Ranking the Mission: Impossible Movies

Ranking the Mission: Impossible Movies

This is what I wrote in 2015 after seeing the last installment in this franchise, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation:

The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the weirdest in film history. The movies tell no coherent story from first to last. The cast of characters is fluid; some stay the same, some leave, some come back after taking a break. Its closest cousin is the James Bond franchise, but there are 23 of those, so the changing cast of characters is accepted as a given. The action has been consistently great, but “action” isn’t much of a tentpole to hang millions of dollars onto every five years.

The one true constant in the M:I movies is Tom Cruise and his stunts, and it’s a testament to his level of movie stardom after all these years that people still want to see him do impossible things. They don’t seem to pay attention if it’s a high-concept sci-fi (Edge of Tomorrow) or a boring book adaptation (Jack Reacher), but if they know he’s going to do something impossible to familiar theme music they tend to turn out in droves, judging by the most recent movie’s opening box office total ($56 million, more than the rest of them except M:I II).

It’s easy to wonder why Cruise didn’t stop making them after the third one. It provided a tidy ending, some semblance of a future for Ethan Hunt outside of the Impossible Missions Force, and diminishing returns after the box office bonanza that was M:I II. But then you remember that Tom Cruise is an alien who comes from a planet where they poop out money, so why would they ever let this franchise die? Indeed, the last two movies have foregone closure for Ethan Hunt, to where it’s not hard to imagine, sometime in the not-so-distant future, a wheelchair-bound Tom Cruise still doing his own stunts.

But in case Rogue Nation is the last one, this is the indisputable ranking of all five M:I movies:

Much of that is still very true, especially the part about these movies mostly being about Tom Cruise and his stunts, and that the people from his planet poop money. But the part about not telling a coherent story from first to last is no longer true, now that they’ve released Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Here is the indisputable ranking of all six M:I movies:

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6. Mission: Impossible II (2000)

This movie made the most money of all the Mission: Impossible movies. It’s also the only one that is bad. It’s the only one that doesn’t clear the low bar of “I’d watch that if it came on cable and have nothing else to do.” One of the fun things about the M:I series is how different directors have left their fingerprints on it. Well, John Woo left his greasy, overstylized prints all over this movie, and it lost any of the first one’s spy-movie suspense. But it made the most money, so I must be wrong.

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5. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

J.J. Abrams’s M:I movie is the epitome of “good enough.” It has the benefit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s superb villain, the best in the series by far, with the tandem villainy in the first movie a distant second. And III has the most satisfying ending, since it’s the only one designed to bring a modicum of closure to Ethan Hunt’s life, even if Abrams relegates the great Michelle Monaghan to a do-nothing role. The action in this one is nice as well, if not particularly special, especially when compared to what came after. It is notable that there were a couple directors on this one before Abrams and that Cruise called up Abrams specifically to ask him to take on the project when they didn’t work out, which just goes to show that if you can poop money you can choose your own director.

4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rogue Nation feels so much like a James Bond movie, but it might just be because Rebecca Ferguson is British. Though Tom Cruise never has sex with her or treats her like an object, so you know this isn’t a Bond movie. In fact, Ferguson’s is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-double-agent is what sets this one apart from the others- not that there aren’t plenty of potential double agents throughout M:I’s short movie history, but Ferguson’s performance sticks out. She’s every bit Ethan’s equal in terms of spy skills, and the interplay between them is fascinating. Everything else about the movie is par for the course, which is what you get when you let Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) direct your movie*, but par for action movies is always entertaining.

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3. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

You could potentially make an argument that Ghost Protocol is actually the best of the six, and you might convince me, mostly because the M:I franchise isn’t one I care enough about to argue my case*. (In contrast, if you told me that you happen to think The Empire Strikes Back is “not that good”, I’d probably “punch you in the face” and “lose all respect for you”.) It definitely has the best action of the five thanks to the punch that director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) brings to the table. There are endlessly exciting and creative action sequences, not the least of which is the one where Ethan hangs by one hand from the Burg Khalifa, Ghost Protocol’s equivalent of the heist scene in the original. It’s the scene that everyone remembers, because it’s executed absolutely perfectly.

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2. Mission: Impossible (1996)

The original movie (based on the original 1960s-1970s TV show, by the way, which I guess makes the movie unoriginal) feels like the most insular of the six, the one that stands completely on its own. It helps that it actually feels like a spy movie, with operations that are actually covert and a constant, shadowy paranoia. The rest of them come off like Ethan Hunt transplanted into action movies so that he’s just a spy by name*. Not that there’s not great action in this one- the final train scene stands with the rest of the canon as one of the best (and most ludicrous) action scenes. And there’s more suspense in the nearly silent heist scene (the one where Tom Cruise is hanging over the computer, trying to keep a drop of sweat from hitting the ground) than in most action movies. Director Brian De Palma, for all his gimmicks in some of his other movies, brought the tightest direction of the five, so that nineteen years later, the first remains the best*.

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1. Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018)

I starred all the statements in the last few entries that are no longer true. The first one is no longer the best, Ethan feels like a spy again, and I do care about this franchise now. Also, apparently Christopher McQuarrie is a great director now? Fallout didn’t have to be this good. It would have been so easy to just make another Rogue Nation, a taut thriller with stakes high enough to keep the audience interested but low enough to make them forget they spent $15 on a movie about Tom Cruise running (and holding his breath and falling off motorcycles and jumping across buildings and launching himself out of airplanes and). But no, McQuarrie and Cruise found the rare sweet spot between ridiculous action and stakes that matter. They connected the dots from the previous movies to this movie to fashion a blockbuster that not only makes you care about what happens in this movie but also makes what happened in the other movies matter more. Also, Ethan crashes a helicopter into another helicopter.

