Top 10 Broadway Songs of 2016-17

The Tony Awards are this weekend, wrapping up Broadway’s season of shows, in an all night dedication to the year’s best theater. While the awards are the most conducive awards show to its form (live performances), I’ve always felt they need to add a best original song award. The Oscars manage to find three new original songs to award every year, why not add something to award the best song, which is ostensibly the highlight of most musicals anyway.

In the name of all things ranked, I decided I would come up with a list of the best songs, both for personal pleasure and to introduce what was out there this year. I experienced almost all of these from their soundtrack release, which is admittedly not fair to a lot of these shows which are enhanced when placed live on a stage and in the midst of a story, but this isn’t always possible (obviously).

This list was eligible to any new shows that were also Tony-eligible (no revivals), as well as any off-Broadway shows that were released in this time period. As it goes, not every Tony eligible show had a soundtrack released and thus could not be considered. That being the case, there are only four shows on this list and one that is featured very heavily, that’s just how this art form works.

I’ll link an Apple Music playlist at the end for you to enjoy.

 

10. “Halfway” from Amelie 

This is the only show I’ve actually seen in person, so I am probably biased to enjoy it more than the others, but unlike critics and audiences, I found it an immense delight. “Halfway” is a duet between young and adult Amelie, reflecting on the lessons her mother taught her, lessons that were highly affecting, yet completely debilitating.

9. “Day One” from Groundhog’s Day

The opener to Groundhog’s Day introduces us to the ornery Phil Conners, the news reporter who continuously relives the same day as originally made famous by Bill Murray. Here, Conners contemplates his career as he suffers through what he sees as an absurd celebration in Punxsutawney–the epitome of small town America. It’s a ten-minute track that overviews the town, the main characters, and gives us the heart of Conners, a bitter man looking for something grander than what he’s got.

8. TIE “Words Fail” & “So Big/So Small” from Dear Evan Hansen 

I couldn’t pick between the two emotional closers to Dear Evan Hansen, the former sees the protagonist coming to terms with the mistakes he’s made throughout the show, finally expressing his innermost thoughts about not having a father; the latter flips the script, examining these damages from the perspective of his mother. This is the best of Broadway, emotions expressed through heart wrenching song, what else can you ask for?

7. “Pierre” from Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812

The Great Comet is a little frustrating to listen to, there’s a lot going on (which is surely amplified by seeing it live), and the lyrics are almost entirely transcripts straight from Tolstoy’s “War & Peace”, which means there is little rhyming or pop conventions. The show is inventive with its meddled genres and high drama, but grows tiresome by the time the second act hits. “Pierre” follows the prologue, giving us a Josh Groan ballad complete with a Russian choir interjecting throughout, creating the standout track from the show (though “No One Else” is close).

6. “Times Are Hard For Dreamers” from Amelie

The single of sorts from Amelie is a fun, poppy introduction to Philippa Soo as adult Amelie. It’s catchy as can be, a piano driven track that actually has its own “pop version” on the soundtrack. It’s rare that Broadway songs break through into mainstream playlists, but one could easily sneak this into a driving playlist and no one would bat an eye.

5. “One Day” from Groundhog’s Day

While “Day One” gives us insight to Phil’s thoughts, “One Day” let’s us into coworker Rita’s  struggles as a woman in the news industry, the objectification there, and her difficulties with love. She’s written a little too one-note, focusing acutely on her desires to find a good man, but Barrett Doss makes up for it with a great performance. It ends with the entire town expressing their dreams for tomorrow, heightened by the fact that Phil is having to live this ‘one day’ repeatedly and there is no tomorrow for him.

4. “Requiem” from Dear Evan Hansen

“Requiem” offers the unique perspective of a family mourning the loss of a member who they were all at odds with. Lead by Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) asking why she should “play the grieving girl” if their relationship was something she never enjoyed. It’s a heartbreaking, but realistic look at family, heightened by the mix of lies and false hopes the characters have throughout the show. “When the villains fall, the kingdom never weeps.”

