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

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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

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

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.

We Gon’ See the Future First, Or, My Top 10 Albums of 2016

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Well, that was a weird year. From the thrillingly unthinkable (the drought-ending triumph of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers) to the depressingly unthinkable (the entire election cycle), 2016 just wouldn’t stop heaping strange, incredibly unlikely events upon us.

And yet, almost everyone agrees this is the best year music has had in a long time. Throughout this weird and improbable year, we were lucky enough to get undeniably brilliant and essential music. Many of pop and hip-hop’s titans unveiled new albums (Kanye, Beyonce, Drake, Rihanna). Several up-and-comers burst through with enjoyable and challenging work (Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada). Enigmatic luminaries returned out of the blue (David Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean).

Of course, 2016 will also be known as the year music lost some of its all-time visionaries. The deaths of Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and more hit the music world with a heavy, solemn thud. Although too young for their heyday, I traversed through the discographies of Bowie, Prince, and A Tribe Called Quest to remember my favorite songs and discover new ones.

So while we lost some greats, we gained a whole slew of seismic, statement-making, indispensable new albums that we will continue to unpack for years to come. Now to my favorites from the year.

Honorable Mention

Anti – Rihanna

We got it from Here… – A Tribe Called Quest

Sunlit Youth – Local Natives

10. Telefone – Noname

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For obvious reasons, introverts seem to be somewhat rare in the pop music sphere. Frank Ocean is one, Kendrick Lamar is probably another. But this year, Noname arrived on the scene in a likably reserved manner with Telefone. Connected to Chance the Rapper’s Chicago crew, her fresh, relaxed, and clear voice draws you in immediately.

The easygoing and breezy production is paired with often devastating content. Amid catchy melodies, Noname paints a melancholy picture of the violence and anxiety of her hometown.  Death may hang over the album (literally on the cover), but Telefone still presents a life-affirming message from an intoxicating new voice.

9. Cardinal – Pinegrove

This is one that I discovered late in the year, but quickly became the album I didn’t know I was missing: an eloquent, unabashedly emotional, alt-country record. On Cardinal, New Jersey band Pinegrove don’t innovate musically as much as they offer youthful intelligence amidst enjoyable rock tunes.

The writing on Cardinal is endlessly engaging and clever. The very first song, “Old Friends,” features the words “labyrinthine” and “solipsistic” — words you don’t stumble upon too often outside academia. However, it’s not just the unconventional use of big words, but how Pinegrove can turn a phrase to articulate the difficulty of expressing oneself (“Apparently my ventricles are full of doubt“).

What’s most amazing about Cardinal is that it is both earnest and laid-back; it’s utterly sincere, but with a sense of perspective. They gloomily ask, “How come every outcome’s such a comedown?” only to turn around and say, “There’s nothing really bad to be upset about“.

8. 99.9% – Kaytranada

Similar to Jamie xx’s In Colour from last year, Montreal producer Kaytranada created a fascinating melting pot of hip-hop, R&B, house, and electronic vibes on 99.9%. Just like its cover, the record features a colorful array of sounds, both bright and dark. Most importantly, it’s never dull and fantastic for studying, writing, and working.

Glowed Up” is probably the standout track, as 2016 breakout star Anderson .Paak flexes over an eerie, atmospheric beat. Each song seems to bring something fresh to the album, though, such as highlights “Got It Good” and “Lite Spots”. In such a competitive year for music, it’s a testament to Kaytranada’s talent that 99.9% was able to make it on so many year-end lists.

7. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson

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About three minutes into Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a brave new sonic direction is announced when a burst of horns arrives on the scene. Known previously for his throwback country crooning and trippy, metaphysical musings, Simpson expands and diversifies his sound on his new record.

But he also has a new direction in content as well. With the birth of his first child, Simpson has clearly been given a fresh perspective. On “Keep It Between The Lines,” he commands his son to “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done“. On “Brace For Impact,” he advises to “Go out and live a little” and to “Make sure you give a little“. Simpson has always been capable of doling out profound nuggets, but his practical wisdom for his son on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the most relatable he’s been.

As a concept album, it all comes together beautifully in a tight nine tracks. There’s a wonderful Nirvana cover, a heartfelt dispatch to his wife, and a “call to arms” against U.S. military propaganda. Simpson’s brave new direction finds him insightful, forthright, and generous.

6. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

Kanye’s 2016 had its share of highlights and lowlights, to say the least. His wife was robbed at gunpoint, he abruptly ended his tour, and checked himself into the hospital for “temporary psychosis.” He also created The Life of Pablo.

