Quick Take: The Big Sick

If we have to keep watching Judd Apatow movies, I pray he continues embracing a diversity of voices. Trainwreck wasn’t much more than that, but at least it wasn’t a schlubby, white, male comedian telling the same story Apatow has been telling since The 40-Year-Old Virgin- essentially a romantic comedy from the perspective of a child stuck in the body of a man. Some of those have been worthwhile (Virgin, Knocked Up) and others have been not (Funny People).

The Big Sick, from Pakistani-American comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, has more ground to cover than a man who can’t get his life together in time to hold on to the right girl (in this case, played by Zoe Kazan, who kind of runs away with the movie). Kumail is afraid his family will disown him if he commits to a white girl rather than one of the Pakistani girls his mother keeps trying to set him up with. Oh, and that white girl goes into a coma after a rare condition exacerbates an infection.

The movie is always more than its conceit. Meaning, it’s never just “that rom-com where the girl goes into a coma.” This is probably because the story is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his real-life wife and co-screenwriter, Emily V. Gordon. There are a lot of laughs, especially once Emily’s parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both pitch perfect) show up. But it’s the drama, not the comedy, that sticks with you. Like most romantic comedies, you’re never unsure of how it will end, especially since Kumail and Emily are still married. But unlike most romantic comedies, The Big Sick fills out its edges with who these characters really are. And, equally as rare, the movie uncovers some truths about the messy relationship between time, healing, and love.

TL;DR: Worthy of the upcoming sequel, The Big Sick 2: Bigger and Sicker (unconfirmed).


The Battle of the Sexes Honors Billie Jean King, but Not Enough

The Battle of the Sexes Honors Billie Jean King, but Not Enough

On a road trip through Austin a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to see The Battle of the Sexes at an Alamo Drafthouse with some friends. While we were visiting them, we talked a lot about popularity versus quality. My Austinite friend, who shall remain unnamed lest you choose to judge him for what I am about to tell you, is a contrarian. If something is popular, he is 90% guaranteed not to like it, or at least to be very skeptical of it. I’ll give him some credit here; there are popular things that he likes. However, he may be ashamed of that.

At any rate, while I cannot call myself a contrarian, I think he has a worthy perspective. People as a whole are often wrong about things. How else do we explain Imagine Dragons? This is especially true if you have a low view of human nature. I imagine that if John Calvin lived in the Age of Netflix, he too would be a contrarian. But I like a lot of popular things, and if we believe in the imago dei, we have to accept that sometimes people get things right. How else do we explain Beyoncé?

This is really the only framework within which to understand the fact that The Battle of the Sexes exists as a movie. The actual Battle of the Sexes was a tennis match between washed up Grand Slam winner, Bobby Riggs, and the best player in women’s tennis at the time, Billie Jean King, who made huge strides for equal pay in the tennis world and has furthered AIDS activism around the globe. The Battle of the Sexes was like a circus; King entered on a litter carried by oiled-up male models, and Riggs was accompanied by scantily clad women. Of all the ways to pay respect and homage to the life of an American pioneer like Billie Jean King, they focus on one of the most gimmicky sporting events of all time?

The most obvious explanation for this is the fact that 90 million people watched the event on television worldwide. It was a sideshow, but an extremely popular sideshow. This means we have to remember it in the history books, but do we need a movie about it? In the movie, the filming of the match itself is pretty exciting. But I’m not convinced the Battle of the Sexes was significant beyond its high ratings, even though the movie sure wants me to be.

I could forgive the movie for this if the rest of it was more interesting. The cast is very game. Steve Carell, as Riggs, captures both the clownish exterior he showed the people around him as well as the increasingly desperate man inside. Emma Stone plays King as determined in the face of a changing world, one that was still not accepting of who she truly was. But a game cast can only do so much if the game is paint-by-numbers.

For a sports movie making some attempt at historical significance, The Battle of the Sexes is fairly entertaining. It also has moments that are moving and genuinely inspiring. The incomparable Alan Cumming, who plays the stylist for the women’s tennis tour, has the movie’s best line. After King beats Riggs, she is overwhelmed by the moment, and Cumming’s character, Ted Tinling, takes her aside. Addressing both the moment and her fears at being outed as a lesbian, Tinling tells her, “Times change. You should know; you just changed them.” It’s a humane moment in a movie that didn’t try hard enough to be full of them.

