Top 35 Albums of 2016

2016 was a crapfest of a year for many people, but it was an exceptional year of music. The year saw many new artists release awesome debuts and many already experienced artists create records that seem like potential classics. Hip hop was especially fantastic this year, with Kendrick, Beyoncé, Kanye, Chance, and others deliver some of their best work. While we prepare for a potentially dreadful 2017 (hopefully it won’t be), here’s my top 35 albums of this year:

35. 

The Divine Feminine – Mac Miller

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Continuing his ascent from a middling Internet-based rapper to a soulful hip-hop artist, Mac Miller gives us more reasons to like him on his third studio record The Divine Feminine. Filled with loose instrumentals, electric samples, leaner lyrics, and a sense of giddy buoyancy, Miller sounds happier, wiser, and more romantic than he’s ever been, straying away from the goofy bravado of last year’s GO:OD AM and the spacey existentialism of 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off. He gets some help from Anderson .Paak, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar, all of whom contribute solid guest verses. But it’s Miller’s signature stoner delivery and witty lyrics about relationships and love that strengthen The Divine Feminine and mark it as yet another improvement in the rapper’s career.   

Best tracks: “Dang!”, “Congratulations,” “Soulmate”

34. 

Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

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As one of Detroit’s — and perhaps the country’s — most eccentric and engaging rappers, Danny Brown is an unstoppable force. With a slew critically acclaimed mixtapes and albums under his belt, Brown continues to make his name known with his fourth record Atrocity Exhibition. Named after a Joy Division song, the album captures the bleakness of Brown’s internal conflicts with queasy, experimental production, as well as Brown’s own squealing vocals and hard-hitting lyrics about death, loneliness, and drug use. It’s not as finely tuned as 2013’s Old or as gleefully care-free as his 2011 breakthrough XXX, but Atrocity Exhibition is equipped with enough of Brown’s panache that it’s almost hard not to listen to the rapper speak his mind.

Best tracks: “Ain’t It Funny,” “Really Doe,” “Pneumonia”

33. 

Sirens – Nicolas Jaar

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Last year was a busy year for Chilean-American instrumentalist Nicolas Jaar. After breaking off from his side project Darkside, Jaar composed the score of 2015 Palme D’Or winner Dheepan, all while managing to craft an unofficial 20-track soundtrack to the 1969 film The Colour of Pomegranates. However, it seems all his hard work has paid off with his stunning third album Sirens this year. Incorporating psychedelic ambiance, noisy synths, intense drum machines, bilingual lyrics, and even a tinge of postmodern doo-wop, Sirens is a fun and simultaneously disquieting experience, switching back and forth between eerie quietness and brash loudness. That may not sound appealing, but Jaar crafts it in such a way that makes Sirens so.

Best tracks: “History Lesson,” “No,” “Killing Time”

32. 

Human Performance – Parquet Courts

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Parquet Courts are relatively new in the music scene, but they’ve found underground success rather quickly. Having churned out 6 albums in the past 6 years, including this year’s Human Performance, the New York-based rock group have become one of the most prolific and most interesting bands in recent memory. With a sound that blends the intoxicating modern rock ‘n’ roll of the White Stripes and the punk rock nihilism of the Clash, Parquet Courts make incendiary music required for the most angsty of teenagers. While their previous efforts Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea were more striking and immediate in their brash sound and thought-provoking social commentary, Human Performance finds Parquet Courts much more relaxed yet still energetic, filled with rage, and ready to take on the world.

Best tracks: “Outside,” “Captive of the Sun,” “Two Dead Cops”

31.

Blank Face LP – Schoolboy Q

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Schoolboy Q seems to wrestle with inner demons on a daily basis. On almost every one of his albums, the TDE-signed artist and Black Hippy member shields his feelings with a pseudo-glorified lifestyle of excessive partying, rough sex, and murder. This juxtaposition between this lifestyle and Q’s real-life persona become even more realized on his third Ghostface Killah-influenced studio record Blank Face LP. With tighter production and a plethora of featured artists, Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP is the rapper’s most adventurous record to date, but also his emotionally potent. Here, Q uses the “blank face” motif as a literal and figurative mask, symbolizing the fear he often enforces in his music. But digging deeper, we also get a chance to learn about the man behind the mask and his journey into finding redemption from a higher power.

Best tracks: “Lord Have Mercy,” “Ride Out,” “JoHn Muir”

30.

You Want it Darker – Leonard Cohen

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“I’m ready, my Lord,” whispers Leonard Cohen on the title track of his 14th and final record You Want it Darker. Among the many talented musicians we lost this year, Cohen was probably the one most ready to pass on to the next life, even though his death at 82 years old was still a resounding emotional gut punch. But thankfully, he left us with a piece of his art that is powerful not only for its post-mortem symbolism, but also for simply being a lyrically wonderful, sonically sparse album. Similar to David Bowie’s Blackstar (#10 on this list), You Want it Darker is a haunting, ethereal farewell, mixed to perfection by the late singer’s son Adam. Underlining the album’s darkly humorous takes on death and wistfully somber rumination on lost loves and regrets are a collection of beautiful, eclectic instruments: orchestral strings, Latin acoustics, electronic bleeps, soft piano melodies, gospel backing choirs and Cohen’s baritone vocals. It’s a bittersweet masterpiece, one that reaffirms a soundbite Cohen made a few weeks before his death: “I intend to live forever.”

Best tracks: “You Want it Darker,” “Traveling Light,” “Treaty”

29.

Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

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Teenage rebellion and angst have never sounded so sweet. At the age of 24, Will Toledo, lead member of the lo-fi indie punk rock project Car Seat Headrest, understands the trials and tribulations of feeling lost and aimless at a young age. But for someone who has released 12 albums on Bandcamp in the last five years, Toledo has become extremely skilled in the art of making sense of today’s youth and his own experiences. His most recent effort, Teens of Denial, is technically his first proper studio record. But even as a major label debut, the record showcases the transcendent maturity of the Virginian singer/producer through his witty, refreshing songwriting and crowd-pleasing sound. I mean, who comes up with a lyric as devastating and hilarious as “Friends are better with drugs/Drugs are better with friends”? Toledo’s auteur approach makes Teens of Denial sound utterly effortless, just as his earnest, relatable personality makes being a teenager/young adult sound less daunting.

Best tracks: “Destroyed by Hippie Power,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”

28.

Prima Donna – Vince Staples

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Long Beach rapper and ex-Odd Future associate Vince Staples has become one of hip hop’s strongest voices, discussing everything from police brutality to marginalization of Black communities in America. Though his newest work, Prima Donna, is an EP, not a full-length album, it might as well be. Following up from his incredible debut, last year’s Summertime ’06, Prima Donna transforms a collection of 7 tracks into a dense display of Staples’ bold artistic vision. In just a mere 21 minutes, Staples crafts funnier, headier no-bullshit lyrics, darker themes of unrequited love, and experimental instrumentals — “War Ready” features a head-spinning Outkast sample and a production credit from James Blake. With Prima Donna, Staples shows that he’s still able to make music that is surprising, thought-provoking, and in the moment.

Best tracks: “War Ready,” “Smile” “Prima Donna”

27.

The Sun’s Tirade – Isaiah Rashad

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Isaiah Rashad has already hit a rough patch in his barely-started career. In between the release of his acclaimed 2014 EP Cilvia Demo and promotion for his recent debut record The Sun’s Tirade, the 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar protegé suffered from depression, anxiety and isolation, exacerbated by a bad habit of frequently consuming a mix of Xanax and alcohol while touring with Schoolboy Q. Luckily, Rashad didn’t fall too far down into the deep end and managed to pull together The Sun’s Tirade, a dense yet loosely structured album elevated by hard-hitting lyrics and emotionally resonant themes of substance abuse and self-discovery. In addition to featuring strong guest verses from SZA, Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock, the 17-track album also contains excellent production work from Mike Will Made It, D. Sanders, Cam O’bi, J. LBS, The Antydote, Chris Calor.

Best tracks: “4r Da Squaw,” “Free Lunch,” “Wat’s Wrong”

26.

No, My Name is Jeffrey – Young Thug

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Only Young Thug would name almost every song on his album after a famous person/figure (with the exception of “Future Swag”). The polarizing, always captivating Atlanta-based rap mumbler is known for being one of the most confounding artists to hit the hip-hop scene, first making waves with his incomprehensible verse on Rich Gang’s 2014 hit “Lifestyle.” But since then, Thugger has paved the way for himself, cultivating mixtape after mixtape and capturing the attention of dumbfounded critics and fans everywhere. On No, My Name is Jeffrey (alternatively titled Jeffrey), Young Thug is at his most idiosyncratic since his breakthrough Barter 6; the verses are funnier and the production is sharper. The rapper attracts controversy for both the wrong and right reasons, and he will definitely not appeal to a certain crowd. But regardless, No, My Name is Jeffrey reaffirms Young Thug’s ability to completely be his own artist and not care about anyone who might not understand his enigmatic persona.

Best tracks: “Wyclef Jean,” “Harambe,” “Kanye West”

25.

Wildflower – The Avalanches

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The Avalanches could have been like a musical Harper Lee and only made one major hit record, which they did in 2000 with Since I Left You. Alas, 16 years later, they returned and created Wildflower, their magnificent second album that shows the Australian electronic group still has some magic within their music. Similar to their debut, Wildflower is built on a melting pot of samples, some ambient and some from actual songs from musicians ranging from the Bee Gees to Queens of the Stone Age. Melding one sample after another with their own production and vocal contributions from Danny Brown and MF Doom, the Avalanches turn classic R&B and ’60s psychedelia into a mix of head-bopping electro-pop and hip hop, making for a mesmerizing, colorful listening experience. Will they return 16 years later with their third record? Hopefully not. But perhaps the Avalanches’ comeback with Wildflower will be enough for the next album to come much sooner.

Best tracks: “Because I’m Me,” “Frankie Sinatra,” “Colours,” “Harmony”

24.

There’s Alot Going On – Vic Mensa

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One of 2016’s most underrated albums/EPs also comes from one of hip hop’s most underrated artists: Vic Mensa. Mostly known as that guy who performed “Wolves” with Kanye West at the SNL 40th Anniversary Special, Mensa is more than just one of Ye’s protegés. A Chicago native, Mensa has been trying to make it into the mainstream hip-hop scene for a while now, becoming mildly successful after his lush 2014 debut single “Down on My Luck.” But even after he collaborated with growing artists like Kaytranada and Flume and even a major one like Skrillex, the Illinois-based rapper has been struggling to make himself shine as an individual artist — he’s been trying to make his studio debut, allegedly titled Traffic, for a few years now. By venting much of his frustration with his blocked artistic ambitions and societal issues like police brutality and the Flint water crisis, Mensa shows that he has plenty to prove on his remarkable 6-track debut There’s Alot Going On. The EP is dark and heavy, and while it’s not the happiest of hip hop records, there’s still a slim bit of hope resting beneath Mensa’s rage.

Best tracks: “Dynasty,” “16 Shots,” “Shades of Blue”

23.

I Had A Dream That You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam

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Rostam Batmanglij played a crucial role as the keyboardist, backing vocalist, and producer of Vampire Weekend, infusing Ezra Koenig’s lilting vocals and intensely poetic lyrics with his reverbed piano melodies, ghostly harmonies, and warm synths. Though his recent departure from the band is rather abrupt, Rostam sounds just as good on his own and even working with others, particularly musician Hamilton Leithauser, who is also taking a break from his band The Walkmen. The two together seemed unlikely in the vast landscape of indie rock/pop music, but fortunately, the duo worked well together on their charming collaborative debut album I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. With Rostam’s dreamlike instrumentation and Leithauser’s croaking vocals, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is an unexpectedly poignant record that delivers simple, undemanding, and catchy music from two fantastic artists.

Best tracks: “A 1000 Times,” “When the Truth Is…,” “1959”

22.