I specifically remember seeing Ghost Protocol in IMAX, but not Rogue NationGhost Protocol was totally worth it, and I’d say it’s more than worth it to see Fallout in IMAX as well. McQuarrie (given carte blanche by Cruise, no doubt) spares no expense on the action set pieces. The aforementioned helicopter scene sounds ludicrous, and it is, but it’s also breath-taking. I was laughing out loud at how astounded I was. And the motorcycle chases, which are nearly impossible to make original at this point, are visceral in a way I hadn’t felt since Mad Max: Fury Road. McQuarrie pans against the movement of the cars and bikes instead of with them, which makes it feel like the vehicles are about to crash into each other and ratchets up the tension. And there’s the most good, old-fashioned bait-and-switch spy shenanigans in Fallout since the original.

Again, this didn’t have to be this good. I would have been happy with a rehash of any of the previous titles. If Ethan had climbed the Burj Khalifa again, I would have been just as giddy as the first time. But somehow, after 22 years, Tom Cruise and his director found a way to raise the bar not just for the franchise, but for action movies in general.

I mean, he crashes a helicopter into another helicopter.

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Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

2008 was a strange year for music in retrospect. There was no defining aesthetic, no consensus style represented in a majority of what was popular. We were introduced to Adele, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver, but their albums and songs look very different in hindsight. Coldplay and Beyoncé were artists at the height of their popularity to that point, but they were also artists in transition.

Strangely, the only artists who were known quantities that year were Taylor Swift and Lil Wayne. Both put out effortlessly great albums and dominated radioplay with their singles. Both stood atop and apart from their genres, powerful in their popular appeal but imprecise avatars of rap and country. No one else was doing what they were at the time, and no one else has really been able to replicate either one- including themselves.

I loved most of these songs in 2008, so many of them left an impression that lasted. The two songs at the top stand out to me, so I wrote more about them. All of these songs are beloved, but those two were formative.

Top Twenty

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20. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”: For a band that fancied themselves U2 disciples, they rarely achieved the right amount of bombast or scope to properly sound like them. “Viva la Vida” feels like the ideal achievement of this goal, probably because it’s the only Coldplay song that truly rocks.

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19. The Veronicas, “Untouched”: There are about twenty hooks in “Untouched,” and all of them are pop gold. But the first one is the best: a synthesized string riff that casts a spell.

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18. Estelle, “American Boy (feat. Kanye West)”: The world was nearing Peak Kanye in 2008, and he’s charming as hell here. But Estelle outshines him with her easy delivery and casual empowerment.

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17. My Morning Jacket, “I’m Amazed”: I’ve still never listened to a My Morning Jacket album all the way through. Instead, I play this song over and over again and pretend it’s what all the songs sound like, because that seems ideal.

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16. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”: There’s no telling what meaning this song is supposed to convey, with its surreal images of heads falling in the snow and strawberry-red blood. But sometimes the lyrics aren’t the ultimate message of a song, but, along with the pastoral instrumentation, they act as a vessel to carry you to the message, which in this case is…well, there’s no telling.

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15. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: I do “give a f*ck about an Oxford comma,” so this is a conflicted choice for me. But as the New York-based indie rockers confront academic pretentiousness without mercy, I bop my head right along with them, as if punctuation were meaningless.

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14. Frightened Rabbit, “The Modern Leper”: In 2008, I found “The Modern Leper” the perfect anthem for my late-teen angst, even if most my angst was self-made. Ten years later, I don’t relate to it quite as much, but it’s still a lyrical masterpiece that captures self-consciousness.

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13. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”: 19 was Adele not fully formed, and producers Jim Abbiss and Eg White filled out the space around Adele’s voice with the tinniest instrumentation. But “Chasing Pavements” is the exception, a mature showcase for the best of what Adele’s voice has to offer.

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12. Fleet Foxes, “Mykonos”: Their self-titled debut is a classic, but the best song they released in 2008 is off of the Sun Giant EP. Where the group would come to be known for near-perfect harmonies and a placid playing style (that they’ve subverted in recent years), “Mykonos” features uneven harmonies that somehow hold more of an allure than the perfect ones, and the hooks lean into danger more than on Fleet Foxes, foreshadowing their new jam band tendencies.

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11. Taylor Swift, “Love Story”: This is still country Taylor Swift, but she’s leaning more into her pop-rock influences. “Love Story” is emo with a happy ending, and, as always, Swift is fully in control, showing you the archetypes that are important to her while engrossing you in the details.

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10. Lil Wayne, “A Milli”: I couldn’t dig this when it came out. I was too hung up on Weezy’s vulgarity, unable to separate my self-righteousness from my discernment. In the decade since, this is the one song from Tha Carter III that seeped into my consciousness, and it became my gateway into Lil Wayne appreciation. The song’s not even about anything. But I guess a song doesn’t need to be about anything when a Phife Dawg sample is the very rhythm of the beat, or when Wayne is featuring his most savage wordplay of his career.

