Top 30 Movies of 2017

I know I know, a little late to the party. But with the Oscars just around the corner, what better time to say what movies from last year were the best of the best. Because who knows better: the Academy or a 20-something journalist with snark and sarcasm to boot? So in honor of my lateness and about how great the year 2017 was for movies, I figure I’d expand my annual list to 30 movies. Because again, 2017 was a damn good year at the cinema. We had blockbusters made with some genuine creativity and imagination both with their special effects and writing, paired with the continuously-improving independent film scene. It felt like 2017 was when creators were fully in-charge of their projects instead of the feel of studio interference in a lot of 2016’s worse movies. So in the vein of celebration and the prizes of all movie prizes just days away, here are my top 30 movies of 2017.

 

ingrid-goes-west1

  1. Ingrid Goes West

It’s actually amazing that’s taken so long for someone to make a satire comedy about the dark side of being Instagram famous. Co-writer and director Matt Spicer’s slightly grim and side-splitting comedy stars Aubrey Plaza finally breaking out of her own droll gaze as a mentally unstable woman who falls in love with the life of an L.A. Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen, hilariously bitchy) and does everything possible to become her friend. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith use cringe comedy merely as a front to display the deeply-troubled effects of obsessions with likes and follow sprees. It’s led by Plaza in a truly star-making performance that a strong blend of comic, dramatic and impossible to look away from.

 

call-me-by-your-name-2

  1. Call Me By Your Name

In 2015, director Luca Guadagnino used sexual tension and rock-and-roll to play a four-way cat and mouse game in the bright but kooky A Bigger Splash. This year, he decided to cut the BS and present one of the most tender and heartfelt romances in 2017 cinema. Based on the 2007 novel, it follows a summer romance in Northern Italy, 1983 between 17-year-old introvert Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the laid-back visiting student (Armie Hammer) of his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). The two, both womanizers in their own rights, find common ground in their intelligence and freewheeling behavior that morphs into something more. Of course it’s beautifully shot (props to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and soundtracked by some glittering 80s new wave (and Sufjan Stevens, always a pleasure). What makes it pop is the booming chemistry between the two leads, equally shy of the unknown between them yet infatuated with each other. It’s the quiet but forceful debut of one actor (Chalamet) and the resurgence of talent for the other (Hammer).

 

1498538812549

  1. Baby Driver

It’s not fair to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst movie, because 1. It’s not a bad movie in any way, shape or form and 2. Edgar Wright has yet to make a bad movie. So let’s call the writer/director’s longtime passion project his “least-best” movie before going into what makes it still good. While its core is a run-of-the-mill “criminal tries to get out of the game” story following a baby-faced getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who meets his dream girl (Lily James) and tries to shake off a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and his band of baddies (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González). But Wright, being the obsessive perfectionist/lovable movie geek he is, sets nearly every bit of action and driving to a rocking soundtrack turning the movie into something of an action musical. On top of the flawless action scenes is some of the year’s best supporting turns from Hamm, Foxx and James. But this is Wright’s show, and very few are as good a ringmaster as he.

 

spider-man-homecoming

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Look, nobody needed another Spider-Man reboot. It’s actually quite amazing how everyone isn’t sick of Marvel’s geeky wallcrawler and his great responsibility and whatnot. But since Marvel (and Disney) likes money and Sony Pictures are desperate for a hit, the two studios pooled their resources and now we have the sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years. Wisely skipping the origin story, our new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a high school science geek in Queens who stops bike robberies and helps old ladies cross streets while trying to be taken seriously by stand-in father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He gets his chance when he tries to stop The Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing and selling alien weaponry on the black market. What Homecoming has in its corner is its full acceptance of being a screwball comedy that happens to have Spider-Man in it. Not only does Holland capture the geekiness and good heart of Peter Parker better than his predecessor (sorry Andrew), but he’s got a grounded yet charismatic adversary in Keaton’s Vulture. Seriously, we need Michael Keaton in more of our blockbusters.

 

40151-Captain-Underpants.1200w.tn

  1. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Yup, the children’s cartoon with potty humor that we all read when we were in elementary school is one of the best movies of the year. Sue me. What makes the cinematic debut of Dav Pilkey’s bald and misguided superhero (Ed Helms) created by two childhood buddies (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) so memorable is its understanding of what makes cartoon comedy work so well. Because Captain Underpants is such a silly premise to begin with, it opens up possibilities for more creative forms of comedy. Want to do a random live-action scene with sock puppets? Sure! How about an unbroken bit where Captain Underpants snaps back-and-forth into his alter ego at a breakneck pace? Absolutely! Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) understands that there is an art to being silly, and Captain Underpants has enough warm color and expertly-crafted antics that it could sit in the MoMA.

 

mudbound---still-2_31590835691_o-h_2017

 

  1. Mudbound

We can never leave the past behind. No matter how far America has come in terms of equality and civil rights, we must be reminded that there are still smudges in this country’s star-spangled history. One the year’s most striking reminders came from writer/director Dee Rees’s stirring and grim Netflix period drama about two World War II soldiers (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) who return home to Mississippi to face their own personal wars. One (Hedlund) has a drinking problem and can’t seem to measure up to the expectations of his seething racist father (Jonathan Banks) and farmer brother (Jason Clarke) with a unfulfilled wife (Carey Mulligan). The other (Mitchell) sees his mother (Mary J. Blige) and father (Rob Morgan) working for a white family still feeling the racial injustice of the south despite him being a war hero. Rees pulls no punches when presenting the cruelty of the southern white man, yet also finds the small ties that bind the different characters in the grim mud of the Mississippi farmland. She also has one of the best casts of the year working overtime with Mitchell, Mulligan and Blige lifting the movie up with their hearts on their sleeves.

 

Brody-Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It actually helps to like Star Wars but not be super invested in the mythos and cult of George Lucas’s over 40-year-old space opera This way when super-fans tear themselves apart over the eighth installment in the franchise, rioting in movie theaters when their midnight viewing is only slightly delayed then whining online after seeing the movie become “BAAAAD,” you can just sit back and shrug your shoulders enjoying the first legitimately interesting and different Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. Whether it’s focusing on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, never better) and his disillusionment with the Force against the hopes of Rey (Daisy Ridley, getting better), the evolution of conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, still the best) or the scrappy heroics of Resistance crew Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose (a beaming Kelly Marie Tran), writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) decides to let the past crutches of Star Wars die and shoot the characters in a new direction. Unlike the last risky Star Wars movie (The Phantom Menace *shivers*), The Last Jedi rolls the dice by making its villain deeper, turning the beloved imagine of Luke Skywalker into a heartbroken shell of himself, and showing how failure and loss is just as important in Star Wars as hope and heroism. And that’s all after witnessing the best-looking Star Wars movie to date. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s hard not to applaud a Star Wars movie that doesn’t rely on nostalgia and fan service to garner interest.

 

three-billboards-watching-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600-v6

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’ve always thought of writer/director Martin McDonagh as “classy Tarantino,” meaning a guy who doesn’t mind making movies laced with profanities, violence and darker subject matter but stages it like a grown-up character study instead of through the lens of 1970s pop culture. For his third feature film, McDonaugh decided to take some pages out of the Coen brothers’ playbook: small-town crime mystery, emotionally-damaged characters, Frances McDormand, etc. The longtime-Coen muse stars as a mother demanding answers for her daughter’s murder, so determined that she erects the titular ads calling out the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his dim-witted deputy (Sam Rockwell). While not as classically-tragic as his debut In Bruges but certainly more adult and grounded than his follow-up Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is a modern American story of people struggling to let go of the little things they had to keep them going through the day. Though it has some well-earned moments of hilarity (points to McDormand and Rockwell with solo charisma and great chemistry together), it’s a grim tale of small-town anguish over injustice, literal and personal.

 

margot-robbie-i-tonya

  1. I, Tonya

It’s rare that America looks back fondly or sympathetically on its subjects of tabloid fixation and overexposure. That said, Tonya Harding deserves an apology from everyone in the country who wrote the blonde former figure skating champion off as crazy white trash. I, Tonya pleads the case that Ms. Harding, who was publicly shamed for being tied into an attack against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, was merely a victim of a brutal upbringing, a rushed romance with an abuser and the American people’s obsession with people more miserable than they are. Lead by Margot Robbie in the title role, which certifies her as a damn good actress, I, Tonya follows Harding from an upbringing with a monstrously-pushy mother (Allison Janney, equal parts hilarious and horrifying) to her tumultuous marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, showing himself more than the ratty wig of the Winter Soldier) and how her obsession with perfection and victory against the skating world that looked down on her led to her downfall. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) orchestrates a biopic that’s like if Martin Scorsese remade Ice Castles: raw, raunchy and rarely taking its foot off the gas. But when he zooms in on his title character and how she handled becoming a princess to a pariah, it becomes some damning evidence against America’s love of a villain in the spotlight (how times have changed, eh?).

 

v1.bjsxNDEyNDkyO2o7MTc2NTY7MTIwMDszMjAwOzE0NDc

  1. War for the Planet of the Apes

In a world where audiences flock to movies about capes and spandex, it’s truly shocking to find one of the most heroic movie characters of the year is a computer-generated talking ape. Matt Reeves second (and final) turn directing the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise manages to be an epic and entertaining summer blockbuster while also being the darkest and most heartfelt of the new trilogy. After the battle of San Francisco in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe into the woods to avoid the attacks of an anti-ape military battalion and its ruthless commander (Woody Harrelson). But when Caesar and tribe suffer heavy losses, Caesar treks through the snow for a final assault against the battalion. What makes War such a striking summer blockbuster is how reserved it is and focused more on the duality between its hero and villain than explosions.  Between the impressive set pieces and action scenes is the almighty Andy Serkis as Caesar carrying the emotional burden of being a lone avenger for his struggling ape brethren even as he starts to lose faith. It’s true acting, all while wearing a gray onesie with dots on his face.

 

LEVELUP_post_master-2

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Behind all of his love for snarky comedy, gross monsters and 70s/80s pop-rock, writer/director James Gunn does have a soft spot for family drama and togetherness. He takes outsiders, rejects, abandoned children and total assholes and brings them together because even if they don’t like each other, they’re all they’ve got. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is arguably the most emotional movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on the daddy issues of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the dissenting rebels of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (a very impressive Michael Rooker) and the torn sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). What makes Vol. 2 one of the most outstanding comic book movies of the new decade (maybe of all time) aside from the gorgeous visual effects, creative set design, great soundtrack and the lovable cast is the heart that Gunn writes into his characters. Gunn, the sole writer on this endeavor, impressively juggles the right amount of development for all the characters while putting on a colorful and wacky sci-fi/action spectacle. He sees the Guardians as equal parts children and parents to each other, petulant about where they stand on the team but always there to help the other up after getting thrown around by a giant space monster. The Guardians may never get along, but who else would put up with their baggage. All of this while a vibrant imagination runs wild, fantastic entertainment.

 

T2-Trainspotting-Ewan-McGregor-Jonny-Lee-Miller

  1. T2 Trainspotting

A sequel to a beloved cultural time capsule 21 years too late? Yes, the very idea of T2 Trainspotting is off-putting. So surprise surprise that original director Danny Boyle got the gang back together again for another darkly comic romp through cultural dissention and drug-addled mischief. Clean and well-adjusted Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the dirty slums of Edinburgh for the first time since he stole money from his friends after a drug deal. He runs into his old pals Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), no better off than where he left them but sparking something inspirational in Renton. That is, if he doesn’t get killed by former-buddy/recent-jailbird Begbie (Robert Carlyle). T2 doesn’t harbor on the nostalgia of the Britpop days. Instead, it manages to further develop its main characters in a believable way. It makes total sense that all four of the youthful, reckless leads turned into bitter, disappointing shells of their former selves. No matter how much they try to relive their substance-addled days of old, Boyle and writer John Hodge (from Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel, no less) keep the dark cloud of reality all over their heads. As Renton says, “Choose life….we thought it was amusing at the time.” How time flies.