For his seventh solo record, Kanye gave us a glimpse of his messy, visionary album-making process through Twitter and then innovated yet again by continuing to tweak the material post-release. Despite its unfocused nature, The Life of Pablo is a fascinating piece of art that fuses gospel, rap, and R&B together for a wholly unique batch of songs. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Famous” have brilliant, heavily-sampled production that is undercut somewhat by facepalm-worthy Kanye lyrics. Still, the album’s best moments are stunning and vivid, particularly “Ultralight Beam,” which actually has a minimal amount of Kanye but literally sounds like heaven.

Kanye’s strength as an artist has always been about letting us see his vulnerabilities and weaknesses with bracing honesty. The Life of Pablo is in no way Kanye’s best work — it’s overlong and overstuffed — but the musical genius is still there, amid all the messiness. So, in a way, it may be the most Kanye album he’s ever made.

5. Blonde – Frank Ocean

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This is one that will probably take longer to marinate than any other album this year. Like an opaque, impressionistic film, Blonde is a work that demands time and reflection. It feels like there is something transcendent going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Following the revelatory triumph of 2012’s Channel Orange, Ocean returned with something else entirely. Instead of dense drums, Blonde has almost no percussion. Instead of a fresh twist on R&B, Blonde really has no classifiable genre. Instead of outward storytelling, Blonde tells foggy, personal vignettes. Channel Orange felt immediate and endlessly listenable; whereas Blonde is intimate and airy, but eventually reveals more emotional depth.

It may not be my very favorite from the year, but the future may smile even more fondly on it. If it does, we shouldn’t be surprised. Frank himself told us in the opening track that, “We gon’ see the future first“.

4. Lemonade – Beyonce

How do you top that time you revolutionized the music industry with an overnight surprise release visual album? I guess you come back with another visual album, this time playing with your celebrity in a fascinating way to create a brilliant and deeply personal work. There’s a reason Beyonce is universally beloved; she makes all that look flawless.

Lemonade took us on a journey through disbelief, rage, conviction, and forgiveness. It spans genres, from rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to country (“Daddy Lessons”) to trap (“Formation”) and more, but it all unifies into a cohesive, compelling whole due to Beyonce’s gravity. While the middle section loses momentum a bit, Lemonade culminates with a bravura three-song finish. Beginning with “Freedom” (Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar’s black empowerment anthem that makes you feel like you could run through a brick wall) leading into “All Night” (a moving tribute to hard-fought love), and ending with “Formation” (one of the defining songs of a fraught 2016).

3. Malibu – Anderson .Paak

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Anderson .Paak dropped his fresh and self-assured sophomore album in January and I’ve been rocking it all the way through the year. Even after countless listens, Malibu feels as personal and pleasurable as ever. “The Bird” and “The Dreamer” bookend the album, acting as intimate insights into Anderson’s life, but there’s also plenty of good times here as well. Like Chance the Rapper, he can fluently and enjoyably alternate between singing and rapping. “Come Down” and “Am I Wrong” glide along effortlessly, mixing R&B, funk, and hip-hop together for an addictive concoction.

I had the good fortune of seeing Anderson at a music festival in September. His swagger is so vibrant and infectious that it’s no surprise his star is rising fast. NxWorries, his side project, also released a record this year called Yes Lawd!, which, in addition to all his guest verses for other artists, only increased Anderson’s ubiquity in 2016.

2. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

I’ve written enough about Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s outstanding third album 22, A Million already, but I just wanted to add that in a year when pop’s top artists (Beyonce, Kanye, Frank Ocean) were pushing themselves to be better, Justin Vernon was right there with them, forging a remarkably original path.

1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

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Beginning with his curtain-parting entrance on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” 2016 was the year of Chance the Rapper. Then with Coloring Book, the young Chicagoan proved himself to be the heir to pre-808s and Heartbreak Kanye. His outstanding mixtape is so chock-full of radiant joy, gratitude, and wonder that it was impossible to deny Chance’s talent and cultural reach.

One of the great summer albums in recent memory, I continued to spin Coloring Book through the rest of the year. Whether you’re religious or not, Chance’s buoyant portrayal of faith is irresistibly uplifting. He makes a relationship with God the most attractive thing in the world: “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” He reminds himself that even amidst life’s trials, “I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.” He offers timely and Biblical advice in an election year: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom.