Singing Saw – Kevin Morby

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If you’ve ever watched Netflix’s amazing animated TV series “Bojack Horseman,” you’ve probably heard Kevin Morby’s “Parade.” The song, from his 2014 record Still Life, plays towards the end of an episode, where the shlubby titular protagonist finds himself in a state of crisis after having broken up with his girlfriend and decides to visit an old flame. While “Parade” itself might not be about unrequited love or relationships, it does conjure up a strange feeling of despondency and loneliness that could only be provoked by the profound beauty and sadness in Morby’s rumbling vocals, as he sings about self-identity over a guitar-driven beat. This is what makes Kevin Morby one of the best, most overlooked singer-songwriters of our generation, especially with his third record Singing Saw. Only 9 songs long, Singing Saw elicits an emotional response from any listener, grounding backing harmonies and mellow folk-rock production underneath Morby’s Bob Dylan-like voice. As Singing Saw ebbs and flows between spiritual and soulful statements, Morby succeeds in once again creating an overall chilling effect through his music.

Best tracks: “I Have Been to the Mountain,” “Destroyer,” “Drunk and On a Star”

21.

Light Upon The Lake – Whitney

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Feeling down about life? Need some music that not only sounds good, but “feels” good too? Whitney’s got you covered. Formed by guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich shortly after their split from their pop-rock band Smith Westerns in 2014, Whitney is a breath of fresh air when it comes to modern indie rock. With their wonderful, charming debut, Light Upon the Lake, Whitney energizes each of their 10 songs with genuine warmth with the help of Ehrlich’s pleasant falsetto and funky drumming, Kakacek’s smooth guitar playing, and the blending of folk, country, and soul. With each stroke of a guitar, pitter-pat of a drum, a note from a saxophone, and soft utterance about nostalgia or rejection, Whitney vibrates with youthful and romantic bliss. There isn’t a single track on the album that doesn’t feel like it could be refined more than it already is. And considering that it’s only their first album together, Whitney is definitely on the right path in terms of making their music better and better.

Best tracks: “No Woman,” “The Falls,” “Golden Days”

20.

HopelessnessAnohni

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In the past few years, Anohni has gone through a drastic personal and musical transformation. In addition to venturing away from her avant-garde pop band Antony & The Johnsons, Anohni gradually came out as a transgender woman and pursued a more electronic sound for her remarkable debut Hopelessness. While her angelic vocals remain intact, Hopelessness indicates a completely different Anohni from the one who used to just sing beautiful, sorrowful love ballads. With this record, co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, the British singer tackles the formidable task of integrating political and environmental issues with catchy and provocative tunes. Fortunately, she does so with poise, her voice quivering with passion about drone strikes, the refugee crisis, and even Barack Obama over glittery, dizzying synths. All of Anonhi’s anger, frustration, and sadness gives the listener an idea of what it’s like living as a person under constant societal pressure; it’s one giant protest song and acts as a voice for the voiceless. Hopelessness isn’t all a downer; it is, believe or not, somewhat hopeful for how talented, socially minded artists can channel their identity and thoughts through their own work.

Best tracks: “4 Degrees,” “Drone Bomb Me,” “Crisis”

19.

Puberty 2Mitski

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It would be impossible to talk about great indie rock in 2016 without mentioning Mitski, the brilliant New York-based artist whose fourth studio album, Puberty 2, is one of the most triumphant and heartbreaking records of the year. On the album, Mitski sings with spunk and melancholy about a variety of complex themes — unrequited love, loneliness, social alienation, the American dream, and racial identity — over raucous instrumentation. It may all sound like the same old stuff, but the 26-year-old singer/songwriter proves she has a lot to offer. As the daughter of an interracial couple who spent much of her childhood traveling to different countries, Mitski understands the difficulty of belonging. After making other acclaimed EPs and albums, Mitski uses her frustration with the world to fuel Puberty 2, a passionate sonic self-portrait that personalizes the experience of struggling to fit into a world that barely accepts you. With darkly funny yet somewhat harrowing anecdotes about lost loves and unnerving sexual experiences, Mitski gives her audience a chance to see the beauty buried beneath the darkness of her sound.

Best tracks: “Happy,” “Your Best American Girl,” “I Bet On Losing Dogs”

18.

Next Thing – Frankie Cosmos

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One of the greatest qualities of 22-year-old Greta Kline (aka Frankie Cosmos) is her concision. In her swift second studio album Next Thing, almost every song is 1 to 2 minutes long, the longest being 2 minutes and 44 seconds. But with each track, Kline excels at matching her DIY, anti-folk sound with her lyrical eloquence, revealing a funny or dreary memory and a quirky tidbit about herself with such charismatic appeal. Like Car Seat Headrest, Kline found success with posting demos and full-length albums on Bandcamp. But in her last record Zentropy, Kline grew even more as an artist by finding the solace in the death of her dog, as well as the end of her adolescence. In Next Thing, as the title suggests, she focuses on the excitement of the present and the scariness of what the future will entail. In addition to singing about magician David Blaine, coffee habits, romantic rejection, and kissing boys, Kline keeps her vivid imagery alive with instrumentation that speaks volumes to the talent, effort, and nimble energy created by Kline and her production team. Despite its short 28-minute length, Next Thing provides listeners with a guide to living a beautiful, funny, and authentic young adulthood.

Best tracks: “If I Had a Dog,” “On the Lips,” “Sinister,” “Is It Possible/Sleep Song”

17.

We’ll Take It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

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A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip hop’s most recognizable groups, made headlines twice this year: once to commemorate the untimely death of one of its members, Phife Dawg, and a second time to announce the release of their first album in 18 years, as well as their final album as a band. Both messages are bittersweet, but Q-Tip, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed persevered and the results of their newest work are unexpectedly outstanding. Sampling everything from Elton John to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and featuring contributions from André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Busta Rhymes, We’ll Take it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is a remarkable double album and swan song that’s nostalgic enough for longtime fans to enjoy and fresh enough for newcomers to relish in. The trio, along with the now-deceased Phife Dawg, revisits their socially conscious roots in a post-Trump era, discussing racial divides and other topical issues in American’s current political climate. Despite the lengthy hiatus since their last album, A Tribe Called Quest have just as much fire as they did back in the ’90s and We’ll Take it From Here… tells a message as relevant as the mantra Dawg repeatedly asserts on the album opener: “Let’s make something happen.”

Best tracks: “The Space Program,” “We the People…,” “Dis Generation,” “The Killing Season”

16.

The Colour in Anything – James Blake

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James Blake is a known minimalist. His first two records, 2011’s chilling James Blake and 2013’s more emotionally involved Overgrown, relied on Blake’s taste for haunting harmonic acapella, vocoders, and electro-R&B to create an overall quiet and spine-tingling experience. Conversely, his flawed yet astonishing third record The Colour in Anything finds Blake experimenting with maximalism, layering each of his 17 tracks with as much of Blake’s scintillating vocals and post-dubstep beats as possible. And while it’s not as strong as his debut, the London-based producer is the most vulnerable he’s ever been, creating some of his most enchanting music that’s perfect for a rainy day or any other gloomy event. Within 76 minutes, Blake breaks down any barriers he put up before and bares his soul as he sings passionately and mournfully about basic existential topics (love, death) and more complicated issues (the reign of technology and its interference in relationships). In addition to being his most ambitious album yet, The Colour in Anything is also Blake’s most collaborative record, featuring production work from legendary mogul Rick Rubin and writing credits from Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, who guests on “I Need a Forest Fire.” But Blake is the main driving force here, showing that the artist can work well on both small and big levels.

Best tracks: “Radio Silence,” “Timeless,” “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.,” “Modern Soul”

15.

99.9% – Kaytranada

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Haitian-Canadian DJ/producer Louis Celestin (known by his stage name Kaytranada) has been in the electronic scene for a while now, releasing remixes of pop songs and EPs under the name Kaytradamus since 2012. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Kaytranada debuted 99.9%, a jubilant culmination of all his hard work mastered into one spectacular package. Clocking in at almost one hour, 99.9% puts all of Kaytranada’s musical talents out on display, distributing his knack for R&B electronica and ’90s inspired club music by chopping up samples and creating his own colorful sound. The album features an illustrious cast of guests, including Anderson .Paak, Syd the Kid, Vic Mensa, AlunaGeorge, and Little Dragon, who help give the album enough edge to make the sound last forever. Cohesive and funky, 99.9% reinforces the notion that party music is not just a genre that solely includes EDM and pop but something in between. Kaytranada also stands out not only for his artistic integrity, but for his personal identity as well, being one of the few openly queer instrumentalists in the music industry.

Best tracks: “Together,” “Drive Me Crazy,” “Glowed Up,” “Lite Spots”

14.

Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

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If there’s one theme that has connected music in 2016, it would be death, whether in an album or through the actual death of an artist. One of the biggest and perhaps saddest examples of this comes from Skeleton Tree, the riveting sixteenth album from Australian post-punk band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. As a record that confronts death and mortality with poetic elegance and poignancy, Skeleton Tree is also filled to the brim with mourning, as the lead singer experienced a huge loss when his 15-year-old son died in a tragic accident while the album was being recorded. The death, while incredibly unfortunate, gave Nick Cave all the more reason to re-create Skeleton Tree into a collection of songs that dealt with grief and tragedy. Ultimately, it spawned one of the most touching and heartbreaking pieces of art in 2016. The 8-song, 39-minute album explores feelings of dissonance, despair, and despondency and how to deal with those emotions. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have always played with the concept of death in their previous efforts, but Skeleton Tree symbolizes their breaking point. With Cave’s allegorical, improvised lyrics and the band’s use of ambient electronica, Skeleton Tree is an album for anyone who needs help when they’re going through a tough time.

Best tracks: “Rings of Saturn,” “Girl in Amber,” “I Need You,” “Distant Sky”

13.

Still Brazy – YG

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Gangsta rap has always been an integral part of West Coast hip hop. From N.W.A. to 2pac to Kendrick Lamar, the genre has seen a rapidly progressive shift, but its roots are still reflected in a telling-it-like-it-is style through the glamorization (but not necessarily celebration) of violence, drugs, and gang life. Unlike Lamar, whose lyrics and music are critical of Compton gangs, rapper YG flips the narrative and speaks from inside the streets, talking openly about his affiliation with the Bloods. With his DJ Mustard-produced debut My Krazy Life, YG established immediately that not only was he a rapper not to be fucked with, but an artist worth listening to. On his fantastic follow-up Still Brazy, YG switches up the production and yields for G-funk laced beats that hearken back to early Dr. Dre. Instead of simply giving audiences a trivialized version of living a dangerous lifestyle in his hometown, YG discusses having paranoia over getting shot by an unknown source, as well as other personal anecdotes layered over groovy beats that can spark up a party instantly. While YG speaks boldly about the harrowing experiences of living in Compton, he also manages to sneak in some social commentary about police brutality, a major overarching theme that has pervaded many hip-hop records since Lamar’s masterful To Pimp a Butterfly last year. YG’s brutal take on the President-elect in “FDT” is this generation’s “Fuck the Police,” a rebellious anthem that takes a strong, deliberate stance against the pervasive racism seen in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. YG may not be the most political of rappers, but the rapper is certainly well-rounded when it comes to making music that breaks through the public consciousness.

Best tracks: “Don’t Come to LA,” “Who Shot Me?,” “I Got a Question,” “FDT”

12.

MalibuAnderson .Paak

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Anderson .Paak has had a fucking fantastic year — and his acclaimed breakthrough Malibu is probably at the bottom of his list of wonderful things that have happened to the Oxnard native. In addition to getting signed by Dr. Dre, Paak gave a rousing live performance on “The Ellen Show,” killed it in several guest features on other 2016 albums, and released an incredible collaborative album Yes Lawd! with electro-R&B producer Knxwledge under their joint group, NxWorries. Paak has become the unofficial saint of this godforsaken year, gifting us with his distinctively multicultural music, his powerful singing voice, his wonderful rapping skills, his stylish attire, and his adeptness with instruments (he plays guitar, piano, and drums). With all that in mind, Malibu is the peak of Paak’s artistic creativity, being a fusion of afro-funk, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and electronic. It’s soaked in summery optimism, propelled by Paak’s infectious sound and lyrics about romance, religion, and living in California. But Malibu is not just a triumphant artistic achievement; it’s on the verge of being something revolutionary, a beacon of what music could sound like 10 years from now.

Best tracks: “The Bird,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Am I Wrong,” “Come Down”

11.

