Capsule Review: First Man

Ryan Gosling in First Man

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

In a GQ cover story on First Man, writer Daniel Riley points out that the film’s version of the Apollo 11 moon landing could very well become the “definitive, superseding account in the minds of many Americans.” Kind of like how if you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, those are the images you have in your head of D-Day. Or Titanic for the sinking of the Titanic. Or Apollo 13 for that failed near-disaster mission. (As far as I know, astronaut Jim Lovell looks exactly like Tom Hanks.) For director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling (who plays Neil Armstrong), it had to be a daunting task creating the audiovisual experience of man’s first trip to the moon that will be imprinted on the public consciousness.

I’d say they landed the Eagle with aplomb. First Man is an intimate and immersive look at both Neil Armstrong’s life and how we were able to get a crew of astronauts all the way to the moon’s surface in 1969. Chazelle’s movie is stern and tight-lipped, much like its protagonist. Gosling’s performance as the iconic Armstrong is perfectly restrained and tightly wound due to the death of his two-year-old daughter several years before Apollo 11, which the film postulates was a motivating force for Armstrong in his drive to make history in such an ambitious but perilous way. Even with this emotional heft, however, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to find the film a tad cold because of how closely it mirrors Gosling’s performance. This is no triumphant “U-S-A!” picture.

And yet, I found it moving all the same. Claire Foy can be thanked for much of this, as she impressively brings Neil’s wife Janet Armstrong to life. It’s a smaller role, but feels very authentic to what an astronaut’s wife must have gone through: the all-too-common funerals and the creeping notion that your loved one could be next. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a That Guy all-star team: Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, among others. He may be too famous to be a That Guy, but Kyle Chandler is great as always here.

Already the youngest Best Director winner ever, Chazelle finds a new way to shoot a space movie on First Man. During the flight sequences, he keeps us locked inside that claustrophobic cockpit, only occasionally allowing us to breathe with a wide shot. The shuttle launches are white-knuckle, hair-raising experiences where literally everything shakes onscreen, as if you’re right there next to Armstrong. It makes you consider how crazy we had to be to pull this off 50 years ago. And please, Academy, give whoever designed the impeccable sound here an award or three. You can hear every quaking piece of metal as the astronauts hurtle through the sky in these fragile tin cans.

While most of the film is shot in 16mm shaky-cam and extreme close-up, the moon sequence (shot with IMAX cameras) is absolutely stunning. When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin open up the hatch, all the sound is stripped away and we are left with what Aldrin famously called that “magnificent desolation.” Moments like this are exactly why we go to the movies.

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Capsule Review: 22 July

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

You want to watch the first 30 or so minutes of 22 July through your fingers. It’s that harrowing and horribly realistic in its depiction of the deadly 2011 attack in Norway, where a far-right-wing terrorist murdered 77 people by setting off a bomb in Oslo and then gunning down dozens of teenagers at a summer camp on the island of Utoya.

The director is Paul Greengrass, who has made a career out of turning hardly believable headlines into authentic shaky cam recreations. Besides helming three of the Bourne movies, Greengrass has brought to life the Bloody Sunday massacre (Bloody Sunday), the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking (Captain Phillips), and the 9/11 terror attacks (United 93).

United 93 was effective and moving and Captain Phillips was tight, suspenseful, and probably his best film (thanks to Mr. Tom Hanks), but with 22 July it feels like Greengrass’ niche is starting to drag.

From the opening scenes, we get straight to the gruesome carnage instead of establishing any backstory. This has a disorienting effect that I’m not sure is a good thing. However, Greengrass clearly has other ideas on his mind besides accurately rendering the attacks. He’s more interested in showing us the traumatic aftermath, as the second half of the film settles into more of a heavy drama as opposed to the barely watchable horror of the first half. Unfortunately, there’s not much to propel the plot forward, and 22 July ends up as an overlong, if well-intentioned, courtroom and physical recovery drama.

One smaller issue that bugged me was the fact that Greengrass had his Norwegian cast speak English. For a film that is otherwise a painfully accurate portrayal, that felt like a curious decision. This, and the way Greengrass has written his film, leaves 22 July’s actors without much to play off. You’re not left with many memorable performances, which tends to be the case in all of his movies, unless you have the star wattage of a Matt Damon or a Tom Hanks.

Worst of all, as the film ends, it’s not entirely clear why it was worth witnessing those violent events in the first place.

Capsule Review: BlacKkKlansman

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that — write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that. Let’s get to it.

For a time such as this, we need Spike Lee. The man behind provocative, conversation-sparking films like Do the Right Thing and The 25th Hour is a natural fit for our present-day racial and political chaos. Going into his latest, BlacKkKlansman, I was waiting to be bowled over by a powerful statement from a master. Instead, I found a funny and entertaining movie that in the end is really kind of a mess.

This crazy true story of a black Colorado Springs police officer infiltrating the KKK in the early 1970s is depicted on screen humorously and playfully at first. John David Washington (Denzel’s son) plays officer Ron Stallworth with delightful comedic timing and Adam Driver is excellent as usual as a Jewish undercover cop that pretends to be Stallworth in person at Klan meetups. The uncomfortable laughs continue throughout most of the movie as the KKK are revealed to be backwoods idiots spewing ridiculous hate-filled rhetoric. You can’t help but enjoy watching this outrageous story play out.

While it may be exceedingly watchable, the last third of BlacKkKlansman strains plot believability. Why is Stallworth, the only black officer in the city, assigned to security detail for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke? There were at least three or four times in the last 45 minutes that I was left scratching my head at the actions and motivations of these characters. Tonally, BlacKkKlansman isn’t much clearer, as it veers from buddy cop comedy to serious detective procedural to furious political drama.

In reviews, critics have described BlacKkKlansman as thought-provoking and challenging. But is it really? Most of what I saw was just an easy repudiation of white supremacists like Duke and bigots like President Trump. There is zero subtlety in their skewering. It’s thuddingly obvious in connecting America’s racist past to its present. People who see this movie are already in agreement on the evils of a racist ideology. There is not much that will cause viewers to reflect on their own biases or their own role in where our society is right now.

The very end of this movie has surely got people talking, as incendiary images from the 2017 Charlottesville protest and ensuing violence are intended to be a powerful and sobering coda. After watching a film where the racists ultimately get some level of comeuppance, this felt disjointed to me. The ending seemed too tacked on — and it actually was, as the movie was already finished filming when Charlottesville happened.

This probably isn’t the best film to do a shorter review on, because there is plenty more to say. I am certainly glad Spike is making work like this and I hope people see BlacKkKlansman, I just expected a more artful offering from him, one that wasn’t so clumsy in its storytelling and obvious in its message.

