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.

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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

Where Do Curry and Durant Rank Among All-Time Duos?

Although they have just wrapped up their first season together, the sports media can’t help but wonder where Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant rank all-time as a duo. This conversation has lured me in as well, because throughout their unprecedented 16-1 postseason run, I can’t remember ever seeing two better players share the court.

Jeff Van Gundy, as he is wont to do, controversially posited during Game 2’s broadcast that Curry and KD are the best duo ever. While baldly ridiculous at first glance, I thought this claim deserved deeper investigation. Are we all just prisoners of the moment or does the Curry-KD duo have a case?

Since they have only played together for one season, we’ll compare them to other single-season tandems, beginning with the most recent and working backwards.

LeBron-Wade (2011-12)

This was only five years ago, but let’s set the stage: The Heatles were coming off a bitter end to their 2011 season, when the Dallas Mavericks stunned them in the Finals. Their first year together following The Decision had come up just two games short of a title, but it felt like an undeniable failure (and remains the only real black mark on LeBron James’ legacy). Critics of LeBron and the Heat were never louder than during the 2011-12 season, but somehow this duo tuned out all that.

LeBron won his third MVP, adding a fresh post-up facet to his game. Dwyane Wade, while beginning to near the end of his prime, made the All-NBA Third Team, proving he was still one of the league’s top few guards.

In the playoffs, LeBron submitted one of the all-time great performances in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Facing elimination against a hostile Celtics crowd, he played the entire game with a weirdly serene look on his face that made you think he was about to commit self-immolation in the middle of the Boston Garden. Instead, he just went to his happy place amid the Bostonian insults and slapped up a 45-point, 15-rebound masterpiece that remains one of the indelible individual efforts in the game’s history. That performance definitely deserves its own 30 for 30.

Despite LeBron basically at his apex and Wade still providing excellent numbers, Curry and KD top them for their combined excellence this season. Both made All-NBA Second Team in an insanely competitive current landscape of individual greatness. While that Heat team dispatched Durant’s Thunder in 5 Finals games that year, they really struggled getting through the East. In contrast, the Warriors were on cruise control, coming just short of completing the first undefeated postseason. Sure, Curry and KD have more help around them and LeBron and Wade played better off each other (see this article for an explanation of that), but this is historic greatness that we didn’t see from that 2012 Heat squad.

Edge: Curry and KD

Shaq-Kobe (2000-01)

So, Curry-KD are the best two players to wear the same jersey at the same time in at least 15 years, but can they top the 2001 Shaqobe Lakers? This was the middle season of the Lakers’ dominant three-peat run, well before everything turned sour.

Shaq was at his absolute peak and Kobe was in his fifth season and starting to feel real comfortable putting up easy points. They both averaged 28 points/game that season, with Shaq seeing All-NBA First Team and honors and Kobe on the Second Team.

However, it was the historic postseason that will help this team live on. The Lakers made the game look effortless by easily sweeping their first three opponents. Their only loss of the entire playoffs came in Game 1 of the Finals in overtime against Allen Iverson’s Sixers. Other than that blip, they cruised to a 15-1 playoff record and a second straight title. Shaq put up his customary 30 points and 15 rebounds postseason average, while Kobe carried more of the offensive load than the previous year, scoring 29.4 points/game to go with his 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists. They had two dangerous scorers who could drop 30+ points on you like it was nothing. Sound familiar?

Steph and KD almost matched Shaqobe in scoring volume, but where they are so much more frightening is their efficiency. Now, of course, it’s a much different game now than it was even 16 years ago, but when your two best players launch from three-point range at 43% in the playoffs? That’s game over.

And it was for the rest of the league, as the Warriors marched to an unthinkable 16-1 postseason record while hardly breaking a sweat. I don’t know if many NBA fans back in 2001 thought they’d ever see a team do this.

While Shaq was an unstoppable monster back then, Kobe hadn’t quite reached his zenith yet, on either end of the floor. Right now, Curry and KD are in the prime of their primes at age 28. Durant, in particular, looked quite impressive on the defensive end compared to a few years ago. And, let’s not forget, the Warriors bested that Lakers team by one playoff win. They get the slight edge as the better duo.

Slight edge: Curry and KD

Jordan-Pippen (1995-96)

Now we come up against quite a challenge to Curry and KD’s best duo ever argument. I chose the Bulls’ 1995-96 season, because, duh. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen straight wrecked the league for an entire season, with 72 wins in the regular season, which was only topped by the KD-less 2016 Warriors.