The bulk of the non-tennis parts of the movie are centered around King’s blossoming understanding of her sexuality, which is helped along by a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough. King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), discovers their affair and is strangely stoic about it. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) may have chosen to explore this, but the movie makes the choice early on to be about the upcoming match between King and Riggs and little else. When you hear King talk about this time in her life, it’s clear it was far more complicated than the movie portrays.

And this is what the movie is lacking: complication of any sort. There is conflict, to be sure, but no complexity. It all comes back to the notion of this match between King and Riggs being the focal point of the story. In the movie’s match, King defeats Riggs and sexism while gaining confidence in her sexuality. In real life, Barnett ended up suing King for alimony, and Larry ended up becoming the godfather to King’s children with her future partner. There’s no room for life’s nuances in a circus. And when you make your movie about a circus, there’s little room for life.

Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

The headlines surrounding the Blade Runner sequel right now are about how it bombed at the box office. Blade Runner 2049 made about $9 million less than it was expected to, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a $31 million opening doesn’t bode well for its chances to recoup its $150 million budget. I don’t think anyone outside of the studio that released it was surprised. It baffled me that they were treating a sequel to an uber-genre box office bomb from 1982 as if it were going to be a blockbuster. Sure, the original Blade Runner became a cult hit after a long history of LaserDisc success, director’s cuts, and retrospective critical acclaim. But they’re called cult hits for a reason, and it’s not because everyone wants to be in the cult.

Though Blade Runner 2049 may be mimicking its predecessor in box office non-success, its critical success upon release is far outpacing the original’s. When the original came out, critics hated the voiceover that the studio forced director Ridley Scott to add after they decided audiences needed to identify more with Harrison Ford’s Deckard. In contrast, 2049 has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 81. Critics have especially high praise for Roger Deakins’s cinematography and the way director Denis Villenueve expands on the original’s themes of identity and reality.

Make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 is often breathtaking to look at, and its themes are thoughtfully presented in the screenplay and the movie’s visuals. The original focused on Ford’s detective and his hunt for escaped replicants (what this world calls its androids), while leaving it up in the air through the end of the movie whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. 2049, on the other hand, erases any ambiguity from the beginning by establishing in the first scene that Ryan Gosling’s detective, K, is a replicant. The audience knowing K’s status allows Villenueve to expand on the original’s themes rather than simply replicate them.

If you don’t like science fiction or if you don’t like slow movies, Blade Runner 2049 probably isn’t going to do it for you. It’s beautifully shot, and there are some compelling moments of action, but this is an art movie disguised by blockbuster marketing. I love genre movies and films that take their time, so it would seem that Blade Runner 2049 was tailor-made for me. And I liked it. But as much as the first movie is sewn into the seams of 2049, the new ultimately suffers from comparison to the old.

The original movie, by keeping Deckard’s identity a mystery, mirrored real-life questions about human origin. Rutger Hauer’s replicant villain, Roy Batty, provides the movie’s climax with his death and his breathless description of the miraculous sights he had seen in space. This is one of the great scenes in all of cinematic science fiction, Batty clearly articulating why being designed doesn’t mean he deserves to live any less than a human, all while Scott lights Hauer almost as if he were an angel. And this, after he saves Deckard’s life, knowing he will die regardless. But the movie continues after that and ends without Deckard discovering what he is, a human or an android. He runs off anyway with the replicant he loves (Sean Young). There are no easy answers regarding our existence, but that’s no reason to forego living life.

2049, by making his identity clear from the beginning, there is ultimately no mystery about K’s origins. His purpose is up in the air for much of the movie, but 2049 does not leave this ambiguous the way the original did with Deckard. The ending is purposely similar to the 1982 ending, but the wonder is gone. Instead, everything is cold, pragmatic, full of purpose rather than spirit.

That’s not to say the movie is heartless; I was quite moved. But where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner raised its eyes to the heavens in the end, Denis Villenueve’s remains grounded. I like Villenueve’s; but I’d honestly rather look up.