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9. Jimmy Needham, “Hurricane”: There were more influential artists within the Christian music industry at the time, and more innovative. But Needham is a special artist, and “Hurricane” provides a great example of why. At other points on Not Without Love and during his career, Needham has leaned into a funk sound. Not so on “Hurricane,” which fits comfortably into both the worship genre, which forms the bulk of the industry, and the singer-songwriter genre, which forms its grassroots foundation. “Hurricane” is straightforward, unambiguous, but rich with purpose. Needham is special, because, like on “Hurricane,” his lyrics find the right images to cut straight to the heart of what we need from God’s grace.

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8. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”: If it looks like pop, smells like pop, and feels like pop, then it must not be country anymore. There are still banjos and electric guitars modulated to sound like steel guitars, but if you’re looking for the precursor to the T-Swift we know today, this is it. On “You Belong with Me,” Swift straddles the line between country and pop like no one since Shania Twain. The video is famous for a lot of reasons, of course, not the least of which is that it’s the inspiration for “Imma let you finish,” but the song actually works better without the video. The visual sets the song firmly in high school, while the song itself features Swift sounding more empowered than ever.

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7. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”: Speaking of “Imma let you finish…” It’s a damn shame this song will always be associated with Kanye’s pain-in-the-assitude, but it’s found a life of its own regardless. The song reached near ubiquity in the last decade, finding a place at every wedding during the bouquet toss, which doesn’t really do it justice. This should be a song played exclusively on the dance floor, so people can put the iconic video’s moves to good use. We take this song for granted now, but it features some of the weirdest production on any Bey song, and it’s the force of her star power that’s made it into more than just the flavor of that summer.

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6. The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer”: As the opener to the band’s fourth record, “Constructive Summer” wastes no time before being awesome. With a propulsive guitar riff played opposite a killer piano riff, you know you’re in for a rock song with ambition. Then Craig Finn’s voice kicks in and begins what may be the Hold Steady’s best conceit yet: a song about the ennui of childhood summers that turns the ennui on its head. We were always so excited for summer, and then we barely did anything constructive. The Hold Steady bottle that youthful phenomenon and unleash it in a mad dash that demands to be repeated when it’s finished.

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5. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”: If this song came out now, it may not resonate with me with quite the same force. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great song, or that it’s beholden to the era in which it came out. On the contrary, “Furr” is an impeccable folk ballad, and its lyrics are timeless. No, 2008 was just the perfect time for me to hear this song and allow it to shape my feelings about identity and purpose. Blitzen Trapper have never quite captured the spirit of this hymn since, but it’s not their fault they can’t recreate a perfect song.

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4. TV on the Radio, “Golden Age”: Ah, 2008- it was a time of optimism and hope for progressives. No song better encapsulates the very real expectations for the Obama era, no matter how misplaced hope in any politician is. At the time, I just enjoyed the funky beat and that TV on the Radio had released a song that sounded so…happy! There’s always been a dark undertone even in TV on the Radio’s most major-key songs, but there’s no such double entendre here. This is pure joy, through and through.

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3. MGMT, “Time to Pretend”: Oracular Spectacular was technically released in 2007, but it didn’t explode until the next year, and especially not this song, which was released as a single in 2008. MGMT’s whole aesthetic has grown a little wearisome in the past decade as they’ve struggled with their identity as a band: are they a psych-pop outfit that pumps out hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel? Or are they a less savvy Animal Collective? As an anthem around which you build your brand, “Time to Pretend” is a tough act to follow. But as a manifesto for an entire generation of white hipster privilege? This is the shit.

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2. Drive-By Truckers, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”: Back in 2008 I was dating a woman whose family was…less than fond of me. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. Anyway, her father was a good man, and he had two daughters and a beautiful wife, so I always associated this song with him. The contentment at the core of the song is rooted in the protagonist’s relationship with his family, and my girlfriend’s father always put his family first. That was admirable to me, and I aspired to that someday.

The song holds a different meaning to me now. That man is someone I still aspire to be someday, but I’m married now. We don’t have kids yet, but we talk about what life will look like with them all the time. Also, while I have yet to experience loss directly, people around me are dealing with death more and more often. This song explores what it means to live and what it means to die, and it implies that life and death all come back to the memories you have of the people you love.

I think there’s more to life than that (and more to death, for that matter), but the sentiment isn’t untrue. Every time I hear this song, I’m reminded of my dreams for my life, and that any wanderlust I feel or regrets I have for things I haven’t accomplished, they fade. Death comes for everyone. I’ve loved well, and that’s what I’ll remember when it comes for me.

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1. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”: I never remember the words to “Skinny Love.” This is ironic, because as Bon Iver’s career has progressed, their lyrics have gotten more and more obtuse. “Skinny Love” arguably has the most direct lyrics of any of his songs, and I still place words in the wrong spot or say “summer love” instead of “I tell my love,” because that’s how I used to mishear it. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, looked up the words almost as often as I’ve heard it, and still say “kind” when it’s supposed to be “fine.”

Part of that is just on me: I’m not that great with lyrics. But Justin Vernon discovered something early on with Bon Iver that has helped the band’s music to evolve into different forms while still retaining its power. He discovered that he could convey a message of emotion and weight through the timbre of his voice and the production of the song just as effectively as other artists do through words. Few other bands that use words can create worlds in their music with clear rules and values without spelling them out in every bar.

“Skinny Love” uses its lyrics well, and it doesn’t have to. This is Bon Iver’s opening statement, but also their most accessible song. They only got more abstract from here. “Skinny Love” is the song that most draws from traditional folk norms, and it fits into a long tradition of distilling its grief and anger into spare instrumentation. Even if you mess up the words, you’ll still feel the loss.