Anti – Rihanna

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On first listen, Rihanna’s Anti sounds totally jarring. For years now, the famous Barbadian singer has created hit pop record after record, sticking with a formula and still managing to allure her diehard fans. But as its title suggests, Anti is a pop record that doesn’t sound at all like mainstream pop; it’s the anti-pop, a composite of every other possible genre that manages to create something totally original. It’s certainly a risk, especially in today’s crowded landscape of pop stars trying to make it big. But given Rihanna’s high-ranking status as one of pop music’s most successful artists, Anti work-work-work-work-works. With an unconventional sound and release — the record dropped on Tidal by surprise in January — Anti is a compilation of Rihanna’s best songs to date, incorporating R&B, hip-hop, electronic, ’50s doo-wop, dancehall, soul, and even a Tame Impala cover. And the sound throughout Anti changes just as unexpectedly as the themes and lyrics themselves. In one instance, Rihanna is singing with reflective longing over a hazy vaporwave beat (“James Joint”); in the next instance, she’s boasting with unapologetic swagger about her sex life (“Sex with Me”). As the beats shift from groovy to somber, Rihanna explores the range of her effervescent vocals in ways no other female artist (except for maybe Beyoncé) can. But out of everything, Anti‘s greatest strength is not just in its immensely talented artist or production team, but in its ability to subvert the homogeny that pervades the modern pop atmosphere. It’s a record for the ages and as Rihanna hoped, Anti is a pop classic magnum opus.

Best tracks: “Kiss It Better,” “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain,” “Sex with Me”

10.

Blackstar – David Bowie

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The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, neoclassicist Bowie, electronic Bowie. David Robert Jones has gone through several phases throughout his whole life, but the most profound identity that the British singer possessed was himself. Blackstar, Bowie’s unbelievably compelling 25th (!) and final album, finds the shapeshifting artist taking his last bow before he passes on to the next life. Coincidently, the album was released on his 69th birthday and a mere two days before Bowie passed away unexpectedly after a long battle with liver cancer, making the experience of listening to Blackstar all the more eerie. Bowie’s death was not just a signal, but a reminder of how brilliant and eternal his work was as a pop/rock star who transformed the music industry on almost every level. In his music and in his onstage persona, Bowie subverted gender and sexual standards with his androgyny and his queerness, experimented with different identities and genres, and didn’t give a single fuck while doing it. While Blackstar is primarily an album about death and the afterlife, it evokes a feeling of being alive, which is perhaps Bowie’s intent. Just like Leonard Cohen, Bowie proved that art, particularly music, can make anything last forever, even after the artist is long gone. Even before Bowie passed away, Blackstar was astounding, notably for its unconventional instrumentation, operatic overtones, and Bowie’s chillingly poetic lyrics. Rich with symbolism and sound, Blackstar has Bowie playing the performance of a lifetime, stringing out every song to more than 4 minutes and incorporating elements of jazz, art rock, and even hip-hop. The artistic experimentation doesn’t stop there; apparently, Blackstar was inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Death Grips and Boards of Canada. While Blackstar marks the end of David Bowie as a musician, it marks the beginning of David Bowie as a spirit.

Best tracks: “Blackstar,” “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days”

9.

22, A Million – Bon Iver

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Sometimes, the best instrument a musician can use is their own voice. Justin Vernon, the lead vocalist for his Canadian indie rock band Bon Iver, is a master of not only using his voice to sing, but also manipulating it in a way that feels both alien and human. On Bon Iver’s 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago and their fantastic 2011 self-titled sophomore record, Vernon fluttered hearts with his impossibly high falsetto, which he occasionally Auto-Tuned for dramatic effect. Vernon’s voice plays a particularly pivotal role within the structure of Bon Iver’s third record 22, A Million, where his vocals, pitched and processed at various ranges, permeate the emotional dissonance in each of his strangely titled songs. As he croons about past mistakes, old lovers, and the uncertainty of tomorrow, Vernon elevates 22, A Million to an unimaginable level. By channeling a more electronic sound, Bon Iver has once again found an opening into the human heart and filled it with the sadness, joy, and anger Vernon provokes with his voice. Straying away from the lovelorn acoustics of their debut and the lush avant-garde rock instrumentation of Bon Iver22, A Million is unlike anything Bon Iver or practically any other indie rock band has done before. It is a record that is incomparable, both because of Vernon’s unmatched voice and his band’s adventurous dive into experimentation. Through weaving a fabric of electronic glitches, 22, A Million understands its audience as much as Vernon does, articulating some of Vernon’s most difficult songwriting into words that convey clarity, emotion, and genuine depth. As far as albums go, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million sounds like the future, an uncertain one at worst and a beautiful one at best. 

Best tracks: “21 (Over Soon),” “715 (Creeks),” “33 ‘GOD’,” “29 #Strafford APTS”

8. 

untitled unmastered – Kendrick Lamar

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To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, was undoubtedly the best album of last year, and perhaps of the past several years. The Compton rapper’s ambitious third studio album introduced fans and new listeners to Lamar’s political side, which harshly critiqued almost every flawed aspect of American life: the criminal justice system, institutional racism, the concept of the “American dream,” police brutality, and poverty. Lamar’s honesty, flow, aesthetic choices, and lyrics blew away almost everyone, as the record itself marked a turning point not just in hip hop music, but in America. What would follow, however, was even more social and political unrest, with there being several more police shootings targeting young Black men, notably Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Laquan McDonald and many more. Music can only do so much as to provide people with a message and a motivation to speak truth to power, but for Lamar, it can also transform an entire consciousness. Fortunately, despite the never-ending hellhole that is 2016, Lamar graced us with a B-sides collection aptly titled untitled, unmastered. On this 8-track album, exclusively filled with demos and outtakes from To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, Lamar reveals a little bit more about himself, both in terms of his personal demons and tireless work ethic. He still makes some compelling political points, but Lamar also delves into newer, unfamiliar, and riskier territory, advocating for a more jazz-heavy sound. Even in the unfinished tracks, Lamar’s artistry is still mesmerizing, as we get a peek into the rapper’s process with seaming various sounds and lyrics together. Maybe Kendrick was worried that these songs, as wildly creative as they are, were too much for 2016 audiences. But like with To Pimp a Butterflyuntitled unmastered. is an album worth listening to and may require several listens before we get some sense of the mastermind of Kendrick Lamar.

Best tracks: “untitled 02 l 06.23.2014.,” “untitled 03 l 05.28.2013.,” “untitled 05 l 09.21.2014.,” “untitled 07 l 2014 – 2016”

7. 

Lemonade – Beyoncé

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As one of pop’s biggest and most talented superstars, Beyoncé Knowles knows how to get a crowd engaged, whether she’s performing at the Super Bowl Halftime show, singing the National Anthem, or dropping a feature-length HBO special along with a brand new album by surprise. With Lemonade, her sixth album in her extremely successful career, Beyoncé continues to break every single aesthetic boundary imaginable. It seems like everything she has to offer is something of extremely precious value, especially for her scarily devoted fans. But considering the bubbling boiling pot of our society’s socio-political tension, Beyoncé also acts as an ideal prism of progressive values, portraying the Black experience and the female experience in America in an exciting, powerful, and thought-provoking way. While her previous self-titled record saw Beyoncé making great strides in pop experimentation, Lemonade tracks Beyoncé’s progression as an artist, lyricist, and social activist. Like Kendrick and other Black artists in 2016, Beyoncé is not taking issues of police brutality and marginalization of Black people lightly at all. Instead, she’s using her voice (literal and figurative) to project the rage and frustration of the Black community against a system that often represses or villainizes those kinds of feelings. On Lemonade, she exhibits a variety of personas — the unapologetic diva, the appreciative daughter, the hard-working mother, the neglected wife — and with these roles, she effectively and effortlessly channels the collective energy and spirit of the Black female community at large. At the heart of everything, though, Beyoncé is an artist, a collaborative one at that; she expertly samples Soulja Boy, Animal Collective, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Led Zeppelin with the help from producers Diplo, Boots, Hit-Boy, James Blake, Jack White, and Mike Will Made It. Like with BeyoncéLemonade is a musical mosaic, incorporating multiple genres, from country to reggae to rock to electronic. However, the only flaw within the nearly flawless Lemonade is a bit ironic. The album encompasses feminism and female empowerment as recurring themes and yet, there isn’t a single female artist or producer listed on the album; there is only one female songwriter credited for “Love Drought.” No disrespect to the Queen, but it’s an important point to bring up, especially when something as relevant as gender equality and discrimination is preached throughout the album. Nevertheless, Lemonade remains another step-up for Beyoncé, in terms of pushing mainstream pop to places no else can.

Best tracks: “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

6.

A Seat at the Table – Solange

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It’s a shame to think that Beyoncé’s Black Panther get-up at the Super Bowl provoked so much ire that conservative pundits thought she was being “anti-police,” which is just as infuriating as people thinking Black people who write, sing, or speak about oppression and injustice are being “anti-white.” As Solange, Beyoncé’s younger sister, remarks in an interlude from her stunning A Seat at the Table, that isn’t the intended message at all. Technically, Tina Knowles, the mother of the two, makes that comment about being “pro-Black” instead of “anti-white,” but Solange’s inclusion of the anecdote on her album nevertheless acts as an example of the kind of subtle and overt racial discrimination that continues to pervade modern society. Though not as well known as her older sibling, Solange is just as talented in terms of her sound and her angelic voice. Her last effort, True, was an ode to 1980s pop and electronica, produced by Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange), and though it wasn’t as political as her newest album, it still showcased Solange’s knack for exploring different realms of music. With A Seat at the Table, Solange has completely done a 180 and transformed her new wave sound into a more R&B-oriented ambiance, thanks to the help of executive producer Raphael Saadiq. Like LemonadeA Seat at the Table grabs listeners by the ears and makes them listen to a compelling, poetic, and immensely satisfying record about pain, grief, and prejudice experienced by Black women in America. But unlike LemonadeA Seat at the Table is much more direct and involved in tackling those topics, spending each and every one of its 51 minutes focusing on the Black female experience and giving it the attention it deserves. Interspersed in between the songs are spoken word interludes that dictate the difficulties of racism and alienation often faced by Black people in America, but some interludes also share the beauty within Black culture. In addition to delivering some of the most beautifully sung tracks in music from 2016, Solange receives help from other special guests, including Q-Tip, Sampha, The-Dream, and Lil Wayne (who gives perhaps the best guest verse of his career). A Seat at the Table is an album that both challenges and enlightens the listener about the subject matter. It’s a wonderful listening experience, but one that encourages and inspires having these difficult but necessary conversations and how we can move forward.

Best tracks: “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair”

5.

A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

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Radiohead has led a long career of making positively received and/or critically acclaimed albums. With each record they make, the British rock quintet experiment with a new sound and still retain their own identity as a band. Thanks to Thom Yorke’s enchanting lead vocals, Johnny Greenwood’s immaculate production, and the groups’s skilled songwriting, Radiohead works well as a cohesive unit, with everyone’s individual roles building together to form one spectacular team. And while most ’90s bands tend to lose steam and momentum after a while, Radiohead is a rare exception. After a brief hiccup with their last big record, 2011’s The King of Limbs, Radiohead found its footing again with this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which juggles between the electronica of their earlier albums (OK ComputerKid AAmnesiac) with the more nuanced alternative rock of their most recent ones (Hail to the ThiefIn Rainbows). The result is utterly chilling and inspiring, as Thom Yorke and his bandmates continue to delve deep into the complexity of the human condition with songs that are as emotionally potent as they are politically conscious. Every arrangement, every lyric, and every use of Yorke’s voice are made essential on A Moon Shaped Pool, with not a single element falling out of place. The contrast between the new and the old become a present theme throughout the album, both in terms of the sound and content. Percussive beats and strings on the opener “Burn the Witch” begin the album with a raucous, thrilling start, while “True Love Waits,” an old favorite from many of Radiohead’s live performances, closes the record with a haunting, reverbed piano melody. Authoritarianism, anti-establishment politics, governmental surveillance, and unrequited love are integrated into the album’s themes, becoming more and more scarily relevant with each second. Radiohead itself has always been about making a postmodern sound, incorporating past and present as their forefront goal, and A Moon Shaped Pool is an excellent example in showing how they do it. Will Radiohead continue to make great music? At this rate, all signs point to yes.