 

Colossal-Movie-Trailer-2017-Anne-Hathaway

  1. Colossal

I guess Hollywood has run out of ways to make movies about the dangers of substance abuse outside of say, a Lifetime original movie with high school kids discovering booze for the first time. So why not hide an abuse drama inside of a giant monster movie? Colossal’s trojan horse plot is the sighting of a giant monster that starts randomly appearing and disappearing in Seoul with no explanation why. The lone Greek hiding in the plot is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an alcoholic that’s been dumped by her boyfriend and forced to move home. After reconnecting with an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) and indulging in heavy drinking, she wakes up the next morning to find her drunken demeanor is eerily similar to that of the monster. Despite the mystery of how Gloria and the monster are connected being the selling point of the movie, it’s actually the least interesting part of Colossal. Instead, Nacho Vigalondo’s character study is less zany than it could’ve been and instead focuses on the negatives of Gloria’s dependency. It hangs on the performance of Hathaway and Sudeikis: the former being more believably human and interesting on screen than she has in a long time, and the later providing a shockingly effective dramatic turn.

 

The-Lost-City-of-Z

  1. The Lost City of Z

In 1980, writer/director Michael Cimino released his highly-anticipated follow up to The Deer Hunter known as Heaven’s Gate. It was long, it was epic, it was ambitious, and it bombed like mad with critics and audiences. But what if Heaven’s Gate was a smash success and Cimino was so made in Hollywood that his next movie could’ve been even more grand and epic? We’ll never know, but it would probably look a lot like this stunning adaptation of David Grann’s book. It’s the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, reminding everyone how capable a movie star he is), a British explorer in the early 1900s looking for something greater in life. With the help of Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy finds evidence of an ancient civilization undiscovered in the jungle and becomes obsessed with finding the lost land. Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) has made a classic adventure story, putting his actors deep in the green jungle instead of a green screen set. He sees the humdrum ordinary life as a grim wasteland of lost potential. It’s when he’s in the jungle, with the imposing trees and rushing water, that he sees the vibrant excitement of life. It’s as if Gray is making a meta-commentary on the CG-heavy modern blockbusters and how it’s more interesting to see a historical epic that’s as real as the history it’s based off of.

 

2017-10-02-logan-lucky.png

  1. Logan Lucky

As far as car-based heist movies go, Steven Soderbergh beat Edgar Wright by a country mile in 2017. The stylish yet reclusive director came out of retirement from filmmaking for this loose and zany caper about the Logan brothers of West Virginia: single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and veteran/amputee Clyde (Adam Driver), who are fed up with their misfortunes and decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But since they’re just two men who’ve never done wrong in their life before, the brothers decide to employ the help of incarcerated bomb expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to pull off the job. It would be easy to dismiss Logan Lucky as “white trash Ocean’s Eleven,” but that would be ignoring the genuine comedy Logan Lucky has to offer. It brings the typical Soderbergh craft to filmmaking: hi-resolution video making for more realistic cinematography, David Holmes’s swinging score, sharp camerawork and a tightly-woven supporting cast (Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane). Logan Lucky’s ace in the hole is a more relaxed vibe throughout and a more down-to-earth story than previous Soderbergh productions. Usually fascinated with only the fanciest of fancy people (Ocean’s trilogy, Side Effects, Magic Mike) or the very obscure (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience), Logan Lucky is Soderbergh in touch with the world around him and being surprisingly sympathetic to it.

 

 

  1. Super Dark Times

Many people have been complementing this year’s remake of It for its comradery between the young kid characters being relatable and believable in the face of a suspense/horror movie. I, an intellectual, point instead to this delightfully cool suspense thriller crossed with a coming-of-age story. Set in a sleepy New York suburb in 1996, it follows high school buddies Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) riding their bikes around town while talking about banging chicks in high school (teenage masculinity, everyone). One day, the boys are playing around with a samurai sword (as you do) and a gruesome accident occurs. In the midst of dealing with their feelings for a cute classmate (Elizabeth Cappuccino), the boys grapple with crushing guilt and the haunting suspicion of who will find out. Super Dark Times is another offspring of the atmospheric indie-thriller subgenre manifested by 2014’s It Follows: luminescent cinematography, themes of sexual frustration mixed with a mystery, John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score and well-executed tension and gore. It’s all the more impressive that Super Dark Times is made by a first-time director (Kevin Phillips) and writers (Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski), clear film fans who understand what makes thrillers work. Tender and haunting in its quiet moments while knowing how to build and break tension, it’s a shame this movie won’t be the VHS hidden gem it wants to be. Guess it’ll have to settle with being one of the best indie thrillers of the 2010s.

 

 

  1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has always seemed destined for bigger things. She’s a feisty and fiercely funny presence on screen on top of being a talented writer for modern-day situations and relationships (see Frances Ha and Mistress America). And since she found herself unsure for mainstream Hollywood movies (see the 2011 remake of Arthur…actually, don’t), she must’ve figured she’d be better suited blossoming in indie world behind a writer’s desk and a movie camera. Lady Bird’s title character (Saoirse Ronan in fiery rebel red hair) is a smart but snooty high schooler trying to break out of suburban Sacramento and go to a culturally-woke college. She’s in a working-class house with a stubborn mom (Laurie Metcalf), a spunky best friend (Beanie Feldstein), a straight-laced boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), a douchey crush (Timothée Chalamet) and a big helping of self-doubt. Gerwig, the sole writer and director, says that Lady Bird is only semi-autobiographical. She could’ve fooled the audience, as the film’s characters, environment and emotions feel very lived-in. Gerwig is a proud child of the new millennium (2002 specifically), putting Lady Bird in the awkward scenarios of modern love and faking friendship with the cool kids. The heart of Lady Bird is in the mother-daughter bond, two bright souls constantly clashing but always finding solace in each other. It’s a true family story executed by Ronan and Metcalf’s incredible chemistry with each other, along with Ronan’s obvious solo star power carrying each scene. The real star of Lady Bird is of course Gerwig, seemingly trying to push the cliched teen comedy into a more grounded, relatable territory.

 

  1. Novitiate

Growing up in a Catholic family, I’ve always wondered about the life of a devout Catholic. How does one devote his or her mind, body and soul to such a strict lifestyle and a idea that isn’t tangible? Writer/director Margaret Betts, in her first feature film, doesn’t paint a picture in the black and white worn by the nuns that are the subject of Novitiate, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. Set in sheltered convent in 1960s, there are two focuses of Novitiate: a long-time devout nun (Melissa Leo, as intimidating as Darth Vader despite speaking mostly whispers) whose extremely traditional ways are challenged by the issuance of Vatican II, and a teenage novice (Margaret Qualley, a delicate flower who speaks volumes with little dialogue) trying to become a nun herself after only finding solace in the light of the Lord. It’s a personality crisis for both lead characters and the easy route would be for the two to find solace in one another. Betts takes a different approach, effortlessly balancing two different stories of people questioning their faith. Despite the beautiful set design and cinematography straight out of a Sofia Coppola movie, Betts is not afraid to show moments of heartbreaking brutality endured by the younger nuns in the movie. And even when their emotions ache after being stripped of their dignity in front of Leo’s character (repeatedly, mind you) they have to crawl (literally) back to their place in line and keep their heads down in the name of something they cannot see or feel. Novitiate doesn’t attack the Catholic religion, but more observes it with a keen eye and simply lays out its events for the audience to take in on their own accord. Betts is clearly a talent behind the camera and the writing desk, but it’s hard to ignore her actors on camera. Leo is an absolute force onscreen, equal parts antagonist and soul of the movie being a victim of changing ways as much as she is a soldier of the old. Qualley also evolves into a full-fledged movie star in her soft and thoughtful performance. Novitiate is a quiet movie, but one that sticks in the back of your mind and picks away at you.

 

  1. Atomic Blonde

2017 has been a great year for women, especially ones that punch people in the face: Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Gamora, Wolverine’s clone daughter, Rose McGowan, etc. But of all the ladies who kicked ass this year, no one did it better than one Charlize Theron in the neon-bright but brutal Atomic Blonde. Fittingly directed by one of John Wick’s co-directors (and helmer of the upcoming Deadpool sequel) David Leitch, the movie’s title character is undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who is charged with recovering a list of double agents from the cold of Berlin on the eve of its wall collapsing in 1989. Aided by a shady British operative (James McAvoy, in full sleaze mode) and a mysterious French photographer (Sofia Boutella), Lorraine tries punching and kicking her way out of Berlin unsure of who’s her friend and who’s her enemy. It would be easy to call Atomic Blonde “girl John Wick,” but Blonde is more of a spy thriller than a straight-up action movie with a classic plot of double-crossing and espionage. Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remade by the guys who did The Raid 2. As stylish as vibrant this movie can be (everything from the costumes to the music to lighting is 80s glory), Blonde also has a knack for brutality as every bruise and blood stain Theron takes is proudly displayed for the audience. It’s an action movie that knows how good its action is, so it makes the audience feel every closed-fist and bullet put in the front of the camera. The audience also feels the powerful presence of Charlize Theron, who finally gets a well-deserved action lead role after AEon Flux bricked 12 years ago. And Theron reveals in the role, gliding through scenes in her white trench coat and platinum blonde hair while shooting people in the face and repelling off building with George Michael playing in the background.

 

  1. Coco

Depending on who you talk to, it’s hard to pinpoint when specifically Pixar Animation Studios started on a downward slope. It might’ve been in 2011 with the unnecessary Cars 2, the admirable but incomplete Brave in 2012 or the good-looking misfire of The Good Dinosaur in 2015. On top of that, competition from Warner Bros. Animation and Laika as caused Disney’s animation brain trust to start sweating creatively (not financially of course, because Disney always makes money). So Disney decided to stop making movies about inanimate objects and go back to making human stories…ok, they’re mostly dead humans, but still. Coco follows the journey of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy dreaming of being a world famous musician against his family’s ban on even the tiniest musical note. Following the words of his late hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel looks to enter a talent show on the eve of Day of the Dead and tries borrowing his hero’s famed guitar from his tomb, inadvertently winding up the spirit world. Teamed with a fast-talking con man (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel looks to meet his hero and find some way to get home. Co-directed by Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3), Coco follows the Pixar formula of lost kids on their own finding the importance of family and all the usual schmaltz. What Coco has in its corner is a beautifully-designed and imaginative world inspired by Mexican culture that’s worth getting invested in. The animation is always stellar in Pixar movies, but Coco takes great advantage of the brighter and more vibrant colors to make the movie pop. With some gorgeous Spanish guitar music soundtracking the film and wonderfully lively voice acting talent, the story of what parts of our family history we hold onto actually packs more of an emotional punch.

 

  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach loves dysfunctional people, especially when they’re blood relatives. The writer/director thrives on trying to give narcissistic creative-types the chance to redeem themselves as decent human beings and showing them repeatedly fall on their faces. His characters might be stuck in some form of eternal misery, but Baumbach always manages to find partners for them to gravitate to. When he writes about messed-up families (most famously in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale), it’s even sadder, funnier and more heartfelt to watch how hard these people who’ve grown up with each other still try desperately to connect with one another. His latest feature is another family affair: Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is the soft-spoken, self-centered, curmudgeon artist living out his golden years in New York City. He has three grown-up kids: mustached Danny (Adam Sandler) dealing with his only daughter (Grace Van Patten) going off the college and being mostly a failure, suit-wearing Matthew (Ben Stiller) who lives in Los Angeles and is annoyed by his father’s snobbery towards financially successful people like himself, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is so mousey and unassuming that she’s practically invisible. Baumbach, not one for the typical movie plot, simply lets the movie play out as interactions between the Meyerowitz family. What makes The Meyerowitz Stories one of the most accessible and emotionally-impactful movies of Baumbach’s career is how grounded his characters are this time around. Harold and his children touch on many different aspects of troubled family life: abandonment, failure, overachieving, lack of acknowledgment and just miscommunication. All three of Harold’s kids are so different from each other and the only common ground they have is the different ways their father annoys them, so they’re all they got. Of course it’s told in Baumbach’s typically funny way of talking over each other and cringe comedy, but it’s more about togetherness than before. It’s all played out with the best cast Baumbach’s had in his entire career: Hoffman is an entertaining grump while still having his intelligent and soothing voice, while Marvel is the secret MVP with her droll delivery and deeper character development. The real stars here are Sandler and Stiller, more reserved and emotionally-bare than ever before. Well beyond their capacities to handle the mainstream slapstick that got them rich, it’s nice to see these two comedy heavyweights handle such rich characters and make it seem so natural.