And yet, all the optimism and joyousness resonates because of the pain underneath (something he also did well on his previous effort, Acid Rap), which is the secret to Coloring Book‘s brilliance. Chance hails from Chicago, so songs like “Summer Friends,” where he mourns the city’s summer spike in murders, lets us in on Chance’s suffering a little bit. In fact, despite all the victorious trumpets, the quieter moments on this record are just as powerful.

The cover shows Chance’s face as he gazes down at his newborn daughter with a gorgeous pink and red sky in the background. In such a weird year, Chance taught us to be grateful for our blessings and gave us joyful music to return to, even in the not-so-blessed moments.

Top 10 Songs

10) “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange

9) “Feel No Ways” – Drake

8) “untitled 05” – Kendrick Lamar

7) “Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper

6) “Solo” – Frank Ocean

5) “All Night” – Beyonce

4) “33 ‘GOD'” – Bon Iver

3) “No Problem” – Chance the Rapper

2) “Freedom” – Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar

1) “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West

Denis Villeneuve, Master of Dread

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In Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mind-warper, you don’t see the alien spacecraft at first, not even after it has landed on our planet. Villeneuve makes you wait, for an unsettling amount of time, until our main character, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is there in person. Only then is the spacecraft revealed to us in an image that conjures up equal parts dread and beauty.

Villeneuve usually drenches his films in pure dread from start to finish. You’d think this would make his work overly dour or unwatchable, but he somehow avoids that trap. How does he so successfully present his signature mood on screen? And how does he find the beauty despite it all? Let’s pull some examples from his four most recent pictures, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival.

Visuals

Since he doesn’t have a writing credit on any of his last four movies, the cinematography and shot composition is where you will find Villeneuve leaving his imprint the most. On each movie, every corner of the screen has been filled with evocative images of dread.

Of course, it presents itself a little differently for each film. In Prisoners, the child abduction thriller, it’s a suburban dread, one where a neighborhood of comfort and affluence is morphed into terror and torment. Interiors of suburban homes are depicted in mostly grays and blues; the weather is either cold, rainy, or both. The entire movie, although a bit too long, is infused with such a disturbing and uneasy mood that it’s impossible to relax.

For his drug war indictment Sicario, Villeneuve utilizes the harsh, dehydrated U.S.-Mexican border landscapes to convey dread of a savage world. We follow Emily Blunt’s out-of-place FBI agent into “a land of wolves.” One bravura shot of the agents preparing for a raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel into the United States is a perfect example of this dread. Against a dusk backdrop, the black shapes of the soldiers walk down toward the tunnel, almost as if they are descending into hell itself. Simultaneously, the droning, bass-heavy score perfectly soundtracks this bleak journey.

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Arrival has us dreading the threat of the unknown through the gorgeous, yet unsettling shots of the exterior and interior of the alien spacecraft. Once inside this strange, coal-black oval, we again feel a mixture of awe and trepidation, due to absence of gravity and the minimalist aesthetic. We’re not sure if these beings come in peace or malevolence, but wow, is their spaceship breathtaking.

Performances

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Jake Gyllenhaal is the only actor to star in more than one Villeneuve movie, which is perfect, because he’s best as a restless and anxious performer, going all the way back to Donnie Darko. In their psychosexual thriller, Enemy, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal team up to create a masterfully tense and ambiguous ride. Gyllenhaal plays a professor who sees his doppelganger in a movie and won’t stop until he’s figured out what’s going on. As the detective investigating the missing children in Prisoners, he brings that character’s stress to screen through various tics and mannerisms. Both are performances of undeniable psychological complexity that display Gyllenhaal’s prodigious talent — and Villeneuve’s ability to bring it out of him.

Other big name actors also fare well in his films. Blunt and Benicio del Toro stand out in Sicario, the former just trying to keep her head above water in a chaotic and merciless drug world, while the latter unflinchingly and single-mindedly navigates the same landscape. When he says to her, “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now,” you feel every bit of the danger and dread the scene lays out.

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Perhaps the best performance in any Villeneuve film is Adams in Arrival. Most of the movie relies on her to singlehandedly emote what each specific scene requires. Put bluntly, this is her movie. She conveys intelligence, wonder, and pain with nimble grace throughout. She’s been nominated for five Oscars already, and I’m not sure she’s ever been better than she is here. Something about the uncertain world Villeneuve builds around her allows her to thrive as a poised and steady presence.