3. “Anybody Have a Map?” from Dear Evan Hansen

The show’s opener is essentially a duet between two mothers struggling with their sons and their life’s direction. It’s a deceitfully upbeat track, setting the tone for the murky waters that are to come. You’re going to have fun with this show, but you’re never quite sure how much fun you should be having. I’m not sure whether the show’s writers intended this to be the case, regardless, they know how to write some great songs.

2. “Sister’s Pickle” from Amelie 

It picks up a motif we hear Amelie’s mother sing early on and introduces both the crush Amelie is developing on Nino, as well as the anxiety that will cripple her throughout the show. It’s a tiny track, but absolutely infectious, the height of what attracts you to Amelie, the altruistic ball of delight that she is.

  1. “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen

This was probably the big breakout track of the year, an acoustic driven bouncing and poppy track that introduces the world to Evan Hansen. The music and lyrics were written by Pasek & Paul, now famous for having written the lyrics to La La Land, “Window” is tonally opposite from the songs that made up that film. It’s the sort of song one can listen to endlessly, the single that makes this the show you should introduce your non-musical loving friends to and ultimately the best song to come out of musical theater in the last year.

Listen to the whole thing here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/playlist/top-10-broadway-songs-16-17/idpl.ff5c6294d0654027bc9a153eed1def65

Other good songs: “No One Else” from The Great Comet of 1812, “Stuck” from Groundhog’s Day, “Playing Nancy” from Groundhog’s Day, “If I Had My Time Again” from Groundhog’s Day, “The Bottle Drops” from Amelie, “For Forever” from Dear Evan Hansen, “28 Hours/Wherever We Are” from Come From Away

 

 

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Fertie’s Rap

When we first discovered that Anna was pregnant I wrote this rap as a way of letting some of our family members know. This is from the perspective of our child, who we call Fertie (bonus points to you if you can guess why…). Thought I’d share it with you, here it is:

Allow me to introduce myself

I am the one, the only LIL FERTIE

 

Yo yo yo yo yo

Here we go

Who is the greatest lil embryo

As I begin to grow, you won’t stop my flow

I’m a proverbial bond bout to go into escrow

 

So watch out for me when I come around

I’ll make everything in your life turn upside down

One day I’ll see the world and take its crown

For now this womb is Lil Fertie’s hometown

 

My rhymes terrify they make you psychotic

You can find me chilling out in the sac of amniotic

Don’t defy me, I’m your new neighbor

If I get too excited I may induce labor

 

Even though I barely exist

There’s no way you can’t resist

Cuz with a flick of the wrist, I’ll give ya the gist

I’m about to make my way to #1 on your top 5 list

 

All this being said, I know you’ll love me

I’m in utero now, I’ll come out eventually

I’ll walk around and you can meet me

But for now give a holla to Anna’s belly

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A Letter to My Generation to Come

In this, a manifesto of my thoughts and goals for you and to you, will come a thesis of who I am and how I see things; this is scary for me, almost as difficult as the notion of bringing another being into the world, but there’s perhaps no better time to reflect–in the moment where I think I know, but really I’m just about to begin knowing.

To my generation to come, a letter written upon the reversal of what was the decision to try to not bring you into existence, a summation of thoughts that I have about the world which you are about to enter into and some notes about personal preparation for this event.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award winning book Between the World and Me, in which the author pens a letter to his teenage son about what it means to be black in the world—you’ll probably recognize his style and blatant copy of the book’s format in this writing. In it he talks a lot about bodies. The black body, he asserts, is under consistent and persistent threat of being taken away, the world has formed in a way to make it thus. And I think of your body being born into the world. It will be born into a mixture of struggles, but also an undeniable privilege. We all wrestle with identities: body shape, size, color, ability, etc… They’re all conflated into this weird way we experience the world, and I cannot deny that being an able-bodied straight white male in this broken world is the apex of privilege. You will benefit a lot from this.

Even so, your mother has struggled a bit with this sense of identity and you will inherit a portion of this. Being bicultural is a unique experience—the ways in which people caused her to de-belong as someone both Indian, Persian, and Swedish tied all sorts of knots in her perception of the world. In addition, while still being of the age where one is immensely shapeable, she left it all to come to the United States, a nation of supposed immigrants. This blood will run through your veins and will make you bicultural, which, depending on how dark your skin is and where we end up living will either be of much importance or of little. I have every intention of drowning you in the pluralism of that identity, but monoculture is aggressive and will preside over us if we’re not careful.