Steve Carell’s Brilliance on The Office Is Encapsulated in “Dinner Party”

If you listen to the creators and cast members of The Office talk about their time on the show, you will hear a repetitive theme: Steve Carell is a comedic genius. In the Rolling Stone oral history of one of the show’s best episodes “Dinner Party,” you see pretty clearly that they are in awe of Carell.

The director of the episode Paul Feig, who also created Freaks and Geeks and directed Bridesmaids, had this to say: “[The cast] were just laughing so hard and going, like, “God, this guy is such a fucking genius.” John Krasinski, who famously played camera-mugging wisecracker Jim Halpert, said: “Sometimes Steve would get frustrated when we couldn’t keep it together because he didn’t think he was as funny as we thought he was and also he’s more professional than all of us.”

The U.S. version of The Office simply doesn’t work if Carell isn’t as brilliant as he is as Michael Scott. Upon rewatch of “Dinner Party,” the excruciatingly hilarious episode where Michael and Jan have Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela over for a never-ending dinner party in hell, you see what makes Carell as Michael one of the all-time great TV performances.

When The Office premiered in 2005, Carell’s career was just lifting off. Previously only really known from his stint on The Daily Show, he played Brick in Will Ferrell’s instant comedy classic Anchorman in 2004. The next year, he truly entered the cultural consciousness when The Office aired in March and he starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in August. By the time “Dinner Party” aired during The Office’s fourth season in 2008, Carell had proven himself one of TV’s most talented comedy actors, winning a Golden Globe and getting nominated for multiple Emmys.

Carell cut his improv teeth in the early 90s performing with Chicago’s famous comedy troupe The Second City (Stephen Colbert was his understudy at the time). It’s always tricky sussing out the improv from the written parts of a scripted comedy show, but The Office was famous for its willingness to let its actors play. In “Dinner Party,” Carell and Melora Hardin (Jan) are having the time of their lives going at each other’s throats. Michael and Jan’s relationship turns into a plane crash as the episode goes on — horrifying, but impossible to look away from the nosedive. The tension and awkwardness in watching these two interact is almost unbearable. While Jan closes her eyes and sways to her former assistant’s song (which was clearly written about losing his virginity to Jan, a fact everyone besides Michael quickly realizes), Michael uncomfortably fidgets in his seat. Carell is letting us know that Michael is maybe not as oblivious as he often seems.

One of the key scenes that required Carell to improv was when Michael and Jan are discussing having children in front of the entire party, which leads to perhaps the episode’s most memorable moment: “Snip, snap! Snip, snap! Snip, snap!” What makes “Dinner Party” a classic in The Office canon is that there is a weight and darkness behind the laughs. Feig recalls how Carell came up with the “snip, snap” line to cut through the heaviness of the scene:

“We shot that exchange, like, four or five times, and it was really good but it was superheavy. I remember we were all like, “This is a little . . . this isn’t as fun as we wanted it to be.” So I went over to Steve and said, “It’s awesome, we just need to make it a little more fun.” And so that was the take that’s in when he said, “Snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap.” That all came out of Steve being such an amazing actor and going, like, “OK, I know how to take it and make it Michael craziness.”

Beyond the improv, that scene also displays Carell’s ability to slay the room with a line reading. When Michael says, “You have no IDEA the physical toll that three vasectomies can have on a person!” the way he emphasizes “vasectomies” just kills me. This also goes for earlier in the episode when he takes a sip of wine, smacks his lips a little, and then notes that it has an “oaky afterbirth.”

Carell’s comedic timing is perfect in this episode, especially when showing off his tiny plasma TV to Jim and Pam, the scene that makes me laugh the hardest every time.

You get a glimpse into how awful Michael’s life is with Jan that the best thing about their home life is his crap 12” TV that he has to stand in the middle of the room to see. When he “folds” it into the wall, it moves about an inch. Then Carell tops off the cringe-inducing hilarity by putting out his hands and exclaiming “I love this TV!” You might wonder how the cast made it through scenes like this, and the answer, at least for this one, is that they didn’t. Krasinski reported in the oral history that if they started cracking up while filming they could usually come back. This one was different: “On that one, he couldn’t come back. There was something in the room there that was like an untamed animal, and we were just getting demolished by laughter.”

Of course, in an ensemble comedy you don’t do it alone, so props has to be given to Melora Hardin as Jan, who is more than a worthy sparring partner here for Carell. Whether she’s throwing shade at Pam or literally throwing a Dundie at Michael’s cherished plasma TV, Hardin deserves much of the credit for why this episode works so well.

Both Carell and Hardin are so adept at the improvisational elements of The Office and able to fully inhabit their characters. When they are screaming at each other near the end, you feel just like their dinner guests: It seems so real that you just want to get out of there.

Capsule Review: Game Night

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that — write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that. Let’s get to it.

Here we have the R-rated comedy that we desperately need more of. If Hollywood released a movie as funny, twisty, and enjoyable as Game Night every month, the movie business would be in much better shape. But therein lies the problem: Game Night is secretly kind of hard to pull off. Co-directors John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!) and Jonathan Goldstein have to strike just the right balance between comedy and action, or, more specifically, between jokes and set pieces. You tip too far one way and your work comes off so jokey that the action scenes don’t carry any weight, or you tip the other way and your movie so implausible that the jokes don’t land amidst all the ridiculous fight scenes.

It also helps when you have a cast that is as inherently watchable as this one. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams come ready to play as the couple whose over-competitiveness would make Kobe blush. Jesse Plemons, Lamorne Morris (what up, Winston!), and Billy Magnussen are all given enough to do in limited screen time. And Kyle Chandler is allowed to go against type as Bateman’s hot-shot asshole brother. It’s a thrill to see Chandler, who has played government agents and football coaches for years, in this kind of role.

Let’s be honest though: Game Night is extremely inessential. There’s no big themes tackled here beyond What if Jesse Plemons were the creepiest cop ever. Still, it’s a great time. The action sequences are shot with verve and spontaneity. There’s a wild long take where the camera follows a game of keep-away with a Faberge egg. Plus, most of the jokes land resoundingly and everything feels loose enough that it seems like just about anything could happen toward the end of Game Night. This kind of unpredictable and delightful entertainment should be welcomed with open arms.

See it if you like: Semi-raunchy, action-y comedies like 21 Jump Street and Horrible Bosses (where Daley and Goldstein have a writing credit).

Wes Anderson Met the Right People Early On

From the very beginning, Wes Anderson had a distinct talent and voice. In his first film Bottle Rocket it’s there in nascent form and it fully blooms in his next effort, Rushmore. The obsessive symmetry, the deadpan humor, the tidy visuals, the mood-setting 60s pop songs, it’s all what we have come to recognize as a Wes Anderson picture. But without a few strokes of luck in his 20s, his career could’ve played out differently.