Another Thirty (alphabetically)

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Adele, “Make You Feel My Love”: Better than the Bob Dylan version!

 

 

2008songs22Al Green, “Lay It Down (feat. Anthony Hamilton)”: The title track and best song from an album of smooth, classic soul.

 

 

2008songs23Andrew Peterson, “Don’t Give Up on Me”: This was very close to making the Top Twenty, because Peterson packs so much meaning into every line.

 

 

2008songs24Beyoncé, “Halo”: A subpar song that the sheer force of Beyoncé’s delivery makes into a banger.

 

 

2008songs25Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby [Alternate Version]”Dylan’s bootleg series has given us a lot of gems, but this may be my favorite.

 

 

2008songs26Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing”: Brian Eno’s best work on Viva la Vida.

 

 

2008songs27Counting Crows, “Le Ballet d’Or”: It doesn’t have a hook to match with their ’90s singles, but it does have a scope and breadth that their hits can’t meet.

 

 

2008songs28Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”: A beautiful way to close their self-titled debut.

 

 

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The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound”: There are a lot of Springsteen knock-offs out there, but one listen to “The ’59 Sound” and its understanding of nostalgia should convince you The Gaslight Anthem are something more.

 

 

2008songs30Girl Talk, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2)”: Girl Talk’s best work, a masterful mix of OutKast and Journey in the end.

 

 

2008songs31Hercules & Love Affair, “Blind”: A great indie dance break.

 

 

2008songs32Jamey Johnson, “In Color”Jamey Johnson knows how to tell a story, and here he tells three great ones in one.

 

 

2008songs33Jars of Clay, “Closer”: The EP version of this song isn’t as majestic as the one they released on The Long Fall Back to Earth the next year, but the chorus is just as full of longing.

 

 

2008songs34Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows”: If the world were fair, this song would have made Sullivan a star.

 

 

2008songs35Jimmy Needham, “Unfailing Love (Kelly’s Song)”: I sang this to Vicky at our wedding, so it holds a special place in my heart, but it’s a great singer-songwriter love song regardless.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “A Brand New Song”: Some of the best moments on Life Death Love and Freedom are darker and focused on death, but song that’s made the most lasting impression on me is this track, full of hope and light.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “If I Die Sudden”: …but the ones focused on death are great too.

 

 

2008songs37Jon Foreman, “Your Love Is Strong”: The best of all the great songs on the Switchfoot front man’s solo collection of season-themed EPs.

 

 

2008songs38Kanye West, “Heartless”: 808s & Heartbreak is my least favorite Kanye album (besides ye, which would force me to crumple up the list and stomp on it if I included it), but the hook on this one is up there with his best.

 

 

2008songs39Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”Ditto for “Love Lockdown,” which, in a catalog full of confessional songs, still manages to be among his most personal.

 

 

2008songs40Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”: A ridiculous song from a band that takes ridiculousness very seriously.

 

 

2008songs41Raphael Saadiq, “Never Give You Up (feat. Stevie Wonder & CJ)”: Surprisingly, even though this song doesn’t use Wonder’s best asset (his angelic voice), the result is still reminiscent of his best soul classics.

 

 

2008songs42Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music”: Released in 2007 on Good Girl Gone Bad, “Don’t Stop the Music” didn’t shoot up the charts till 2008, which is hard to believe, since it feels like this song could jump start your car.

 

 

2008songs43Robyn, “Cobrastyle”: Robyn has never achieved the crossover success she probably deserves, but this single (along with “With Every Heartbeat”) marked her comeback to the dance charts where she has been a mainstay ever since.

 

 

2008songs44Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”: I get why people don’t like the noise surrounding Taylor Swift, but this song is a perfect example of how well she was able to reach inside teenage minds and place the contents into hit songs.

 

 

2008songs45TV on the Radio, “Red Dress”: Dear Science is TVOTR’s party record, and this is their signature party song, tinged with a little darkness.

 

 

2008songs46Usher, “Love in This Club, Pt. II (feat. Beyoncé)”: The original was great, but Beyoncé’s presence on the sequel lends some gravitas to a wonderfully stupid premise.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Mfumu”: “Warm Heart of Africa” got all the attention, but I prefer my Very Best at its purest, with Esau Mwamwaya’s Malawian voice soaring above electropop bliss.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig)”: But Ezra Koenig’s okay too.

 

 

2008songs48The Welcome Wagon, “Jesus”: This pastor-and-wife duo’s entire debut album is great, but who (besides producer Sufjan Stevens) would’ve thought that the best song would be a Velvet Underground cover?

 

Future Top Tens

2010

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

2011

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

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”

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)”

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”

Retro Bummys: Best Performances of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Performances of 2008

It’s not hard to look back ten years and realize the legacy that 2008’s performances left. It begins and ends with Heath Ledger, of course. Beyond him, though, I found myself preferring a lot of supporting performances to lead performances. The supporting roles provided far more opportunities for interesting work, and those performances have resonated more ten years later.

The Oscars and I generally agreed this year. Twelve performances that were nominated and/or won are represented here. However, one performance you will not see is Kate Winslet’s Best Actress-winning role from The Reader. The Oscar love that movie received is a direct result of Harvey Weinstein, and it was the last time he exerted an outsized influence on the Academy’s proceedings.

2008 was the first year of my life that I became serious about watching a lot of the movies released that year, so it was the first year that I could really have an informed opinion about at the time. As a result, a lot of these movies have existed in my mind as long as they’ve existed, and their legacy is a little more ingrained in my head than movies from previous years. Looking back at these movies was like remembering why I fell in love with movies in the first place.