Your identity will nevertheless be shaped, by me, your mother, and the barrage of influences in the world. The world is a good place and you’ll be told of its greatness, with stories of you can do anything swirling throughout your little brain. You’ll also be told of the great evil lurking behind every corner—even within you. As your parents, we’ll guide you along, nudging you left and right, but knowing that you must wrestle with this never ending conflict of inherited good and bad.

If you’re a boy—and it feels important to speak this out before I’ve learned what they’ve discovered your chromosomes to be—you must learn to be good. They’ll mostly throw lessons of toughness at you, expectations to fight, to protect, to lead—and this is fine, there’s nothing wrong with being protective or tough. Just remember that neither your mother nor I care if those qualities are at your forefront, we see no need to conflate masculinity with brutality. We will teach you kindness and confidence and empathy and how to stand up for oneself and how to love others and to pursue justice. These aspects of your character are important to us, the rest is for you to figure out.

If you’re a girl the rest applies just the same, we will teach you all the aspects listed above and let you figure out who you are from there, whether it be tough (like your mother) or fragile (like me). Only I know you will have to work harder to accomplish the same things as a man, it’s the reality of the world you are entering into, one in which the nation of my citizenship has not chosen to elect a female as leader for the 240+ years of its existence. We plan to grant you every opportunity to do whatever you’d like, no matter what that may be, and I will stand there beside you, encouraging you to push through every barrier you ever come up against.

All this being said, I’m nervous for the day we meet. I’m great with long term commitments, that’s no problem, but the love and affection of the day to day grind of being a parent worries me. I’m not the best at being excited, those who’ve given me gifts may have seen the poor acting job I’ve put on. My grandest form of expressing affection is this way-too-long piece that you won’t have the ability or desire to read for like 20 years. Yet here I sit contemplating the decision to move forward with this, knowing that I can never give you everything you’re going to need. I am a mountain of flaws, with the inability to express—nay—feel the way that I’m supposed to, the way that makes one excited instead of bored when videos of babies pop up. They say these things change when you have one of your own, but I’m afraid I’ll be quite bored by you when you first appear (hopefully, if you ever do read this, I will have influenced a sense of humor in you so that you may laugh at this half-joke).

I should mention faith as it is my reflex to do so when one talks about flawed parents, even as I try to figure out faith separate from the cultural context that was presented to me, these reflexes still pop up. Your Heavenly Father is perfect and without flaws, this is the truth they will point you to as you try to understand my failures—and I will teach you this too, as bored as I am of this cliché. The Fatherly relationship of a higher being was never extremely profound to me, but the writers of the Scriptures use it often enough to teach it as a characteristic. Understanding God can be hard, but it will often shift back and forth between easy and tough throughout your life. The portrait of the perfect Father will give you an understanding of a God with intentions of an intimate relationship and Jesus and the Spirit echo this; we’ll pray that this enters into your life as your mother and I have found it to be of the utmost importance.

Never be afraid to ask questions, either to us or to God, as we will never try to trick you, and God has no ego to be bruised. Life is not a game in which we are meant to figure out all the answers, and even if it were, we are right there alongside you trying to discover what’s up and what’s down. We do believe truth exists and will teach you what we know, but never to the sole purpose of wanting you to be just like us.

I’ve found Jesus’ grand statement “love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself” to be a useful sticking point to fall back on. If God is love, then all of this being and doubting and barely getting by is wrapped up in this notion of a force for goodness—this notion of love. With love there must be a sense of the other and this sense of other is elevated—no matter what—to the highest level possible. Within this all kinds of things can occur, but the principle overrides them; we choose that other person despite anything that could have ever occurred. This is how I see God’s interaction with humanity (basically) and our interaction with one another. It is love that is the driving force of daily life, it puts value in each person that exists, and pushes us beyond the ways in which we act in kindness.

I’ve thought of three different “Don’ts” that I believe I shallowly live by. This way of phrasing things goes against my education where I was taught to view the world through the appreciative rather than the negative, the asset-based view is said to be more inspiring and utilizes the human spirit, trusting that within each of us is something already of value. Yet, writing often comes down to what sounds best, so what you get here is more for your aesthetic pleasure, rather than what will actually help you to be a better human–sorry.