 

  1. The Florida Project

Kids always manage to find happiness in anything. Even in the worst of times in broken homes and little money, young children have a limitless imagination. It’s like they have a sixth sense that has them see the world as this strange alien planet just waiting to be explored. Writer/director Sean Baker took audience into that world one more time, with the very-adult reminder that it’s never a truly happy ending. The Florida Project follows the summer adventures of six-year-old Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her twenty-something mom Halley (older but still-newcomer Bria Vinaite). Moonee and Halley live in a run-down motel just outside of Disney World with faded purple walls, broken air-conditioning and people who stay longer than the motel’s owner (Willem Dafoe) would like. Through all the obvious signs that she should be in a more stable household, Moonee manages to find little bright spots in her home of faded failure. With some gorgeous cinematography and the real set pieces of abandoned housing complexes and endless weeds from the wet and hot weather, Baker captures a snapshot of a modern-day American white trash and frames it like some kind of paradise lost. It’s obvious how desolate and faded Moonee’s stomping grounds are, but her enthusiasm and imagination makes each setting more than meets the eye. Baker doesn’t let Moonee off entirely, as Halley’s attitude and obvious incapability to make a stable living for her and her daughter becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Baker slowly builds up to reality crashing down on Moonee, but it’s so subtle that the movie’s heartbreaking end comes practically out of nowhere and hits harder. Until then, The Florida Project is a borderline documentary about the forgotten kids of the early-2000s ringtone rap generation left behind to struggle. For the feature debut of a kid and a girl who Baker found on Instagram, Prince and Vinaite are extremely compelling and natural in their blissful ignorance of the world around them. Even Dafoe’s crazy eyes are restrained for a more tender and human performance, one of the best of his career.

 

  1. The Shape of Water

At some age, we were told that we’re not allowed to believe in fairy tales and monsters anymore. Guillermo del Toro didn’t get that talking to when he was younger, and cinema has been all the better because of it. Whether he’s working with a miniscule budget (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or given carte blanche by a major studio to spend money and run wild (Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), del Toro is a proud believer in the magic of movies and a wizard in concocting mystical myths for grown-ups. With his 10th movie, del Toro has seemingly made the most tender and innocent project of his career centered around the wonders of monsters, blood and sex. It’s 1962 in a small American town and mute, timid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as janitors in a secret underground military base overseen by a shifty army Colonel (Michael Shannon) without knowing why. It turns out the base is hiding a human-size amphibious creature that forms a bond with Elisa. So much so that she conspires with her artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and an undercover Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) to break the creature from its prison. Of course these elements of monster movies and dark thrillers in The Shape of Water, but del Toro throws in his affiliation for classic foreign films as well. Everything from exceptionally crafted 1960s set design to Alexandre Desplat’s French romantic score to the emphasis on mood through the lime green color scheme feels uniquely European while also tipping a cap to classic Hollywood. At its core, The Shape of Water is an old-school love story: two lonely misfits finding each other and showing each other how much one means to the other. All of those elements in the melting pot and del Toro stirs it like a master chef, officially claiming his title as a master genre filmmaker. Even in a scene between a skinny Creature From the Black Lagoon and a mute woman that seems so weird on paper, del Toro uses everything in his power to create this sweeping feeling of passion and romance. Despite his technical tools ever present, del Toro further proves his talent as an actor’s director by allowing Shannon to be the off-kilter type of imposing that his anger and face expresses. His muse, aside from the creature (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones), is Hawkins in a stunning performance that doesn’t even need words to be the heart of movie. The tender way she moves through scenes and interacts with the creature is inspired and can inspire others to believe in the power of movies again.

 

  1. Free Fire

No matter how intricate, delicate, subtle and quiet all the best movies of the year are, nothing makes for a good time at the movies like a good ol’ fashion shootout. All the more impressive when that shootout manages to take place over the majority of a 90-minute movie and continuously be interesting. Seemingly a cross between Scorsese swagger and Tarantino’s taste for cussing and bullets, Free Fire is set in Boston (where everyone handles things calmly and with friendly language) where a group of arms dealers gather together for a deal. Things go south, insults are thrown around and bullets fly. It’s a premise simple as toast, and co-writer/director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) knows to keep the movie that way. While movies like John Wick and Atomic Blonde have turned gunfights into expertly-choreographed shootout symphonies, Wheatley prefers something more realistic. Free Fire’s shootouts are sloppy, frantic, dirty and more importantly, unpredictable. It heightens the anticipation of where the bullets are going to fly and nothing about the movie’s plot is predictable or certain. When the movie’s brisk 91 minutes conclude, there’s both satisfaction and desire to see more. It probably comes from the stacked cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Noah Taylor) having fun with each other slapping each other and rolling around in the dirt. Free Fire is basically the little movie that could, something that probably have a higher profile in the 1970s but serves as a reminder of the simpler pleasures of action movies in the bloated 2017.

 

  1. Good Time

New York City has always been a popular place for filmmakers to make movies about crime. The towering skyscrapers are always the focal point for so many that it’s fascinating to zoom in on the dirty alleyways and see civilization try to call over itself and pick up the scraps left over by the rich. Every decade provides a classic NYC crime movie: the 70s had Mean Streets, the 80s had The Pope of Greenwich Village, the 90s had New Jack City and the 2000s had 25th Hour. As for the 2010s, there would be a strong case for 2014’s A Most Violent Year holding the title for best NYC crime film. But that’s the classy version, how about something as grimy and hectic as a back alley in Queens? Good Time follows two brothers: Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed the movie), who rob a local bank but Nick gets caught by the police and sent to jail. Connie, concerned for his mentally-challenged brother, races through seedy scenarios in the city to try to come up with bail money and ends up falling deeper and deeper into a hole of failure as the night goes on. It’s fitting that Good Time’s plot revolves around brothers, considering it’s directed by Benny and Josh Safdie (who also co-wrote the script). It also revolves around chaos and tension. The Safdie brothers shoot the movie mostly with handheld camerawork and close-up shots, making the experience fast and unstable. It’s a dizzying experience, but never boring in the slightest. There’s a near-constant feeling of uneasiness in Good Time, like this flaming bullet train is set to go off the rails at any second. The throbbing, pulsating, electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never and the bright neon lights that flood every other scene help emphasize the constant dread hanging over the movie. And the way Robert Pattinson, fully removed from the weight of Twilight, sprints through the movie and claws desperately at any form of saving grace is enthralling to see. Good Time is a crime movie for the modern-day common man, sweating out the day in baggy clothes and psychedelic drugs trying to outrun their failures.

 

  1. Dunkirk

It’s amazing how Christopher Nolan has reached so far out to what can be done with blockbuster event movies that doing a World War II movie is the tamest thing he could’ve thought to do next. Think about it: he’s messed with memories, cops, dreams, space and superheroes in his near 20-year directing career. So why wouldn’t he take a genre so tried-and-true like the war movie and flip it on its head? The subject of Dunkirk is the 1940 evacuation of 300,000 English army soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France after German soldiers have overwhelmed the surrounding area. What Nolan brings to the table is the use of different sets of perspectives of the evacuation: one from a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) trying to get off the beach in any way possible, one from a team of Spitfire plane pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) trying to clear the air for a rescue, a duo of commanding officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) frantically trying to organize options to get their boys home and a group of English civilians (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) joining hundreds of other local boaters to trek the ocean and help rescue the soldiers. Of all the major set pieces and action scenes in Dunkirk, the most important thing in the movie is a tiny sound buried deep in the movie: a ticking clock. Not to say that Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t also equally important and one of the most impressive of his career, but the ticking that pops up every now and again after a bomb drops, bullets spray on the shores or the cold sea water of the English Channel get closer and closer to filling their lungs of the soldiers. Dunkirk is not the typical war movie: it’s a test of morals in the absolute worst case scenario. How much of one man’s soul is he willing to sacrifice to stay alive? Nolan, often criticized for missing a human element in his movies, challenges the typical valor and honor in military heroism in a spectacular action thriller that stays remarkably grounded in realism. Not only does Nolan make one of the most realistic movies of his career, but he reminds major movie studios how to make an old genre fresh again.

 

  1. Logan

Has the Golden Age of superhero movies finally turned to gluttony? The Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no sign of stopping with three movies a year, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are trying (poorly, but trying) to keep with the times, and even 20th Century Fox ended up surrendering to the House of Mouse just to save face. The phrase “superhero fatigue” is being thrown around more and more lately, as critics and audiences are starting to see too much of the same every time a caped crusader walks across a movie screen. So how does the superhero movie stay relevant? It needs to do something few superhero movies ever do: say goodbye. Logan is the swan-song of everyone’s favorite hairy Canadian with metal claws and anger issues, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). It’s the near-future of an Earth where mutants are practically an endangered species and the famed X-Men are either dead or scattered somewhere unknown. Wolverine, simple referred to as the title character, is an old limo driver sulking along the Mexican border scrapping for cash and caring for an extremely senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Logan’s got pus coming from his knuckles, his claws come out slower and his reasons for living are practically nonexistent. Until he meets a small girl (newcomer Dafne Keen) with claws in her body, rage in her eyes and gun-touting enemies on her tail. Logan and the Professor then trek north to get the girl to safety despite both men clearly being on the last legs of their lives. One of the most amazing things about Logan is that there isn’t really an antagonist. The movie is a splicing of a road movie and a western with R-rated ultraviolence and superpowers thrown into the batch, no one’s heading for an ultimate showdown or trying to take over the world. Co-writer/director James Mangold thrives being back in the old school American grit he once shot in Cop Land, Walk the Line and his original western masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma. The yellow sun beats down on the grey hair and open wounds of our heroes while the open range of the midwest makes for some gorgeous backdrops for blood-soaked fight scenes that are some of the best in action movie history, let alone superhero movie history.  Logan is also a character study of a man who after years of thriving on the attribute of being able to self-heal has to finally look mortality right in the face. Logan’s fate isn’t toned down or skirted aside, you know that this is the last ride for Marvel’s mad animal. What makes it so incredibly satisfying is how it stays focused on giving Logan a satisfying arc to go out on and how much it throws so much gloom and reality at Logan himself that it makes him the most human he’s ever been. There’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes with Logan, and it’s ever so fortunate that the cast understands that. Stewart is having a blast playing a more bitter Xavier that cusses like a sailor and newcomer Keen is practically mute for the whole movie but leaves a damn good impression with her face and mannerisms. But it’s Jackman giving a career-best performance that carries the movie, seeing the fatal flaw in Logan’s anger and showing how broken the iconic character really is. When Logan’ final shot graces the screen, it’s the biggest emotional gut-punch to probably ever run through a comic-book movie. And for a genre that’s been in a gluttonous phase for the last 15 years, that’s saying something.