This was MJ’s first full season back from his gambl-, er, baseball hiatus, and he looked like he’d never left. He put up his usual 30 points/game on 50% shooting and picked up another MVP. Pippen, meanwhile, scored 19 per game and did everything else you expected of him: snagged boards, dished out assists, and played his obligatory lockdown defense. I can’t imagine how terrifying it had to be for opponents when the Bulls’ two best players were also tenacious defenders (not to mention Dennis Rodman roaming the paint behind them). Both Jordan and Pippen made All-NBA Defensive First Team, as well as All-NBA First Team that season (Rodman also made Defensive First Team). These guys just did it all.

In the playoffs, the Bulls flew through the first three rounds, dropping just one game. In the Finals versus Seattle, they marched out to a 3-0 series lead, before losing two games to Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton’s 64-win Sonics team. Chicago would close it out in Game 6 though, giving them their 4th title.

While Curry and KD had a better playoff record, their regular season with *only* 67 wins falls just beneath what the Bulls pulled off. With team results about even, we turn to the level of play of each duo. Steph arguably played the best basketball of his career in this year’s playoffs, even better than pre-Durant when he didn’t have to share shots. What’s more, he didn’t even win MVP or Finals MVP this season. Think about that. Durant somehow shot even more efficient than Curry and provided stellar defense, to boot.

Pippen’s offensive numbers dipped a bit in the ‘96 playoffs, but it didn’t matter. His defense was unreal as always (2.6 steals/game). Jordan was Jordan; that’s about all I need to say.

Curry and KD both made the All-NBA Second Team (KD might have been named to the First Team had he not gotten injured), but their individual defense was nowhere near the same stratosphere as Jordan-Pippen. In the end, that’s why MJ and Scottie beat out Curry and KD. When your two best players are seemingly invincible on both ends of the court, you might be the best duo of all-time.

Slight edge: Jordan and Pippen

For Curry and KD, it’s still no joke to be the best single-season NBA duo in over 20 years. Their efforts together (with a little help from their other All-Star teammates) have produced perhaps the greatest team of all-time. As it stands today, there’s plenty of time for them to add to their legacy and become the greatest duo ever.

The Class of 2007: Michael Clayton’s Restrained Brilliance

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: 7 (1 win)

Domestic box office: $49,033,882 (55th highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “It’s not about the destination but the journey, and when the stakes become so high that lives and corporations are on the table, it’s spellbinding to watch the Clooney and Swinton characters eye to eye, raising each other, both convinced that the other is bluffing.” – Roger Ebert

Unlike No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, two masterpieces from 2007, Michael Clayton did not challenge or redefine cinema as we know it. However, it did make many adult moviegoers relieved that films like this could still get made. By that I mean grown-up, restrained genre thrillers. Michael Clayton is made with such confidence and directness that it is out of place among today’s crime/legal/political thrillers that go for cheap adrenaline rushes and sloppily-asserted “messages”. You might have to go back to 1999’s The Insider to find a comparable film with as much intelligence and self-assurance.

The script here, written by director Tony Gilroy, is tightly-constructed, non-linear, and avoids obvious cliches. Gilroy had written all three Bourne movies by this time (he would write-direct a fourth in 2012), so clearly he had the chops to put together a compelling action flick. This was his first directorial gig though, so it’s not like this was going to be a slam dunk. Denzel apparently turned down George Clooney’s role because of his hesitance at working with a first-time director. What Gilroy brings besides his excellent writing is some decent visuals filmed in a mostly classical style. Nothing too flashy with the camerawork like the Bourne flicks, which mostly works for this type of film. You can tell Gilroy doesn’t necessarily have the eye for a telling shot like some of the greats working today, but his writing more than makes up for it.

He does have help, though. Clooney is excellent, cool and suave like Danny Ocean, but with an undercurrent of frustration and paranoia. As stellar a career as he’s had, you could make the argument this is his best work (I don’t know if I’d necessarily make that argument, but you could). Playing the titular character, his “fixer” works for a high-powered law firm in New York. He’s brought in to clean up the mess made by Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, a defense lawyer whose bipolar condition causes him to act irrational and paranoid while working on a case for a shady chemical company. Wilkinson, all wild-eyed and unstable, usually isn’t given roles where he can go this gonzo. He relishes it, as does Tilda Swinton, who plays a legal representative of the aforementioned shady company. She won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here in an understated, far from showy performance.