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Top Ten

10. Hell or High Water: I saw someone write last year that Hell or High Water was a movie about “Trump country”, which is one of the more annoying phrases you could include in a thinkpiece. Their point was that the movie is about the sufferings of flyover country, which is fair, but Trump doesn’t come to mind when I watch this. Obviously there are people with big names that have screwed over a lot of people, but watching the taut filmmaking and intimate story of Hell or High Water is a reminder that corruption runs from the top of the totem pole all the way down.

9. Everybody Wants Some!!: Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, is more of a college movie than a baseball movie, but both aspects are crucial to appreciating it. As a college movie, Everybody is rambling and aimless, in a good way; as a baseball movie, Everybody captures the looming uncertainty of a prospect’s future. The combination of the two manages to concoct a rare formula of haphazard poignancy.

8. La La Land: At this point, I’ve mostly forgotten what the backlash was even about. I mostly just remember how wrecked I was after the final scene, one of the most effective endings to a mainstream movie in recent memory. And I mostly just want to watch La La Land again as soon as possible and lets its musical and visual beauty just wash over me.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings: There are franchises and sequels in the honorable mention section of this post, but it’s telling that the Top Ten is made of up of original movies. Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable from the stop-motion masters at Laika, may be the most original of them all. Kubo, a young boy with a musical gift, must team up with a snow monkey and a giant beetle to confront his grandfather (the moon) and his aunts to retrieve his left eye and avenge his- listen, it’s good, I promise.

6. Green Room: Sadly, Green Room ended up being more relevant than I’m sure director Jeremy Saulnier wanted. Featuring an eerie Patrick Stewart performance and the best work of the late Anton Yelchin’s career, Green Room is scary as hell, and not just because it’s a horror movie where white supremacists are the monsters. It also includes some of the most suspenseful scenes of the year with a soundtrack that ratchets up the intensity.

5. Jackie: Jackie is not a traditional biopic. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Jackie gives us a truly intimate portrait of the former First Lady by showing us days following the death of her husband. One could be frustrated with not seeing more of her life, but biopics that attempt to show the subject’s whole life often try to do too much. By showing us only a small glimpse of Jackie Kennedy at her most vulnerable time, Larraín and star Natalie Portman paint a complex picture of a woman who also happened to be an icon. Jackie contains multitudes.

4. Arrival: Science fiction does not have to dabble in the realm of ideas. Cool lasers and aliens are often enough to satisfy me. Yet the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of the themes of discovery and progress, it is hard to find a science fiction movie that does not touch on them. Arrival may surpass them all. With a simple conceit, but a remarkably intricate inner structure, Arrival hits on all levels intellectual and emotional.

3. American Honey: When I first saw director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I tweeted that it was the best American indie movie I’d seen since 2008’s Chop Shop, which was clearly not true, even at the time, since I had already seen the two movies above American Honey on this list. What American Honey and Chop Shop do have in common is that they both personify the fight to survive in the midst of the American dream. Sasha Lane’s character in Honey, Star, joins up with a traveling magazine sales team partly because she needs to make some money. Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the man who recruits her, is a part of the team because he thinks he will hustle his way to prosperity. Everyone on the team is either forgotten by society or used by others as a foothold to a future they will never see, but Arnold finds triumph in the life they build anyway.

2. The Witch: There are three horror movies that have created a ripple in the structure of my Christian faith. I don’t mean to say that they shook my faith, only caused me to think differently about my God and His will. The first was The Exorcist, which is so effective in its terrifying portrayal of the random corruption of innocence that I was forced to consider what the existence of demons truly means. The second was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not a particularly good movie, but which so directly faces the idea that God allows awful things to happen to the people who love Him. The third is The Witch, which deals with the seductive power of the devil in the face of a cold, godless world. The Witch was marketed as a horror movie, and it is certainly creepy and suspenseful, but it is not a traditional horror movie in the slightest. It is horrifying, but more for its ideas than for its jump scares. The ending alone would place The Witch among the horror movie greats, but it’s the slowly unraveling journey there that gives the ending its power and ultimately makes The Witch among the best movies of the year.