 

  1. It Comes at Night

One of the most popular movies of 2017 was an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. For me, It represented all of the major problems of modern-day major-studio horror movies: cheap jump-scares, little tension, unimposing monster and not enough genuine scares that stuck with me after the movie was over. The big horror movies don’t seem to trust their audience enough to let things build in the background and feel the dread of silence, which is why it’s better to look deeper into the indie movie scene to find truly scary horror movies. 2016 had The Witch and 2017, thankfully, had It Comes at Night. It follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living isolated in the woods after an unknown plague hits the Earth and impacts the popularity. They family lives to strict living guidelines and try to find some form of harmony until Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and younger son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) is found in the woods looking for a place to stay. Despite going against everything Paul sees as a form of security, his family lets Will stay in the home. But as the fear of the unknown creeps into the house, Paul and Will’s paranoia starts getting the better of them in the worst way possible. This is only the second feature for writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) and, much like The Witch’s writer/director Robert Eggers, Shults proves himself as a true pro. He knows that the least important part of the movie is the actual monster (in this case the unknown plague) but what the emotions and character that the monster brings out. He hangs the unknown over the head of the characters and the audience, keeping the hair-trigger tension high throughout its 91 minutes. The gloomy cinematography also highlights the brief color flares of fire and blood that practically jump through the screen. And what makes those brief moments of chaos so gripping is how Shults shoots the movie with a steady arm and patience to keep the viewer guessing as to what is or isn’t lurking in the shadows. The darkness and the silence used together are such strong monsters in horror movies because it never tells you what it is. You don’t get to know it, you just get lost in it.

 

  1. Blade Runner 2049

It’s fair to say that Denis Villeneuve is one of the hardest-working men in show business. The French-Canadian writer/director has made one of the best movies of the year since 2013, ranging from an abstract mystery (Enemy) to a crime thriller (Sicario) to an inquisitive sci-fi story (Arrival). With each movie being a step up in scale and ambition, there was a sense that Villeneuve was building to something bigger. Villeneuve was about to make something that would truly solidify him as one of the great directors working today. And sure enough he did. How good is his 2017 project? So good that it doesn’t even require mentioning that this is a sequel to one of the most influential and beloved sci-fi films ever made. Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 technological detective drama still sees the future the same: bleak, overcrowded and yet without any sign of radiant life. It’s 2049 and replicants are still the somber slaves of humanity. Those who try to escape are hunted down by the blade runners, one of whom (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a mystery about the potential of replicants. When the pretentious CEO (Jared Leto) of a replicant-making company wants to keep things quiet, the new blade runner sets out to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for some more answers. While the movie’s 164-minute runtime might seem intimidating, take comfort in knowing that the world Villeneuve and his production designers built is so absorbing that somehow the movie just flies by. The combination of practical sets and CGI backgrounds are so spot-on that it’s hard to tell where the solid stuff stops and the green screen begins. Making it all pop is the gorgeous cinematography by the almighty Roger Deakins, sinking the movie deep into greys, blues, oranges and yellows that are sunk into the background of the movie instead of flooding in front of the actors. Blade Runner 2049 is the potential of today’s hundred-million dollar movie standard fully-realized, a movie that uses its budget not to overindulge on one element but flesh-out everything to make it a complete presentation. It’s the blockbuster movie format made by craftsmen, the bridge between the art house students and popcorn movie audiences. Despite what its box-office returns say, Blade Runner 2049 is a monumental achievement for movies and proof that even when he constructs one of the most awe-inspiring visual experiences, Villeneuve manages to maneuver through it all and focus on the human elements of any movie (even when they’re about fake humans).

 

  1. Get Out

When the first trailer for writer Jordan Peele’s directorial debut first hit the internet in October of 2016, it took a second for a few things to sink in. 1. That this was a real movie, and 2. That seemingly no one else had ever made this movie before. Sure it’s basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner spun as a horror movie, but how had no one thought of doing that until 2017? Though the best time to make this kind of movie was 2017, a time when racism was (and still is) thoroughly back in public conversation and smaller films often make more interesting choices than the blockbusters do. But this was all speculation even before the movie came out, so the world waited to see if anything it set out to do. So let’s list all of the things Get Out has done since its release nearly a year ago:

  1. One of the most critically-praised horror movies of all time
  2. $252 million at the global box office from a $4.5 million budget
  3. Four Oscar nominations
  4. Unironic meme status
  5. Successful horror movie unreliant on jump scares or found footage
  6. Genre film that is socially and culturally relevant without using dated references or humor

ALL OF THAT, from a very basic premise: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her family. They don’t know that Chris is black, but it’s ok because mom (Catherine Keener) employs two black housekeepers and dad (Bradley Whitford) really wishes Obama got elected for a third term. Everyone’s friendly to Chris….a little too friendly. And that’s all the audience needs to go with the movie. It doesn’t smack you in the face with its symbolism or commentary, turning what could be obvious into some strong cringe comedy. Even with that dark comedy going on at the forefront, Peele is carefully setting up the hard left turn the movie makes into a genuinely terrifying survival story. Peele is working on a very basic level in both genre and filmmaking style, yet his amazingly-tight script and story elevate the material into something revelatory. It goes without saying that his cast is also reveling in the material they get and dead-serious about what it’s trying to get across. The tears and fear in Kaluuya’s eyes grab hold of your soul and make you feel like his attackers could turn right into the camera and hold the entire audience hostage in the sunken place. And on top of playing the typical horror-movie protagonist perfectly, Kaluuya has a deeper character going on that he never leaves behind even as he frantically tries to escape. Even if Get Out didn’t achieve the global success it did and earn its many Oscar nominations, it would still stand out as one of the most outstanding genre exercises in recent memory. It’s also a friendly reminder that even in something as tired and unoriginal as the horror genre is, creativity can still shine through.

Advertisements

Top 25 Albums of 2017

Boy oh boy, what a year it’s been. 2017 has basically been the dour, elongated sigh after the shock of 2016. That sour demeanor has been felt in the music industry as well, as many of the most popular and acclaimed albums have been made by heartbroken singers, angry rappers and anxious youths trying to take action. Despite the low-key attitude of the last 365 days, there are always some outstanding pieces of music to dive into. Since I ashamedly missed out on doing a list last year, I decided to bump up my list and highlight 25 albums that stood out and helped make 2017….tolerable.

 

mistermellow_washedout

25. Washed Out – Mister Mellow

There’s always been the sense that Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr., better known as Washed Out, was building towards something. Potential was there right from the start of his breakthrough single “Feel It All Around,” with its luscious synthesizers and hazy vocal melodies. Since then, he’s kept building on that potential and expanding his chillwave sound. With Mister Mellow, he finally gets his chance to organize and craft all the colorful sounds in his head on wax. He may start off overwhelmed and frantic on “Burn Out Blues” before finding his warm and soaring groove on “Hard To Say Goodbye” and even partying with his demons on the manic “Instant Calm” and the two-step of “Get Lost.” No matter how many synths and drum beats hit on the dance floor, Washed Out always finds the melody in the madness.

 

C52gayOUsAE-gp0

24. JMSN – Whatever Makes U Happy

Simplicity is underrated in today’s music industry, and no genre uses simplicity better than neo soul. Case in point: the fifth studio album of one Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN. The Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist is a man who understands that songs of love, lust and the vices we abuse to feel something similar to the former two (see “Drinkin’”) are best presented with minimal excess and a spotlight on the voice telling the story. Backed by pitch-perfect snare drum kicks, acoustic guitar and choir-like background harmonies, JMSN makes sure that his bluesy, achy vocals don’t sound the tiniest bit fake on the heartbreaker “Love Ain’t Enough” to the spooky cowboy jam “Slide.” The album cover, with JMSN posing legs crossed and face stern, speaks for itself: He’ll do whatever you ask of him, so what do you want besides what’s real?

 

79d3d4d35a97c5c0d49a09cee73cf030.1000x1000x1

23. Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess

One of the many surprises on Tyler, the Creator’s new album Flower Boy was the adolescent droll of Rex Orange County, a 19-year-old South London resident that best showcases young love and awkwardness probably because he still can’t legally drink in the U.S. That doesn’t stop him from sounding love drunk on his debut LP, which sounds like if Beck ever made an album of midnight lounge music after getting his first kiss. The title track effortless fades from string-backed piano ballad to a swinging conga groove about a boy who wants nothing more than to hold his dream girl’s hand. At the end of the 40 minutes of lo-fi piano pop, Rex throws his heart on the table and promises his girl that throughout all of his self-loathing, he just wants to know that she’ll be there. It’s his sincerity in the vocal delivery that sells him as a legitimate hopeless teenage romantic.

 

81MS2IIjV5L._SL1440_

22. Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Hey look, it’s the best Oasis album in over 20 years! Haha, I’m totally the first person to make that joke! But seriously, the younger (and more irritable) brother Gallagher finally drops the overblown stadium rock of Beady Eye and gives the world what he was born to make: an attitude-laced British rock record. The bluesy swagger of “Wall Of Glass” is so great and Liam so effortlessly struts his nasty vocals it’s amazing he didn’t lead with his right after brother Noel went AWOL. Liam may be a bit older now and his singing is certainly an acquired taste, it’s hard not to hear the passion and effort he puts into pulling off heartfelt ballads like “For What it’s Worth.” Liam finally gets his own solo spotlight, all he had to do was take it for himself.

 

a1041694622_10

21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band 

Imagine if The New Pornographers decided that they wanted to sound like KISS in their glorious, 1970s heyday. Sound weird but kinda awesome, right? You’re in luck, because Louisville’s own White Reaper are here to make rock great again. The quartet’s second album is 32 minutes of unabashed pop rock that everyone from Jack Black to Richard Linklater wishes they could jam out to. The guitars riffs are razor sharp while the background synthesizers glisten, and the vocals from frontman Tony Esposito are so grimy and growling that even Iggy Pop would offer him a cough drop. “Judy French” is the best Cheap Trick song in 30 years with its chugging riffs and scorching guitar solo, while “Crystal Pistol” is so party-ready that Motley Crue are probably pissed they didn’t write it first. Every single track here belongs in a treasured teen comedy in any decade, inspiring youthful spirit to run free. The kicker? None of it sounds dated, with production that’s crisp but not overblown. White Reaper sound awesome on a record, but the energy and sonics on this probably sound way better in a bar three beers in with fists pumping in the air.

 

NGHFB_packshot_layers2

20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?

Sorry Liam, age before beauty. The eldest brother Gallagher and his collection of psychedelic, scissor-using musicians have seemingly made good on their promise of mixing soaring stadium ballads with epic rock anthems. Credit goes to producer David Holmes, who gives Noel and the Birds a huge sonic tapestry to paint their heartfelt anthems. “Keep On Reaching” sounds like an energetic gospel anthem with its background choir and heavy organ, while “She Taught Me How To Fly” sounds like peak New Order with its driving bass line and electronic flourishes. Whereas brother Liam seems firmly trapped in the era of his heroes that never made it past 1969, Noel has seemingly taken all of the lovable things about rock’s classic era and updated its sound where it can exist in 2017 without seeming dated.

 

Beck-Colors_DigitalCover_FINAL_1024x1024

19. Beck – Colors

Beck may be in his late-40s, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t cut loose. On album 13, generation x’s favorite “Loser” plays the brightest and most energetic songs of his entire career. A tight 11 tracks without a single lull, Beck indulges in hand-claps, synthesizers, vocoders and a boosted production. Even with his past awkwardness with pop music, “I’m So Free,” “Up All Night” and “Dreams” embrace sunny guitar rock and dance pop into a unique blend of radio-ready alt rock. And for those pining for classic Beck, “Wow” is the man in freaky funk-rap form over a warped beat. While most of his contemporaries have either burned out or faded away, Beck keeps finding new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate himself for the music landscape he finds himself in.