There are a handful of really gripping scenes where the actors just continually raise the bar for each other. Wilkinson and Clooney in the alley and then Clooney and Swinton at the close of the film come to mind. Acting and dialogue meshing wonderfully, with themes of paranoia and corporate corruption revealing an outraged worldview that doesn’t resort to heavy-handedness. It’s righteous anger that doesn’t need to shout.

Of course, a year or so after Michael Clayton‘s release, we had the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S., with corporate negligence and greed contributing to the Great Recession. In the end, Clayton nails the chemical company for manufacturing a weed killer it knew to be carcinogenic. If this movie had come out a couple years later than it did something tells me it might have made more money at the box office.

Critics gushed over it, nonetheless. In a stacked year, it made numerous end-of-year top ten lists. They compared it to classic 1970s and 80s legal thrillers, where the style never casts a shadow over the substance, like All the President’s Men and The Verdict. Those are apt comparisons, because the restraint in visual style and pacing is what sets Michael Clayton apart. In the decade since, Tony Gilroy has only enhanced his reputation as an intelligent Hollywood screenwriter, although his two directorial efforts since (Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy) have fallen short of Michael Clayton‘s heights. Gilroy has a remarkable ear for killer dialogue, but not necessarily overt visual panache, which, like I said, doesn’t hurt this film at all.

If there was a sigh of relief that smart, medium-budget thrillers like this could still get made back in 2007, it would be an even heavier exhale today, as comic book movies and sequels crowd out the Michael Claytons from even getting greenlit. More and more, understated prestige dramas can be found on TV (The Americans, The Night Manager) instead of at the movie theater. It’s certainly not easy to create something as compelling as Michael Clayton, but the lack of similar films in recent years is disheartening.

Increasingly, if your movie isn’t an already recognizable franchise or can’t immediately generate discussion/controversy, it might never see the light of day. Michael Clayton was a grower for me. I enjoyed the first watch, but only on the second did its excellence become obvious to me. Due to its patient, slow burn nature, it’s simply working on a higher level from the vast majority of political and legal thrillers. Pour one out with me for all the Michael Claytons that never made it to the screen.

More on The Class of 2007:

Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

How Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper Portray Their Faith

Kendrick Lamar's Humble video

With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has produced yet another dense and brilliant album. The 29-year-old from Compton is firmly in his prime and still on top of the rap world. Curiously, part of what captivates Kendrick’s fans is the heavy spiritual element in his music since at least his debut studio album Section.80. The current King of Hip-Hop has always incorporated his faith in approachable and compelling ways, and that certainly doesn’t change on DAMN.

Similarly, hip-hop’s fastest rising star, Chance the Rapper, also speaks frequently about God on his 2016 album Coloring Book, albeit in quite a different way. The production and lyrical style of Chance’s music will not often be confused with Kendrick’s, but there can be no doubting that both love to explore the spiritual side of life.

There’s more than one way to portray faith in your art. In the manner they evoke religious themes and their own personal faith, two of the most popular and important rappers in the game are showing us two sides of the same coin.

“I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…”

The pictures Kendrick and Chance paint with their words tend to contrast in fascinating ways. Kendrick repeatedly wrestles with sin and brokenness — in himself, his community, and the entire world. His rhymes can often be tortured, conflicted, and angst-ridden; it’s part of what makes his music so relatable and rewarding.

Like most, I was first introduced to Kendrick when Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City came out in 2012. On “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” I was immediately struck with the line, “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…” Within the context of the song, it didn’t seem like a flippant line about reveling in sin. It seemed like a straightforward and vulnerable admission of human weakness. It made me sit up and pay attention to what he was actually saying on the album.

Growing up in Compton, there was no shortage of vices available to derail Kendrick before he became one of the all-time great MCs. The autobiographical Good Kid reports on Kendrick’s hellish experience in the streets. He admits on “The Art of Peer Pressure” that he’s “Never been violent / Until I’m with the homies.” He struggles against the temptation to lose himself in alcohol on “Swimming Pools (Drank).” He calls himself “Compton’s Human Sacrifice” on the menacing track “m.A.A.d. city.” Coming from his background, Kendrick continually makes it clear in his lyrics that he never should’ve made it out — much less as a positive role model.