The links are to clips from the performance. There’s probably some profanity in there.

Top Ten

10. Anne HathawayRachel Getting MarriedIt’s a trope in the film industry for a performer we met as a teenager to take on a more adult role so that we will take them more seriously. Hathaway had a supporting role in Brokeback Mountain, but the most serious part she had played as the star was The Devil Wears Prada, which isn’t exactly a “serious adult role.” Rachel Getting Married gave Hathaway this, but it’s not just a play at respectability. This was the first time we saw Hathaway portraying a real human being. I’m glad she won her Oscar for Les Miserables, but this is her best performance yet.

9. Mickey RourkeThe WrestlerPoor Rourke; after years in the woods, he comes out with the best performance of his lifetime only to lose the Oscar to fellow Brat Pack-adjacent ’80s star Sean Penn, whom Rourke apparently hates. Anyway, Rourke’s work in The Wrestler takes place in rarefied air. It’s the kind of performance that only Rourke could give and that he could never give again. It’s a role perfectly suited to him, a weathered, down-on-his-luck outcast who figures out what his purpose is, even if it doesn’t really set him free. Roles like that are once in a lifetime, and he makes it count.

8. Kate WinsletRevolutionary Road: It’s truly a shame that Winslet won her Oscar for The Reader, which is boring and features her fine performance of a boring role. Revolutionary Road is overwrought from the beginning, but it’s one of Winslet’s best performances. Her April is far stronger than DiCaprio’s Frank, but bound to the same societal norms that drive them both insane. As a portrait of a marriage, Revolutionary Road is limited. As a portrait of a woman, Winslet’s performance is everything.

7. Robert Downey Jr.Tropic ThunderThere’s understandably a lot of controversy surrounding this role, given it’s basically blackface. The whole concept of this blackface is that it’s sending up the lengths Hollywood actors go to win awards recognition, but I understand if it smells too much of white privilege for some people. Regardless, Downey Jr. is completely committed to this performance, and he’s wonderful. This was the same year he returned to prominence in Iron Man, which should have been enough. But in Tropic Thunder, he reaches the bombastic heights that only he is charismatic enough for.

6. Michelle WilliamsWendy and Lucy: The Oscars are known for rewarding heartfelt performances more along the lines of Kate Winslet’s in Revolutionary Road, in which the words are doing a lot of the heavy lifting and the actor’s emoting is just this side of necessary. They’re less likely to recognize a performance like Williams’s in Wendy and Lucy in which the emotions involved are less obvious and require a quieter approach. Williams has had her share of Oscar love (four nominations and counting, the most recent for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea), but the Academy completely overlooked this performance. It’s cruelly poetic, really: Wendy exists on the fringe of society, the kind of life it’s only too easy to overlook. If the Academy had looked a little closer, they would have seen a whole movie in Michelle Williams’s eyes alone.

5. Benicio Del ToroChe: Part One and Che: Part Two: Both parts of Che are fascinating movies, if a little too obtuse to be great. Regardless, it’s clear from the beginning that Che Guevara is the part that Del Toro was born to play (it’s either that or The Collector, I’m not sure). Del Toro doesn’t actually look much like Guevara, but he captures his ability to code switch between the elites of the world and the people of Cuba. Playing a chameleon is nearly impossible. Del Toro makes it look revolutionary.

4. Brad PittBurn After ReadingIt was so hard to choose a scene from Pitt’s performance in this movie for the link. There are so many little things he does from start to finish that his character, Chad, as ridiculous as he is, feels nothing like the Brad Pitt we know. I like Serious Brad Pitt just fine, but Serious Brad Pitt is rarely given the screenplay to show off the full range of his nuance. If I was Brad Pitt’s agent, I’d kidnap the Coen brothers and have them write movies just for him. In fact, that sounds like a good premise for a Coen Brothers film- starring Brad Pitt.

3. Viola DavisDoubtHolding your own against Meryl Streep is no small thing. Doing it for eight straight minutes and stealing the scene is another thing altogether. Before this movie, Davis was a supporting character in movies and TV shows. After this movie, even though she’s only onscreen for the one 8-minute scene, Davis became a star, an Emmy-winner, an Oscar-winner, a history-maker. That should tell you all you need to know about how good that scene is, and Davis deserves her place near the top of this list.

2. Sean PennMilkWhen you look at the two Oscars that Penn won in the 2000s, the disparity between the two roles’ dispositions is stark. In Mystic River, Penn is the embodiment of stereotypical hypermasculinity, grieving for his daughter, burning for revenge. In Milk, Penn is a proud queen, a gay man who inspires, a generally jovial gentleman. Anytime I see Penn give an interview, I’m floored that he is the same man whose smile changes hearts in Milk. Harvey Milk’s story resonates because of its specificity to its time and place, and Penn nails the specifics of both.

1. Heath LedgerThe Dark KnightYou can’t separate this performance from Heath Ledger’s death. This isn’t because the performance caused the death, contrary to the rampant, irresponsible speculation that occurred in the media and the business in the months between Ledger’s passing and the movie’s release. By all accounts, Ledger was a joy to be around on the sets of The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the movie he was making when he died. He reported struggling with anxiety and insomnia, but never cited the Joker’s “darkness” or anything like that as their origin.