1. Moonlight: In the Oscars’ entire 89-year history, there had never been a mistake like the one at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight will always be associated with everything surrounding that error: Warren Beatty’s confusion, the grace and pain of the La La Land producers, the wild applause that greeted Moonlight’s announcement, and the revelation later that one of the accountants messed up because he was trying to get a freaking selfie with Emma Stone. It truly was a historic moment, so if Moonlight forever brings up that memory, that’s okay.

But its win was historic for other reasons too: the least expensive Best Picture winner (by far), the first with all African-American actors in its starring roles, the first with an explicitly LGBTQ character as its main character (you could count 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but because that film basically treats Jon Voight’s character’s sexuality as a pathology, I don’t think you should).

Even if Moonlight was not a historic Best Picture winner, it would have deserved to be remembered. I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks its actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

 Another Fifteen

Captain America: Civil War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Fits
Hail, Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
Pete’s Dragon
Sunset Song

Past Top Tens


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


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Guardians of the Galaxy
Blue Ruin


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


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


Take Shelter
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Battle Royale
Super 8

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2016

Top Ten Albums

10. Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.: Someday, we are going to look back on 2016 and remember Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. as a great album for all its virtues and not for how it spoke to current events. We will listen to its frenetic rhythms and sweeping melodies, and we will relate to its expression of anxiety, free of any context as a great rock record, a paragon of pop punk. Its biting sarcasm, its contagious choruses, its backdoor hipsterdom- these will be its talking points, and not about how it speaks to “Trump’s America”.

9. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life: Writing about music has become increasingly uniform, to where a handful of artists dominate the media conversation in any given week. I enjoy a lot of these artists that are “relevant”, but an artist like Courtney Marie Andrews gives me a singular kind of pleasure reserved only for artists that feel like discoveries. Andrews, who combines Laurel Canyon vibes with her beautiful, Appalachian-folksy voice, deserves recognition as the best folk artist of the year, though I’m likely the only one that will give it to her.

8. Bon Iver, 22, a Million: Every Bon Iver album is different, yet they are all the same. Each release further deconstructs the reserved folk sound with which frontman Justin Vernon achieved fame, yet each release feels as comfortable as the best examples of the folk genre. 22, a Million is his most fractious work so far, yet Vernon is still crafting melodies that soothe the anxiety buried within his production.

7. Sho Baraka, The Narrative: Christian rap was ahead of mainstream rap with its forays into social consciousness by about a year, with some of its main stars releasing songs about police brutality in response to Ferguson well before any of their mainstream counterparts. The Narrative may be Christian rap’s social justice manifesto, putting into lyrics and beats a working theology of African-American history and emotion. Baraka has always been one of the most creative individuals in the genre (secular or no), and The Narrative finds him firing on all cylinders.

6. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings: Miranda Lambert never ceases to amaze me. After divorcing Blake Shelton following rumors of his infidelity, you might expect a fiery artist like Lambert to unleash the breakup album to utterly end all breakup albums, full of vitriol that would make “Before He Cheats” poop its pants. Instead, she releases her most subdued album yet, stretching it out over 17 songs, and finding as-yet-unreached depths that are far more cathartic than any stereotypical, crazy-ex-girlfriend songs could have been.

5. Solange, A Seat at the Table: This record was not made for me; this is a record made by a black woman for black women. In her thoroughly considered lyrics and her alternately light and forceful voice, Solange tells a story of the duality of a black woman in 2016. Empowerment is the goal, yes, but also affirmation, that it is okay to be angry or frustrated. There are historical touchstones Solange is drawing on here that are beyond my scope of understanding, but the album feels like a historical document, reaching across time to combine styles and ideologies. This was not a record made for me, but there is so much here for me to learn.

4. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: I don’t know what music historians are going to do with the rock music of today. Rock is far from dead, though people like to claim so again and again. The truth is though that people just are not talking about the genre as much as they used to. Whatever the story they will tell, it is clear that a chapter must be reserved for Car Seat Headrest. Whether or not it fit into the national conversation, Teens of Denial embodied indie sensibilities and it embodied a rock ethos, and if indie rock is anything anymore, this is it.

3. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Simpson got a lot of mileage last year as an alternative to the country establishment, so much so that his album was somehow nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, a welcome but unexpected honor. The artist himself plays down his alternative status, probably because he knows that good is good, bad is bad, and alternative is neither. But Sailor’s is truly something different than your usual alt-country. He channels funk, grunge, and R&B at different points, creating a melting pot of styles and vibes. It’s all in the earnest service of celebrating his newborn son and creating art that his son can later experience to learn something about beauty and love.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade: It’s impossible to think about Lemonade the album apart from Lemonade the movie, which was such a titanic statement of black womanhood that it threatens to bury Lemonade the album in history’s back pages. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen (because history will undoubtedly look to Coulda Been a Contender for all legacy issues); listening to Lemonade was one of the great, joyful experiences of 2016. We spend so much time talking about who Beyoncé is apart from her music; she became a cultural icon before she even made her best art, which has continually gotten better since. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is nothing like the five that came before, but it is also the perfect culmination of her life’s work- including her music, her brand, her motherhood, and, yes, her role as the scorned woman. Hell hath no fury like Lemonade.

1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Not only was Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of 2016, it was also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscious, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that his God is about joy.

There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through Coloring Book, after several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two glorious minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And only then does Chance rap, expounding on the idea that true freedom comes from loving God more than the world, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.

Chance is a phenomenon at this point. He may go on to rap about many other subjects that have little to do with his faith. But Coloring Book, in all its gospel-tinged glory, will stand as a new template for how a mainstream rapper fits his music into his faith, rather than the other way around.

Another Fifteen

Alicia Keys, Here
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
NAO, For All We Know
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Rihanna, ANTI
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Various Artists, Southern Family
Whitney, Light upon the Lake

Past Top Tens


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


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


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


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


Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele, 21
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé, 4
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Studio horror movies are in something of a renaissance right now. It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood’s idea of a scary movie stretched from cheap J-horror knockoffs to uninspired remakes of iconic classics. Good horror movies have always thrived along the edges of the industry, finding cheap ways to make audiences jump while functioning as metaphors for reality’s ills. That is still the case today, but mainstream studios have caught on to a formula that works too.

This year has been especially great, what with Get Out becoming a veritable phenomenon, Annabelle: Creation overperforming critical expectations, and mother! sparking conversational controversy. But It dwarfs them all in terms of success, seeing as it just became the highest-grossing horror movie of all time this last week. It is poised to cross the $300 million mark within the next 2 weeks, which is insane for a movie without a name actor or director. On top of all that, its word-of-mouth has not slowed down, which means It will stay near the top of the box office for a great length of time.

Bad movies make a lot of money all the time. But It avoided falling into easy horror movie pitfalls by following a formula established in the early 2010s by Insidious and Conjuring director James Wan: tell a character-driven story and let the scares grow organically from there. Other mainstream directors who have successfully pulled this off this decade are Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and then Doctor Strange) and Andy Muschietti (Mama and, whaddaya know, It). These men have taken an approach that has worked forever in indie horror and applied a slick studio budget. Surprise! Movies are better when they not only look expensive but care about their characters.

It, based on the 1986 book by Stephen King (which is 1116 pages, by the way- 1116 pages!), introduces us to a group of seven kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1988. The town is under a curfew, due to the recent disappearances of several children. Our seven protagonists are all social outcasts at their high school; they call themselves the Losers Club. One by one, they have encounters with a terrifying evil force in the town. The force, which they call It and which often manifests as a malevolent clown named Pennywise, preys on their fears, taking the form of whatever will frighten them the most.

It also targets their problems at home to break them down and divide them. The main character, Bill, has a brother, Georgie, who was taken by It; It manifests as Georgie throughout the movie, taunting Bill’s helplessness to save him. Mike’s parents died in a fire, so It takes the form of disembodied arms reaching around doors engulfed in flames. Beverly, the lone girl, has an abusive father, so It plays with her emotions surrounding his perverse feelings for her.