Don’t be boring – I’m oft frustrated at the ways we casually slip into monotany and monoculture. The world is a vibrant place, filled with exponentially exciting things and the ever present potential to expand beyond what exists (like why would you create a normal sentence when you can create one with two different uses of alliterations, e.g. this sentence). Every time I think I’ve begun to grasp what is possible, the universe shakes my understanding. Why then must we continue conforming to the world’s most simple patterns? Populism is an inevitable piece of culture, but it doesn’t have to be the path you follow. Be you, but check yourself, your motivations, and what you like. There’s a crowd for everyone, the possibility for personal thesis will always exist, find yours and do your thing.

Don’t be dumb – As stated above, the vastness of the universe is astounding. There are literally theories we rely on to explain how everything works that we know are not true, but we need to put something there, an algebraic X, to build our thought systems around, lest it all collapse. There is a lot to know and knowing it is such a pleasure. Dive deep, get your hands in the thick of it and don’t allow yourself to be swayed. Deciphering things for yourself is exhausting, but how else can we live?
Don’t be mean – A world devoid of empathy will be the death of us all. We’re always teetering on this edge, but despite our evolutionary instincts to survive at all costs, we’ve managed to integrate kindness into our world. It’s quite miraculous when you think about it. I’m not sure there’s any virtue more important than empathy. Love is the outpouring of empathy, the result of seeing the other, recognizing them, and acting in their favor. Love often gets relegated as a few feelings that one feels for those we are evolutionary inclined to enjoy–family, lovers, those similar to ourselves, but when we can experience the life of another in our own brain the potential of the world is grand. This is of course an optimistic outlook, but most world belief systems require the ability to interact with others; the greater the existence of empathy the more likely we are to thrive in this world. Empathy is both at the core of our being and an unnatural piece of who we are–the anti-getting ahead. Live your life like that one dinosaur from The Tree of Life, that’s all I can tell you.

We’ll probably put a lot of pressure on you to live up to some sort of ideals–morally, spiritually, academically, etc… These are to train you in ways that we feel will be beneficial for you. We’ll start off hard, it’ll be rough at times, but one day we’ll loosen the reins, letting you go out your way into this world I’ve described. Just remember there are ideals that are true and good, but when humans try to find ways to force those ideals into something practical and consistent they often get bent out of shape. Just look at the Pharisees in the Bible or any new and exciting movement that grows into something official; they get twisted into competitions of who can claim the moral high ground. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a great virtue, but a corrupt law. It’s the way it goes. But we’ll try to make it fair. We’ll try to lead out of love. Justice and grace can feel like opposites, but they are deeply intertwined. We’ll walk that line for you.

I think I’m most excited to find out who you are. I mean, I know the great sociological debate is how much we will make you who you are, versus how you will naturally end up, but no matter which it is you will end up as your own individual mix of influences. You’re really a great experiment that I can’t wait to observe. As someone who gets really into particular interests, I can’t wait to see what you’re obsessed with. Can I get you to reject Minions, or are they so culturally prevalent that you’ll still love them no matter how many Miyazaki films I force you to watch? But honestly, I cannot think of a thing you could be into that I would not support–of a thing you could do that would tear my love away, I’m excited to see how you play out.

Daughter or son to be, welcome to existence. The future is yours.

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120 Days: Iraq and Underexposure

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

underexposure

My second viewing in this series is Underexposure, a 2005 Iraqi film. I am discovering that the film culture in a lot of these places is not as prevalent as I might have hoped for an exercise such as this, but in a way this makes it almost better. The story of this movie coming to be is almost as exciting as the movie itself. The filmmakers got the film used to shoot the movie from looters in the wake of America’s occupation in Iraq. It’s expired, something they note in the movie’s title, and it gives the whole thing a yellowish tint throughout. They had to sell their possessions to raise enough money to complete the movie, which would end up being the first film to be made after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

Works of art can serve as a purging of oneself. The film features a group of guys trying to make a documentary about their town in the midst of occupation. Its main character, Hassan, speaks in long voiceovers, using poetic language to express the pain that appears with every bomb or from every person he learns has passed. For him the film serves as a way to free himself from it all, to reckon with his surroundings–to purge this great sorrow. The great lengths the actual filmmakers went to in order to get this movie made cannot be separated from the visions Hassan has, it’s all too meta not to be. This is how everyone involved in this production chose to find meaning in their lives.