No, you can’t separate his performance from his death, because we knew he had died when we saw the movie. We haven’t ever seen this movie in a world in which Ledger had not passed. I had forgotten how much mourning his death was a part of the movie’s promotion- not in an icky way, as if his death were a marketing tool, but because, like all deaths, it was an inescapable fact. The cast and filmmakers had to talk about it in interviews, and that’s the light in which we have always seen the movie.

What all the talk about the darkness of the Joker seems to neglect is that Ledger’s performance is so fun. There are so many little things that he does, even beyond the storied lip-licking: the range of his voice from a deep bellow to high-pitched giddiness, little glances mid-sentence that show he’s thinking about other things while reciting his anarchic speeches, the genuine confusion on his face when his social experiment doesn’t go as planned.

There was talk around the movie’s release around the idea that The Dark Knight‘s Joker had to go a complete different direction than Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But Jack Nicholson’s Joker is just Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson. It’s iconic because it fits him so perfectly, like a glove, filled with acid. Ledger becomes an entirely different person. He would be unrecognizable even if he weren’t wearing the makeup. We had never seen Ledger do anything like this before.

I don’t buy the idea that a superhero movie is defined by its villain. We don’t call them supervillain movies, after all. The Dark Knight has plenty of worthy non-Joker aspects: the breathtaking action scenes, the love triangle, some great Gary Oldman work. But truth be told, Ledger elevates this movie past a well-made superhero movie and into greatness. So not all superhero movies are defined by their villains, but this one is.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

François Bégaudeau, The Class: The naturalism of the amateur performances from the teenagers in this French Oscar-winner is built on the foundation of Bégadeau’s inner conflict.

 

Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt is the star of this underrated David Fincher Best Picture nominee, but Blanchett’s radiance holds the central romance together.

 

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Cruz won an Oscar for this performance, which she probably deserved for better movies, but her fiery Cristina throws everyone’s balance off whack.

 

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married: Playing the straight-laced sister could have been a thankless role, but DeWitt shines with a bride’s love and a hint of darkness.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road: DiCaprio is always great, but he’s the perfect partner for a spiral into despair with Winslet.

 

Colin Farrell, In Bruges: We didn’t know Farrell could be funny before this offbeat comedy, and he’s never been this funny since.

 

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges: Ditto for Gleeson, who should always be allowed to be this interesting on screen.

 

 

 

Isamar Gonzales, Chop Shop: There were a lot of great indie performances in 2008, but Gonzales’s is among the best amateur performances I’ve ever seen, and by a child actor no less.

 

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky: Nine years before The Shape of Water, Hawkins broke out as a shining beacon of grace who is much more than just a cock-eyed optimist.

 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt: The movie doesn’t work without Hoffman’s tightrope-walk between sinner and saint.

 

 

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: Like Hawkins, 2008 was Jenkins’s breakout year, garnering him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this underseen indie gem.

 

Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In: Children’s performances are difficult to judge, but Leandersson finds the right mix of child and monster that makes me wish the Swedish film industry had made better use of her since.

 

Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky: The polar opposite of Hawkins’s character, Marsan is great when his fuse reaches its limit, but even better in the underlying tension before.

 

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road: Another breakout performance from a Shape of Water cast member, Shannon introduced his one-of-a-kind brilliance to audiences as a troubled man who sees things for what they are.

 

Meryl Streep, Doubt: One of her more severe performances, Streep is a nun who is terribly committed to a justice based on her own intuition rather than any sort of truth.

 

Future Top Fives

2010

Lesley Manville, Another Year
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

2011

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

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

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

2014

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

Sandra McCracken and the Valley

Sandra McCracken and the Valley

“Life is suffering, and then you die.” I was convinced this was a real quote that I had heard somewhere before, but after some research, I think it’s an amalgam of a lot of different variations I’ve heard over the years: “life is hard, and then you die;” “life sucks, and then you die;” “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” My personal favorite, from Cary Elwes as Wesley in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

This seems a pessimistic a view of the world, but it’s also hard to argue with. You could point to the many joys that life brings, but life also seems designed to take those joys away from you at some point, whether in a traumatic fashion or just in the slow, incessant passage of time. Even with all of our trappings of luxury here in America, we haven’t been able to keep suffering at bay. Everyone suffers, whether rich or poor.

I haven’t suffered, not really, not yet. But I know it’s coming someday. I seek comfort out constantly; much of my daily routine is built to avoid even the smallest amount of discomfort. But we live in a world of sin, so suffering is inevitable at some point, whether by my own hand or the world’s. Knowing this to be true, I’ve sought out several resources for how to process suffering. There are some good ones out there, but, by and large, the American church does a poor job not only of providing good teaching on suffering but also even acknowledging its existence.

Enter Sandra McCracken and her new album, Songs from the Valley. My first encounter with her music was in my last semester of grad school before I graduated and got married that June. She had just released Desire Like Dynamite, and it was one of those moments where you discover an artist that sounds like exactly what you had been looking for. Her pure voice combined with the simple images in her songwriting communicated something to me about walking in faith that I hadn’t found yet. I familiarized myself with the rest of her discography, from her solo work to her collaborations with the Indelible Grace collective, and she quickly became one of my favorite artists.

I knew of her as a person before I knew her music, because she was married to another Christian artist I liked, Derek Webb. He’s known as a kind of provocateur in Christian media, though I’ve found there’s a lot of hyperbole in Christian media when it comes to Webb. The truth is, most Christian artists are pretty staid and reserved when it comes to sharing details about their faith with the media, and Webb is very open about doubt. Also, he used the words “bastard” and “whore” in a song once, and people lost their shit- either in a bad way because those words were too worldly for them, or in a good way because they were starved for Christian artists who bucked the norms.