As I’ve been reading through Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection, a treasure-trove of essays, pictures, drawings, and interviews from Anderson’s career thus far, one of my big takeaways has been Anderson’s good fortune in meeting the right people early on.

When Owen Met Wes…

It all started at the University of Texas in the late 1980s, where Anderson and Owen Wilson were in a playwriting class together. One day, Wilson just walked up to Anderson out of nowhere in a hallway outside class. I’ll let Anderson take it away:

“We were signing up for classes for the next semester, and he started asking me to help him figure out what he should do, as if we knew each other. As if we had ever spoken before or knew each other’s names. I almost feel like he was taking it for granted that if we didn’t know each other yet, soon we would.”

You can picture this scene. Owen Wilson, the affable and outgoing goofball, approaching the more reserved Wes Anderson with an assumption the two would become fast friends. In the next few years, they would begin writing and shooting their first film, Bottle Rocket. They released the short in 1994 and then the feature-length movie in 1996.

In it, Wilson plays Dignan, an ambitious small-time crook who plans a robbery with his friends. It’s clearly evident from Bottle Rocket that Wilson should be a star. He has that magnetic charisma that only people born to be on screen possess. It’s hard to believe it’s his first role. How lucky for Anderson that he had such a talent collaborating with him from the start. Before long, Wilson would become a full-fledged comic movie star, recognized more for Zoolander, Meet the Parents, and Wedding Crashers than any of his roles in Anderson’s films.

An Oscar Winner In His Corner

When you’re an unknown trying to get your movie made, even more important than a captivating star is a well-respected Hollywood producer who can make things happen. For Wes Anderson, that was writer-director James L. Brooks, who had been Oscar-recognized for his films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets.

Anderson and the Wilsons met Brooks through a friend of a friend of a friend, and the Hollywood vet clearly saw something in their little indie project. Brooks’ movies are nothing like Anderson’s, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He did everything he could to get their movie made — and made it was with Brooks as executive producer.

Even though Bottle Rocket didn’t get into any festivals, it at least had the chance to see the light of day. Without Brooks, there’s no assurance that ever happens. Who knows how Anderson and the Wilsons’ careers change if they can’t get their first project off the ground.

As Anderson says in the book, “Frankly, we love Jim.”

“He didn’t have any reason to trust me”

Who knows why the immortal Bill Murray does what he does. The man is a national treasure who cannot be questioned. But I think even Wes Anderson wonders why Murray agreed to be in his second film Rushmore in 1998.

As Bottle Rocket wasn’t exactly a smashing success, Anderson’s team had almost no money for their next picture. Still, they reached out to Murray with the script for Rushmore and, to their shock, he said yes. In the book, Anderson says Murray did the movie for $9,000 (!), which is essentially pro bono for an actor of his standing. That’s not all, though. When they ran out of money before they could get a helicopter shot they wanted, Murray gave him a check for $25,000 so they could shoot it. Anderson still seems amazed by all this:

“He had no reason to be particularly nice to us. He’d never seen Bottle Rocket. I don’t think he’s seen it still. He didn’t have any reason to trust me. But he did trust me.”

Once on set, the two men clicked and began a long working relationship that has bolstered both of their careers (Murray’s been in every one of Anderson’s films since). Murray was able to tap into the kind of comedic, yet melancholy sad-sack role that has defined his older years. For Anderson, he’s been lucky enough to be connected to a comedy legend for almost his entire career.

By the time he made The Royal Tenenbaums, just his third film, it seemed like every star wanted to be in a Wes Anderson picture. In addition to Owen and Luke Wilson and Bill Murray, that film featured Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Baldwin. He had officially arrived.

The point of this is not to claim that Wes Anderson is some lucky hack. If Anderson didn’t show serious talent and promise at such a young age, the Wilsons, James L. Brooks, and Bill Murray wouldn’t have believed in him the way they did. To me their help just highlights the fact that even the most singular-minded filmmakers, the ones that seem born to make movies, still need quite a push before they get going.

The If I Had An Orchard 20: My Favorite Film, TV, and Music of 2017

As shows and movies pile up on my Netflix queue and I have less time to get to the theaters these days, I decided against doing a year-end Top 10 Movies or Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense if half the shows or movies I saw this year make the final list. Thus, I’m mashing it all together and doing my top 20 favorite pieces of culture in 2017.

This list will feature the movies, shows, and music that was most impactful and memorable to me this past year. Yes, weighing Get Out against, say, Lorde’s Melodrama is a strange endeavor, but that’s what makes this fun. Let’s get on with it.

  1. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2

Before 2015, Chris Stapleton spent most of this century writing songs for other people, including country stars like Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Tim McGraw, and more. That’s a nice way to make a living, unless you’re blessed with a booming, goosebump-inducing voice. A couple years ago, Stapleton released Traveller, his debut album that went double platinum and earned him Grammy love. He became known as the throwback outlaw type that was actually accepted by the country music industry, probably because he wrote a lot of their songs.

Stapleton returned this year with From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2, two separate half-hour records filled with terrific country tunes that sound nothing like the quasi-rapping, overly sentimental stuff you hear on mainstream country radio. Hard-charging barn burners like “Second One to Know” and “Midnight Train to Memphis” will stop you in your tracks, while slower ballads like “Either Way” show off Stapleton’s powerhouse pipes, always brimming with utter conviction.

The content on From A Room (heavy-drinking man reflects on love, family, and how to live) isn’t all that original, but the music’s strength comes from its simplicity and honesty. Lines like “People call me the Picasso of paintin’ the town” and “We go to work, go to church, fake the perfect life” feel ten times more authentic coming from Stapleton than they would almost any other country artist.

  1. GLOW

Of all the new shows I saw this year, Netflix’s GLOW is the one that is built to run for several seasons. With a never-better Alison Brie at the center, GLOW (that’s Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, if you were wondering) features a hysterical ensemble cast of weirdos, outcasts, and losers. It’s the lovable ragtag group that you love to cheer for. In only ten half-hour episodes, this show was able to give us at least a handful of fully realized characters to be invested in. Marc Maron, in particular, is tremendous as the coked-up sad-sack director that you can’t help but feel for. Not everything GLOW tried worked out, but it was the funniest show I watched this year. It’s been renewed for season 2 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s around for awhile.

  1. The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious and heartfelt real-life story, co-written with his wife Emily Gordon, has to be the year’s biggest non-Get Out surprise. Who could have expected this little cross-cultural rom-com to make over $42 million at the box office? There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst a story that draws you in with its smart writing and lived-in performances. Speaking of, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are a delight to watch here. Although it may run a bit too long, I wasn’t mad that I spent two hours with Romano, Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Kumail, who I wasn’t familiar with before The Big Sick. I’m ready for more of him now.

  1. Ozark

The best pulpy summer TV show I didn’t know I wanted, Ozark was not the most original thing I saw this year, but it could have been the most entertaining. For a show that closely followed the male anti-hero format, Ozark differentiated itself with its setting and pace.