Hassan grapples with the suffering and death that surrounds him, small people in his life pass on and you cannot help but note that this could be anyone, your neighbor, those acquaintances you once had. This is truly the empathetic power of movies, they drop you into an experience, giving a perspective of someone you’ll never know. You escape your worldview, if for but a moment, relating to and even siding with those opposite of ourselves.

As noted above, most of the characters in the film are commoners, they’re apolitical, trying to make a living in their town which has been destroyed by an irredeemable government and a group of outsiders who don’t like or trust them. There is no common sentiment displayed by the film, other than sorrow, yet resentment rides high, the logical reaction to those who have wrecked all you know. This is both us and them, though. Humanity is wont to act in self-preservation, grabbing onto to the narratives we are given and using them as motivation to get through our lives. And in this is the deepest of commonalities. We live in a world of imagined divides, with walls that we have been told exist, but exist solely in our collective social constructions as those above us gain off our broken backs.

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January 2017

Some people wonder how I’m able to keep track of everything I’ve consumed throughout the year, it’s by doing nerdy things like this. Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s own lists, I’m keeping track day by day of the films, television episodes, sports games, live performances, books I’ve completed, and anything else that’s easy to keep track of.

TV Shows are indicated by season and episode, books have the author listed, live performances have the venue indicated, films are left plain.

1/1 – A Bigger Splash, Divines

1/2 – Swiss Army Man, Our Little Sister

1/4 – American Honey

1/7 – Hidden Figures

1/8 – The Good Place (S1, E10)

1/9 – Mad Men (S4, E3), NCAA Football National Championship

1/10 – Mad Men (S4, E4,5,6), Presidential Farewell Address

1/11 – Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E6)

1/12 – Hacksaw Ridge

1/13 – Amelie at the Ahmanson

1/15 – Southside With You, NFL Playoffs (x2)

1/16 – Selma

1/17 – Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E7), The Good Place (S1, E11)

1/19 – Mad Men (S4, E7), Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E8)

1/20 – Bad Moms, The UCB Show (S2, E1)

1/21 – The Good Place (S1, E12), Asssscat at UCB Franklin

1/22 – NFL Conference Championship Games (X2), The Good Place (S1, E13), Hunted (S1, E1)

1/24 – Fresh Off the Boat (S3, E6,7,8)

1/26 – Fresh Off the Boat (S3, E9); Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E9)

1/27 – Mad Men (S4, E8)

1/28 – 20th Century Women

1/29 – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Silicon Valley (S2, E2), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

1/30 – The White Helmets

1/31 – Mad Men (S4, E9), Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E10)

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120 Days: Syria and The White Helmets

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

whitehelmetedit

The first film in this series is The White Helmets, a 2016 documentary short about a group of people in Syria who run into bombings to save anyone possibly injured in the wreckage. The film has made news in recent days, because the heroes it features are no longer eligible to enter the country, not even to potentially receive the Oscar for which the film that features them has been nominated. I should also note that there are some who argue against the featured group, laying out all sorts of reasons why they are illegitimate, it doesn’t seem to be from any serious sources, but has certainly lowered the IMDB score of the film. It serves as a good reminder that all documentaries should be taken with a grain of salt though.

The film reminds me of the saying attributed to Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s a modern rendition of Hacksaw Ridge, with only their helmets and short training the heroes run into the danger zone, saving life after life.

The filmmakers, for their part, dive straight into the action, with more than one cameraperson knocked aside in the midst of chaos due to an explosion of some sort. They follow each of their subjects as they enter into war zones, responding on a moment’s notice—at the first sound of explosions. Each White Helmet shows extreme dedication to their cause, filled with part adrenaline, part duty. They frantically try to make sense of what has happened, running about trying to figure out what their response should be, yet there’s a normalcy to it all—this is what they do.