Best tracks: “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming,” “Present Tense,” “True Love Waits”

4.

Blonde – Frank Ocean

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The album everyone was craving finally came this year. Frank Ocean had us all on our toes for what seemed like four endless years since his outstanding 2012 studio debut Channel Orange. Since then, the world changed dramatically and so did Ocean, as is the case with most pensive, sheltered artists who are also undisputed geniuses. Would he make another classic? Would his next record be just as good or even better than Channel Orange? No one knew the answer, probably not even Ocean himself. But after several false starts, fake news headlines, aggravating teases, intense hype, and the release of Endless, his middling “visual album,” Ocean graced audiences with what they asked for: Blonde. With 17 tracks, a long list of collaborators, and a picturesque album cover, Blonde was meant to the dream album that people had envisioned for Ocean. But it was much better than that: it was a real, gritty, flawed, and beautiful sophomore record that saw Ocean go bigger and bolder than he did on Channel Orange. While it may not reach the classic status of that album, Blonde is good enough that perhaps it doesn’t need to held to any standard; it’s Ocean’s blood, sweat, and tears layered over vocoded harmonies, dreamy guitars, and electronic strokes. The unrequited love and dejected loneliness Ocean sung about on Channel Orange is still here on Blonde, except it’s much wiser, more thoughtful, and more affecting. Ocean puts himself under a microscope, as he seeks to understand his purpose as a man struggling with self-doubt. Additionally, the production is much stronger, lighter, and hazier, thanks to the help of Jamie xx, Rostam Batmanglij, James Blake, Pharrell Williams, Tyler the Creator, Jon Brion, and Malay. Like other great pop records this year, Ocean’s Blonde is a rainbow blend of genres, sounding like a mix between psychedelic indie rock and electro-R&B. The sequencing of Blonde goes on some surprising detours, with Ocean playing a helium-heavy love ballad in one moment and André 3000 rapidly rapping over an anxious beat in the next. Despite its lengthiness, the ambition Ocean strived for with this album certainly pays off. Let’s hope Ocean’s next project not only comes sooner, but also gets even stronger.

Best tracks: “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Self Control”

3.

Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

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From its opening notes alone, Freetown Sound is already a powerful work of art. As Devonté Hynes, known professionally as Blood Orange, and backing vocalists sing with breathless abandon over a beat bathed in saxophones and pianos, we hear the commanding voice of slam poet Ashlee Haze speak about having better and more representation of Black women in the media. It’s definitely head-spinning to hear as a first track, but it confidently displays Hynes’ vision of the album, which is primarily about identity, specifically racial, sexual, and gender identity. As a queer London-born artist living in New York City with roots in Sierra Leone, Hynes understands the difficulty of finding a place to call home, even in a multicultural melting pot like America, and thus yearns to make sense of it through his own artistic endeavors. That kind of immediacy is established throughout Freetown Sound, the follow-up to Hynes’ amazing 2013 sophomore record Cupid Deluxe. The album, approximating at one hour, delivers incredible track after incredible track. With glimmers of calypso, R&B, funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, Freetown Sound is bereft of any single definition. It could be classified as a journey into self-discovery and self-pride, an examination of racial politics in the U.S. and worldwide, a wonderful whirlpool of melancholic and joyful music, or all the above. Being experienced in various parts of the world has lent Hynes an incredible gift of storytelling, as he incorporates a myriad of sounds to create one giant masterwork. Even when you’d think there’s no way Freetown Sound couldn’t sound any better than it already does, Hynes takes it a step further by utilizing other people’s voices through various samples (including two interviews with Ta-Neheisi Coates and Vince Staples) and female singers (namely, Nelly Furtado, Carly Rae Jepsen, Empress Of, and Debbie Harry). By building his collaborations with other artists, Hynes shows that music doesn’t just sound great coming from only one person, but rather from a group of people. Freetown Sound perhaps didn’t get the recognition it deserved the year and understandably so; Hynes is pretty grounded in the indie scene. However, the album got its message across and still made a strong impression on those who listened to it.

Best tracks: “Augustine,” “Best to You,” “Desirée,” “E.V.P.”

2.

The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

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It’s hard to talk about Kanye West without first recognizing his flaws. In 2016 alone, Kanye has managed to anger, vex, and annoy almost every sane person in America. With his egocentric personality, aggressive behavior, arrogant narcissism, casual misogyny, spotlight stealing at award shows, social media shenanigans, stubborn bravado, and questionable relationships, Kanye is a pretty hateable person. Now, there’s no denying he is also a remarkable artist and rapper, creating some of the most influential hip-hop music of the millennium. Kanye himself is probably aware of being classified as this “mad genius” and it is tough to keep rewarding him by praising his music and still recognize that he is a genuinely controversial individual who people will continue to worship no matter what he does. But perhaps with every album Kanye delivers, we get a chance to understand why Kanye acts the way he does, what his deepest fears are, and why he’s so stuck with being perceived as an asshole. On The Life of Pablo, his sprawling eighth album, Kanye puts all these issues at the forefront, channeling his dark energy into a record that is essentially a hip-hop version of a gospel record (at least, that’s how Kanye puts it). The Life of Pablo is Kanye lyrically and sonically unfiltered, with the rapper talking about having sex with Taylor Swift and Kim on a “motherfucking dinner table” at a Vogue party one minute and asking for forgiveness God and questioning his own decisions in the next. It’s a truly troubling thing to hear, but it’s the realest version of Kanye that we’ve seen since 2013’s abrasive Yeezus. With eclectic samples and A-plus producers (Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Rick Rubin) and guest artists (Rihanna, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Thug), The Life of Pablo is an audacious work of art that makes the “separate the art from the artist” conflict all the more difficult. Kanye’s creative process sounds hectic and in-the-moment, which makes it all the more impressive when everything pieces together, especially after Kanye made last minute changes before and after the album’s release. The Life of Pablo is another mini Kanye masterpiece, but it’s also a perfect representation of Kanye as a person: flawed yet ingenious.

Best tracks: “Ultralight Beam,” “Highlights,” “Waves,” “Real Friends”

1.

Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

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Kanye West tweeted The Life of Pablo was “the album of LIFE,” but I’d like to think he meant Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. That mixtape, along with the artist behind it, is something of a miracle. In the midst of the incredibly downbeat 2016 (seriously, can this year end already?), Chancelor Bennett dropped the best hip-hop album, and album in general, of the year, transcending his previous status as an up-and-coming Chicago rapper to a fully-fledged pop icon. Coloring Book compiles every one of Chance’s greatest qualities as a person and artist: it’s energetic, sweet, catchy, soulful, collaborative, and relentlessly happy. With his quirky ad-libs, gorgeous croon, and peppy flow, the young rapper can make any God-denier feel like there’s someone up there watching them. In addition to heavenly production work from his backing band the Social Experiment, Chance also brings along other artists, some pitch-perfect (Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, D.R.A.M.) and some unexpected but still great (Lil Yachty, Young Thug, Justin Bieber). Like with The Life of Pablo, Chance’s Coloring Book is a gospel record disguised as a hip hop album, but offers a much more optimistic, heartfelt message about sanctification, love, and freedom (both in religious and creative expression). Since his last mixtape, 2013’s Acid Rap, Chance has grown immensely as an artist, making good time by using his voice on several amazing guest verses and other projects, including Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s wildly creative Surf and a collaborative mixtape with Lil B. In some ways, Coloring Book is almost an antithesis to The Life of Pablo, trading in that album’s dreary imagery and bleak themes with vivid wonder and giddy child-like innocence. It embraces the idea of love and togetherness as the key to happiness, which sounds slightly cliché when taken out of context. But to deny the fact that Chance the Rapper is capable of making music that brings people together is totally wrong. Coloring Book is simply a blessing.

Best tracks: “No Problem,” “Juke Jam,” “All Night,” “How Great,” “Smoke Break”

The Work of Alfonso Cuarón

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Over the past two decades, Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón has made his way into Hollywood with a varied and surprisingly diverse filmography. He’s directed two kids movies, one lighthearted (1995’s “A Little Princess”) and one tonally darker (2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); a modern adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel (1998’s “Great Expectations”); a dystopian action thriller (2006’s “Children of Men”); a Mexican road movie (2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También); and a space epic (2013’s “Gravity”). Known for utilizing long, continuous takes, wide angle shots, and negative space, Cuarón’s visual techniques are arguably his greatest quality, thanks mostly to his visionary touch and help from frequent collaborator, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Thematically, Cuarón’s films dwell on existentialism, friendship, race, class, survival, and love. Usually, the protagonists in Cuarón’s movies undergo a drastic personal change — and in some cases, a rebirth — over the course of the film, usually by going through an arduous and life-altering journey, a disruption in their daily lifestyle, or other difficult obstacles. Having only directed six films, excluding his 1991 Mexican debut “Sólo con Tu Pareja,” Cuarón is a masterful, distinctive storyteller and his films are essential to watch for film buffs and moviegoers everywhere.

“A Little Princess” (1995)

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Though I appreciated the technical and visual aspects of “A Little Princess,” I wasn’t necessarily thrilled when watching the film, especially considering its target audience is predominantly young children. “A Little Princess” definitely captures the magical realism that it seeks, imbuing a starry-eyed innocence and wonder within the script, characters, and dreamy setting. However, I felt the story itself felt familiar and somewhat flat and though the ending may have been satisfying, the payoff wasn’t quite as compelling as it should have been. Narrated and seen from the perspective of Sarah Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the privileged daughter of a wealthy aristocrat British soldier, “A Little Princess” is set in WWI-era New York, where Sarah is relocated after her father leaves abruptly to fight in the war. She is sent to an all-girl boarding school in the city, where she faces the villainous headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). Under Miss Minchin’s authoritarian rule, Sarah sees the kind of strictness employed within the school, each girl having to follow all of Miss Minchin’s instructions (no talking at the dinner table, doing arithmetic correctly). You know, the sort of stuff that any generic villain in a kids movie would do, right? At first, Sarah continues to live her affluent lifestyle, living in a beautiful suite and being treated with more respect than the other girls. Nevertheless, Sarah cultivates a much-needed passion within the school structure, providing fascinating tales during reading time and subsequently spark the repressed interest of the girls. Unfortunately, things change for the worse when Sarah’s father was unexpectedly (and allegedly) killed in combat. Seeing Sarah now as a threat, Miss Minchin orders Sarah to become a servant, forcing her to work nonstop and share the shabby attic with the other young scullery maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Carter). This doesn’t stop Sarah from telling her magical stories and folklore, only making her closer with Becky and the rest of her schoolmates. Other than the ravishing cinematography, set/production design, and costuming, “A Little Princess” is sensible in its portrayal of Sarah and the rest of the child protagonists. There were even some genuinely funny moments! But for some reason, I didn’t find “A Little Princess” that compelling of a film. Matthews had really the only well-developed performance in the entire film, as the rest of the cast struggles under the weight of using mawkishness and sentimentality in their performances. Even Eleanor Bron made Miss Minchin into another stereotypical, one-dimensional villain, though there is one subtle scene that shows her having a redeemable quality. Perhaps the film may have aged poorly or I’m just a little too old and not as nostalgic about childhood. “A Little Princess” may not have been an amazing watch, but it’s still an admirable first effort from Cuarón.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Great Expectations” (1998)