Pacing

One of the things Villeneuve does better than most of his peers is pacing. His films move at a patient and measured clip; you always feel as if you are in good hands when you watch his work. You could do everything else right — acting, score, writing, visuals — but if your pacing is off, your film won’t have the desired effect.

Villeneuve is a master at gradually ramping up tension. His camera moves slowly and deliberately as he sets up his dread-filled sequences. You never feel like things are moving too fast, and you never feel like they’re moving too slow, because you’re hooked on what’s going to happen next. The border ambush scene from Sicario makes for an apt example.

There’s hardly a more precarious setting for a shootout than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Villeneuve uses this to his advantage by creating unbearable tension as the cars inch forward. He shows us the target vehicles and then takes us inside one of them, slowly panning around so we can see the guns. As the agents advance on them, your pulse quickens. After several harrowing seconds of a standoff, violence explodes from the screen in a flash of red and shattered windows.  At this point the action has subsided, but as Blunt’s character surveys the scene, you catch an approaching figure in the car’s side mirror. Just like that, we are thrust back into danger.

The actual violence in that scene was mere seconds long, but everything around it was so masterfully handled that the burst of action had maximum impact.

———–

In his piece on Villeneuve in The Ringer, Chris Ryan astutely outlines the lineage and method of directors like Villeneuve.

He is a worthy inheritor of a complicated legacy: part of a tradition that includes Ridley Scott (Villeneuve is making a sequel to Scott’s seminal Blade Runner) and David Fincher (and Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, and Cary Fukunaga, and Michael Bay) — directors who often take the mundane or grotesque parts of life, and create deeply pleasurable aesthetic experiences out of them. The more mundane or grotesque the better. They view it as a challenge: serial killers, child kidnappings, military engagements, panic rooms, border wars, psycho-sexual waking nightmares, Transformers, Facebook, Chinese restaurants, college dorm rooms, daylit Texas bars — it’s all a canvas. They are interested in the painting.

Villeneuve has proven to be a master at this. He makes dark, moody, often bleak movies that are also impossibly handsome. This makes his work pleasant in a sense, despite their setting and subject matter.

However, in Arrival we see him doing something a little different. Dread still very much fills the screen, but this time he lets some light in. Villeneuve himself said he wanted “a vacation from darkness,” and you can see this in the optimistic and life-affirming nature of Arrival. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that we’re used to alien invasion movies being highly apocalyptic. Arrival flips that on its head.

This newfound ray of light makes for an exciting next step in Villeneuve’s evolution as a filmmaker, especially with the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 on the way in 2017. He may be the Master of Dread, but he’s still refining his craft in a fascinating way.

Justin Vernon’s Noteworthy Activity Between Bon Iver Albums

Justin Vernon playing 22, A Million

The over five-year wait between Bon Iver albums didn’t feel nearly as long as it could have. This is probably because the band’s creative force, Justin Vernon, has kept himself pretty busy since 2011. He was involved in two separate side projects that both put out fantastic records. The past two summers, he’s founded and curated a music festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Bon Iver played both years at the fest, memorably revealing new material each time.

So when rumors started swirling that Bon Iver had an album coming, my initial reaction wasn’t well, finally. It was more well, that’s a welcome surprise. Back in 2012, Vernon had said the Bon Iver project was “winding it down,” presumably for a long break. With the expectation that no new music was coming, no one was hyping themselves up for another Bon Iver album anytime soon. Plus, Vernon was actually quite active during the intervening years.

This is in stark contrast to the wait for Frank Ocean’s latest album, which, to fervent fans, felt like approximately four decades as opposed to the actual four years since 2012’s masterful Channel Orange. Ocean, a notorious recluse, had teased a new album multiple times, only to keep fans in the dark for years. He rarely made appearances in public and only released a few unfinished songs on his Tumblr (in addition to a few features for other artists). Finally, this past August Ocean returned with not one, but TWO albums, the visual album Endless and his third record Blonde. Ocean came through (and then some), but the four-plus year delay was hell for rabid and impatient fans.

Despite an extra year of hiatus, Bon Iver’s time away didn’t feel the same way. With this in mind and as a kind of companion post to my recent article on their new album, I wanted to run through some of Vernon’s stellar work since Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released in 2011.

The Shouting Matches

After years of constructing gorgeous musical dioramas of profound melancholy and serenity, it was a joy to hear Vernon crack open a craft beer with his buddies and churn out a bunch of bluesy garage-rock tunes. In April 2013, Vernon, drummer Brian Moen, and Phil Cook of Megafaun,  released Grownass Man under the band name The Shouting Matches.