Set on the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, the show depicts a rural environment that we don’t usually see on TV (although apparently True Detective’s third season will also take place in the Ozarks): a tourist town in the summer that is all but abandoned the rest of the year. Our protagonist Marty Byrde, a money-laundering financial advisor from Chicago, has to navigate this terrain, which isn’t so easy when the locals already have a drug operation set up. The smartest thing Ozark does is skip all of the background on how Marty got involved with the cartel (Breaking Bad already did that) and plunge us head-first into the action. This show moves fast, which means it has some credibility-stretching moments, as well as some painful dialogue. There’s hardly any likable characters here at all; still, Ozark remains inherently watchable. This might not make any sense, but to paraphrase The Ringer’s The Watch podcast, Ozark is probably not a good show, but it also just might be great.

  1. Win It All

I’ve always enjoyed the work of indie writer-director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire) and actor Jake Johnson (Nick from New Girl), so Win It All was right up my alley. Swanberg makes small, low-budget fare that usually makes for pleasant, although not life-changing viewing. You have to respect his proficiency (he typically releases one movie a year and has a show on Netflix called Easy) and his ability to pull real emotion from small “low stakes” settings.

Win It All is premised on a couple of simple, yet enduring genres: The poker movie and the “bag of money” movie. It follows Eddie (Jake Johnson) as he is given a duffel bag of cash to store away for an incarcerated friend. The problem is Eddie is a compulsive gambler. Thanks to Johnson’s likable performance, I really felt for Eddie, despite his poor decision-making. You’re living and dying with him throughout his arc as he loses obscene amounts of money to gambling, tries to get his life in order, and then has to go back to the poker table in order to win it all back. Like all Swanberg films, it’s funny but not hysterically so, dramatic but not self-serious.

  1. SZA – Ctrl

Deeply personal and endlessly listenable, SZA’s Ctrl continually grew on me during the year. Over lovely minimalist R&B, the singer gets achingly vulnerable, candidly and daringly airing out her neediness and imperfections throughout the album with lyrics like “I hope you never find out who I really am” and “Do you even know I’m alive?” On tracks like “Drew Barrymore” and “The Weekend,” you realize you might be listening to a really special new artist. She gets a little help from Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, but all in all, Ctrl is SZA’s show. And she’s not afraid to be its flawed and human star.

  1. Fargo (Season 3)

First, a disclaimer: The second season of FX’s Fargo was maybe my favorite season of television ever. I’m such a sucker for Fargo’s style (the movie and show): a quirky crime saga peppered with dark humor. So when the third season debuted earlier this year, I tried to temper my expectations a bit after the first two seasons knocked me off my feet. In the season 3 premiere, a character named Nikki Swango (that’s a TV Hall of Fame name right there) uses an A/C window unit as a murder weapon. Needless to say, I was hooked on Fargo again.

Sure, this season didn’t have the ambition or execution of past seasons. Its characters were not quite as memorable, despite a fantastic cast headlined by Ewan McGregor (playing twins), Carrie Coon, and David Thewlis, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Swango stealing the show. Even if this is the weakest of Fargo’s three seasons, it was, as always, eccentric and entertaining and super compelling. In interviews, series showrunner Noah Hawley sounded uncertain about making another season. That’s unfortunate, because three years in, this show has become appointment viewing for me.

  1. Get Out

When I finally got around to seeing Get Out, the hype for Jordan Peele’s black horror/comedy had risen to unimaginable heights. With a budget under $5 million, it had made over $175 million at the box office and been praised to the rafters by every critic in America. With expectations this sky-high, I could only be (at least slightly) disappointed. One of my biggest regrets from this year in culture is not going to see it on opening night. The neutral expectations and full theater would’ve made my Get Out experience unforgettable. Even with my tepid enthusiasm after watching it on my couch, this is the type of film we need way more of — the kind of thriller that works as both unsettling entertainment and incisive social criticism.

  1. Narcos (Season 3)

After the first two seasons of Narcos followed Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall, there was doubt that the next season could remain as compelling without Don Pablo. As season three progressed it quickly became clear that this was not just the Escobar Show. Narcos had cooked up more quality product for us. This endlessly entertaining show is not afraid to be pulp history. It educates you with sensational doses of violence and politics.

The action this time follows the Cali cartel, which picks up where Escobar left off in drug-corrupted Colombia. Wagner Moura (Escobar) and Boyd Holbrook (DEA agent Steve Murphy) are gone, but Pedro Pascal is still doing fantastic work as agent Javier Pena, while the third season’s new characters give us interesting arcs to follow. However, what makes this show special is that it’s shot on location in beautiful Colombia’s impossibly green countryside or its narrow, claustrophobic streets. In a tragic development, a location scout was murdered in Mexico while finding spots to shoot season four. It’s suspected that the killing was cartel-related, which complicates our experience as viewers. While we enjoyably consume this kind of entertainment, the drug war rages on outside our living rooms.

  1. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

We waited a long time for the Fleet Foxes to return — six years, to be exact. Robin Pecknold and his band took a hiatus to take college courses and figure some stuff out. Crack-Up, their third LP, is less immediate than the first two albums. Its lyrics are more opaque and obscure; there’s no rousing anthems a la “Helplessness Blues” here. But it breaks new ground for them in fascinating ways.

Everything about Crack-Up is purposeful and inspired, from the album title taken from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to that gorgeous album cover of a Japanese coast. There are moments on here that are just as sublime and arresting and beautiful as that cover image: The mid-song tempo change of “On Another Ocean,” most of “- Naiads, Cassadies,” and the chorus of “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” Crack-Up is an essential album about your life cracking apart in frightening and revelatory ways. Let’s hope they don’t disappear for another six years.

  1. Stranger Things 2

How do you build off a surprise hit? Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer brothers found a way in their second season. They went bigger and bolder, sure, but they also brought back what made us fall in love with the first season. Before the carnage that would come at the end, we got to spend time with the gang at the arcade, watch them trick or treat in Ghostbusters costumes, and be totally delighted by the interplay between Steve and Dustin.

Stranger Things 2 had its weaknesses, of course: Notably, the “Lost Sister” episode and whatever they were doing with Billy’s character. Overall, this season worked for me, though. Bob “the Brain” and Mad Max were inspired additions to the cast. The last two episodes were dark, thrilling, and, most importantly, satisfying, particularly the last scene at the school dance. For such a nostalgic and charming show, there was deep trauma running through this season that made for riveting drama.

  1. Lorde – Melodrama

Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, just turned 21. This fact astounds me. Earlier this year, she released Melodrama, the follow-up to her debut smash Pure Heroine. It’s hard to believe she just reached legal drinking age when her writing is so impeccable. Lyrics like “Summer slipped us underneath her tongue” and “It’s just another graceless night” are evocative and cliche-free. Where did she get her youthful wisdom and sense of perspective?