 

67e5b4e0572b354606cd0dc5529030ee.1000x1000x1

18. Miguel – War & Leisure

Miguel could’ve sat back in 2017 knowing “Quick to dead the bull like a matador” was the coolest line in any song this year. But he decided to complement “Sky Walker” with another stellar slice of thumping R&B. Miguel takes elements from his last studio album, the rock-tinged Wildheart, and mixes it with electronic funk and soul. The guitar is actually the most prominent instrument heard in the background of War & Leisure, played with reggae scratches on “Banana Clip,” plucked on the Latin-infused slow jam “Wolf,” or strummed like disco king Niles Rodgers on “Caramelo Duro.” Also like his previous hallmark album Kaleidoscope Dream, warped electronic effects fuel each song with a drug-filled haze. But of course the star is Miguel himself, managing to be both a classic R&B vocalist with range and someone who can easily insert himself into the modern urban music landscape of trap-R&B (“Sky Walker”). He uses his vocals to build the sexual tension in “Harem” to its climax (probably a literal climax in his case) and can actually sing rap bars on par with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “Come Through and Chill.” Prince may be gone, but his aura is being honored with pride by Miguel.

 

779b034b68a3336aa8725fd0f193e99f.1000x1000x1

17. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

Look, the only person who wanted and needed another LCD Soundsystem record is James Murphy. He jumped the gun at his band’s peak and, in a petty form of panic, decided to call it quits. It was brief, but beautiful to have LCD Soundsystem around. Six years later, they’re back and things are not so beautiful in the world anymore. Don’t worry though, Murphy is not ignorant about the world around him. Everything about American Dream is meant to be dark, haunting, borderline depressing with low-droning synthesizers, scratching guitars, and Murphy’s vocals that range from awkward squeaks to ghoulish low notes. Murphy doesn’t trust the “other voices” in his head and surrounding him, he knows he’s too old and too frazzled to “change yr mind” and can’t stop asking his former business partner “how do you sleep?” And through all this sadness and misery, there’s still plenty to dance to. “tonite” is arguably the more robotic sequel to “Losing My Edge” with its European discotheque dance beat, while “call the police” is that rare indie rock stadium anthem that Murphy always pulls out of his ass every now and then. We didn’t need LCD Soundsystem back, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind checking up on them every once in awhile.

 

2-chainz-pretty-girls-like-trap-music-2017-billboard-embed

16. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

Every single rapper’s mantra may be “money cash hoes” and it might get boring to hear on all their songs after a while. But nobody in the rap game makes flexing sound so fun and wear it so good like the artist formerly known as Tity Boi. After dropping SIX mixtapes in the four years since his last studio album, 2 Chainz returns as a champion of the underground who still rolls like a king. It doesn’t matter what beat he’s given, from the guitar-backed slow burn of “Saturday Night” and “It’s a Vibe” to Codeine-laced southern trap of “Blue Cheese,” “4 AM” and “Good Drank.” Chainz steps up and drops bars like a wizard of words that’s part goofy, part brilliant (“You know what they say/Me and my safe, got a friendship,” “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended/I called, she ain’t pick up, I text her back, b***h you stingy”). It’s a miracle that a blockbuster album 16 tracks long this stacked with rap elites (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane) is so thoroughly entertaining. And it’s all because of the effortless vibe 2 Chainz brings on bar none his finest album to date.

 

FOO_CG_1200X1200_d6edd576-4f2a-4b57-9afb-57c303e310cd_1024x1024

15. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

The second he stepped onstage with Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium nearly 10 years ago, Dave Grohl ran all the way to the center of the 115 yard grounds just to get the entire crowd hyped for rock and roll. What made anyone think he and his band of bearded badasses could sit still for five minutes, let alone a “hiatus?” On album no. 9, the Foos sound more rejuvenated and loose than ever before. Under the loud and crisp production of Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Adele, Sia), the Foos get to make music for intergalactic death races (“La Dee Da”) and jump from a harmonious country ballad to fist-pumping prog rock on the same damn song (“Dirty Water”). Unlike 2014’s Sonic Highways, where the band tried shoving different genres into their unique unity, you can hear each member entwined with each other on Concrete and Gold. Pat Smear’s guitar sneaks up on “Arrows” to a quiet roar, while Taylor Hawkins gets to collapse the mountains with his drums on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and Nate Mendel’s fuzzed-out bass leads the charge on “La Dee Da.” Concrete and Gold is being able to see the engine roar in an awesome muscle car: when you see the parts work together, it makes you admire the machine all the more.

 

61c8c7d4dd777c786a13e47c6a959fdd.1000x1000x1

14. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

2017 has been a great year for female rappers, arguably the best year they’ve ever had. Cardi B became one of the biggest stars in music out of nowhere, Nicki Minaj reinstated her clout without dropping an album, and underground artists like cupcaKKe started getting buzz. But the one who made an impact on 2017 with a compelling, cohesive work was 34-year-old Rapsody. The North Carolina wordsmith dropped her second studio album without any use of social media savviness or sex appeal. She needs neither, as her delivery and flow is as cocky and nasty as the typical gangster rapper. On “Power,” featuring a solid guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody rides 9th Wonder’s heavy beat to drop bars about the things that make others powerful and how they can be easily exploited (“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that/I know some n***as sold theirs, sit back and watch ’em tap dance”). Even with her tough attitude and clear desire to step up to the big names of rap, she’d rather have respect and connection with her peers on “Nobody” (“It’s all Hip Hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground music, I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Wacka Flacka last Christmas, Clap!/Clap for a n***a wit her rappin’ a**”). If there was ever someone to further legitimize the rise of the female rapper, Rapsody could definitely be the one to break down the door.

 

QOTSA_VILLAINS_1200X1200_9da2f804-26e1-4e06-b1bc-aace087c9cd8_1024x1024

13. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

What a weird year it’s been when Josh Homme makes a better dance-rock record than the co-founder of DFA Records. Though Mr. Homme and his scuzz rock scalliwags might’ve cheated a bit by having super producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) turn the knobs on Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album. It’s odd to say that a Queens of the Stone Age album “swings,” but Villains has a greater focus on groovy guitar licks and funky bass lines instead of pummeling riffs and constant propulsion. Even when they put the pedal-to-the-metal on “Head Like a Haunted House,” there’s still a swinging dance groove built into the punky headbanging brought by the speeding riffs and the rolling drums. No matter how druggy and pummeling QOTSA have sounded in the past, Homme has always had a sneering sexual swagger in his vocal delivery, like the worst possible sleazebag your daughter could bring home from the bar. Villains finally gives him the music best suited for his singing, from the mutated reggae of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as Homme keeps searching for self-destruction (“I chase the gates and drift ad nauseam/Driven by feelings I cannot hide”). And then there’s “The Way You Used To Do,” which manages to have the same groove as Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” and yet sound like the sexiest thing QOTSA has ever done because of the guitar-bass interplay and Homme’s moaning vocals (“When I first met her she was seventeen/Seventeen/Jump like an arsonist to a perfect match/Burned alive”). In the words of the late great Bon Scott, lock up your daughter and lock up your wife: Queens of the Stone Age are horny again.

 

cover

12. Hey Violet – From the Outside

Are there any more great pop bands in music? I mean bands that explicitly write and perform catchy pop songs as a band with real instruments and actual personality, not whatever Maroon 5 have been cruising on for the last five years. Maybe because pop has been so lifeless and droll in recent years that it needs a little youthful spunk to make it fun again. Enter Hey Violet, a collection of Hot Topic models that can actually write songs and play instruments pretty well. Their debut album is chock full of sugary-sweet pop-rock that mix pop-punk energy with funk, electronic, alternative, and youthful exuberance. Sometimes all of that in one song, like the bouncy ex-girlfriend anthem “Hoodie” or the ballsy kiss-off “Fuqboi.” Hey Violet seems well-versed in the flavors of music taste, jumping from stadium anthem “Break My Heart” to the sinful funk of “Brand New Moves” then even to the spooky romance of “Like Lovers Do.” From the Outside replaces a flowing atmosphere with outstanding personality from each member in each song. Casey Moreta’s guitar and Nia Lovelis’s guitar and drum attack power through “This Is Me Breaking Up With You” and “Unholy,” while Miranda Miller cooks up some great electronics on “Where Have You Been (All My Night)” and “My Consequence.” But the cherry on  top is frontwoman Rena Lovelis, who pulls off the attitude of brat, seductress, introvert and intellectual compared to others her age. While “Guys My Age” might seem like dubstep dribble, but Rena’s confident vocal performance creates an aura of its own. These are the future leaders of our pop music, party on.

 

JB_cover02

11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights 

On the cover of Julien Baker’s second studio album is an explosion, or better yet a release of dark colors spewing out of something small. It’s pretty easy to assume that said release is coming from the pint-sized Memphis native’s heart and soul through all 42 minutes of this quiet slice of heartbreak. Even though Baker is the star of this album, both her aching vocals and her echoing guitar, she’d rather not have you see her fragile and alone. She doesn’t know the depths of her own loneliness (“I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone/Is it real or a dream, which is worse?”), the difficulties others have with a private fight (“I know that you don’t understand/’Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see/When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”) and how the only one she has to conquer is herself (“Am I a masochist/Screaming televangelist/Clutching my crucifix/Of white noise and static”). Baker thrives on the combination of her music grim yet glistening atmosphere, her believable vocal performance that puts other whispering indie rock singers to shame, and just the blunt honesty of her lyrics. Turn Out the Lights is more of a concise diary entry than an album with Baker trying to mend all of her wounds in one sitting and feeling the weight of it all. But that doesn’t mean she still won’t try (“And damn it, we are gonna figure something out/If it takes me all night to make it hurt less”).

 

a0734144769_10

10. Remo Drive – Greatest Hits

Emo rock gets a bad rap that feels (mostly) unfair. The idea of a bunch of kids from a small town swinging their guitars around while screaming into their microphones about the joys of middle America lost on them seems totally justified. Perhaps its only when these bands become more successful and start believing their hype is when it gets to the ridiculous levels of say, personalized eyeliner, that emo music loses its value or believability. So you’d better get to know Remo Drive fast before someone offers them a deal to soundtrack the next movie adaptation of a John Green book. The Minnesota trio’s debut album excels in a combination of melody and blunt force trauma that would earn salutes from Nirvana and The Promise Ring alike. It’s impressive to hear the strong wall of sound from the simplicities of a low-tuned bass and fuzzed-out guitars, not to mention Erik Paulson’s aching growl on vocals. Greatest Hits is an excellent snapshot of the working-class guitar band stuck in the midst of cynicism, rebellion, arrogance and self-loathing. The danceable drum beat and propulsive guitars of “Eat S**t” are a joy to behold even when the band talks about the struggles of friends growing up while Paulson is “stuck in the habits I formed when I was fifteen.” Even when Remo Drive try to be snarky to upper class girlfriends on “Art School,” their humor comes at their own expense (“Art school/Colored hair/Too cool/For me but that’s fair”). But Remo Drive are about feeling, like the true sentiment of “Yer Killin’ Me” (“You make me want to start rolling/Fat a** blunts ’til I start choking/Anything that’s bad for me”). Even with hands in their pockets and their heads staring at the floor, who said emo couldn’t be fun?

 

rina_sawayama_oct17_1290_1290

9. Rina Sawayama – RINA

If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to turn of the century bubblegum pop with its automated acoustic guitar, skittering blips of electronics and start-stop vocal delivery. You also know that you’re ashamed to be listening to nearly 20-year-old albums by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears unironically while clamoring to have the sound be old enough to be retro and cool again. If this applies to you, say hello to Rina Sawayama and her debut EP. The 27-year-old Japanese born, London raised singer is a connoisseur of both Total Request Live-era pop and modern-day indie dance music. Like a well-aged wine, RINA is awash with the tastes of olden days: “Ordinary Superstar” is a classic slice of 80s pop rock with its chugging guitar riff and bright synthesizers, “Take Me As I Am” is a perfect splice of Britney’s “Overprotected” and her curly-haired ex’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Tunnel Vision” is a lovely duet with Shamir that harkens back to peak-Toni Braxton. As a singer, Sawayama follows the teen-pop singing style of moderately-high pitched aching and inflecting syllables in the hopes to have a more memorable chorus. But while the Jive Records family sang about boys and girls and trouble with said boys and girls, Sawayama instead sings about the trials and tribulations of single life in the social media age. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” is where the EP closes and is also its highlight, a bittersweet dance jam about making friends through the screens of her laptop and phone (“I am connected/I am the girl you want to watch…Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”). What with TRL back on the air and Britney and Backstreet officially deemed legacy acts, why can’t Rina lead the charge for the 90s nostalgia?

