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.


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

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*

Molly’s Game*

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

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*

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*

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
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

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.

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.

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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