Webb collaborated with one of the Christian bands that influenced me the most, Caedmon’s Call. Their album, 40 Acres, gave me a language to express my faith during perhaps the one time in my life where I felt truly lost and in desperate need of my Savior. The same year that McCracken released Desire Like Dynamite, Webb released I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. By the time that record came out, I was married. I felt at the time that the title song was a poignant picture of reconciliation within the covenant of marriage, and I strove to learn how to say those words to my wife.

The next year, McCracken and Webb announced their divorce. In any world but the world of Christian media, two celebrities separating was obvious news. But a Christian ethic makes reporting on a divorce feel like gossip, so publications like Christianity Today and Relevant stayed away from the story. The best reporting I found on it came from the Washington Post’s religion blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey. McCracken and Webb are, of course, entitled to their privacy, and Webb did later confess to an affair. But in a sub-culture where the two of them function as celebrities, the lack of information at the time was strange.

Since then, McCracken has released several albums, but none that directly addressed her experience of the divorce. And the album she released this February, Songs from the Valley, continues that trend, though these songs are clearly and unapologetically written from a place of suffering. The reviews I’ve seen of the album eschew any mention of her divorce, which I suppose is an attempt to be respectful. Interviews are the same, void of any questions about the experience, and maybe that’s what she wanted. Or maybe it’s the result of policies from the various outlets that published those pieces.

But this is just a blog, and I’m nobody, so I want to say the obvious thing about this record: Sandra McCracken got divorced in 2014, this is her best music since then, and those two facts are linked.

This isn’t a breakup album, the way it’s traditionally understood. These songs are not about breaking up, but they are about the process of navigating through the pain therein. McCracken recorded these seven songs over the last three years, while most of her recent official releases have focused on corporate worship, from 2015’s collection, Psalms, through 2016’s more proper album, God’s Highway, to last year’s live album, Steadfast Live. These were the most vertically oriented albums of her career, adopting praise and worship of the living God as her focus rather than her usual introspective writing.

Those albums are all worthwhile in their own rights, but they definitely feel different from her output from 2014 and before. Songs from the Valley feels like a return to the personal for McCracken, a step just as necessary as the three worship albums that preceded it. After all, part of worshiping God is knowing yourself and your position as a beloved child before God. Introspection by itself can be debilitating; introspection with the aim of worship is life-giving.

It is up for debate whether or not McCracken is addressing her divorce directly on Songs from the Valley, but it would be a short debate. Album opener, “Fool’s Gold,” begins with the line, “Nobody needs another love song,” declares that her kids have “a life more complicated,” and described her heart as “worth more than dropping in the breaks.” The next song, “Reciprocate,” features an accusing chorus of “You could not reciprocate.” In the final song, “Letting Go,” she describes herself as “trampled by a tempest,” and laments that she has “been holding up the last of my defenses.”

But this album speaks to more than just McCracken’s experience of broken love. There is also stunning imagery surrounding the process of learning to keep living while suffering. “Oh Gracious Light” finds her “walking so long in darkness,” but her experience of God’s “refining holy fire” draws her into the light.  On “Lover of My Soul,” she describes forgiveness as “a pathway with a thousand bolted doors.” And on “Parrot in Portugal,” McCracken finds solace in God’s fastidious care for the birds in the trees mirroring his love for us.

I suppose this would still be a great album even without understanding McCracken’s personal history. But within the context of Christian music history, having an album so directly and intimately address divorce is huge. Sandi Patty and Amy Grant both faced a lot of ugly scrutiny in the 1990s after their divorces. The church often does a poor job of loving people going through divorce, choosing judgment rather than discipleship, and this has historically extended to its celebrities. Listening to Songs in the Valley provides a clear, nuanced picture of choosing divorce yet still running toward God.

More importantly though, McCracken confronts her suffering head-on in these songs. Christian music so rarely deals with suffering at such an intimate level. The mainstream of Christian music is concerned mostly with inspiration and encouragement: worship music that wants you to feel good, rather than help you to deal with feeling bad. Of course there are examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. And an album that deals with loving God while suffering from front to back is almost unheard of.

It makes sense in retrospect that Sandra McCracken spent the three albums following 2014 diving into worship songs. I can only imagine it helped maintain a sense of perspective in a dark place. The truth is, life isn’t suffering. Sandra McCracken is remarried now, and good for her. For most people, life is a collection of seasons both joyful and painful, and a whole lot of mundane in between. I’m thankful for Songs from the Valley for the reminder that God enters into all of those seasons with the same love and power. He is the God of the valley too.

Quick Take: Phantom Thread

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

I approach all Paul Thomas Anderson movies with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Every one I’ve seen (the only one I haven’t is his first, Hard Eight) has been great, but challenging, and I guess I’m always afraid it’s going to go over my head. Phantom Thread definitely went over my head, but I’m still convinced it’s great. I think there are certain movies that don’t make sense until you’ve reached a certain point in your life, and I’m not sure I’ve been married long enough to appreciate the nuances at work in a movie that has Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Reynolds Woodcock, verbally abuse his wife (played by the sublime Vicky Krieps) who then poisons him (just a little) to make him sick and calm him down- and when Woodcock learns this, he kisses her! This is the most inexplicable scene in the movie, and it’s also the best. I don’t get it, but I love it.

Quicker take: What did I just watch, and why did I love it so much?