The movie is at its best here, at the intersection of the kids’ insecurities as high schoolers and It’s terrifying presence. Horror movies are usually better and scarier when they are about something, and It, for all of its jump scares and horrifying imagery and the extreme levels of gore, is ultimately about growing up. A lot of movies are about growing up, but It makes growing up seem absolutely petrifying. It’s horrors are supernatural, but the supernatural scares of It expose the natural scares of adolescence in a world where evil is real and doesn’t look like a clown.

I read It when I was in high school and related to its portrayal of outsider kids. I would not have called myself a loser back then, but I definitely wasn’t a part of any cool crowd either. The book put into words that in-between feeling I had as a teenager, scared that people would see me for who I really was, still a child yet not a man. The movie captures this too, in images rather than words. The best horror movies are about something, and It is one of the best.

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Top Five

5. Sasha Lane, American Honey: Lane has an easy story to root for; director Andrea Arnold found her spring breaking on a beach in Florida and cast her in the lead role in her next movie on the spot. She grew up on the poverty line in Frisco, Texas, a mixed girl in a white world, not too far from my own hometown of Plano. There are a lot of factors that made American Honey one of the year’s best movies: the soundtrack, Shia LeBeouf’s charisma, Arnold capturing the beauty in the struggle to even dream the American dream. But none of it matters without Lane, whose naturalism is more than a reflection of her amateur status. Sasha Lane is a star, able to convey charisma and vulnerability within a heart’s beat of each other.

4. Colin Farrell, The Lobster: Colin Farrell has had a very strange career for someone that has played along the edges of the A list, but The Lobster is the strangest and best thing he has ever done. The role received a lot of attention for how much weight he had to gain for it, but forget that for a second. Also, forget every other role he has played, because David in The Lobster is nothing like them. He is a schlub living in a world devoid of romanticism that requires an absurdist level of social norms. Farrell takes the absurd and makes it normal, ultimately making us believe that true love is worth whatever sacrifice it takes.

3. Amy Adams, Arrival: Amy Adams’s performance, like the movie it appears in, came out of nowhere. We have seen a lot of sides of Amy Adams: the bright innocence of Junebug and Enchanted; the hardened experience of The Fighter and The Master; the downtrodden oppression of American Hustle and Big Eyes. With Arrival, we see unconditional love, peace, joy. For all its obvious science fiction characteristics, the strength of Arrival is in the pure religion of Amy Adams.

2. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight: One of the shames of the Best Picture snafu on Oscar night this year is that now, when we look back at the movie and its performances, the first thing we will bring up is La La Land or Warren Beatty. My sincere hope is that people see the movie without comparing it to La La Land, largely because I want them to experience Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer, in Moonlight, but he does not fit your stereotypes of what you think he should be. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when the main character, Chiron, tries to understand his own sexuality by asking Juan hard questions. In the process, Juan has to face some hard truths about himself, and it’s one of the best examples of unspoken vulnerability I’ve seen onscreen.

1. Natalie Portman, Jackie: And this may be the best example I’ve seen. Before Portman in Jackie, I may have said the paragon of portrayals of real-life icons was Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, or maybe George C. Scott as General Patton. You could even make a case for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, even if the movie doesn’t quit live up to his transformation. But none of those actors exposes his soul the way Natalie Portman does here. We are familiar with Jackie Kennedy’s story following the assassination of her husband: the moment where she reaches out over the back of the car to retrieve the bits of her husband’s skull; that she remained in her pink suit, stained with her husband’s blood, during President Johnson’s swearing-in. But Portman takes us deep into the grief Kennedy must have been feeling. Not grief for a loving husband, though that too. But grief for her public identity as his wife, grief for a lost way of life, grief for the grand ideas that would die with him, and, yes, grief for her own loss of power and importance. Portman portrays Kennedy as far shrewder than popular history ever has. John F. Kennedy’s death would have been a tragedy had he never had a wife. But after seeing the event unfold through Portman’s eyes, Jackie Kennedy’s perspective feels like the only necessary one.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Viola Davis, Fences
Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Andre Holland, Moonlight
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
Ashton Sanders, Moonlight
Emma Stone, La La Land
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Denzel Washington, Fences
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Anton Yelchin, Green Room

Past Top Fives


Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant


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


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


Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower


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