It’s far from groundbreaking; there’s no grand artistic statement here, but it’s fun as all get out. It felt like Vernon was taking a breath and kicking back after Bon Iver’s Grammy-winning whirlwind success. His haunting falsetto was mostly replaced by a relaxed baritone. While Grownass Man wasn’t going to end up on many “Best Of” year-end music lists, it did have its moments. “Gallup, NM” is a 5 and a half minute standout that demands repeated listens.

Volcano Choir

Just a few months later, Vernon would release the second album under his other side project, Volcano Choir. In 2009, the members of Collections of Colonies of Bees (what a mouthful) and Vernon linked up for Unmap, an exceedingly experimental indie rock record. Then, four years later came Repave, a much more accessible, arena-ready effort.

Many have claimed it’s essentially the third Bon Iver album, which isn’t totally off base considering the breathtaking melodies and Vernon’s prominent vocals. Still, each song is either too straightforwardly anthemic or just off-kilter enough that they throw you off the Bon Iver scent.

Over three years later, Repave is immensely underrated. Songs like “Byegone” and “Comrade” are remarkably epic, with crashing drums and cavernous guitars. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to go stare at nature for awhile (shouts to the mesmerizing album artwork). These could almost be U2 jams if Bono’s voice were laid over them. Plus, it’s the perfect length. At eight tracks, it arrests you for just long enough before things turn stale. It’s still a wonder to me how more people, especially Bon Iver fans, don’t know about this album.

(feat. Bon Iver)

It wasn’t just side project bands that kept Vernon busy, but his collaborations with other high profile artists as well. Most notably, Mr. West. Vernon was a key contributor to Kanye’s 2010 maximalist opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so it was no surprise when he brought Vernon back in for 2013’s Yeezus. The bleak, hyper-aggressive posturing of that album might not seem a natural fit for the “Skinny Love” guy, but Vernon has a writing credit on three of Yeezus‘ tracks, proving Kanye and Vernon a formidable team yet again.

Another critically acclaimed collaborator was James Blake. The two have worked together for years, but on Blake’s The Colour in Anything, released earlier this year, Vernon is one of only two co-writers on the album (The other? Frank Ocean). Vernon’s name can be found credited on three songs, including a feature on the slow-burner “I Need a Forest Fire”.

Heavenly Father

Come 2014, we were treated to the first new Bon Iver track in three years. “Heavenly Father” was created for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded film. It’s a buzzing, captivating few minutes of music that stands on its own, even without the context of a full album. It was a welcome reminder that Bon Iver could still grab your attention out of nowhere.

Bon Iver Awakens

In the summer of 2015, at his own music festival , Eaux Claires, Vernon awoke the Bon Iver machine for a live performance. In it, they performed two previously unheard songs, stoking speculation that a new record was on the way. The first, which I’ve watched roughly 3,482 times on YouTube, would become “666 ʇ”, the sixth track on 22, A Million. The other, featuring the sister folk trio, The Staves, is unaccounted for on the new album. Hopefully it sees the light of day somewhere down the road.

It turned out we would have to wait a full year for more new tunes. At next year’s Eaux Claires fest, Bon Iver returned and played 22, A Million in its entirety. With the studio version coming out on September 30th, our (not so terrible) wait is over.

Why Bon Iver’s Innovative “22, A Million” Still Feels Like Bon Iver

Bon Iver's album 22, A Million

If you queued up the new Bon Iver songs expecting the serene, quiet folk that catapulted them to indie stardom five-plus years ago, you were probably a bit disoriented upon first listen.

“22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the first of three tracks released before the new album, 22, A Million, drops on September 30th, begins with chipmunk-pitched vocals and no acoustic guitar on the scene. It’s a jarring way for the band to return after five years, to say the least. They are going for fresh sounds and ideas about what a song can be — and subverting their fans’ expectations while they do it. However, despite this Kid A-esque turn, these new songs still somehow feel 100% like the Bon Iver we’ve come to know.

First of all, what’s the deal with these insane, wingding-looking song titles? Numerology and symbols are clearly a main theme of 22, A Million. Each song title features a number and the album cover is cluttered with various, seemingly random symbols: a rainbow, a pyramid, a stuck-out tongue, several crucifixes, an upside down chair. In the letter accompanying the album announcement, Trever Hagen, a friend and collaborator, says “22” represents lead singer and creative mastermind Justin Vernon, while “A Million” represents the rest of the world.