The Emotional Stakes of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

The Emotional Stakes of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

If the people at Marvel have accomplished anything with this 10-year experiment, they’ve at least made a movie that cannot be compared to any other movie. All those “most ambitious crossover event of all time” memes were funny and all, but the inescapable thought you have during Infinity War is, “this should not have worked.” All of these characters packed like sardines into one movie is not a recipe for a coherent, emotionally effective movie, let alone one directed by veterans of TV’s Community and Arrested Development, Anthony and Joe Russo. But the success of Infinity War is that the recipe worked: you can follow the plot, and it packs several emotional wallops, the best of which the Russo brothers save for the end.

Let’s not get too crazy with our praise though; Marvel doesn’t get points for creativity here. Combining the characters from the most popular movie franchise of the last decade is a no-brainer for a company that’s in the business of making money. I love these movies, but there’s no way I can’t be a little cynical about this. They figured out that investing in making the individual movies stand out on their own merits pays off big time when they get the band back together for the main event. But making money by making something good is still making something good, so I’m fine with being along for the ride.

My wife and I marathoned through all 18 movies preceding Infinity War in the month or two before its release. One of the undeniable conclusions (besides that 18 movies in one franchise is a lot to watch in a short time- we’ve set up a GoFundMe for all the work we missed*) is that the Marvel movies have been getting better. The movies from the first five years (with the exception of Iron Man and the first Captain America) are remarkably unfocused and even dull. The casting was everything; Chris Hemsworth’s charm carries the first two Thor movies, and Robert Downey Jr.’s carries the second two Iron Man movies.

Which makes the achievement of the first Avengers movie all the more impressive in retrospect. On a smaller scale than Infinity War, it shouldn’t have worked. The movies propping up that 2012 crossover event were not all that impressive, and yet director Joss Whedon presented us with a movie that was not only coherent in its visuals and its story, but also a hell of a lot of fun.

But since then, Marvel has flipped the script and invested heavily in making its individual movies stand out as much as or more than the Avengers movies. From Captain America: The Winter Soldier on, the studio has made it a priority to have the standalone movies tell singular stories that develop the characters. In other words, the standalone movies were legitimately standing alone. You weren’t just entertained, you actually began to care about the characters, because you watched them grow and learn and change. Steve Rogers, Thor, Peter Quill: they weren’t the same at the end of their movies as at the beginning.

However, the expectations for character development and emotional involvement are low for the Avengers movies. We know the difficulty level is high in a movie with 70+ characters, and we honestly just want to see the cool action sequences and hear some good one-liners. After Age of Ultron disappointed (I like it, but it’s the lesser Avengers of the first two by far), there was no way a movie could do what the original Avengers did, entertain at a high level while balancing way too many characters and plot points, and make us care.

And Infinity War does succeed in a lot of the same ways as the original Avengers. There are some awesome fight scenes. I’d even go so far as to say that action scenes are better, even though the original’s remain fun six years later. But the Russo’s have two action-packed Captain America movies under their belts, and they know how to build suspense and help the audience follow what is happening from punch to punch. They’ve also mastered finding stakes within each action sequence.

For example, the first big fight scene between two of Thanos’s henchman and the earth-protecting Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Wong, and Bruce Banner, along with an interloping Spider-Man, is clever and creative in its choreography, but also in how Banner discovers a rift between him and the Hulk in the midst of the battle. Iron Man is also occupied with more than just the fight: he has to protect Peter Parker as well. This gives meaning to the action, and furthers the plot without too much exposition.

When you have all these characters to juggle, there’s no way to grow them all unless you include some of that character development in the action sequences as well. In a fight between Thanos and Strange, Stark, and some of the Guardians, Quill learns something that inspires a response from him mid-fight, changing the entire course of the movie. Later, the Russos juxtapose shots of Thanos batting each Avenger away like insects with the Vision desperately trying to convince the Scarlet Witch to destroy the stone in his head, and we watch her agonize over the prospect of killing her love while Thanos deals with our heroes as if they were crumbs on his lap. I wouldn’t say that the movie as a whole sees a ton of concrete character development, because the ending is a cliffhanger. But individual scenes have stakes, and the combination of action and plot makes us care while being in awe of who’s overpowering who and how they’re doing it. It’s a tightrope act we’re unlikely to see ever again.

…until next year when the next Avengers movie comes out. Where does Marvel go from here? I’m not talking fan theories about plot or business realities, such as the fact that Marvel has dates already set for Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels, plus the reality that Black Panther is their highest-grossing movie and there is no way in Wakanda they would abandon that character to its Infinity War fate.

No, I’m more curious how the next Avengers movie carries this emotional weight going forward. For as much as Infinity War’s ending has to be undone in some way, it still felt real. And that’s not mentioning the other characters’ whose passing felt even more irreversible, like Loki, Heimdall, and Gamora. Zoe Saldana, in particular, gave such a moving performance for a superhero movie, it’s hard to imagine this wasn’t her curtain call.

But the balance between superb action and weighty emotion is a tough one to find. The Russo brothers have proven adept at it, but can they sustain it when the bar is this high? At this point, I wouldn’t bet against Marvel. Everything they touches turns into gold, and I’m not just talking about their profit margins. These movies are going to be beloved for a long time. Until the next Avengers comes out, let’s appreciate Infinity War for what it is: a singular achievement that never should have worked in the first place.

*In case my boss reads this, this is a joke. I swear I didn’t take any leave to watch Marvel movies.

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.