 

a2812895157_10

8. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog 

It’s almost fitting that 27-year-old Mac DeMarco has an appearance that makes him look like someone’s dad who’s about to paint a neighbor’s house, since he has more maturity and heart than his cigarettes and duck-bill hats would suggest. His third album, This Old Dog, is his softest and most tender album to date, about a man with his hands in his pockets trying to have a hand in a world he doesn’t recognize. While known as a guitar virtuoso, DeMarco’s kooky slide guitar is replaced with soft pluckings of an acoustic guitar while quiet organs and low drums fill the background. While it still has hints of the stoner vibe heard in his previous album, This Old Dog sounds more restrained and focused on getting DeMarco’s experience across to the listener. The star of This Old Dog is not DeMarco the musician, but DeMarco the man contemplating what the years have done to him (“For he can’t be me/Look how old and cold and tired/And lonely he’s become”). Regardless of the loneliness, age, and time that has passed DeMarco, he remains a chain-smoking soft-spoken optimist (“Don’t feel like all the time you put in went to waste/The way your heart was beating all those days/And suddenly it beats another pace”). This Old Dog confirms that DeMarco has more to him than goofball charm: he’s a legitimate songwriter and storyteller, especially when he gets personal. While the next step will be seeing if he can break out of his own musical bubble, at least he still knows how to be a human being.

 

4cf5f4f88ace021acdc18cc3cefcf2f4.1000x1000x1

7. Jay-Z – 4:44

Humility is not a word commonly associated with one Sean Carter. Even when he tries to rap about his first-world problems, it’s hard to sympathize with him when he’s rapping on a golden throne. But after being emasculated by his own wife for cheating on her on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year, Jay-Z decided it was time to really look at himself in the mirror and address his faults. The result is the most minimal album of Hov’s entire career: 10 songs at 37 minutes long with one producer (No I.D.) and plenty of room for Jay to question his worth and the world around him. Right from the get go, it’s obvious that Jay is not in the best mental state (“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z”). He’s thinking about how the suit-wearing industry buffs he signs deals with are no different from the conniving murderous drug dealers he once knew on the streets (“Caught Their Eyes”), and how “The Story of O.J.” taught him that being truly successful as a black American is success you can pass down to generations instead of blowing it all on finer things (or a court case). But Jay is also looking inward to his own personal faults, like his inability to admit his mistakes for the sake of family (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) or how his youthful pride hurt someone who truly loved him (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”). It’s on 4:44 that Jay-Z is heard not only using his poise as the most famous rapper on the planet for use outside of hubris for once, but as a rapper willing to admit how human he is. And in a way, that’s actually the boldest move any rapper can make. No matter how many bars Migos or Lil Uzi Vert dropped about their stacks or cars or women they sleep with, none of them can compete with the ballsy move of rapping about how he cried over sleeping with another woman.

 

car1

6. Thundercat – Drunk

Ever get so hammered on beer and good booze that you start thinking about how the little things in your life are actually so much more important? Ever think those conversations are so deep and profound that they could actually be interesting enough for mass consumption? Well you’re too late, because Thundercat beat you to it. The big man with the big bass dropped a 23-track opus about the hazy thoughts in his head all set to exceptionally-crafted lo-fi funk. What makes Drunk stand out as being more than a fun funk novelty is the way Thundercat and co-producers Sounwave and Flying Lotus stick with its spacey and quite-beautiful atmosphere throughout the album. While Thundercat’s bass is the prominent instrument throughout the album (as it should be on the smooth grooves of “Tokyo” and the freestyle freakout of “Uh Uh”), the boom-bap drums of “Jethro” or the futuristic synths of “Jameel’s Space Ride” that help keep the album on such a sonic high. Thundercat also proves himself a damn good lyricist, managing to turn inner wonderings of what life would be like as a cat (“Everything the light touches/It’s where I will roam/My roar would be so powerful/I would scare off everything”) into a heartfelt slow jam. And then there’s “Friend Zone” a hilarious bop about all the things Thundercat would rather do than being shut down by his crush (“Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I’m all about my Johnny Cage/If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe”). Outside of his name and choice instrument, Drunk is a wonderful testament to Thundercat’s unique personality.

 

52352910

5. Paramore – After Laughter

Paramore is dead, LONG LIVE PARAMORE! It’s been a little over five years since Franklin, Tennessee’s favorite band were waving the flag of emo rock they used to carry with “Misery Business,” “Crushcrushcrush” and their megahit “Decode.” Not that it’s stopped them from becoming one of America’s biggest rock bands, switching to a more explorative outfit with their 2013 self-titled album that mixed fist-pumping alt-rock (“Fast In My Car,” “Now,” “Anklebiters”) to genuine pop-rock (“Ain’t It Fun,” “Still Into You”). If Paramore was the band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, their fifth album is the band’s next phase fully-formed. Again co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who first worked with the band on Paramore, After Laughter is 12 tracks tight with bright, bouncy, jangly alt-rock with only one track breaking the four-minute mark. Hints of The Strokes, The 1975 and Vampire Weekend are heard throughout the album thanks to the production highlighting the individual instrumentation of the album. Returning drummer Zac Farro brings a heft of energy with his rolling bass drum lines on “Grudges,” “Pool” and “Idle Worship,” while Meldal-Johnson’s electronic flourishes on the keyboards and synthesizers turn “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy.” The MVP of After Laughter is guitarist/co-producer Taylor York, leaving his own stamp on each song with super-catchy riffs both strummed (“Caught in the Middle,” “Rose-Colored Boy”) and plucked (“Hard Times,” “Told You So”). And despite changing her hair from a fiery orange to an atomic blonde, frontwoman Hayley Williams remains one of rock’s most captivating lyricists and singers. It’s refreshing to hear her flex her vocal range from the quirky yelps on “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship” to the soft harmonies on “Forgiveness.” But Williams is exceptional when the lights go down and gets the spotlight to herself, and the album’s centerpiece is the acoustic ballad “26.” With York’s soft plucking and a lovely string arrangement in the background, Williams coos about depression hanging over her head like a rain cloud and trying her damndest to hold onto hope. Corny? Sure, but Williams and co. sell it with simplicity and the earnestness of the performance. What makes After Laughter all the more revelatory is how involved the band sounds in this process. This isn’t a career move for longevity’s sake, this is a band evolving together into a sharper, spunkier machine. Warped Tour might be gone, but Paramore is forever.

 

5fba4fb33c3bed9740ad6c0b3075247c--april--rapper

4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Every now and then, some up-and-coming rapper makes enough of an impression on impact to be referred to as the new “best rapper alive.” Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. Point is, being called the “best rapper alive” is merely a buzzword to put in articles and on t-shirts. Yet ever since his breakthrough in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has made a helluva case to to be called the best rapper alive and have it actually mean something. DAMN. is not only Lamar’s third consecutive release since 2015, but it also serves as a warped and more-aggressive follow-up to his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Nearly everything about DAMN., from its song titles in all caps to the darker musical production, is meant to highlight a man crashing into modern times confused and confrontational at the same time. A repeated line on DAMN. is “nobody prayin’ for me,” showing Kung Fu Kenny trying to find who in the rap game and the real world he can truly confide in now that’s fully exposed in the mainstream. “FEEL.” is a heightened and more focused slice of Kendrick’s paranoia through a low-fi rap beat and Kendrick growing more bothered by the second (“Feel like my thought of compromise is jaded/Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it/Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all/Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved”). As he did on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick is also bothered by his celebrity and how he should properly use his influence on the frantic “XXX” (“He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?….To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him/”I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:/If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”). He’s still proud of his street origins and has no problem calling out Fox News for using his people and neighborhood to frame agendas on “DNA,” and has no problem with brag rap on “HUMBLE.” The bottom line of DAMN. is that even at his most focused and most emotionally woke, the best rapper alive is well-aware of the dangers of being called the best rapper alive. He doesn’t want your titles, only your attention.

 

5430d9c47691882a52b44c91bae55f93.1000x1000x1

3. SZA – Ctrl

For the last 20 years, the music industry has been trying to successful and continuously splice R&B and hip-hop. There have been success stories: Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, The Roots, Beyonce, Drake and Frank Ocean. But the problem with this synthesis is that it hasn’t been consistent: D’Angelo took 14 years to make another album, we’re STILL waiting on that next Lauryn Hill album, Drake’s synthesis is mostly hit and miss, and Frank Ocean wants to be as mysterious with his album releases as D’Angelo and Lauryn. Even Rihanna, one of the most successful artists of the new millenium, bounces between pop and rap and R&B like a pinball between the machine’s flappers. The thing that makes a successful R&B/hip-hop combination is consistency, and no one has made a more full-formed idea of how the two genres could live in harmony together than New Jersey’s Solána Rowe. Making her astonishing studio album debut as SZA on CTRL for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kung Fu Kenny has taste, eh?), Ms. Rowe’s intent and personality is one of the most immediately fascinating and likable in a long time. Her singing is a near-flawless combination of rap god bravado and seductive soul as she both begs for true intimacy and brushes off any flakey behavior. She’s so brazen, she even admits to cheating on her boyfriend as a reason for leaving said boyfriend on the FIRST DAMN TRACK. From there, SZA does everything from mock thirsty womanizers (“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”), using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for the value of waiting for sex (“Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/Never even pushed for the p***y”) to being open about how the wandering eye of men hurts her (“Beep beep, why are you lookin’ around, you lonely?/I feel you comin’ down like honey/Do do you even know I’m alive?”). SZA’s lyrics are merely the perfect icing on the cake, as the base is full of hazy future-soul music mixed with trap drums and low-synthesizers. SZA is game for all of it though as her voice rides effortlessly on any beat placed in front of her. She has the flow of a rapper on par with the albums guest stars (Travis Scott, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad) and yet the singing performance of someone not overstaying her welcome yet still retains a strong presence. Not only is CTRL the best debut album and best R&B album of the year, it presents the best new personality for the modern music scene to have blossom in it. SZA fits perfectly in 2017, but imagine what she could do in the next five years?

 

17

2. The xx – I See You

Picture this: you’re at a house party. It’s crowded, loud and you came by yourself. You rub elbows with everyone there and laugh with friends, but you’re mostly likely going home alone. Then there’s someone across the room standing alone with a red solo cup in hand. You want to talk to her, she might want to talk to you. Neither of you know, but that glance across the room makes you want to do something. And even if there’s loud party music playing for the room, the two of you are probably hearing The xx’s third studio album in your heads. A darker, more gothic experience than the trio’s previous outings, I See You also sounds like The xx’s first complete album. Aside from the two dance tracks “Dangerous” and lead single “On Hold,” which stand perfectly well on their own and in the album, I See You is full of deeply intimate and romantic lovelorn anthems. “Dangerous” sets the tone with its low-thumping, propulsive drum beat, followed by the double-dose of gothic, skeletal romance of “Say Something Loving” and “Lips.” The classic xx sound appears on “A Violent Noise” and “Performance” with the lightly-plucked guitar strings and the delicate voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. I See You also showcases new sonic clarity in the production of Jamie xx as he puts Croft and Sim’s vocal performances front and center and lets the music merely act as color for the stories their lyrics say. The xx’s message is that much of love is a “Performance” (“I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”) and no matter how much it can seem “Dangerous” (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, ‘Danger, danger’/I can’t make them take you under”), the little moments of love are worth the major drawbacks. On “Brave For You,” featuring one of Croft’s finest vocal performances, there is a sense of so much struggle and strife in knowing about someone and what their faults could be. But something keeps her going (“There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go”).