This is why it’s fascinating to see him so openly and honestly thrash against his sinful nature as he strives to be the messiah that the culture makes him out to be. It’s difficult to imagine that kind of pressure, particularly when your past haunts you. On “The Blacker the Berry” from his jazz-funk magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick repeatedly dubs himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” This feeling, of being a pretender or a fraud, is something that many can identify with, whether you’re religious or not.

“Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?”

A Kendrick record can very often be a raw, intimate portrait of his anguished soul, but he can also expand his scope to survey the broken world around him. Increasingly, he has taken aim at big-picture issues like racism, urban violence, and political disarray. While he’s still navigating his persistent materialistic desires, the suffering he witnesses on a mass scale leaves Kendrick disheartened and helpless. On To Pimp a Butterfly he laments police brutality (“Alright”) and greedy obsession with money (“Institutionalized”). On DAMN., he sees our screwed-up world in a decidedly Old Testament light (Deuteronomy is quoted on “FEAR.”). Kendrick and his people are cursed (or damned) for their disobedience and pride by a righteous, unforgiving God.

As he witnesses the world’s atrocities, it weighs heavy on Kendrick’s soul. Especially on DAMN., he’s particularly forthright about his doubts. The Ringer’s Micah Peters put it well in his recent piece on Kendrick and faith:

Kendrick’s faith functions astride the spiritual and the secular, leaving ample room for doubt; I’ve always thought of it as plainspoken. Or pragmatic. It’s his way of parsing the knottier, more trying questions you hope to never need ask or answer: What happens when life is too much? When you’re too angry or saddened to believe that prayer will be enough to cover it?

The contemplative track “FEAR.” finds Kendrick questioning God a la Jesus on the cross, pleading “Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?” On multiple DAMN. songs, Kendrick asks for us to “pray for me.” It’s unusual and refreshing for a Christian artist to be so naked about their doubts.

“The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early”

Chance the Rapper's Grammy performance

This dark realism makes for a stark contrast with Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Chance’s faith on his album (technically, it’s a mixtape) is one of joyous worship and exuberance. From the very first notes on the very first track, “All We Got,” victorious trumpets announce God’s glory, as Chance’s deft wordplay and surprisingly excellent singing lead us in praise. Coloring Book might be enough to make the most hardened anti-church among us wander back into a pew. As David Dark points out for MTV News, “We’re never not worshiping in Chance’s world.”

Part one of “Blessings” (the last track is also called “Blessings”) has Chance’s dominant theme wrapped up in one chorus:

I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

As he’s writing this song, Chance has a newborn baby girl (he’s lovingly looking down at her on the album’s cover) and has earned career success through a feature on his idol Kanye West’s new album, and more. He has plenty of reasons to praise God and thank Him for his blessings.

However, you still see temptation and sin creep into the corners of Chance’s wonderful world. Glimpses of his personal demons come into a view on “Finish Line/Drown” when he mentions his previous addiction to Xanax: “I’ve been lying to my body can’t rely on myself oh no / Last year got addicted to xans / Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.” Similarly, he’s open about the sorrow he feels over the incessant violence in his hometown of Chicago on “Angels”: “It’s too many young angels on the southside / Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside.

But this is Chance’s stage, so the devil simply can’t win. “All We Got” sees Chance giving “Satan a swirlie” (a charmingly innocent threat). Later on that track, he claims, “I do not talk to the serpent / That’s that holistic discernment.” He continually relies on God to keep evil at bay. Does this come off as tone-deaf to all of the suffering we see, including the systemic racial injustices of our world? I think Chance would tell you his music is meant to uplift and inspire, all while staying grounded in the reality of sin. Kendrick’s music, on the other hand, does the reverse: It openly presents his struggles, all while providing a glimmer of light for us to find.

Their contrasting lyrical content naturally leads to contrasting sounds. Kendrick tends to be darker and meditative, utilizing knotty jazz instrumentation on To Pimp a Butterfly and simpler, bass-heavy beats on DAMN. Chance goes for a true gospel vibe on Coloring Book and other standout tracks, like “Sunday Candy.” Trumpets and choirs signal the worship that’s about to go down. The oversimplified difference between the two is a packed, high-energy gospel church on Sunday morning vs. a solitary figure alone with his tortured thoughts in a dark bedroom.