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I actually really enjoyed watching Cuarón’s “Great Expectations,” an updated, revisionist adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, co-written by Cuarón, David Mamet, and Mitch Glazer. However, there were certain crucial elements in the film that held it back from becoming a breathtaking cinematic achievement. For one thing, the cast is stellar and even almost perfect; it includes Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro, Chris Cooper, Hank Azaria…and Gwyneth Paltrow, who was completely miscast in my opinion (or simply did not do a good job of acting in this particular role). She certainly did not have enough romantic chemistry with Hawke, as the two played the central couple/love interests. Another thing is that the film starts out fantastically, but fluctuates tonally towards the end. Taking place from 1970s Florida to 1990s New York, “Great Expectations” focuses on the journey of the story’s hero Finn (Hawke), a skilled artist who as a child held ambitious aspirations but quickly became infatuated with the young granddaughter of an aging wealthy woman, Miss Dinsmoor (Bancroft). Every Saturday for 10+ years, Finn visits Miss Dinsmoor and her granddaughter Estella (Paltrow) and becomes more and more possessed by Estella’s enigmatic allure. Finn tries to pursue Estella romantically, but even after a brief sexual encounter, Estella rejects him repeatedly, leading Finn to move on from his past and begin planning on a life for himself. As a young adult, Finn has given up on being an artist and instead becomes a fisherman like his uncle Joe (Cooper). But Finn’s adeptness for painting and drawing comes back to him when he is asked to create an art gallery in New York City with the promises of money, success, and fame. He reluctantly agrees and thrust back into his passion for not only art, but Estella, who happens to be in Manhattan at the same time. The two reconvene, but their chances of reconnecting romantically has dissolved, especially since Estella is married to a rich, ordinary businessman (Azaria). Or so it may seem. Despite my wanting to like and even root for Finn and Estella, I couldn’t resist disliking Hawke and Paltrow as a romantic couple, as they had little to zero chemistry. Though Hawke is an impressive lead, Paltrow’s stilted line delivery and her character’s unlikable personality made it hard to enjoy some parts of “Great Expectations.”In addition to that, the subplot between Finn and mobster Arthur Lustig (De Niro) is one of the film’s weakest qualities. It attempts to showcase how Finn has grown as a character, having saved (and incidentally unsaved) Arthur from escaping prison. Despite that subplot being somewhat intriguing, it unsuccessfully loosens the tight thread of the story, causing “Great Expectations” to be uneven. But what saves most of the movie are the visuals and the editing in particular. Green plays a huge role in the color scheme of “Great Expectations,” both as an attractive mood setter and symbol of the film’s recurring themes of money, class, privilege, growth, and possibly nauseous heartache. The color can found in almost every shot and it helps indicate Finn’s character as a man struggling with making something out of his life, while trying to share his life with someone whom he loves (or at least believes he loves). As Finn said in voiceover during one of the first sequences, “Great Expectations” is not meant to an actual retelling of these events, but how Finn remembers those events from his perspective. That kind of sentiment grounds “Great Expectations” to a certain extent and gives the depth and emotional honesty it needs, even though there are a few missteps along the way.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)

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“Y Tu Mamá También” is the kind of great film that is so unapologetically honest, brutally explicit, and completely engaging that you can’t take your eyes off it for a second. Sure, there are a few long, drawn-out sequences that are occasionally boring. But the majority of “Y Tu Mamá También,” Cuarón’s third and arguably best film, is built on well-crafted characters, frank sexuality, well-written dialogue (both scripted and improvised), and some social commentary to boot. Set in Cuarón’s native Mexico, the film is part coming-of-age story, part tantalizing erotic drama, part road trip movie. It features career-making performances from real-life best friends Golden Globe winner Gael Garcia Banal and Diego Luna, who portray the two hormonal teenage protagonists Julio and Tenoch. Both characters come from different socioeconomic backgrounds: Julio is from a middle-class, leftist family, while Tenoch is the son of a high-ranking political official in Mexico. Yet the two still maintain a friendship through their partying, drug and alcohol use, and general horniness. The film even opens on two graphic sex scenes, both showing the two boys each with their respective girlfriends, who are set to leave and travel to Italy for vacation. Though Julio and Tenoch promise their girlfriends to remain faithful after they leave, their horniness gets the better of them and they meet and ultimately attract the attention of an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin Jano. In order to get closer to Luisa, Julio and Tenoch invite her to go on a drive to see a beach called Heaven’s Mouth. Initially, Luisa is reluctant, but after a series of unfortunate events, including Jano’s drunken admittance to infidelity, she decides to join the two boys for a little vacation. Little does she know that Julio and Tenoch have no clue where the actual beach is, but they nevertheless push on and the three learn a whole bunch about one another, both through stories of fun memories and brewing sexual and emotional tension. Some may view the love triangle in “Y Tu Mamá También” as inappropriate and the execution as pornographic, but it does serve a largely artistic purpose. Luisa ultimately has sex with both Julio and Tenoch and the two boys, initially cocky about their sexual suaveness, are clumsy and somewhat too excited during sex. In addition to the film’s extremely revealing commentary on human sexuality, “Y Tu Mamá También” also showcases the political climate in Mexico and the disparity between the lower and upper classes, which are somewhat personified through Julio and Tenoch’s relationship. As their friendship begin to unravel into something much more unsettling, we understand that Julio and Tenoch are more than just a couple of horny teenagers with uncontrollable libidos. Cuarón’s daring direction may be a little risky, but he pulls it off completely and tackles a collection of plots, ideas, and characters that most directors probably wouldn’t be able to grapple with well. It also helps that the entire film is in Spanish, making it easier for Cuarón and the actors to express their thoughts about how to depict Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s journey together and the aftermath of what became an unforgettable and life-changing summer. “Y Tu Mamá También” may not be the most relatable film you’ll see, but it’s undoubtedly one that will stick with you until the very last scene, both for the story and the imagery.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)

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It’s a strange feeling watching a Harry Potter movie for the first time in a long time. I almost had forgotten how fantastic of a franchise the Harry Potter series was, particularly due to the maturity of stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Their growth as people and as characters was especially present in the third Harry Potter film, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the only one of which Cuarón has directed (Chris Columbus directed the first two, Mike Newell directed the fourth, and David Yates directed the fifth until the last one). Yet even in the Harry Potter series, Cuarón manages to stand out, as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has been considered by many fans and critics to be the best film of the franchise, despite it being the lowest-grossing of the eight films. While the first two HP movies were innocent (more the first one), “The Prisoner of Azkaban” represents a change of pace and tone for the series, the calm before the storm, if you will. Cuarón infuses his auteur techniques perfectly into the HP film, while still maintaining the appeal for HP fans. As an angsty 13-year-old, Harry’s journey back to Hogwarts is thwarted by the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a Voldemort supporter and ex-best friend of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s parents. “HP3” also marks the introduction to the Dementors, which are honestly one of the most terrifying creatures in cinema that could easily have their own horror movie. Even being in CGI, the Dementors pose as Harry’s biggest fear at the moment, besides Voldemort, and asks his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), how to repel them. While he learns to grapple with fighting Dementors, Harry also searches for more clues about the mysterious Sirius Black and discovers that he is Harry’s godfather. Harry, Hermoine, and Ron go on a quest to find the truth about Black in the final climatic and trippy sequence of the film, with Harry learning more about myself than he expected. His relationship with Sirius, which changes quickly from hostile to familial, is touching and even poignant, with Oldman nailing Sirius Black’s character from the characterization down to the physical look. It’s funny how I’d also forgotten how many iconic scenes from the series occurred in “Prisoner of Azkaban.” A few examples include: the unexpectedly hilarious beginning sequence involving Harry casting a spell on his insulting Aunt Marge and blowing her up into a balloon; Hermoine calling Malfoy a “foul, loathsome, evil little cockroaches” and subsequently sucker punching him in the face; Harry screaming out “EXPECTO PATRONUM!,” one of the most epic line deliveries/moments in cinematic history. This was also Michael Gambon’s first film as Dumbledore, replacing Richard Harris, who had passed away before HP3 filming began, and has does an admirable job in portraying the Hogwarts headmaster ever since. Cuarón does the best he can do under such a heavy Hollywood production and nails it in almost every department, specifically with the brilliant visuals and seemingly impossible continuous long takes. There’s nothing much I can say, considering that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has received enough acclaim and recognition to be considered watchable from an audience/HP fan perspective and thought-provoking from a filmmaking perspective. The plotting is a bit clunky here and there, but it’s important to note that Cuarón’s contribution to the film has made it all the better.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Children of Men” (2006)

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It’s movies like “Children of Men” that make you wonder: Could this actually happen? When I say “this,” I’m also referring to the film’s futuristic setting, where society is on the brink of collapse and almost every government in the world has become eradicated. Additionally, children are no longer part of the population due to infertility caused by unknown sources. Given the world’s current turbulent political and social state, it is likely for something as maddening as infertility to occur. Nevertheless, as stark and bleak as “Children of Men” may be, it remains a cautionary tale for how our world can break down into utter madness unless we find a way to hold onto hope. Other than a few minor flaws (mostly being the wooden acting from Julianne Moore and Clare-Hope Ashitey), “Children of Men” is a powerful, entertaining, breathtaking, and multi-layered thriller strengthened by harrowing social commentary on societal issues, heartstopping action, and some of the best cinematography in modern cinema. Set in 2027 London, which in that timeline contains the only remaining working government, “Children of Men” follows passionate rebel-turned-depressed government bureaucrat Theo Faron (an amazing Clive Owen), who gets kidnapped by a secret militia led by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore). She needs his help in getting a young, pregnant girl named Kee (Ashitey) to the Human Project, a rumored safe haven designed to cure infertility. Along their perilous journey, Theo gets help and advice from marijuana consumer Jasper Palmer (a fantastic Michael Caine). But even then, Theo can’t trust many people he comes in contact with, including temperamental rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Through extremely intense and violent situations, Theo makes sure that Kee has her baby and that both are safely taken to the Human Project. What’s so refreshing about “Children of Men” is that it rejects all action movie tropes and conventions. The film subtly sneaks in intellectual and intelligent themes into its plot and displays those themes through uninterrupted action sequences that are almost 8+ minutes long and are too unbelievable and jaw-dropping to comprehend. Though the cause of infertility is never discussed, “Children of Men” infers that the severe issues facing the world — environmental disasters, political corruption, flu epidemics, social unrest — has lead to such insane chaos and anarchism that it must certainly bring down the population size, both with people killing one another and perhaps a general depression/listlessness of women or romantic couples. Yet among the dark tones and themes of “Children of Men,” the biggest factor that drives the story and Theo’s determination is hope and faith, which reinforces the idea that the film also acts as a religious allegory, specifically in reference to the Nativity story: Theo represents Joseph, Kee as Mary, and her baby as Jesus. The one scene in particular where Kee walks with Theo and her baby through a crowd of awed, silent soldiers and rebels symbolizes a moment of divinity and salvation, that that baby holds the key to unlocking the dry spell that has haunted humanity for however long. Cuarón again does a fine job at making “Children of Men” into something much deeper than an action flick, but that can resonate with our society even today when we are experiencing some of the darkest times in recent memory.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The very last shot! (spoiler alert)

“Gravity” (2013)

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In my original 2013 review of “Gravity,” I mention that the film “proves to be a fantastic addition to the sci-fi thriller genre with mesmerizing visuals, intimate cinematography, and intriguing storytelling.” 3 years later, I still believe in that statement, but now have a greater understanding of what the film represents as a visual and artistic achievement in cinema. Co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, “Gravity” still manages to marvel, even it doesn’t quite look as great on a small computer screen than on, let’s say, an IMAX screen. There are a few flaws within “Gravity” that I noticed a second time around, particularly with Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, who is on her first ever space mission and has only trained at a space program for 6 months. Why would they put an inexperienced astronaut in space? I don’t know. But clearly, that wasn’t the point of “Gravity” and logistical stuff like that usually doesn’t find its way into the plots of sci-fi films. But small flaws and inaccuracies aside, “Gravity” delivers on every other level: Emmanuel Lubezki’s visually stunning cinematography (the first shot was 12 minutes long!), Sandra Bullock’s acting, Steve Price’s haunting score, and Cuarón’s writing. Alongside Ryan Stone is space veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is on his final mission and is helping assist Ryan into getting acclimated in the scarily peaceful environment of space. But when a field of debris hits their station, Ryan enters a long and frightening journey of survival and makes as many attempts as possible to get back to Earth safely. Other than the visuals and other compelling aesthetic elements, what distinguishes “Gravity” from other space films is its psychological and spiritual themes, the ideas of rebirth and renewal after facing adversity. It parallels to Cuarón’s previous film, “Children of Men,” but focuses on how space itself can be a lonely and isolating place, especially for someone like Ryan who is both lost and suffering from loss (this being of her young daughter). As she works her way through dodging debris, climbing into airlocks, and furiously untangling herself, Ryan realizes that the only person she can and needs to save is herself, since Matt sacrifices his life for her well-being a little before the halfway point of the movie. For claustrophobes and aspiring astronauts who haven’t seen “Gravity,” you’re in for a bumpy and unsettling ride. But for everyone else, “Gravity” remains a remarkable example for modern filmmaking and another great entry into the sci-fi space genre (next to “Interstellar” and “The Martian”).