 

00-holding-lorde-album-art

1. Lorde – Melodrama

It was near-impossible to count out Lorde. The New Zealand indie-pop singer/songwriter had too much mystique in her presence and yet such boldface honesty about modern culture with her breakout song “Royals” that it was hard to believe she could end up a one hit wonder. What would she do next? How would a teenager hit with such immediate exposure adjust to it all? How would her music evolve? What else does she have to say? We may never know her immediate agenda after “Royals” hit big, because life had different plans to make her truly come out of her shell. After a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Lorde is isolated in the spotlight with the world waiting for her reaction. The result is both volatile and gorgeous, intimate yet boosted to be heard in stadiums, sad at the start but incredibly satisfying. So it’s Lorde, but fully-formed. It fits that the cover for Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is a painting of her in her bed possibly longing for the night to end as the album is a very intimate affair. She’s lashing out at her ex seeing other people (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), trying to make new friends with unstable people (“Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”), but is as messy and confused as any 21-year-old. From the massive sound of Melodrama (co-produced by Jack Antonoff), Lorde’s one night at a party looking for some kind of relief from her heartbreak might be the most revelatory night of her life. “Green Light” opens the album with an incredible punch of piano and bass drums, “Homemade Dynamite” is swamped with dropped-down drums and synthesizers, “Supercut” sounds like classic 80s new wave boosted for the EDM scene and “Perfect Places” is the album’s closing rebellious anthem. But like all great performers, it’s when Lorde has a song entirely to herself that she truly brings magic. And the album’s centerpiece and arguably the most captivating moment in pop music this year is “Liability,” a stunning piano ballad where reality comes crashing down on her (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/And then they are bored of me”). If that’s what she once was, Lorde is now the pop star of the future: down-to-earth in her experience yet forever hovering above us all in her musical landscape.

Top Twenty Movies of 2016

1-2

Like most years, the best movies of 2016 were the ones that didn’t have toy deals, product tie-ins, or “Extended Editions.” In fact, I’d go so far to say that 2016 may be one of the worst years for blockbuster studio movies (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft) Fortunately, that means the rest of the world of movies was filled with interesting ideas, compelling characters, and unique filmmaking. We went everywhere from ancient Japan to 1970s Los Angeles, followed bankrupt cowboys and the First Lady of the United States, and faced a demonic goat and the equally scary dream of trying to make it as an actress. 2016 may have been a bit of a wash, but that made my top 20 picks all the more precious. In the words of the patron saint Wade W. Wilson, “Let’s count ‘em down.”

20. Moonlight

moonlight-a24-poster

Barry Jenkins doesn’t see life as a whole, more as moments that make us who we are. He boils that down with neon-lit artistic beauty in his three-act feature about a young black man living through struggle and a crisis of identity in Miami. Jenkins mixes art house cinematography and atmosphere with acting worthy of prime stage work. Leading that work is a prime cast including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the lead in three separate eras. Ambition meets reality and it’s never as it seems.

 

19. Eye in the Sky

eye-in-the-sky-movie-1

Drone warfare is one of the toughest questions to answer in modern warfare, but who would’ve thought its ethics would make for such great drama? Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine….no, seriously) plays out three scenarios surrounding a drone strike: one in an underground military base where a military officer (the immortal Helen Mirren) wants to drop the bomb, her supervising officer (the late great Alan Rickman) wants to wait to see who else could be in the blast, and the drone pilot (the still great Aaron Paul) doesn’t even want to pull the trigger. It’s a game of chicken with an international incident on the line, but Hood and writer Guy Hibbert let the actors play with the questions brilliantly. War is hell, even if it’s behind a computer screen.

 

18. Don’t Think Twice

thumbnail_24450-2

Yeah there are laughs, but a career in comedy can be borderline miserable. Take it from Mike Birbiglia, who starred, wrote, and directed the story of an improv comedy troupe in New York City with their theater on the verge of closing and their future prospects on the verge of evaporating. Rounded out by ace comic talent like Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard, Don’t Think Twice finds the meaning of friendship and finding yourself when your dreams don’t exactly work out. Life is improv, just go with the scenes you’re given.

 

17. Sing Street

sing-street-john-carney-pic

Writer/director John Carney goes three-for-three with musical movies after Once and Begin Again with this droll, yet incredibly bright teen comedy about a shy teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a synth rock band with his fellow nerdy schoolmates to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). First off, very relatable (speaking from experience). Second, Carney captures the environment of grey, working-class Dublin in the 1980s along with the beautiful melancholy that the new wave sound of that era inspired amongst his characters. Even the film’s original songs are poppy earworms.

 

16. Zootopia

zootopia

Even if Pixar could only gives us a light farce of a sequel this year, Disney’s individual animation department still managed to turn out some quality entertainment while making billions of dollars (as is Disney’s business model). From the team behind the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph comes the story of spunky bunny police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) taking a bite out of the metropolis of Zootopia. She relies on the wit of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist as sly as a fox (because HE IS A FOX, GET IT? COMEDY!) to solve mysterious disappearances around the city. Zippy, gorgeous, and cute as a button (or a bunny? MORE COMEDY!), Zootopia is one of those great kid’s movies that has enough face value jokes up front for the young ones in the audience and little bits of hidden humor on repeat viewings (beep that Breaking Bad reference in the climax and thank me later). The detail in the animation of the world of Zootopia itself is another crowning achievement for Disney, proving that the right people don’t just have dollar signs on the brain (*cough*).

 

15. 10 Cloverfield Lane

10_cloverfield_lane_paramount_winstead-0-0

Oh J.J. Abrams, you sneaky little man. A mere month after he helmed the return of Star Wars, he pulled back Bad Robot Production’s curtain to reveal this spin-off of the 2008 found-footage/sci-fi hit Cloverfield made in secret. The biggest surprise of it all? It totally works! Abrams is only a producer on this project (as he was with the first Cloverfield), but director Dan Trachtenberg is no slouch by creating shivering tension and suspense in the underground bunker where three strangers try to survive throughout an alien invasion (or are they?). It’s a small film with solid twists and characters maneuvering through the mind games played by the sparse space around them, despite a rather weak climax. We also learned to never underestimate a terrifying John Goodman.

 

14. Captain America: Civil War

captain-america-civil-war

Is it flawed? Incredibly. Does it contribute to the sameness of current Marvel movies? Absolutely. Do the stakes matter even in the slightest? Hell no. But Hollywood’s biggest breakup between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) had so much action, humor, character, and heart that it’s still the best superhero movie of the year. Directed with frenetic pacing but thorough focus on character by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Solider), the governments of the world aren’t so keen on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes anymore and force them to become regulated. It splits The Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk because “reasons”) in half, with Iron Man wanting to rein in the gang but Cap still untrusting of modern politics as he tries to clear the name of ol’ buddy Bucky/The Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). What makes Civil War so enjoyable, aside  from some of the best action scenes Marvel has put out to date (with one in particular), is the further development of the established people (not the heroes in the suits) we’ve come to know. Even if the reason Cap and Tony fight is motivated by Tony being an irrational moron, the emotion behind the fists they throw is felt through the screen. Also, Black Panther…..ALL of Black Panther.

 

13. Green Room

960-4

Jeremy Saulnier wants to make you uncomfortable. He will pull you to the edge of your seat in fear and anticipation, then pull the trigger and let everything bleed. Tension is Saulnier’s game, and he leveled up this year with Green Room. The set up is tense enough: a punk rock band gets a gig playing at a skinhead club in the woods of Oregon and, after playing a real crowd-pleasing opening number, see a dead body and become trapped in the  club’s green room. To avoid alerting the cops, the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) orders his staffers to flush out the band, dead or alive. Once the band is trapped, the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as audience waits for the gruesome bursts of violence that propel the movie forward. But Saulnier sets up an unnerving atmosphere and lets that build as much suspense as the fight scenes do. It’s claustrophobic and filled with dread, but impossible to look away from. It’s also led by a solid young cast including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late great Anton Yelchin.

 

12. 20th Century Women

20th-century-women-mike-mills-1000x520

It’s an odd thing to wonder about what truly made us who we are when we’re growing up: was it our parents? the times? the culture? Writer/director Mike Mills has already explored the impact his father left on him in 2010’s Beginners. This year he showed the impact his mother had on his life with 20th Century Women, with the ever-wonderful Annette Bening playing mother Mills. Not really of course, more a fictionalized version of his mother and his teenage years in 1979 Santa Barbara. Bening plays a chain-smoking, free spirited mother looking to connect with her teenaged son, enlisting the help of housemates and friends to make an impact on her son. Mills uses his typical flourishes of building character with flashbacks and flashes forward in time. He also writes great characters for actors to work with, with the likes of Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and especially Greta Gerwig.

 

11. A Bigger Splash

_ABS5434.NEF

First off, if this still of Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” doesn’t immediately sell you on this movie, be ashamed that you’re missing the best dance sequence of the year. However, don’t be fooled by the whimsy of Fiennes’ swaying of the hips: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) pulls a great bait-and-switch with this erotic love game between a rock superstar (Tilda Swinton), her photographer lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), her former  manager/former lover (Fiennes), and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). On top of some gorgeous cinematography of the Italian islands by Yorick Le Saux, the four leads play off of each other with their raw sexual chemistry. Fiennes unbeatable charisma and Johnson’s steaming sexuality (somehow lost in Fifty Shades of Grey) brings the movie to boiling temperatures of atmosphere. And then there’s Swinton who, even as she’s mute throughout the movie, remains one of the best actors alive.

 

Top Ten, ENGAGE!

10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From Taika Waititi, the man who made vampires funny again (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows) and will hopefully make Thor compelling again (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), comes this silly and heartfelt adventure story in the mountains of New Zealand (without a single hobbit to be found). Waititi’s script brings out the best in the veteran Sam Neill as the grouchy father-figure to newcomer Julian Dennison’s plucky kid “gangsta” just looking for a home. The camera work and occasional left-field humor recall Wes Anderson, but Waititi’s own brand of droll comedy, sweeping direction and easily-observable love of filmmaking cement him as a man of his own talent. Don’t you hurt him, Marvel!

 

9. The Edge of Seventeen

It’s seems impossible for Hollywood movies to properly depict today’s American teenagers. Sometimes it can be done well (Moonlight) and other times it can be done disastrously (Yoga Hosers). The one that did it best, however, is Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious dark comedy about a suburban high schooler dealing with nearly everything in the world going against her. That may sound like another episode of Degrassi, but Craig’s writing is full of sharp digs that recall peak Woody Allen and a feature actors that don’t oversell their roles or rely on modern references to seem current. On top of that, Craig has a stellar lead in Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld delivering one of the best performances of the year. Her comic timing and dramatic heft she brings is stellar and hopefully reminds Ms. Steinfeld to hold off on pulling a Jennifer Lopez and trading in a promising acting career to be a middling pop star.

 

8. Una

It’s a damn shame that no one else got to see this brilliant and risque adaptation of David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird since no studio has picked it up for distribution yet. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why studios are hesitant to put press behind a movie about young love with an older man. But Una, the play’s film adaptation with a screenplay by Harrower himself, doesn’t use its taboo subject matter for cheap drama. Instead, its story is on the aftermath as the title character, now a young woman (the excellent Rooney Mara), tracks down her first true love, an older man with a new name and new life (the equally excellent Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the movie plays out as it would onstage, with two actors going toe-to-toe laying out their emotions and seeing who cracks first. On top of that, director Benedict Andrews slowly dishes out the truth about what happened with the look of a gorgeous bad dream before cutting back to the cold harsh reality the two leads share. It shows that just having controversial subject matter for a movie is merely a springboard, but building on it makes it something impossible to look away from.

