise was less focused on being a franchise and more focused on telling a contained story well.

 

2008movies20Revolutionary Road: If you don’t like being emotionally drained, steer clear of this drama, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as a self-destructive 1950s married couple.

 

2008movies21Shotgun Stories: Director Jeff Nichols’s debut, and as insightful a look at life in rural Arkansas as the Jennifer Lawrence-starring Winter’s Bone two years later.

 

2008movies22Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller has been able to do pretty much anything he wants to do in his career up to this point, so I’m glad he decided to make a war-movie parody that actually works.

 

2008movies23Trouble the WaterNew Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts filmed Katrina from within the Ninth Ward, and it became this extraordinary document of how the devastation was set up to happen before the storm ever arrived.

 

2008movies24The Visitor: A little white-saviory, but star Richard Jenkins is too empathetic an audience proxy to dismiss the movie outright.

 

2008movies25The Wrestler: Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swanmother!) is usually more adventurous than this simple story of a pro-wrestler (Mickey Rourke) down on his luck, but it’s very effective thanks to its great cast, which also includes Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter and Marisa Tomei as a stripper that loves him and all his scars.

Future Top Tens

2010

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

2011

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

2012

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

2013

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

2014

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