Read my original review here.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The Work of Sofia Coppola

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Writer-director Sofia Coppola has come a long way since her infamous acting role in her father’s 1990 film “The Godfather Part III.” As one of Hollywood’s brightest and coolest filmmakers, Coppola has a knack for visual storytelling. Each of her films is aesthetically compelling, both in their beautiful cinematography and classic soundtracks. Since most of her films have little to no dialogue, the music and visuals carry the weight of Coppola’s narratives, as well as the acting and editing. The themes of Coppola’s films involve alienation, loneliness, detachment, and dissatisfaction, which are usually embodied in her protagonists. Coppola collaborates often with her father (who produced three of her movies), her husband and Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars (who provided background vocals on a song from “The Virgin Suicides,” made a cameo with his band in “Marie Antoinette,” and composed the score of “Somewhere”), producer Ross Katz, and actress Kirsten Dunst (who appears in three of her films). Though not all of her films are acclaimed, Coppola is undoubtedly one of the most talented film directors and screenwriters working today.

“The Virgin Suicides” (2000)

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After watching “The Virgin Suicides” for a second time, I realized how great the film truly is. Some may become frustrated by the film’s ambiguity and disturbing content — it is called “The Virgin Suicides” after all. But regardless of how it may turn people off, “The Virgin Suicides” is a mesmerizing, eerie, and absorbing drama and a fantastic start for Coppola (arguably her best work). Based on the 1993 novel by James Eugenides, the film features a dreamlike score from rock group Air, picturesque composition, and impressive acting from James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and a young Kirsten Dunst. Set in 1970s Michigan, “The Virgin Suicides” follows the mysterious, blonde-haired adolescent Lisbon sisters, who become the object of desire for a group of hormonal teenage boys from across the street. The important thing to note about “The Virgin Suicides” is not that the story is about who the girls were, but how the boys thought about the girls. The narrative being told here parallels to the film’s overarching theme of voyeurism and loss of innocence, which is referenced throughout the film via the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), who speaks on behalf the male group and recounts the time that changed their lives. The film literally begins with the aftermath of 13-year-old Cecilia’s (Hanna R. Hall) suicide attempt. As the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters, Cecilia is the loneliest and most self-conscious, but also the least clueless; she understands and observes her surroundings with a quiet, subtle sorrow. The Lisbon sisters live under the strict supervision of their authoritarian Catholic parents (Woods and Turner). 14-year-old Lux (Dunst) is the most rebellious and sexually curious of her siblings, toying with the affection of desperate heartthrob Trip Fontane (Josh Hartnett). However, as the Lisbon girls attempt to branch out from their hawk-eyed parents, especially after Cecilia’s second fatal suicide attempt, they ultimately become confined to their house. The now four sisters go with Trip and the group of boys out to homecoming, but Lux gets herself and her sisters in trouble after staying out late from a steamy midnight hookup with Trip on the high school football field. Now, the Lisbon girls have become an enigma, both for the group of boys and the audience, as they are not allowed to be let out of the house for a single moment. While the boys try to figure out what’s happening, the story reflects on the passage of time, both in the present and future. The future parts are primarily just an adult Trip, fondly reminiscing his love for Lux, whom he left quickly after their night out together. While time-lapse sequences are interspersed, we see that Lux is forced to burn all her rock records, causing her to rebel even more and have sex with strangers on her rooftop. Gradually, the Lisbon sisters’ seclusion from the world becomes even more of a mystery. The best scene in the entire film comes when the boys attempt to speak with the sisters by calling them and playing romantic songs on vinyl as a way of subliminal communication (in case their parents were listening). It’s a soft, heartfelt, and nostalgic scene, one of the lighter moments of an otherwise tragic film. Eventually, the boys plan an escape with the Lisbon sisters, which is really only seen in a dream sequence, as the group drives down an empty highway, free of restrictions like school and family. Unfortunately, that’s not how things end up and, well, you can guess what happens next. The Lisbon girls form a suicide pact and one by one, they no longer are just objects of affection. As the film’s conclusion indicates, “The Virgin Suicides” ruminates on how the boys and the rest of the neighborhood dealt with the aftermath of the Lisbon deaths. The narrator notes that while everyone else seemed to forget about the Lisbon family, the boys never forget who they were. That kind of humanism is truly what grounds “The Virgin Suicides” and makes it much more than an ordinary film. Coppola understands the pains of growing up as a young girl and shows that process with a sensitive and perceptive eye.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Lost in Translation” (2003)

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Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is considered by many to be her best and most accomplished film, but I slightly disagree. It’s definitely an admirable piece of work and certainly has many high points, yet I was sort of disappointed with “Lost in Translation,” especially since it started out great and continued to do well until its somewhat trite ending. Coppola’s recurring themes of loneliness and alienation are definitely present here, as the story follows two Americans, aging actor Bob Harris (a remarkably restrained Bill Murray) and doe-eyed Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), staying in Tokyo. Bob is in Japan to film advertisements for a whiskey he’s promoting, having to suffer through the unintelligible words of his Japanese director and other locals. It doesn’t help that his estranged wife and children don’t want anything to do with him, adding onto his already thick pile of detachment from others. Married to a douchey photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), Charlotte is aimless and so intensely bored by everything that she ends up having a premature existential crisis. Together, Charlotte and Bob make the perfect match, as the two meet in their hotel and decide to walk through the streets of Tokyo, going to strange parties, strip clubs, and karaoke bars. Their friendship feels genuine and heartfelt, especially since Murray and Johansson have surprising platonic chemistry. They are able to infuse those internalized emotions of dread and apathy into those characters without seeming too boring or contrived. At the same time, Bob and Charlotte’s shared dissatisfaction with life is interesting to see, considering that they are both experiencing the same level of distress at different times in their lives. Even when they’re not discussing their hopes, dreams, and problems, Bob and Charlotte bond over the equally fascinating and alien world of Tokyo. In addition to the fantastic lead performances, “Lost in Translation” also benefits from another woozy soundtrack/score, breathtaking cinematography, and a general sense of weightlessness. Even the symbolic lighting is inventive, as Coppola utilizes chiaroscuro (strong light and dark contrasts) to illuminate the conflicting themes of happiness and despondency (perhaps Coppola learned a thing or two from her dad?). However, even with all these positive aspects in mind, my main problem with “Lost in Translation” was mostly with how Bob and Charlotte’s relationship culminated into a kiss in the end. I was praying that the two characters wouldn’t become romantically involved, not because they were already married to other people, but because of their notable age difference (keep in mind, Johansson was 19 when this was being filmed). It once again perpetuated the creepy old man/younger woman trope found in several romantic dramedies (Woody Allen, ring a bell?). Other than that slightly major flaw, “Lost in Translation” was a stirring and visually enthralling experience, a story of two lost souls making a connection in a place that feels somewhat disconnected.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

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It makes sense why “Marie Antoinette” was considered divisive at the time of its release. For one thing, many people thought it wasn’t a great follow-up to the universally acclaimed “Lost in Translation,” that its maximalist approach was beautiful to watch but unnerving, that it was historically inaccurate, and that it felt empty beneath its gaudy exterior. And while most of that is true, “Marie Antoinette” is still an entertaining and appealing drama that continues to showcase Coppola’s visual, aural, and narrative talents. What “Marie Antoinette” lacks in historical accuracies, it makes up for with another powerful lead performance from Kirsten Dunst as the titular protagonist, lavish cinematography, impressive direction, and an unexpectedly talented cast (Molly Shannon! Rose Byrne! Jamie Dornan! Rip Torn! Danny Huston! Jason Schwartzman!). The film also benefits from an awesome contemporary soundtrack, which may turn some off due to its anachronistic nature. But admit it: how cool is it to hear The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened,” Bow Wow Wow’s “Aphrodisiac,” Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” and New Order’s “Ceremony” in a movie set in the late 1700s? The modern soundtrack also bodes well with the character of Marie Antoinette, who was all about living in the present. As the story goes, Marie Antoinette was the infamous Queen of Versailles, known as the first party-girl queen who was unintentionally complicit in the rise of the French Revolution, leading to her death via beheading. But the film primarily focuses on Marie’s journey from an innocent, puppy-loving Austrian heiress to a full-fledged, materialistic aristocrat. Coppola makes the audience sympathize with Marie, showcasing the literal and figurative stripping of her innocence, as she is coerced to wed King Louis XVI of France (Schwartzman) in order to solidify the French-Austrian Alliance. Even while living in luxury, Marie experiences boredom with her rather routine lifestyle: waking up every morning to a crowd of servants, eating gargantuan amounts of foods, attempting and failing at getting her husband to help her conceive a child. Eventually, Marie does bear children, one of whom dies a few days after childbirth. While she is shown to indulge in gluttonous acts like drinking, dining, wearing colorful outfits, and donning awkwardly tall wigs, it’s moments such as when her child dies that truly capture Marie’s despair and utter loneliness. She never wanted this life of royalty, yet it had been given to her and shoved down her throat. That being said, there are some not-so-great parts to the film, particularly its lengthiness (123 minutes, ugh) and occasionally boring sequences. There are a lot of questions one may ask after watching “Marie Antoinette”: Why was Kirsten Dunst speaking in an American accent and not an Austrian/English accent? Why didn’t they show Marie’s beheading in the end? To answer the first question: I’m sure there were certain dramatic liberties Coppola needed to take in order for the film to work and I doubt Dunst would be able to pull of a believable English/Austrian accent. To answer the second question: we don’t see an actual beheading, but one of the last scenes involves Marie going out onto her balcony and resting her head and arms on the balcony’s edge as a group of angry French protestors watch in silence. It essentially resembles a beheading, a symbol of Marie’s defeat as a queen who could not heed to the cries of the people because she couldn’t even heed to her own needs.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Somewhere” (2010)

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In contrast to the maximalism of “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s follow-up film, “Somewhere” featured a more minimalist approach. And despite being beautifully filmed and relatively well-acted, “Somewhere” was frustratingly slow-paced, which for some can make the film and for others break the film. It definitely treads familiar ground from Coppola’s previous films — specifically “Lost in Translation” — in its portrayal of an empty male celebrity protagonist finds solace in a younger woman. In the case of “Somewhere,” that male celeb is handsome womanizer Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the younger woman is his cute, precocious 11-year-old daughter Cleo (a stunning Elle Fanning). Before we even meet Cleo, we get a sense of who Johnny is, based on the painstaking single take opening shot of him driving his black Ferrari around in circles on an empty road. He’s trying to get a thrill out of doing something that should be exciting, but as he stops and gets out of the car, Johnny doesn’t seem too thrilled. In later scenes, Johnny lives a wealthy lifestyle at the famous Chateau Marmont, which acts the film’s symbolic setting for both paradisal living and celebrity ennui. Johnny goes to parties and hooks up with the hottest girl there or watches two pole dancers perform in his bedroom. Though his life sounds like a flurry of fun, it’s really just noise for Johnny, whose joylessness can be seen through his passivity, monotone voice, drinking and smoking, and emotionless face. Coppola has mentioned that Johnny’s character isn’t having an existential crisis, but simply has anhedonia, which means the inability to feel pleasure. That is until he finds some meaning when he’s unexpectedly reunited with Cleo, who stays with him after her mother and his ex-wife goes missing for unknown reasons, possibly from suffering from a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Cleo and Johnny bond as daughter and father to make up for lost time and their relationship, like in “Lost in Translation,” is genuinely sweet. He watches her ice skating lessons, lets her cook dinner for him, and takes her to Italy for promoting his movie and treats her to a mini vacation. Yet, some of Johnny’s insecurities get the best of him when he sleeps with an Italian model and doesn’t have the guts to explain to Cleo who the woman is at breakfast the next morning. Seeing Cleo’s contempt for his actions, Johnny considering refocusing his lifestyle choices and eventually stops sleeping with random women, even closing the door on a prostitute in his bed and getting burgers with Cleo instead. While the film sounds remarkable, which some parts of it are, I was impatient watching “Somewhere.” There’s no real wow or a-ha moment, but the closest it gets to that occurs late in the film, when an emotional Johnny calls up his ex-wife and tells her that he’s nothing. It’s a quietly powerful and devastating scene, reverberating towards the end when he tells Cleo that he regrets not being around her before and later driving off into the distance, only to get out of the car with the ignition on, not looking back. “Somewhere” is certainly enigmatic and I may revisit it again, but I wouldn’t say this is an essential Sofia Coppola film.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“The Bling Ring” (2013)