 

7. Manchester by the Sea

Whenever I tell people that Manchester by the Sea is one of the best movies of the year (because it is), I have to follow it with a warning: “This movie is a bummer.” Mind you, that’s not a detriment to Kenneth Lonergan’s new film about a sullen, closed-off handyman (Casey Affleck) who’s brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving a son (Lucas Hedges) without a father and a brother even more aimless and lost than he once was. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Lonergan’s film so outstanding because it’s for such simple reasons. The acting is so human and lived-in that the film feels like a well-made documentary. There’s nothing far-fetched or even a hint of forced Hollywood melodrama in the story. It’s not about dramatic expression of hard emotion, but the crippling fear of vulnerability after tragedy. Lonergan lets his cast do the heavy lifting, and most of it lies on Affleck’s very capable shoulders. He’s always been a very quiet actor lost in most movies, but this may be the role that finally fits his type of acting. He’s stellar, perhaps the best performances of his career, along with the likes of Chandler, Hedges, and a brief role by Michelle Williams. It’s not the happiest film of the year, but it feels pretty damn real.

 

6. Jackie

Biopic syndrome is a very real thing in Hollywood. No matter who is profiled, it’s easy to map out the origins, the rise to prominence, the second act fall from grace, and the finale of redemption. No matter how interesting the subject or how good the actor portraying the subject, most biopics are very similar. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like Pablo Larraín’s stirring depiction of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy before, during, and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine, sweeping shots of JFK’s funeral procession and close ups of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off of her face help paint the shimmering dream of her life in the White House and the faded nightmare she experienced as she was forced to leave. The likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup fill out an exceptional supporting cast that make Jackie consistently question the situation surrounding her. But it’s the fearless, fragile, and feisty lead performance by Natalie Portman that’s worth the price of admission. Portman juggles the many sides of Jackie that one wouldn’t expect: the fiercely protective torch-bearer of the Kennedy legacy, the jaded public figure cursing the American public for her JFK’s death, the broken debutante questioning if all the glamorous dresses in her closet was ever worth a damn, and the heartbroken wife who’s lost the love of her life. It’s as multifaceted as a Dungeons and Dragons dice, but Portman pulls it off beautifully. She’s currently on the verge of welcoming her second child, but don’t be surprised if she welcomes another Oscar to her brood as well.

 

5. Kubo and the Two Strings

If you claim to be a big fan of animated movies and have yet to see anything made by Laika Studios, you’re a liar and should be ashamed. The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have created three films since 2009 (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and all three have given Disney and Pixar a reason to sweat (well at least their creative team, their financial department are too busy lounging in their chairs made of dollars). Now on film four, Laika have made their most expansive world, exciting action, and heartfelt story to date…and yet The Secret Life of Pets made over $800 million, shameful. Anywho, Kubo and the Two Strings takes audiences to ancient Japan where the title character, a one-eyed young boy with magic paper and a three-stringed guitar, must traverse the lands and find three magical items to fight his grandfather, Raiden the moon god (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Fortunately, Kubo is accompanied by a stern fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s excellent handling of stop-motion animation merges extremely well with the Japanese style and art direction of the film’s story. The tiniest details are given proper attention making each set piece almost a living element to the film, breathing and moving with the characters themselves. Mix that with a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli and some great vocal talent by the A-list cast (especially McConaughey in one of his funniest performances to date) and you’ve got something beyond a kid’s adventure: a sweeping, beautiful journey for the whole family without one obnoxious product tie-in (take that, Sing).

 

4. The Nice Guys

The world has had a lot of disappointments in the action film genre this year. The combined power of Batman and Superman turned out into a dud, X-Men fighting Apocalypse was a snoozefest, the first live action Joker in eight years was straight-up embarrassing, even Jason Bourne gave us all a headache. And yet Shane Black made a brand new movie this year and BARELY ANYONE SAW IT! IT WAS RIGHT THERE YOU GUYS!!!! Mr. Black’s latest film (his first since 2013’s surprisingly good Iron Man 3) takes place in 1977 Los Angeles and follows brutish enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on his search for a missing girl. He soon joins boozy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), and the pair embark on shenanigans riddled with bullets, boobs, and secrecy. Very few in Hollywood today do action movies as good as Shane Black, specifically it’s his understanding of when and how often to do action scenes. Instead of desperate ploys to hold the audience’s attention, Black cruises at his own pace and lets his acute sense of style and atmosphere entertain viewers. He expertly paces out the gunplay and pulpy elements of the movie, with even the most casual dialogue better than any exposition in other movies. Speaking of his characters, Black scored two actors on their absolute A-game: Crowe is the growling straight man with excellent comic timing and the real soul of the film, but Gosling steals the show. The man known for his sullen intensity and the occasional meme, Gosling gives the funniest performance of his career (maybe of the year, as well) as he makes “bumbling” look like the coolest thing to do in a movie. Even when he’s been chasing tail that turns out to be a double-cross, he holds his stupidity by still thinking he has a shot at getting laid. It’s like if Van Wilder was in Lethal Weapon, brilliant!

 

3. La La Land

Speaking of brilliant things with Ryan Gosling in them, hurray for movie musicals! And no, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is not talking about the modern era of movie musicals like Les Misérables, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd. Instead, Chazelle crafted a love letter to the likes of Singing’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and other films of the golden age of movie musicals. While it would be easy to just make a highlight reel of classic moments from that era, Chazelle had the good sense to put a story in there and make the brightest film in grim dumpster fire of 2016. La La Land follows two down-on-their-luck dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) desperate to open his own hip club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who’s only gotten as close to Hollywood as the coffee shop on a studio lot will let her. The two meet, exchange witty banter, and of course fall in love. They inspire each other to give one last big run at their dreams and face the adversity that follows. Now the pessimistic cynic inside my soul could easily label this as another installment of “White People Problems: Part 75” and scoff at a movie so sweet and sunny that it could give cavities. But it’s impossible not to applaud the care and craftsmanship Chazelle puts into the production. After the small, contained burst of madness that was Whiplash, it’s astonishing to see Chazelle execute such a big production with the same precision as a veteran director (mind you, La La Land is only Chazelle’s third feature film). The sweeping musical numbers (like the Planetarium scene) are shot with such focus and buoyancy that it feels like a group of intelligent robots organized the sequence to perfection, but there’s still a sense of warmth that could only come from a human behind the camera. Justin Hurwitz also returns to provide the film’s score, consisting of a solid combination of quiet jazz numbers shared between the two leads and the big ensemble numbers. But then there’s the heart of the movie, brought by its star-crossed lovers. Gosling is a natural with song and dance numbers while still being a handsome Woody Allen-wannabe obsessed with the passion with jazz. It took the charisma of Gosling to make Sebastian more than just your average jazz hipster. But there is one star of this movie, and she’s Emma Stone. Someone who’s proven that she’s a jack of all trades with drama, comedy, and music, this was the role tailor-made for Stone’s talents and she owns every scene she’s in. Her effortless comedic banter and chemistry with Gosling, her solid singing voice, and the heartbreak in her struggle to make in Hollywood (something she’s certainly no stranger to) is so natural. Stone’s been a major Hollywood star for a while now, but La La Land is surely the one to send her star power into supernova. The same should apply to Chazelle, a true craftsman proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s next great talents.

 

2. Hell or High Water

Throw all the glitz and glamour you want in a movie, but I’m a man of simple tastes. An old-fashioned, stripped-down drama with believable human characters is something that feels rare in movies today and really shouldn’t. Which is why when something like it comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s such a welcome relief and not a stretch to call a new American classic. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water feels like a long-lost American classic from the late 60s/early 70s, a crime drama mixed with Western elements and character drama worthy of a great stage play. Dirty, sobering, and especially timely, it’s amazing how the movie feels like such a gem in 2016. It’s a story of brothers, by blood and by occupation. The blood brothers are ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and somber divorcee Toby (Chris Pine), who try to save their family farm in West Texas by robbing banks of their petty cash and speeding off into the dusty sunset. The brothers by occupation are two Texas Rangers, one on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and the other his longtime partner (Gil Birmingham), who are on the trail of the robbers and hope to get one last big bust before they part ways. Mackenzie manages to make Hell or High Water both very singular and yet something that fits right in with 2016. Even with the escapism of film, Mackenzie puts audiences right back into terrible 2016 Americana with endless dried out farms, broken homes, and jobless cowboys feeling abandoned by the world around them. It’s such a vivid depiction of the desolate range that was once promised to be prosperous. On top of that, Mackenzie also knows how to pace the action between the character development. The robberies are quick bursts of kinetic action, building up to the climax that rivals Michael Mann’s Heat robbery. Adding to that expert direction is an engrossing story and tight dialogue by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who also crafted the four fantastic lead characters that are also performed by four actors all giving peak performances. Birmingham and Foster are the weaker of the leads, but they still give great performances. Foster provides his typical quiet intensity with a bit more heart to add to the brother aspect, while Birmingham acts as a fitting foil for Bridges character. Speaking of Bridges, this is his finest performance since the last time he did a western (that would be 2010’s True Grit). Bridges has been one of the most heartfelt and human actors of his generation, and Hell or High Water gives him the right character and enough room to let him relax into his character and make him immediately interesting. But then there’s Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, giving the finest performance of his career. To see him play a character so mature, burnt out, and yet intimidating and compelling is almost shocking to see. Hopefully it opens new doors for the actor once his Star Trek role turns over or before his career goes as south as the original Kirk. I hope that Hell or High Water doesn’t get lost in the sea of other big films to come out, or perhaps it’ll be a hidden treasure future generations will discover in bargain bins. Regardless, seeing the movie will show how undeniably lasting it feels. Something old, something new, and something to be seen again.

 

And now…..

 

1. The Witch

 

Horror movies are a dime a dozen, you get one diamond for every 10 or 20 duds. But what makes movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining and others more memorable than the likes of The Conjuring, Ouija, As Above So Below, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, Hostel and other forgettable marks in the horror genre? In today’s market, especially with the rise of found footage films, horror movies seem to rely on their jump scares, the brief moments of sudden bursts of sound and surprise imagery to count as scares. While it lets audiences jump in their seats to break up monotony, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression after the movie’s over. Horror films are less about quick moments of spooks and more about terrifying imagery that stays on screen, not too long to lose impact but not too short to be missed. Something that stays on just long enough to stick with audience and haunt their nightmares for weeks, months, or a lifetime. Not many films do that anymore, fortunately one did this year, and everyone who ever wants to make a horror movie (or any movie) should’ve taken notes. In his first feature film no less, writer/director Robert Eggers presented The Witch, “A New England Folktale” that acts as both everything a filmmaker needs to make something compelling and one of the best horror films of all time. Eggers’ film takes place in 17th century New England when a Puritan family is exiled from their village and they are forced to live in the outlier woods with nothing but their farming and their faith to hold on to. One day, their infant is taken into the woods by something unseen, unheard, and unthinkable. The family becomes closer in need of salvation, but the darkness keeps creeping in and all of their prayers aren’t helping. Eggers is a master of not only creating atmosphere but building it into a fuller form. It’s emphasized in a visual work throughout the film: at night, the family’s farmhouse is lit by candles that form a type of box around the family. As the film goes on, the box of light gets smaller and smaller, practically crushing the family as the nights go by and the more they lose understanding of the situation. That’s Eggers game, a time bomb whose fuse is getting smaller and smaller with the victims quickly running out of options. He starts with gloom and keeps building to full-on gothic doom, using lighting and sparse sound design (plus the score by Mark Korven) to build a believably hopeless situation. Despite the title, Eggers even plays with the idea of there even being a witch at the start, having the family use their religion as a security blanket and questioning if this is a part of some type of God-driven insanity. In fact, The Witch herself is such a minor part of the film, with the center of it being the true horror of family values and the madness of religion. It’s all played out without shaky cameras, jump scares, cheap special effects, or excessive gore. The imagery is legitimately unsettling and stays on screen just long enough to last and linger in the mind. The icing on the cake is the exceptional performances by Kate Dickie as the unstable mother and Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter bearing the most of the psychological torture. The Witch stands for everything that is right in moviemaking: patience, craft, and actual innovation in film.