Lorde allows more color to seep into her music on Melodrama. It’s brighter and more upbeat (“We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart”). It’s all killer and no filler. My standouts (“The Louvre,” “Supercut,” and “Sober II,” for what it’s worth) may be different than your favorites. This record sweeps us up into Lorde’s infectious nightlife and then, inevitably, exposes us to the cold morning light the next day. What Lorde does on Melodrama reminds us that pop savants like her are all too rare.

  1. Big Little Lies

In hindsight, how could this not have been entertaining? You get a bunch of movie stars together, film them in luxurious California beachfront homes, have them sip wine and trade gossip, throw in a murder mystery for good measure, and watch the ratings for your TV program soar. But HBO’s Big Little Lies was more than that. It was elevated by committed star performances and Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) confident direction into one of the most entertaining and delightful watches of the year.

You can tell every actor involved is not just here to pick up a paycheck. Reese Witherspoon coolly owns the first half of the seven-episode run before the show shifts focus to Nicole Kidman’s emotionally raw performance. Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, and Adam Scott all provide compelling supporting turns to build out the scandalous Monterey, California community of Big Little Lies. At times, the rich-mom melodrama almost strays into self-parody, but overall, Vallee, who directed all seven episodes, keeps our attention on the complex relationships and the murder we know is coming. Also, shouts to the nine-year-old daughter with a young adult’s music taste for soundtracking the show.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Matt Zoller Seitz over at RogerEbert.com put it well: “How many Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Imperial walkers, lightsabers, escape pods, and discussions of the nature of The Force have we seen by now? Oodles. But Johnson manages to find a way to present the technology, mythology and imagery in a way that makes it feel new.”

Before the release of The Last Jedi, the pressure on writer-director Rian Johnson was heavier than Jabba the Hutt, and, polarizing fan reaction aside, he came through in the clutch. His Star Wars movie is narratively bold and visually magnificent. 

Johnson reveres this franchise, but he’s not afraid to break things and surprise people. Of course, he’s assisted by wildly charismatic young actors, such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega, and graceful veterans, like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (RIP). Despite its two and a half hour runtime, this movie is riveting and complex throughout. I already can’t wait to see it again.

  1. Mindhunter

It’s hard to watch Mindhunter and not recall Zodiac and Se7en, David Fincher’s other serial killer studies. His Netflix show has the look of Zodiac, but the feel of those scenes in Se7en when the detectives (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) are conversing with Kevin Spacey’s serene psychopath John Doe. Mindhunter’s intensity comes not from fast-paced action or grisly violence, but from simply sitting across from a mass murderer in a jail cell.

Holden and Tench, the FBI agents here, have wonderful chemistry that makes this show an easier watch than it should be, and Mindhunter visibly benefits from Fincher directing four of the ten episodes (that second episode travel montage is a masterclass). For a show with such a measured pace throughout, the end of the season fully arrests you with its tension-filled, Led Zeppelin-soundtracked climax. No show this year had me hanging on every line of dialogue like this one.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

Here we have the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi visionary Blade Runner is easier to admire than truly love, and this year’s Blade Runner 2049 revived its world with layered storytelling and majestic visuals. This is, without hyperbole, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a visual feast on screen that is bold, inventive, and sumptuous. Literally every other shot is jaw-dropping. Besides Dunkirk, this was the best theater experience I had this year.

The story doesn’t 100% work, but plot isn’t even one of the top 5 most interesting things about Blade Runner 2049. The performances are fascinating. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as a new type of “blade runner,” Harrison Ford impressively updates his classic sci-fi protagonist Rick Deckard, Robin Wright is so good she should probably be given a supporting role in every movie, and, as always, I’m not quite sure what Jared Leto is doing. This movie could have gone very wrong, but Villeneuve wouldn’t let it. Instead, we got a rich text that delves into what makes us human and what gives us a soul. It’s heady, heavy stuff on a gorgeous canvas.

  1. Lady Bird

Lady Bird is the rare movie that you would recommend to anyone. Sharply written with specificity and warmth, first-time writer-director Greta Gerwig discovers the perfect balance of levity and gravity in her coming-of-age dramedy. This is a “last days of adolescence” movie that doesn’t treat high school as a melodrama. Saoirse Ronan is the titular Lady Bird, and she carries the film as a character that is easy to love despite her youthful errors. We follow her throughout her senior year of high school in Sacramento (or, as she calls it, the “Midwest of California”) as she falls in love, fights with her mom (a note-perfect Laurie Metcalf), and longs to attend college on the East Coast (“where writers live in the woods”).

The humor is less uproarious belly laughs and more clever little moments that will surely seem even funnier on a repeat viewing. Lady Bird is so generous with all its characters, even the ones that could be made into caricatures in a lesser movie. And despite the light touch, Gerwig’s script deals thoughtfully with class, socioeconomic status, and parenting. Recalling Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and some of her boyfriend Noah Baumbach’s best work, Gerwig’s Lady Bird ultimately sets itself apart as a love letter to home, where we all begin to form who we will become.

  1. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

I don’t know how they do it, but The War On Drugs are so clearly inspired by past artists but still manage to create something that feels fresh and exhilarating. Their 2014 release, Lost in the Dream, was far and away my favorite album of that year. So when A Deeper Understanding dropped this year, I tried to keep my expectations mild. You can’t expect a band to top themselves every time, right?

A Deeper Understanding is a bigger budget version of their previous work. Tracks like “Holding On” (my song of the year) and “Nothing To Find” are catchier and hit harder. Everything sounds just slightly more expensive. However, leveling up doesn’t mean they have lost what makes them great. They still riff off the likes of Springsteen, Petty, and Dire Straits without sounding like a cover band. They still have that shaggy, laid-back vibe on “Thinking Of A Place” and “Knocked Down.” I’m frequently discovering new avenues and backroads to explore on each listen of this dense, exceptional album.

  1. Dunkirk

In a genre as well-trod as the war movie, Christopher Nolan found his own way into this rarely depicted World War II story, unfurling three timelines as an innovative technique to portray the battle of Dunkirk. But that’s not what you remember most about seeing Dunkirk. What remains with you is the white-knuckle suspense, the experience Nolan creates that drops you in the middle of the chaotic, deadly fray. There’s no generals strategizing in front of a map. No soldier repeatedly taking out a folded-up photo of their wife/family from their pocket. Just stark shots of a French beach and British soldiers desperately trying to survive. This is a different type of war movie, a thrilling and lean survival story that felt fresh amid a summer movie slate of overly familiar sequels and franchises. From Nolan’s widescreen splendor to Hans Zimmer’s cracking score, Dunkirk is as pure a survival story as you’re likely to see.