There’s no sense of triage here, they’re there to rescue anyone with any chance, moving forward with fiery, throwing all naysayers aside. This lack of fear and unbridled bravery has lead to them saving thousands of people—when it comes to saving human lives, sometimes all logic should be thrown aside.

There’s a moment where one of the people in the film states ”All lives are precious and valuable”, bringing to mind a saying that’s often uttered in strange defiance by that collection of trolls; if they had any integrity then perhaps their lives would look more similar to the quoted man whose life embodies everything spoken.

But our lives are so easily shaped by where we’re born, the circumstances in which we’re raised, and the opportunities we’re given. In the movie there’s a moment where they literally snatch life from death’s grip, miraculously pulling an infant out of the rubble. It’s in that moment that I could not help but think of what would become of that child’s life or any child living in those times. This child serves as a beacon of hope for those brave men risking their lives, and because of this, likely would be given everything he needs to make it in this world.

But what for the child whose parents are killed in the wreckage by bombs from the west? What of the children of the White Helmets whose parents are constantly at risk? What if they make that impossible choice to leave Syria, joining alongside the millions of others who have chosen to flee the danger that is insurmountably presented to them on the daily, and what if they find themselves rejected at the border as our policy has forced us to do?

The absolute obliteration of war and a world without hope causes people to make choices, to blame outside forces that were seemingly playing war games at their expense. Would it be any surprise to see these individuals choose religious extremism? It’s the only choice they have. This is where the executive order goes wrong, creating largely unwarranted fear in Americans, and letting broken individuals stew in their suffering with no path to redemption.

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Best Films of 2016

My last list in the best of the year lists is always the movies, because the end of the year is always loaded with films getting their debuts in last minute in order to qualify for varying awards runs. That being said, there are quite a few films that I either missed their run in my town or they have yet to make it here. Some of these films include: Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Silence, 20th Century Women, The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Elle, Camera Person, Things to Come. I plan on updating this list as I see these films, so expect it to be fluid (and keep checking it out because you’ll never know if there’ll be a new number 1!).

One other note I wanted to make before beginning this list was to acknowledge the lack of diversity amongst the stars and directors in my top 15. Last year’s #Oscarssowhite controversy certainly didn’t seem to really affect the hype train among critics, whose opinions I usually try to keep up with. Only Pablo Larrain (from Chile) and Hirokazu Koreeda (of Japan) are non-white males in my top 10. Some of you may roll your eyes at my acknowledgement of this and others of you may care, but I think it’s important to watch films by people who are not white males and I will try to be more cognizant of this moving forward. My 16 through 22 picks are all about or directed by people outside this realm, but just couldn’t crack into the movies that impacted me most (an arbitrary process, I know, but I try to rank them according to what I felt was the best combination of skill and personal impact). Movies are meant to transport you into someone else’s experience and it’s so important to make that experience be told by someone outside of the the small viewpoint it is so often told from. Here’s to more films by people of color and women going into 2017.

25. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one

24. Krisha

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23. High-Rise

high-rise

22. Moonlight

Moonlight

21. The Club

the-club

20. Moana

moana-scared-in-tamatoa-cave

19 Divines

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18. American Honey

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17. The Fits

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16. Kicks

kicks

15. Embrace of the Serpent

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14. Love & Friendship

love-and-friendship

Whit Stilman takes his dialogue-heavy wit to the Victorian era in what is a pretty straightforward period adaptation of a Jane Austen short story. It’s one of the most cleverly written scripts of the year, using the complex social dynamics of the time to craft what almost becomes a sort of screwball comedy. Kate Beckinsale gives one of the best performances of the year as a manipulative socialite making her way through the world. If you can keep up with it’s sharp dialogue you’re bound to enjoy it.

13. Midnight Specialmidnight-special

Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite working directors and his first feature of 2016 (he also made the respectable civil rights tale Loving) was a sci-fi thriller that doubled down on Nichols’ consistent exploration of family and manhood. The film follows a father (Michael Shannon) as he tries to protect his son from both the government and a cult of religious obsessives as they try to figure out the strange powers his son has. The central mystery of this boy’s purpose is intriguing, the chase aspects are thrilling, but ultimately the film is most interesting in what it means to be a family with Nichols’ putting his characters in unique situations to examine this question (as he also did brilliantly in Take Shelter).