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Unfortunately, “The Bling Ring” is Coppola’s weakest film so far, even with captivating cinematography, a promising story, and a hilariously devilish performance from Emma Watson. It also has an aptly pop and hip-hop heavy soundtrack that includes artists Sleigh Bells, 2 Chainz, M.I.A., Rick Ross, Phoenix, and Frank Ocean. Yet not even that can compensate for the film’s extremely unlikable characters, grating performances from Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga, and an overall uneven tone. It attempts to be a social commentary about fame, obsession, and greed in the post-modern era, which it honestly almost was. Coppola certainly was the right person to write and direct it, but somehow it fell flat. Based on true events, “The Bling Ring” follows a group of unruly, vapid, fame-obsessed high schoolers who break into the homes of Hollywood movie stars and steal their belongings for themselves and to sell to others. The leader and starter of the group, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), is a quiet, lonely teen, the most likable and sympathetic character of the whole film. He starts out as the new kid at a San Fernando Valley high school, where, on the first day, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Chang), who introduces him to the world of L.A. artifice and vacuity. They start off stealing wallets, then cars, and then jewelry from the home of Paris Hilton. Knowing that Rebecca is his only friend, Marc struggles with his morality in order to have a successful social life. At a club one night, Rebecca introduces Marc to her girl friends: the overtly flashy Nicki (Watson), her adopted sister Sam (Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). Together, they begin breaking and entering Hollywood houses of celebrities, trying on and taking clothes, makeup, and wads of cash. As most crime dramedies go, these kids will eventually be caught and, since this is based on a true story, they are in fact indicted for their actions. “The Bling Ring” never really glorifies the lifestyle of the rich and famous, since these kids essentially absorb it up like empty, overprivileged sponges. With the exception of Marc, who takes full responsibility and apologizes, the rest of them certainly don’t learn from their actions, especially not Nicki. She victimizes herself to her advantage in order to gain exposure from the paparazzi and media, which ultimately works in her favor in the film’s haunting final scene. Yet “The Bling Ring” doesn’t feel as compelling as it should. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not a great one either.

Grade: B-

Favorite shots:

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“Orange is the New Black” Peaks in an Epic, Intense Fourth Season

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Original article: http://bit.ly/28Oa3Aw

When “Orange is the New Black” debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2013, the main narrative focused on the journey of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”), a privileged white woman who adapts and tries to survive a 15-month sentence in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison. However, since then, the series has gradually broadened from a raunchy prison dramedy into something much more humanistic. Throughout each season, we’ve learned about almost all the individual prisoners via flashback sequences, giving us their backstories that are as engrossing as they are tragic. By humanizing these women as victims of circumstance rather than simple criminals, “OITNB” brings a nuanced perspective to the criminal justice system, which continues to be showcased in its fantastic fourth season.

While season four can feel overstuffed at times, it stands out against the previous seasons of “OITNB” by diving deeper into the lives of its characters and how they have developed over their time in Litchfield.

Reeling in from last season’s glorious finale, the season four premiere, “Work That Body For Me,” is a stunning return to form, as every facet of the show’s storytelling — the character work, the dialogue, the drama and the humor — comes into full throttle. After the Litchfield inmates bask in some fleeting moments of freedom in the nearby lake, they’re quickly rounded up back to the prison, where the aftermath of their euphoria is met with overwhelming terror. New arrivals are brought to Litchfield, causing a lack of resources, commotion and overcrowding. Included in the throng of new inmates are two of season four’s most interesting new personalities: Judy King (Blair Brown, “Fringe”), a TV personality cook, and Alison Abdullah (newcomer Amanda Stephen), a Muslim woman who becomes the roommate of recent Jewish convert Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, “30 Rock”). Both Brown and Stephen play their characters marvelously, with the former evoking a sinister mix of Paula Deen and Martha Stewart and the latter generating an engaging, refreshing presence within Litchfield.

With these new introductions, the burgeoning racial and socioeconomic class divides among the Litchfield prisoners are also highlighted and subsequently provide a sharp social commentary. Racial dynamics have always played a large role in “OITNB,” considering its large cast of Latina, Black, and Asian characters. But a bitter semi-race war between Piper and the Latina prisoners, led by Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel, “Person of Interest”), and a petty, mean-spirited quarrel between Alison and Black Cindy prompts a thought-provoking discussion about how the grittiness of prison life can reflect the world around us. Particularly gripping is the show’s handling of racist beliefs, which attribute to the relationships between the horrible security guards and the Litchfield inmates. The prisoners are already treated terribly with the conditions they’re living in, but with the addition of Litchfield’s racist and misogynistic head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke, “Fury”), things get very ugly.

Even with large improvements on plot and character development, the fourth season still struggles with some flaws, one being that the flashback sequences aren’t as emotionally potent as the ones from seasons before. The season somewhat glosses over some of its more compelling characters, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, “Grandma”) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne, “Portlandia”), who are demoted to recurring roles, most likely due to other commitments — Alex (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show”) had a similar situation in the show’s second season. Regardless, the fourth season keeps on pushing boundaries with its absorbing storytelling and provocative plots.

At this point, “OITNB” has cemented its place as one of the most complex, well-crafted and entertaining television shows of the 2010s — and season 4 is its highest point. With its diverse array of characters — women of color, women with mental illness and women who are on the LGBTQ spectrum — the series is a defining example of how modern television shows should represent people who aren’t normally seen on TV. Yes, there’s still plenty of sex, drugs, violence and cursing. But the newest season of “OITNB” has demonstrated the show is less about one woman struggling against the harshness of imprisonment and more of a microcosm of our imperfect, messy cesspool of a society.

Grade: A-

The Work of Alexander Payne

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In the past few years, two-time Oscar-winning indie filmmaker Alexander Payne has made noteworthy strides with his remarkable filmography. With only 6 films under his belt, Payne is a masterful storyteller whose perceptive eye makes his movies entertaining, thought-provoking, and brimming with realism. Like other auteur writer-directors, Payne has retained a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style. With the exception of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” almost all of Payne’s films take place in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Most of his films’ plots focus on people living in contemporary American society, specifically middle-aged male protagonists reaching a breaking point in their life, either by struggling to maintain relationships or making personal decisions that could drastically change the course of their lives. His films depict these characters through a mostly satirical but undeniably authentic lens, balancing both comedic and dramatic elements. Other recurring themes/motifs in Payne’s films include existential crises, familial ties, infidelity, and road trips. Visually, Payne’s films capture the starkness of the American landscape with expansive cinematography, as physical settings play a huge role in connecting with and influencing the characters (i.e. California wine country in “Sideways” and the Hawaiian islands in “The Descendants”). Almost each Payne film is adapted from a book except for “Citizen Ruth” and “Nebraska.” 4 of Payne’s films are written by Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (Bob Nelson wrote “Nebraska, while Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash wrote “The Descendants”). Here are my thoughts on Payne’s movies:

“Citizen Ruth” (1996)

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Clearly aiming to be a biting social satire on the abortion debate, “Citizen Ruth” is instead a juvenile, bizarre, heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and laugh-free “comedy,” where almost every character is an obnoxious caricature of their respective stereotypes. Ruth (a young Laura Dern) is the dumb, homeless paint huffer/alcoholic protagonist, who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. During a legal hearing, the judge asks that she abort her unborn child in order to avoid a long jail sentence. Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and Gail (Mary Kay Place) are the holier-than-thou, aggressively pro-life Christian fanatics, who bail Ruth out of jail. They attempt to coerce her into keeping the child, sending her to pro-life doctors who diminish Ruth’s desire for abortion. She ultimately finds herself taken in by one of Gail’s friends, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who happens to be an uber-feminist, pro-choice lesbian in disguise. Accompanied by her lover Rachel (Kelly Preston), Diane helps Ruth to get her the abortion she wants. Unfortunately, the pro-lifers get in the way of that, when an anonymous donor gives $15,000 to the “Baby Savers” foundation in order for Ruth to not get the abortion. Ruth changes her mind, until Diane’s Vietnam vet friend Harlan (M.C. Gainey) offers her $15,000 for her to have the abortion, believing in personal freedom and not sponsorship money. Ruth can’t seem to make up her mind (or her own decisions), constantly being swayed by both sides. The charismatic leader of the pro-life movement, Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), offers Ruth $27,000 and so on. After attracting local news and more protestors from both sides, Ruth suffers a miscarriage and decides to secretly take the money Harlan offered her. Once she sneaks out of the abortion clinic where she was supposed to have an abortion, Ruth nonchalantly saunters past all the commotion outside the clinic and runs away with glee. Perhaps I’m reading into the too much, as “Citizen Ruth” was made out to be a critique on both sides of the abortion debacle, in that both people who consider themselves extremely pro-life or pro-choice tend to make these kinds of situations more about themselves than about the actual woman carrying the baby. But even Ruth isn’t moral or responsible enough to make her own choices. She already has four kids, whom she cannot see. She gulps any liquor and inhales any patio sealant she can find. So what is the point even? Reynolds and Kurtz had arguably the best performances, making their characters somewhat bearable. However, Laura Dern’s totally unhinged, over-the-top performance is almost unbearable, her vulgar insults and temperamental behavior making Ruth into an unlikable character. It’s also unfortunate that “Citizen Ruth” doesn’t have any characters whatsoever to root for, as each person is deemed to be crazy in their own way. Smith and Kay Place certainly play their uber-religious characters well, but so much so that it becomes irritating. Some might say “Citizen Ruth” is daring, considering that it defies plot and story conventions completely — and they might be right. But other than the film’s slightly thought-provoking resolution, “Citizen Ruth” struggles to make its message clear. The only really positive aspect I will acknowledge from “Citizen Ruth” is its cinematography, the most well-developed part of the entire film. Below, you’ll see three great shots from “Citizen Ruth” that deserved some recognition. But other than that, “Citizen Ruth” was not a fun viewing experience.

(Note: I watched the “Citizen Ruth” trailer before seeing the movie. The producers marketed it to be this odd, hilarious comedy, but it’s actually an extremely dark movie, since it tackles a lot of heavy subject matter, such as abortion, miscarriages, addiction, and fanaticism).