  1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

How lucky are we to be alive while Kendrick Lamar Duckworth makes music? With good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and now DAMN., I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we just witnessed one of the best three-album runs in hip-hop history. Almost everything about these three records is exhilarating, thoughtful, and virtuosic. I thought there was no way Kendrick could improve upon the jazz-inflected insight of To Pimp a Butterfly, but after DAMN., I had to, yet again, reconsider what was his best work.

There’s something for everyone on DAMN.: Ferocious, mile-a-minute bars (DNA), pop-star collab (LOYALTY), tender and catchy love song (LOVE), introspective rumination (FEAR). It may simultaneously be his most accessible work and also his most challenging. Although it runs through all of his music, what I found most perceptive about DAMN. was the careful contemplation of sin and redemption, both personal and societal. Kendrick has a way of examining religion and his own faith like no other artist right now. The rest of us are just thanking God that we get to watch him at work.

And my full lists:

Top 5 TV Shows

  1. Mindhunter
  2. Big Little Lies
  3. Stranger Things 2
  4. Narcos
  5. Fargo

Top 10 Movies

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Lady Bird
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  5. Get Out
  6. Win It All
  7. The Big Sick
  8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  9. Logan
  10. Baby Driver

Top 10 Albums

  1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
  2. A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
  3. Melodrama – Lorde
  4. Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
  5. Ctrl – SZA
  6. From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2 – Chris Stapleton
  7. Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear
  8. Capture – Thunder Dreamer
  9. Sleep Well Beast – The National
  10. Something to Tell You – HAIM

The Class of 2007: Profits vs. Prophets in There Will Be Blood

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 8 (2 wins)

Domestic box office: $40,222,514 (66th highest-grossing of 2007)

What the critics said: “There Will Be Blood is genuinely widescreen, both in its mise-en-scéne and concern with American values—God, oil, family—that have hardly receded into the mist. This story of profits versus prophets could also be articulated as a death-struggle identification between the two.” – J. Hoberman, Village Voice

“So, ladies and gentlemen, if I say I’m an oil man, you will agree.” One of the very first lines of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterwork, reveals what kind of a protagonist we’re dealing with here — the kind that will plainly tell us that we agree with him.

The speaker is Daniel Plainview, the merciless and highly successful oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Essentially, Plainview is embodying capitalism in the film as he relentlessly buys up land to suck oil from the earth. Paul Dano is Eli Sunday, a fraudulent preacher looking to make money off Plainview to build his church — and his own influence. Capitalism vs. religion in America. You can’t say the eccentric and extraordinary There Will Be Blood doesn’t go for it all.

Back in 2007, PTA was known more as an exciting young(ish) director than the universally revered filmmaker that we see today. His most recent picture at the time was 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, an unevenly received Adam Sandler “comedy” (in quotes because it’s so much more — and weirder — than that). It felt like a minor work compared to sprawling, ambitious movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. For PTA fans, it had to feel like he still had a masterpiece in him, another level he could reach. When he wrote a script loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! and got Daniel Day-Lewis to sign on right away, that potential masterpiece began to take shape.

Day-Lewis is considered perhaps our Greatest Living Actor, and yet, his entire film and TV career spans just 29 credits. In 2007, he had only appeared in two films since 1997, Gangs of New York (as the brutal and unforgettable Bill The Butcher) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (his wife Rebecca Miller’s movie). What was he doing during the years in between jobs? Being a Method actor, that’s what. Day-Lewis committed to There Will Be Blood two years before production began, so he had plenty of time to get all Method-y. There are no stories of him working in oil rig for ten months, but he did copious amounts of research on turn-of-the-century oilmen, like Edward Doheny, whom Sinclair’s Oil! is based on. Once on set, he reportedly disappeared entirely into Daniel Plainview, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview

Even knowing the talented PTA and the well-respected Day-Lewis were involved couldn’t have prepared you for the bravura 14-minute wordless introduction. Boldly recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s opening, PTA presents a dry, empty California landscape set to Jonny Greenwood’s ominously droning score. And then we’re off, following the maniacally driven Plainview as he discovers oil and sets up his first drill. When we see them strike oil, the thick inky substance whips the camera lens, a father dots his baby’s forehead with it, the stuff is everywhere. Almost immediately after Plainview first tastes success, a man is killed on the job, which should be a sign that the violence is only just beginning. Plainview adopts the dead man’s son and we finally hear the first lines of dialogue (“If I say I’m an oil man…”).

That opening tips us off that PTA is shooting this film unlike anything he’s done before, or anyone’s done before, really. He utilizes the wide shot constantly, composing serene widescreen views of barren land, his characters barely filling the frame. He also uses an abundance of close-ups on his two passionate main characters’ faces. PTA edits it at such a measured pace too. On average, each shot is just over 13 seconds, which is an eternity compared to modern Hollywood movies. This helps There Will Be Blood feel timeless in a way that is difficult to replicate, because most directors can’t keep things interesting without quicker editing.

Of course, everything isn’t nearly as interesting without that grand, sinister score. It’s one of the most easily identifiable film scores to date, so alien and disorienting for our ears the first time we hear it. It should be no surprise the composer is Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood, but it may be a surprise that this was his first work on a feature film. How is it possible to create something this magnificent on your first try? When legendary composer Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception) was asked what score stood out to him most in the last decade, he cited There Will Be Blood, saying it was “recklessly, crazily beautiful.” Don’t get me wrong: This film could be set to silence and it would be one of the better movies of 2007, but after you hear its score, it becomes indispensable. You can’t imagine the film without it.

But let’s get back to the central conflict at stake here between capitalism and religion, between God and money. Plainview’s rival is Eli Sunday, whom Dano plays as a sniveling con man pastor. Eli shows financial inclinations almost immediately after we meet him, when Plainview is negotiating with his father about their land. Despite constantly referring to his “flock,” it’s easy to see Eli cares only for enriching himself. By the end, he’s morphed into a slick and smarmy wealthy radio preacher.

Plainview is just as awful as his religious counterpart. More is the only thing that motivates him: more land, more oil, more money. He will manipulate and screw over anyone in his way. He’s alarmingly misanthropic (“I look at people and see nothing worth liking”) and homicidally competitive (“I want no one else to succeed”). He wants to make enough money where he can get away from people. Eventually, he gets his wish.

It’s unclear if he even loves his own adopted son, HW. In the penultimate scene, HW tells him about the drilling company he’s started in Mexico. “That makes you my competi-TOR,” Plainview snaps at him. In a gut-wrenching twist of the knife, he reveals that HW isn’t his biological son, barking that he’s a “bastard from a basket” as HW walks out.