12. Everybody Wants Some!!

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Everybody Wants Some!!, on its face, seems like an effort to try to recapture the magic of Dazed and Confused, but in reality it’s so good that there’s no way anyone can accuse Linklater of trying to capitalize off of old successes. It takes place in the 80s, following a group of baseball players in their first few days before college begins. Linklater is a master of having his characters sit around a discuss ideas, allowing for dumb jocks to be the smartest people in the room, and capturing in totality the excitement and uncertainty of youth. No other director is better at making you feel like you’re sitting around chilling with your pals.

11. Hell or High Water

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This is essentially ‘Texas: The Movie’ and perhaps the most representative story of what is now Donald Trump’s America. It follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they try to save their family’s ranch by stealing from the bank that’s about to foreclose on them. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as two cops trying to catch the brothers, their tenuous but loving relationship guiding them along. The film follows both sets until its final culmination of complicated and unfortunate violence. Director David Mackenzie captures a certain American spirit, one of disparaged people caught in a bad place and desperate for a wave of goodwill to move through their lives. It’s a distortion of the American dream, one filled with plenty of laughs, and that will leave you dumbfounded as to how we got here and where we go next.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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This prequel to Cloverfield was shrouded in mystery, with little known about its plot or that it was even coming out. The team behind this film were satisfied to take a fairly successful existing property and create something within its world without really caring about the world of the existing property. The known entity of there being some sort of monster attack brilliantly exists in the background while Dan Trachtenberg chooses to heighten tension within the house where Mary Elizabeth Winstead finds herself. It’s more psychological thriller than monster movie and Winstead (and the viewer) have no idea whether to be terrified or thankful for John Goodman’s presence (he’s terrifying, and great). It was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and it pays off brilliantly.

9. Our Little Sister

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Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favorite working filmmakers, he crafts small scale family stories where tensions run low, but spirits often run high. This isn’t to say his characters don’t go through a lot, they certainly face situations with high stakes, but the viewer never feels like these characters won’t be anything other than alright. Our Little Sister is about three sisters whose father, who had abandoned them years earlier for another woman, passes away. At the funeral they learn of their step-sister and eventually decide to take her in. The film then fairly simply follows the four of them as they reside together, experiencing those pieces of life that are most important–small disappointing and joyful moments that when placed together make up one’s being. It’s beautiful, like a cup of green tea warming you from the inside out.

8. Manchester By the Sea

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Early on Manchester By the Sea decides it’s going to wreck you, with Casey Affleck’s brother dying and the introduction of Affleck’s nephew who he is now in charge of. From there Kenneth Lonergan puts you through heart break after heart break as the circumstances of Affleck’s morose Lee Chandler are slowly revealed. This would all be utterly devastating (and it still is) if Lonergan didn’t make the film equally as funny as it is depressing. Lee’s relationship with his nephew Chandler is often ostentatious–they are two depressed people trying to get by, neither afraid to say how they feel–leading to often vicious and brutal snipes that actually help to relieve the tension quite well. The ubiquitous phrase all the feelings has never felt more appropriate than it has here, for good reason, Manchester will likely exist in our collective vernacular for quite a while.

7. The Nice Guys

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This is the funniest movie that came out this year, even if on its face it’s not a straightforward comedy. The Nice Guys follows Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland and Russell Crowe’s fixer, Jackson, as circumstances force them to come together. Shane Black is able to pull off perfectly constructed slapstick as the two bumble their way throughout Los Angeles trying to find a missing girl. Gosling is surprisingly a comedic genius here. Ultimately, and similar to Inherent Vice, the movie is about decency, the idea that goodness exists in the world even if it is found in the seedy places one wouldn’t expect. The world is a corrupt place, but somewhere out there is an awful detective who really just wants to make things good for people.

6. Sing Street

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Sing Street is a frontrunner for the movie I’m most likely to put on during a Sunday evening when I just want to be comforted. It’s a John Hughes-esque teen comedy directed by the guy who gave us Once and featuring some outstanding original music. Cosmos is a teenager in Ireland, he’s just been forced to change schools, his parent’s marriage is falling apart, and he’s reached that age where his identity is beginning to be discovered. And then he sees a girl and decides to commit everything to impressing this girl. Following his brother’s advice he starts a band, inviting the girl to star in his music video, and through the new wave bands he sees on MTV, his interactions with this girl, and his keen ability to actually write songs, he begins to reach self-discovery. It’s fun, sentimental, and is actually able to capture all the excitement and importance of music–particularly to the lost teenager.

5. Jackie

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“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is a lyric and the main theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This is the quote that most profoundly ran throughout my head while watching Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, his English-language debut, which follows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s death. It’s a tale of personal tragedy, Jackie is dealing with the loss of her husband, the father of her children. But it’s so much more than this, she must deal with the legacy of who her husband is, not only her personal and complicated relationship with him, but how the entire country will view him for years to come. Larrain portrays all of this with a meandering camera, his grainy cinematography is probably more beautiful than anything else I saw on the big screen this year. The personal and the national intertwine in an absolutely devastating tale of loss.

4. La La Land

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From its opening moments, featuring a Los Angeles traffic standstill that quickly turns into a stage for a giant musical number, I was hooked by La La Land. It’s simultaneously a throwback to Hollywood musicals, while also capturing  a modern feel. That opening number, which makes a celebration out of the most tumultuous parts of Hollywood–the never-ending traffic and sunshine that won’t go away–captures the dreamlike notion of the movies. And boy does it do so, vibrant colors splash off the screen, characters are always exquisitely dressed, and perhaps most importantly it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who will charm the socks off of you. Damien Chazelle lets us believe in the unbelievable bliss of romance. Yet, things can never be all good and Chazelle brings us back to reality. As the characters dreams come true, their romance slowly dissipates, but, lest we forget all the magic that preceded it, we get treated to one final glorious sequence that utterly nails everything that could have been, all the dreams that we experience and the magic that lies therein, whether or not they come true.

3. Hail, Caesar

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Hail, Caesar is a tribute film to films and this, while on its face is fairly annoying, is pulled off brilliantly here. The Coen brothers tell the story of their love of cinema through the lens of a crisis of faith. Josh Brolin stars as a old timey Hollywood fixer who must consider if the work he does (mostly trying to make sure his ill-tempered movie stars do what they’re supposed to do) is worth it. He’s been offered another job, one that will pay more and be easier, but there’s just something about movies… The Coens lovingly pay tribute to all sorts of films as we see Scarlett Johansson in a water set piece, Channing Tatum tap dance his way through a musical number, and breakout star Alden Ehrenreich try to transition from cowboy pictures to a prestige drama. At the center also lies a comical mystery in the disappearance of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, which helps tie together the existentialism that Brolin faces. While the crisis facing Brolin is about the power of movies, it also doubles as an affirmation that movies do have a spiritual worth that can lead us into a better well being–good thing too, because I keep watching them.

2. The Lobster

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut offers up a wacky dystopian world, one in which people without romantic partners are forced to live together in a hotel and if they do not find love within 30 days they are turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s a subtle and often dark comedy that parodies our Bachelor watching culture that is obsessed with finding “the one”. As the film progresses though, the nature of the parody changes a little, showing that the opposite of a ridiculous belief, when taken to the extreme, can also be awful. It’s a strange movie to be sure, but was one of the most fun stories to watch play out.

  1. The VVitch

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The Witch succeeds not by giving us supernatural frights (though that is there), but by heightening tensions in what is, at its core, a family drama. Robert Eggers’ horror flick shows us a horror not brought about by explicit evil, but by bringing us into hyper-religious colonial America, a world devoid of grace. In this world where blame out signifies love true terror is allowed to breed like wildfire. The film could almost be titled “How to turn your child into a witch” for it so perfectly captures the idea of how something like this could come to be. To boost, the film is beautifully shot and Anya-Taylor Joy gives an outstanding performance. The ending is extremely dark, let that be known, but it hammers home that idea that when we don’t allow for grace in our lives, it is the most horrid of all evils.

Posted in Best of 2016, Cinephilia, Top Ten List | 2 Comments