Grade: C-

Favorite shots:

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“Election” (1999)

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Payne’s first film may not have been fantastic, but his second one, 1999’s “Election” definitely was. Featuring extremely clever writing and electric performances from Matthew Broderick and a young Reese Witherspoon, “Election” is a hilarious, enjoyable, and occasionally raunchy venture into high school satire. Though it may not appeal to some for its frank depiction of inappropriate romantic relationships, “Election” triumphs as a bold film about infidelity, fantasy, school politics, and the drive to succeed, more specifically to win a stupid high school student government election. Broderick plays the movie’s antihero Jim McAllister, a beloved high school civics and history teacher who’s kind of like a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller: likable and charming but mischievous and slightly deceptive. His normal routine is interrupted by the annoying presence of Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an aggressively friendly and ambitious overachiever, who will pretty much do whatever it takes to get to the top, starting with running for school president. In addition to being the advisor for student council, Jim feels threatened by Tracy’s goals to be student body president, especially after she had a covert affair with another teacher (one of Jim’s best friends). Determined to make sure Tracy doesn’t succeed, Jim gets dim-witted but popular football quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein, who would star in “American Pie” that same year) to run against her. At the same time, Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run as well, in hopes of getting back at her love interest Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who rejects Tammy for mistaking “experimenting” for actual love. While Jim thinks his situation has only improved, things subsequently get worse. Underneath Jim’s facade as a well-liked teacher is a deeply flawed, insecure man, suffering through loneliness in his unhappy marriage and anxiety in his quest to defeat Tracy once and for all. Unlike Ferris Bueller, Broderick’s Jim McAllister doesn’t get away with everything. Seeing through this ploy, Tracy doesn’t go without a fight and though the two never really “duel it out,” their battle is a hard fought one, filled with twists, turns, and manipulations. In addition to being a genuinely creative and entertaining film, “Election” is inventive for its unflinching look at the personality types of its characters and the absurd situations they encounter. Both Broderick and Witherspoon own the screen as Jim and Tracy, both in individual and collective performances. Witherspoon is especially great as Tracy Flick; she gives her a much-needed emotional weight instead of simply drawing her as a caricature. Tracy isn’t very likable, but she’s not completely unbearable. Payne directs “Election” with graceful poise and ease and his screenplay with Jim Taylor deserved to win for Best Adapted Screenplay, which it was nominated for at the 2000 Academy Awards (it lost to “The Cider House Rules”). Depending on the audience, “Election” can easily win people over, as it is arguably Payne’s best film and greatest cinematic achievement.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“About Schmidt” (2002)

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The melancholic “About Schmidt” is just as brilliant as “Election,” but on a much more understated level. Balancing existential drama with darkly funny undertones, “About Schmidt” is a wonderful tragicomic character study, with its plot focused on the story of Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a man suffering through an intensely lonely and dull life. After his anticlimactic retirement from working 20 years at a mundane sales job, Schmidt has almost nothing to do except wallow in his newfound boredom. He has very little hobbies or interests and would likely be the most ordinary human being on the face of the planet, yet we are drawn to him. This is most likely due to Nicholson’s magnetic lead performance, crafting Schmidt to make him interesting and captivating even when he’s not. After watching a commercial guilting him into contributing to a foster program in Africa called Plan USA, Schmidt decides to write to a letter to a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, realizing that he has nothing better to do. But as we see throughout the film, Schmidt’s letters are a way of releasing some catharsis from his daily frustrations, while trying to build a connection with someone like Ndugu. Through these letters, read aloud via voiceover, we learn of Schmidt’s alienating wife Helen (June Squibb), his adult, soon-to-be-wed daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), and how his retirement has affected him. Prompted to make some changes, Schmidt ventures out to Denver to see Jeannie and her deadbeat, mustachioed fiancée Randall Hertzel (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). He drives there in his slightly too big Winnebago Adventurer, which Helen bought him as a retirement present, but Jeannie doesn’t want him to come to Denver until two days before her wedding. Reluctantly, Schmidt obliges, traveling to nearby spots instead, including his old childhood home (now a tire shop) and his frat house at the University of Kansas. During this excursion, however, Schmidt doesn’t feel the nostalgia that he so desperately yearns for. Rather, he is constantly caught in moments of self-loathing, mostly because of his guilt over despising his deceased wife and coming to terms with how empty his life is. When he eventually gets to Denver, Schmidt quickly knows what he must do (or at least, thinks he must do): stop his daughter from marrying Randall and subsequently from joining his whackjob of a family, which includes his eccentric mother Roberta (a hilarious Kathy Bates). But Jeannie immediately stops Schmidt from doing so, questioning his sudden interest in her life and urging him to not make such a rash decision. Once again, Schmidt must do what makes others happy and not for himself. While “About Schmidt” is primarily a drama, there are some really funny, lighter moments, particularly during the infamous hot tub scene between Nicholson and a nude Kathy Bates. But for the most part, Payne demonstrates Warren’s self-affliction through both a satirical and sympathetic lens. Like the protagonists in “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” Warren isn’t necessarily likable, but he has a certain quality to him that gives him an emotional, very human edge. This is especially evident at Jeannie’s wedding reception, where Schmidt gives what may be the saddest and most human wedding toast of all time — and Nicholson, of course, makes his searing performance even more compelling. The only minor flaw of “About Schmidt” is that it is a little slowly paced, with the film taking some longer detours than expected. But ultimately, “About Schmidt” is yet another spectacular work from Payne.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“Sideways” (2004)

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It’s strange to see in 2016 how “Sideways,” Payne’s most iconic film, was such a huge deal when it came out 12 years ago. It opened to wide acclaim, was nominated for several Oscars (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay), and even influenced wine consumerism. In that sense, “Sideways” would fall under the category of slightly overrated, but I found the film to still be very charming, dynamic, and unconventional, even for such a conventional plot. Bolstered by strong lead performances and writing, “Sideways” overcomes its deliberate pacing with a shimmering blend of deft comedy and poignant drama. The story follows two best friends, depressed English teacher and wine connoisseur Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and womanizing voice actor Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), who don’t actually seem like they would be friends. Their personalities are polar opposite, with Miles’ high-functioning alcoholism making him cynical and Jack’s ease with women making him optimistic. Yet when you pair the two together, they seem to balance each other out. As a fun getaway present for Jack’s upcoming wedding, Miles takes him up to California wine country, where the two get to enjoy some good ‘ol fashioned bro time, which includes drinking pinot noir, eating great food, and playing some golf. But Jack has other plans in mind as well; he wants both Miles and himself to get laid before the wedding. During their time in the Santa Ynez Valley, they meet two beautiful women who both seem to take a liking to Miles and Jack. Waitress Maya Randall (an excellent Virginia Madsen) develops a romantic interest in Miles, while wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) becomes sexually acquainted with Jack. During one night where the four get together, Maya and Miles have a beautifully intimate moment together, sharing their love for wine and how it makes them feel. I figured this part would make my eyes roll, considering how wine is often a subject of pseudo-intellectual conversations. But the way they express themselves, particularly Madsen, is totally honest and even eloquent. Of course, Jack’s fling with Stephanie doesn’t last very long, once Miles accidentally mentions Jack’s impending wedding, which upsets both Maya and Stephanie (this is in the movie trailer, by the way, so don’t blame me for giving plot details). In addition to the great writing and acting, “Sideways” includes lush cinematography and a sweet score from composer Rolfe Kent, who scored most of Payne’s movies. What “Sideways” also does well in is its ability to humanize Miles, in that the film de-stigmatizes depression and how it affects Miles. He drinks often as a way of coping with his inner turmoil, but also to escape from his painful, crippling self-loathing. Giamatti does a superb job of portraying this and I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nom from that (yet Haden Church and Madsen did). The plot primarily centers on friendship, but it also takes note of how friendship can be a both positive and detrimental thing. Miles and Jack have a complicated relationship and “Sideways” showcases how their relationship unravels as they make mistakes and see each other’s flaws. Though “Sideways” is made as a comedy (which it is, for the most part), there are several dramatic components to the dialogue and the characters. That being said, if “Sideways” can pull off being comedic and dramatic, then it can easily work as a whole.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“The Descendants” (2011)

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After a 7-year hiatus, Payne returned to film with “The Descendants,” another emotionally heavy dramedy that explores the complicated dimensions of family and parenthood. Considering that this follows “Sideways,” Payne does a pretty admirable job with writing and directing a film that continues to demonstrate his artistry as a storyteller. Set in the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian islands, “The Descendants” tells the tale of land baron Matt King (George Clooney), a man whose recently been grappling with several newfound issues in his life. His distant Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) wife is comatose from a boating accident and must deal with being the primary parent for his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in one of her first film roles). Simultaneously, Matt is also the sole trustee to a large family inheritance that is considered to have lots of monetary value, prompting him and his cousins to discuss selling the land to make money. At first, Matt has no clue how to handle anything. But as the film moves along, he gradually becomes a better, more self-aware, and much wiser person than he was before. With these unfortunate circumstances, Matt is determined to make things right with Elizabeth, but soon learns from Alexandra that she was cheating on him with popular realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Together, Matt and his daughters, along with Alex’s simpleton friend Sid (Nick Krause), travel to Oahu to track down Brian and confront him about the affair. But even more so, Matt believes Brian deserves to know what happened to Elizabeth and that she is eventually going to die. For the most part, “The Descendants” is genuinely touching and well-written. However, even though the film’s screenplay won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne’s second consecutive Oscar win), the dialogue can be a bit too forced at times, especially during the confrontation scene between Matt and Brian. Perhaps that’s just the acting and delivery, but “The Descendants”‘s reliance on expositional voiceover can be tricky too, as most of what we learn about the characters come from Matt’s omniscient words. It parallels to “About Schmidt,” but there’s an iffy quality to the way “The Descendants” uses voiceover. Fortunately, “The Descendants” still delivers, thanks to great performances from Clooney and Woodley, some gorgeous cinematography, and its depiction of the themes of pain and death, which “The Descendants” handled relatively well by not making things too dramatic. The subplot with selling the inherited land was interesting, connecting back to the whole overarching theme of Matt’s emotional and physical bond with the place where he and his family enjoyed being in. Beau Bridges makes an appearance as one of Matt’s cousins, who sort of seems like a villain since he doesn’t want Matt to screw him and the rest of their family over by not selling the land. But as Matt understands during the course of the movie, family precedes money and that is something worth valuing (that may sound a tad cliché and sentimental, but trust me on this one). The last scene of “The Descendants” was especially heartwarming, as Matt, Scottie, and Alex sit together on the couch, covered in the floral blanket that Elizabeth wore in the hospital. It’s a subtle but really beautiful moment that signifies their literal and figurative thread as a family and how far they’ve come from being estranged and distant.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Nebraska” (2013)

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You could say that “Nebraska,” Payne’s sixth and most recent film, is the culmination of all his work. It’s another road trip movie and his first film based off of an original screenplay since “Citizen Ruth” (and much better written). But “Nebraska” also feels like a pointed dedication to the state Payne grew up in. Omaha had been the setting for most of Payne’s movies, but “Nebraska” explores other realms of the state, more specifically in the city of Lincoln. That is where Montana resident Woody Grant (a brilliantly solemn Bruce Dern) is headed to collect $1 million after allegedly winning a sweepstakes contest. His adult son David (Will Forte, taking on his first big dramatic role) denies that his father won anything, as he notices quickly that the “sweepstakes” was an advertising scam. Nevertheless, Woody is relentless, prompting David to drive him all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. Like Payne’s other road trip films, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “Nebraska” isn’t necessarily about where they are headed, but how they get there and what they encounter along the way. We also get to learn more about Woody and David as individuals and their complex relationship as father and son. During the trip, they see estranged family members, most of whom are just old white people who do nothing but eat, drink, and watch the football game on TV. At a bar, Woody sees his old pal Ed Pigrim (Stacy Keach), who used to co-own a mechanic shop with Woody. Despite David telling Woody not to talk about the money, the “truth” eventually comes out and Woody becomes the talk of the town. Luckily, two more Grant family members swoop in to intervene on the father and son’s quest: the blunt matriarch Kate (June Squibb) and David’s local news anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Those two try to bring some sense into their pointless journey, causing even more familial tension to erupt — and so does Woody and David’s relationship. David doesn’t understand his intensely quiet father, who barely utters a word and denies being an alcoholic, despite being a consistent consumer of beer. David challenges Woody’s reasoning for what to do with the million dollars, as Woody believes he wants just buy a pickup truck and a new air compressor. However, as some troubling truths unravel, David begins to understand Woody’s condition and that his bitter quietness is really just an external cover for his loneliness. The million dollars wasn’t just meant for Woody, but for David and Ross as well. Sympathizing with him, David trudges on to Lincoln with Woody and though Woody doesn’t actually win anything, they are enriched by their experience together as father and son. What makes “Nebraska” another fantastic entry into the Payne canon is that it doesn’t veer too heavily into sentimentality, something that most family bonding films overuse. Payne trusts the audience enough to know the complexity of Woody and David’s relationship and subsequently provides authenticity to their dynamic. In addition to having fantastic performances, “Nebraska” is also aesthetically compelling. The cinematography uncovers the plain beauty of the Nebraskan landscape, which is complemented by the film’s black-and-white visuals. At times, the film can seem a little long (this seems to be a recurring thing for Payne), clocking in at almost 2 hours. “Nebraska” can be occasionally boring, but it surprisingly manages to keep its simple story from becoming too bland. As low-key as “Nebraska” may be, it remains a poetic, low-key, and well-acted story and probably one of Payne’s best.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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