What makes There Will Be Blood tick is that the interplay between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday works as both a personal character study and a symbolic societal one. On an intimate level, the clash of personalities between the two is captivating. On a big-picture level, unfettered greed and corrupt religion are two ugly sides of the same coin, the movie seems to be showing us, and both are deeply embedded in our nation’s past. The performances from Day-Lewis and Dano are large and showy for a reason.

However, even if you don’t watch There Will Be Blood with those themes in mind, this thing is just a remarkably engrossing, astonishing, and unforgettable ride. Think of all the iconic quotes and moments from this movie:

Get out of here ghost!
I’VE ABANDONED MY CHILD
Bastard from a basket!
I am a false prophet and God is a superstition
DRAAAAINAGE, Eli, you boy.
I… drink… your… milkshake! I DRINK IT UP!

These notable lines are imprinted in my brain, as is the entire baptism scene near the middle of the film and bowling scene at the end. These two scenes are in conversation with each other, revealing a power struggle that isn’t over until Plainview says “I’m finished.”

Ten years ago at the Academy Awards, There Will Be Blood went up against No Country for Old Men in a slugfest. No Country came out the big winner that day, sweeping up Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay over PTA’s masterpiece. Earlier this year, The New York Times ranked the 25 best films of the 21st century. The consensus choice was There Will Be Blood. It only makes sense the best this century has to offer would come from the year 2007. In the words of Daniel Plainview, “That was one hell of a show.”

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men

The Class of 2007: Fate and Unfathomable Evil in No Country for Old Men

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 8 (4 wins)

Domestic box office: $74,283,625 (36th highest-grossing of 2007)

What the critics said: “Mr. McCarthy’s book, for all its usual high-literary trappings (many philosophical digressions, no quotation marks), is one of his pulpier efforts, as well as one of his funniest. The Coens, seizing on the novel’s genre elements, lower the metaphysical temperature and amplify the material’s dark, rueful humor.” – A.O. Scott, New York Times

It was in August 2006 that the two best films of the following year met briefly in the small desert town of Marfa, Texas. Production overlapped there for a time, with the two film crews shooting in close proximity. So close, in fact, that the smoke from There Will Be Blood‘s oil derrick explosion scene forced directors Joel and Ethan Coen to suspend shooting for the day on their upcoming masterpiece, No Country for Old Men.

I don’t know why this little movie trivia factoid fascinates me so much. Perhaps it’s because less than two years later, these two films would face off at the Academy Awards, with the Coens’ work taking Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay over Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Or perhaps it’s the irony that a movie that traffics so deeply in themes of fate and predestination seems like it was fated to cross paths with 2007’s other masterpiece. Fate or not, No Country for Old Men deserves to be appreciated on its own. After ten years, this movie still stuns me like Anton Chigurh’s cattle gun.

Before the film was released, pairing Cormac McCarthy’s stoic prose with the Coen brothers’ quirky sensibility seemed like a strange choice. It’s worth remembering exactly where the Coens were in their careers before No Country. They had an impressive run of respected work throughout the 1990s (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski), only to hit a bump in the road with a couple of disposable oddball comedies in 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers. With those two disappointments as their most recent work, they didn’t seem like the type to make a neo-Western masterwork in 2007.

Surprisingly, the Coens agreed to adapt McCarthy’s novel just months after it was published in 2005. It would be their first straight adaptation of a book (O, Brother Where Art Thou? was loosely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey).

While the Coens and Cormac may not have seemed like a natural fit at first, in hindsight it makes all the sense in the world. First of all, the Coens had done the “an incomprehensible evil invades an idyllic setting” type of movie before to great effect with Fargo and their first feature film Blood Simple. The latter is the better precursor to No Country, with its sun-scorched Texas background and noir influences. Second, some of McCarthy’s dialogue has a dark wit and humor to it that is rendered perfectly deadpan onscreen by the Coens. Lastly, McCarthy’s philosophizing on fate and predestination and evil is balanced out by the Coens’ sense of irony. The great American novelist from Tennessee and the cinema-obsessed brothers from Minnesota ended up complementing each other in fascinating ways.

One of the many things the Coens did flawlessly with No Country was the casting. I mean, every choice is sublime. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Josh Brolin gives career-best work as Llewelyn Moss, who foolishly takes the suitcase of money that sets off the plot. Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson are memorable and well-cast in pivotal supporting roles. And then there’s Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, who will go down as an all-time great movie villain, which is no simple achievement, particularly with that haircut. Despite stellar acting all around, this is Bardem’s showcase.

When we’re first introduced to Chigurh, we see him strangling a police officer who just hung up the phone with some ominous last words: “I got it under control.” He doesn’t. Seconds later, Chigurh unleashes savage violence upon him, snuffing the officer’s life out with the expression of a deranged chipmunk. In the very next scene, we see Chigurh calmly pop a clean hole through a man’s head with his cattle gun just so he can take his car. Whether it’s with brute force or efficient marksmanship, witnessing Chigurh’s psychopathic capabilities right away leaves us terrified of what he will do next for the rest of the film.

However, the most fascinating scene featuring Chigurh isn’t a violent one. Quick question: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”

The first time you see this you’re not sure whether to laugh or curl into the fetal position. I didn’t know you could refer to someone as “friend-o” with such pure menace. This is the scene where Chigurh’s philosophy starts to take shape. He’s an amoral, nihilistic monster that doesn’t believe in anything but random chance. When striving to understand the end of No Country, this becomes important.

Perhaps what makes Chigurh even more frightening is that the Coens don’t give us any musical cues as an emotional guide. No Country has a score, but it’s used so sparingly it might as well not be there at all. Especially in Chigurh’s scenes this becomes relevant to his outlook on life. As he delivers deadpan threats and kills with impunity, there is just an indifferent silence in the background, kind of like the cold, sound-less void of outer space.

What’s amazing is that, despite a minimalist score and a measured pace, No Country is still highly suspenseful, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. This is to the Coens’ credit. Ten years later, scenes like the Llewelyn-Chigurh hotel chase scene are as riveting as ever.

And then there’s that ending — confounding and frustrating to some, brilliant and timeless to others. I think it will continue to age like fine wine, unlike a more conventional ending. It’s not just that the assumed main character (Brolin’s Llewelyn) gets killed; that felt inevitable throughout the movie. It’s that it happens offscreen and it’s not even Chigurh who does it. Llewelyn thinks he can control his own fate and outrun what’s coming for us all, thus revealing the fool’s errand in humanity doing the same. This may feel like a nihilistic ending, one in line with Chigurh’s view of the universe as indifferent and random, adhering to the whims of a coin toss.

But then we get the final scene, where Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell recounts the dreams he had of his deceased father. In one of them, his father is riding horseback in the snow ahead of him carrying a fire in a horn. Bell says in the dream he knew his father was “goin’ on ahead, fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.”