“The book don’t end with Malachi”

Kendrick Lamar's faith

Despite the often vast difference in lyrics and sound, where they converge is their belief that they stand in need of God’s grace. Both of them hail from rough backgrounds in violent neighborhoods, Compton and Chicago. And coincidentally enough, both of them had a spiritual awakening involving a grandmother’s prayer.

For Kendrick, it can be heard on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. The record opens with two boys praying: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner…” Ten tracks later we learn this prayer is being led by the grandma of Kendrick’s friend, who came upon them after their friend was murdered. This moment, in a Food 4 Less parking lot, is when Kendrick considers himself saved, when he accepted God’s grace and became motivated to live for Him.

Chance tells a similar story in a recent GQ interview. Around the time he released Acid Rap, his impressive second mixtape that put him on the hip-hop map, he was doing a copious amount of drugs. Chance describes himself as “gone all the time.” His grandmother noticed this and prayed over him, but not with a positive tone like she usually did. Chance recalls her prayer: “Lord, I pray that all things that are not like You, You take away from Chance. Make sure that he fails at everything that is not like You.” Afterwards, he said that even though it “damn near sounded like a curse,” this blessing gave him perspective. It was a kind of comforting message that God had promising plans for him and that where he succeeded, God would be the centerpiece. He got to work on Coloring Book soon after.

While Kendrick and Chance may have their own distinct point of view, both arrive at nuance in their work. Neither work with a narrow lens. Chance may be the more optimistic of the two, but he sometimes allows dark clouds to gather over his music as well. He’s melancholy on songs like “Summer Friends” and “Angels” as he bemoans Chicago’s murder rate, which includes some of his childhood friends. Conversely, Kendrick is capable of moments of heart-bursting hope. The transition from “u” to “Alright” on To Pimp a Butterfly is a perfect example. He goes from weeping in self-pity on the former to chanting “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright” on the latter. Personal torment thrillingly gives way to pragmatic assurance.

Between these two artists, which has a better and more true depiction of faith? The answer is, of course, both. There is real, profound power in both Kendrick’s vulnerable doubts and Chance’s irresistible joy. We need both of their styles in popular music. For a world that is deeply in need of redemption, Kendrick and Chance just provide it in different ways.

The Class of 2007: David Fincher’s Obsessive, Unorthodox Zodiac

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: None

Domestic box office: $33,080,084 (81st highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “…the film is at once sprawling and tightly constructed, opaque and meticulously detailed. It’s part police procedural, part monster movie, a funereal entertainment that is an unexpected repudiation of Mr. Fincher’s most famous movie, the serial-killer fiction “Seven,” as well as a testament to this cinematic savant’s gifts.” – Manhola Dargis

The 2007 Academy Awards featured a stacked lineup of spectacular films. It featured some of the most respected names in the business getting handed gold trophies, like the Coen brothers, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tilda Swinton. It did not feature Zodiac, David Fincher’s dark view into the obsessive search for the infamous serial killer. But it probably should’ve.

It’s not hard to see why Zodiac wasn’t beloved when it came out. Here’s the director of Se7en, an endlessly watchable serial killer movie, returning twelve years later to make a thriller about another real-life serial killer, except it feels vastly different from his previous work. Fincher doesn’t lean on any of his past successes as a filmmaker too heavily in Zodiac. All of the violence happens in the first 20 or so minutes, and then we settle into a methodical procedural that — if I’m being honest — is an equally frustrating and fascinating journey the first time you watch it.

If you see it again, you begin to realize how mesmerizing the painstaking details of Zodiac become. This is a testament to the mood Fincher creates, where the film’s pace never gets away from him. There’s very little (if any) of the car chases, shootouts, and lengthy monologues about justice and evil that you come to expect from a crime thriller.

Similarly, Fincher’s visuals are deliberately drab compared to his other work, before and after. Zodiac doesn’t have the sleek and polished look of Fight Club or The Social Network. The color palette is muted, which fits the gritty police halls and newsrooms of the 1970s, as well as the ambiguous nature of the story.

Fincher did, however, put some polished talent on the screen. Fresh off Brokeback Mountain, Jake Gyllenhaal had proven himself as a young, Academy-respected actor. He plays Robert Graysmith, the central figure over the last half of the film, who becomes totally enveloped in unhooding the Zodiac killer. Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t quite a Hollywood leading man yet (this was pre-Iron Man), but is utterly captivating as reporter Paul Avery. Finally, Mark Ruffalo puts in a workmanlike performance as police Inspector David Toschi. Ruffalo’s best roles would arrive a few years down the line.

Although all three have probably been better in other films, they’re tremendous here. Gyllenhaal is striking in his innocence (Aqua Velva, anyone?) , Downey is typically charismatic and electric, and Ruffalo is solid as an oak. With the three of them so well cast, Zodiac is elevated to heights it wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

And yet, it was no crowdpleaser. Audiences met it with lukewarm reactions. It made just over $33 million domestically on a $65 million budget, 2007’s 81st highest-grossing movie. Again, this isn’t overly surprising considering this is a steady hunt for a serial killer with no definitive payoff. Zodiac is certainly slow, but it continually draws you in closer, even as it becomes clear we aren’t going to get a crispy realization.

That’s the crux of it, really. Zodiac is an ambiguous work about the ruinous power of obsession made by a director who is known for his attention to detail and rigorous methods. Fincher is infamous for demanding an endless number of takes, breaking down actors until he gets exactly what he wants (apparently he drove Downey Jr. to store his urine in jars on set). It’s not inconceivable to think Fincher felt a kind of kinship with the figures who were driven to find the Zodiac killer.

I was thinking the other day about why Zodiac intrigues me so much even though we never learn the identity of the killer. Maybe it’s because it was created by someone who lives and breathes the kind of obsession shown on screen that the payoff becomes almost irrelevant.

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Robots, Paper Boi, and the Afterlife: My Top TV Shows of 2016

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In case you haven’t heard, TV is better than ever. Well, it’s certainly more than ever. As the era known as Peak TV progresses, it’s just about impossible to see everything. You can find a way to see most (if not all) of the year’s best films, but the year’s best TV? Good luck.

Even though we are well into 2017, I thought I’d glance back at the best television I did manage to catch in 2016. If you’re looking for an all-encompassing theme, it’s probably that TV is catching up to movies from a visual standpoint. As more filmmakers cross over to the small screen, TV has become more cinematic in look and feel (hello, Stranger Things). For awhile now, it’s been transforming into less of a writer’s medium and more of a director’s medium. It’s pretty thrilling to see so many TV shows arrive with their own original visual style, but the divide between TV and movies has never been so paper-thin.

These blurred lines were best represented by one of the best things I saw this year, period: O.J.: Made in America. It will probably win the Oscar for Best Documentary, but I watched it on ESPN so I’m counting it as a TV miniseries and not a 7.5-hour documentary. In the end, I don’t really care what it’s categorized as, just that it’s recognized as the monumental achievement that it is.

Aired in five parts through ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, O.J.: Made in America is insanely ambitious. In its retelling of OJ Simpson’s life, career, relationships, and (alleged) crimes, we are taken on a fascinating journey. Director Ezra Edelman masterfully reveals the massive, complex undercurrents of the OJ trial: be it race, class, celebrity, a ravenous media, or a flawed criminal justice system. O.J.: Made in America challenges all and comforts none. And despite its long runtime, it never feels like a slog. Even more than FX’s dramatized The People vs. O.J. Simpson (which was entertaining in its own right), Edelman’s documentary keeps you hooked and engaged from start to finish.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not is essentially irrelevant here. This is something every American should see, and I certainly don’t say that often.

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On the other end of that spectrum was season 3 of Black Mirror, a ruthlessly dystopian show that’s definitely not for everybody. However, I find it totally enthralling, even though it remains kind of a hit-or-miss enterprise.

Like the first two seasons, the third has its peaks and valleys, which is probably to be expected from any series that is a collection of standalone episodes. “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation” successfully interrogate our social media-obsessed society, while “Men Against Fire” misses its mark in attempting to entertain and comment on war’s eroding effect on humanity.

Despite its move to Netflix, Black Mirror remains a smart, incisive, and ominous series. Even amid all the darkness, there is a ray of light in the middle of the third season. “San Junipero” is the most upbeat and enjoyably sentimental the show has allowed itself to get, although there is still a melancholy interpretation underneath if you’re willing to read it that way. The brilliance in Black Mirror is that it’s not about how technology ruins our lives, but how our broken human nature always finds a way to muck everything up.

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While Black Mirror didn’t always stick its landing, HBO’s miniseries The Night Of was probably the most consistently excellent show on TV this year (excluding O.J.). The talent in front and behind the camera was too impressive for this not to work. Novelist and The Wire writer Richard Price and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) got together to create this riveting crime drama about a college student who sees a one-night stand turn into a murder investigation.

Riz Ahmed plays the student, Naz, and the always wonderful John Turturro is his defense lawyer. Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar’s comin’) plays a hardened inmate who takes Naz under his wing. All three actors are pitch-perfect in their roles, just as the writing and directing is equally top-drawer.

There was something so fresh about The Night Of that made me yearn for more of its kind. We don’t need every show on TV to run for a few (or more) seasons. Here was a highly compelling and nuanced drama that was too long for a movie, but perfect for an eight-episode arc. Just give HBO all the money to keep making shows like this.

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Another new HBO show actually looked like someone gave it all the money. Westworld was a hugely ambitious swing at a sci-fi/Western genre mash-up. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) and Lisa Joy co-created this remake of the 1973 movie about an adult theme park filled with artificial intelligence “hosts” where guests can come and live out their most debauched fantasies.

Season one of Westworld looks like a million bucks. From the action sequences to the sweeping desert landscape to the futuristic A.I. maintenance center, the budget had to be sky-high for a TV show to pull this off. Plus, the acting they brought in is full of respected veterans of film and TV, like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright.

Westworld was not without its flaws, of course. The plot twists were so telegraphed that close readers of the show were able to figure out pretty much all of them. If I could go back in time, I’d watch the whole season without reading anything about it, although I may have been able to guess some of them anyway. For me, it was also more intellectually stimulating than something to invest in emotionally. The central issue for Westworld will continue to be how you make the audience actually care about robots. Overall, it was a thrilling ride that left me deeply curious for what next season will bring.

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Conversely, NBC comedy The Good Place‘s first season left me in anticipation for season two, but it did so through a genuinely shocking finale that no one saw coming. This high-concept network show is set in the afterlife, which makes it a variation on Westworld‘s problem: How do you make the audience care about dead people?

The Good Place creator Mike Schur has proven his comedy chops time and again as a writer for The Office and creator/showrunner of Parks and Recreation. Now he has given himself the challenge of making a show set in heaven a) funny, b) smart, and c) emotionally rewarding. For the most part, The Good Place hits all of those notes. Eleanor (a delightfully self-centered Kristen Bell) has mistakenly been sent to “the good place” (don’t worry, not a spoiler) by angel architect Michael (the GOAT TV star Ted Danson). From there, various hijinks ensue throughout a solidly clever and entertaining first season. The show truly separates itself from other network comedies because of its interest in moral and ethical philosophy. The Good Place takes Eleanor’s quest to become a better person seriously.

And yet, I’m not sure this show would’ve made my year-end list if not for its season finale. Its mind-bending twist reframes how you see these characters you’ve spent the entire season investing in. I can’t wait to find out where they go with this show…

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… is something I can easily say about FX’s Atlanta, which became a mini-sensation last year. Impossible to fully define or categorize, Donald Glover’s creation is stunning, unique, and worth every bit of praise heaped at its feet. The show follows Earn (Glover) and his cousin, upcoming rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), as they navigate the Atlanta rap scene, but Atlanta is sooo much more than this loose plot summary.

The sense of place and character is so strong on Atlanta that you want to live in this surreal world for much longer than the first season’s ten episodes. The Atlanta of the show is a strange funhouse where the quotidian and fantastical collide. The best part about it is that even as you’re trying to figure out what just happened on the previous episode, the next one is taking you in an entirely new direction. Even the “ordinary” plot-heavy episodes feel off-kilter in a refreshing way.

It helps that the characters are memorable and the acting is on point. In addition to Earn and Paper Boi, Van, Darius, and even one-episode guest stars leave you wanting to spend more time with these people (an obnoxious Instagram superstar named Zan is hilarious in “The Streisand Effect”). Atlanta‘s deadpan charms won’t return until 2018, but the first season probably merits multiple viewings anyway.

Those were the six shows that impressed me the most in 2016, but others were deserving of recognition as well: Stranger Things, for its nostalgic fun and creepy thrills. The second season of Narcos, for being a well-made and endlessly entertaining depiction of the Colombian drug wars. Veep‘s season 5, for being perhaps the most consistently funny thing on TV, especially in the thick of our strange political times. And The Americans, for being one of the best shows currently airing, although I’m still a season behind because, like I said earlier, there’s too much good TV right now.