This emphasis on numbers and symbols is new for Vernon, but the effort to find his place in the world, the mission to figure out What It All Means is decidedly not. Since Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, when Vernon shut himself away in a Wisconsin cabin for three frigid winter months, he has been attempting to reach for connection with others and the world. (As far as indie origin stories go, it doesn’t get much better than “depressed singer-songwriter emerges from wintry isolation with beautiful melancholy tunes”, does it?). Despite the inherent personal intimacy in Vernon’s music, it has always reached for empathy. As Hagen’s letter says, music is “a pathway to understanding.”

This sentiment is, of course, baked into the lyrical content of the new tunes. Regardless of its strangeness, Vernon’s writing style remains close to what it was in the first two Bon Iver records. In 22, A Million, he continues to mix the banal and everyday with the abstract and esoteric. On “33 ‘GOD'” (33 was Jesus’ age at his death, the song also runs 3 minutes, 33 seconds) he smashes together the line “We find God and religions to” with “Staying at the Ace Hotel”. On “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, lyrics like “So as I’m standing at the station” share real estate with “There isn’t ceiling in our garden”. The second track on the album, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”, features lines like “Unorphaned in our northern lights” and, my personal favorite, “Fuckified”.

The result are songs that play like sacred memories we don’t have. Just like Bon Iver Bon Iver‘s “Holocene”, where we hear about “That night you played me ‘Lip Parade'”, a memory of Vernon’s that comes right before the soupy obscurity of “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree”, concrete elements of nostalgia are mashed together with mystifying lyrical content. However, it’s the anthemic universal lines that shine the brightest in Bon Iver’s music. On “Holocene”, it’s the refrain, “…And at once I knew I was not magnificent”, where we can all cosign that feeling of insignificance in the face of something far greater than ourselves. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins with “Where you gonna look for confirmation?”, a question of where we all turn for validation and fulfillment.

While that classic Bon Iver lyrical presence remains, the new soundscapes on these tracks are certainly pushing the envelope. Straightforward acoustic folk will probably not be found much on 22, A Million. This is scattered, unconventional, and unpredictable music that doesn’t sound like much else out there today. There’s more electronic influence and way less guitars and drums.

You can kind of hear the Kanye West impact (Vernon has collaborated with Kanye on multiple occasions), especially on the charging, aggressive (for Bon Iver, that is), and enigmatic Yeezus-inspired “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”. Another likely area of Kanye’s influence is Bon Iver’s use of samples. While sampling has been popular in hip-hop for decades, you don’t hear it much in other genres, especially as liberally as Bon Iver have sampled other songs here. Unsurprisingly, the choices are wide-ranging, including a country artist from the 50s, a gospel group from the 80s, and a contemporary Scottish singer-songwriter. The most high-profile sampled artist is Stevie Nicks, but Vernon didn’t choose “Edge of Seventeen,” no, he decided to sample from his “favorite YouTube video of all time,” an old clip of her warming up backstage. These samples don’t overwhelm the songs, they simply add texture on the peripheral edges. Either way, it feels like a legitimately innovative move from an indie folk artist.

And yet, even with the fresh sound and all the samples, you can nevertheless hear the recognizable thread of For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver at work. Of course, let’s not forget, there was significant change between Bon Iver’s first and second albums. After the stripped-down success of For Emma, Vernon wrapped his original sound in layers of gorgeous instrumentation for the second record, adding delicate saxophones, trumpets, and strings. Auto-Tune was even used to unusually excellent effect, so Bon Iver is no stranger to innovation and artistic growth. 

On these new tracks, that Bon Iver flavor remains. Lovely piano keys form the base of “33 ‘GOD’,” while what sounds like a banjo enters around the one-minute mark. Early on in “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” a patiently plucked guitar emerges to guide us into the album. Then, thrillingly, a sax solo comes in out of nowhere around the middle of the song. Of course, Vernon’s vocals are at the forefront as usual — that beautifully distinct falsetto, the powerful low register, and the Auto-Tune-enhanced vocal magic; it’s all there.

Right now, it’s uncertain how fans (especially the casual ones) will receive 22, A Million. At first, the new material tends to sound disjointed and colder than the previous two albums. It’s only after a few listens that the songs start to connect and reveal their rewards. The melodies begin to take hold once you get a feel for where the band is going. It’s definitely an exhilarating new direction, but once you listen a little closer, it’s still Bon Iver, after all.