With each viewing, this ending becomes more powerful. After we just saw an unfathomable evil lead to the deaths of Llewelyn, (likely) his wife, and several others, and after that same evil escapes with with his life (and a gnarly broken arm), hope peaks out at the end of No Country. Even when the world cruelly seems like it’s dark and cold, we still have that yearning for the light and warmth that may be waiting for us beyond. Of course, the last line of the film is “And then I woke up,” which leads us to question if the fire amidst the dark and cold is real or an illusion. Is nothingness all there is? Or will we find that fire awaiting us?

This is part of why No Country for Old Men feels so timeless. Its philosophizing isn’t preachy or condescending, just unassuming and inquisitive. It sends you away with plenty to think about, while providing a gripping piece of entertainment along the way — exactly what great cinema is supposed to do.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
There Will Be Blood

The Class of 2007: The Affleck Comeback and Gone Baby Gone’s Unflinching Moral Ambiguity

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were improbably treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 1 (0 wins)

Domestic box office: $20,300,218 (108th highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “The unconvincing genre conventions in Gone Baby Gone are at odds with its authentic, lived-in atmosphere, but no one can say that Affleck hasn’t looked into the depths, and the movie ends on a resonantly ambiguous note” – David Denby

When Gone Baby Gone hit theaters in the fall of 2007, there was a similar refrain coming from critics and audiences alike: The guy who starred in Gigli is capable of this? 

Step back with me to 2003. Ben Affleck, not too far removed from Oscar glory for co-writing Good Will Hunting, appeared in the rom-com Gigli, widely considered one of the worst movies to ever grace our screens. Famously, Affleck fell in love with Jennifer Lopez on set, leading to the “Bennifer” media hysteria. Following the Gigli disaster, Affleck’s movies immediately took a nosedive. Surviving Christmas, Man About Town, Hollywoodland… stop me if you’ve seen (or even heard of!) any of these. You could say Affleck was lost in the wilderness for a few years there. He was an A-list celebrity who didn’t seem to make any good movies.

So you can imagine the pleasant surprise that accompanied Gone Baby Gone, his directorial debut. The Ben Affleck Comeback makes for a tidy narrative, but let’s not overlook this poignant film. In addition to Affleck’s influence, Gone Baby Gone has an authentic look, a few tremendous performances, and a remarkably ambiguous ending.

Set in present-day Boston, a little girl named Amanda McCready goes missing and her family (and negligent mother) hire two detectives, Casey Affleck’s Patrick Kenzie and Michelle Monaghan’s Angie Gennaro. A kidnapping is a classic movie premise, but Affleck and co. do little things to separate their film from others.

For instance, Ben Affleck’s direction is nothing flashy. There’s not too much wizardry involved here; he just lets his actors go to work, which is exactly what you would expect from an actor-turned-director. However, it’s the Boston he presents to us that makes his film so visually effective. Growing up there, he knew how to create the most authentic feel of working-class Boston possible. Gone Baby Gone doesn’t feel Hollywood-ized, in this sense. Affleck hired many non-actors, not just as extras, but speaking roles too. In the bars and on the street corners, you see and hear a gritty, unvarnished Boston. Over the last ten years, Boston has been even more thoroughly covered on screen, which you can mostly credit Affleck and Mark Wahlberg for. From The Fighter to The Town to Ted, the Boston movie has become its own cottage industry. Back in 2007, however, the accents and vibe of the Boston movie had not yet become overdone. Gone Baby Gone feels special in this way (much of 1997’s Good Will Hunting was not shot in Boston), like it set the stage for the raw, lived-in Boston we would see in subsequent films.

While it may feel authentic visually, the script doesn’t always reach those same heights. Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel by Affleck and Aaron Stockard, the author seems like a perfect fit for Affleck (he just adapted another Lehane book last year called Live By Night). At times, though, the screenplay becomes somehow both too thin and too convoluted.

As good as Monaghan is here, her part is grossly underwritten. It feels like we don’t know anything about her or her relationship with Patrick (Casey Affleck). Private detectives that are also dating seems like fertile ground for story, but when there is disagreement on what to do when Amanda is found, we don’t get a full picture of why they are coming from different places. The reverse problem is that the narrative gets too muddled to follow on a first viewing. In a flashback, we actually see a scenario play out that didn’t really happen, further confusing viewers. I’m not sure if there is one too many twists or if the plot just needed to be a little more streamlined, but it took me another watch to figure out what’s going on.

Ultimately, these issues don’t weigh too heavily on Gone Baby Gone, probably because there are a few performances that really shine. This was the first role that proved Casey Affleck could lead a good-to-great film. Ten years later, he’s an Academy Award winner for Best Actor, serving as the exclamation mark on a strange career. Previously known as “Ben’s brother Casey,” he had a memorable 2007, starring in Gone Baby Gone and further cementing himself as a solid supporting actor with another appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies and grabbing an Oscar nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. After this, he didn’t appear in anything for two-plus years, before directing brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre experiment/prank I’m Still Here. Since then, Casey has been choosing his projects more selectively (multiple David Lowery films, Interstellar), before Matt Damon gifted him the lead in Manchester by the Sea.

Although Casey does an excellent job, the Gone Baby Gone performance that caught everyone’s attention was Amy Ryan as Amanda’s vulgar and irresponsible mother. To be sure, it’s a juicy role, but Ryan is tremendous in it. She’s an oncoming trainwreck, you know disaster is imminent but you can’t stop watching. Mostly a TV actress before, her Oscar nom was the only one Gone Baby Gone achieved that year, and her profile rose afterwards. Since then, she has continued to find work in worthwhile films like Win Win, Birdman, and Bridge of Spies. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman didn’t need their profiles to rise any more, but they are predictably good, delivering nuance as compromised police officers.

What’s most impressive about this film is just that, the nuance and thoughtful moral ambiguity. When Casey Affleck’s detective Kenzie is confronted with an agonizing decision at the end (let Amanda live a happy, comfortable life or send her back to her neglectful mother), the movie doesn’t provide us an easy answer. I’ve seen it three times now, and each time I’m left shaken and ambivalent. I still don’t think I’ve decided which side of the fence I’ve fallen on. That’s the sign of an effective film.

Near the end, Kenzie has a conversation outside a hospital with Remy Bressant (Ed Harris’ cop) that is the film at its best. Bressant is drunkenly and forcefully explaining why he has (and will continue to) planted evidence on child molesters. If you touch a kid, it’s an easy decision to put you down, he says. Kenzie responds that “It don’t feel easy.” Gone Baby Gone is bleak, conflicting, and unafraid in the face of tough moral questions.

This is why it remains Ben Affleck’s best directed film, despite the thrilling action of The Town and the prestige entertainment of Oscar-winning Argo. From Gone Baby Gone forward, Affleck has continually proven that, yes, the guy who starred in Gigli is capable of this.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood