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Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

This year, the music biz continued to wage war against P2P file-sharing by suing its own customers.

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Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

It was a year of acronyms: non-existent WMD, PR-stunt POWs, 99-cent MP3s, a 50-cent P.I.M.P. (okay, so we’re reaching here), and both the U.S.A. and the RIAA went from victims to villains. Just as Bush dropped his B.O.B., the music biz dropped a bomb of its own, continuing to wage war against P2P file-sharing by suing its own customers. Sales were down for the fourth straight year, so what better way to encourage kids to buy your low-quality, high-priced product, right? Universal Music did drop their CD prices by 25%, a smart move for a corporate monster that dominates over 30% of the market, but few others have followed suit…yet. Liz Phair and Jewel sold out (with good-to-excellent results), while Madonna, the queen of commerce herself, made her most self-lacerating, least accessible album to date. Oh, how the times (and the rules) have changed. Divas who once ruled the charts were nowhere to be found: Mariah’s shoulda-been comeback single, a bombastic cover of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” didn’t break any hearts (or charts), and, sadly, the Annie Lennox revival produced no music videos. There were no visible trends, unless you count hip-hop’s ongoing dominance of the singles charts (music might be the only industry where you’re more likely to reach the top if you’re black) and big music stars with penchants for small children (sorry, we couldn’t resist). Last year’s teen pop starlets seem to be faring better on the small screen (Jessica Simpson) and the silver screen (Mandy Moore), or, if you’re Hilary Duff, the small screen, the big screen, and the Billboard charts. Turns out “garage rock” and “electroclash” are great buzz terms for magazine covers but they’ve yet to live up to their respective hypes. So what was good about 2003? What follows is our, um, 50 cents. Remember: Tuna is fish, not chicken.


ALBUMS


Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

1. Damien Rice, O

When a rather nondescript promotional copy of Ireland-born singer-songwriter Damien Rice’s debut, O, arrived in my mailbox sometime during the first half of 2003, I felt instantly compelled to place it in my 5-disc changer rather than on top of my leaning tower of To Be Listened To. It had been years since I’d had an all-out physical response to an album, and O delivered the goods. The album plays out like a Shakespearean love tragedy (though its title is presumably culled from Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, and not the bard’s own Othello). Rice and angelic guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan duet as lovers, at first singing of a love that isn’t bashful, but private and intimate and filled with discovery. While the first half of O bristles with the anticipation of newfound love, its latter half finds that love crumbling and even calls its very existence into question. Rice houses his Grecian drama in tidy, form-fitting folk structures reminiscent of the great singer-songwriters of the 1970s. His melodies are timeless and familiar, yet they land where you least expect them to.


2. Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man, Out of Season

It’s been several years since the one-two punch of Portishead’s Dummy and the group’s equally astonishing self-titled follow-up, so it’s difficult to imagine what a new record by the Bristol natives might sound like after all this time. Perhaps the answer lies in Out of Season, the solo album from the trip-hop trio’s head mistress Beth Gibbons. Geoff Barrow may have been Portishead’s sonic backbone, but Gibbons provided the humanity, the heart, the soul and the softly wrenching sorrow. As versatile as Gibbons’s vocal is, you won’t find her wailing in the sinister Portishead style, and she rarely draws on the killer-kitten coquettishness of Dummy. Instead, Gibbons’s folk and jazz influences float skillfully to the surface. With the help of Paul Webb, bassist of ‘80s band Talk Talk, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, Gibbons has created an album as subtly rich and rewarding as any Portishead release.


3. Kenna, New Sacred Cow

Kenna’s debut album, New Sacred Cow, landed on the desks of music journalists across the country way back in early 2002. Then signed to Fred Durst’s Flawless imprint, Kenna, who hails from Virginia Beach by way of Cleveland and Ethiopia, struggled to get the album in stores after its dark lead single, “Hell Bent,” arrived and exited quietly. Eventually the album was released in 2003 via Columbia Records. Recorded in 1999 with Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, New Sacred Cow still sounds as fresh as ever in ’03. The album has a decidedly retro quality, drawing on the ‘80s synth-pop/new wave of bands like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, but it never imitates any one artist in particular. Instead, it captures the essence of an era while remaining firmly planted in the present and, more importantly, residing somewhere in the future.


4. Goldfrapp, Black Cherry

In the early ‘80s, disco splintered off into dance-pop and house, but the newest incarnations of electronic music seem to have forgotten one vital element: the hook. On her second album with Will Gregory, Allison Goldfrapp made the seamless transition from trip-hop lounge chanteuse to disco siren. Just as the duo’s debut, Felt Mountain, was a masterful concoction of elegant melodies and spooky theatrics, Black Cherry combines the belching electronic synth chords and dramatic strings of Disco with bursts of melodic color and simple yet ominous lyrics. Goldfrapp have successfully channeled Blondie and Donna Summer (as well as their former dewy selves) to create a collection of soothing techno ballads and custom-made club tracks that draw you in and, more importantly, hook you.


5. André 3000, The Love Below

To Big Boi’s socially-charged yin is Dre’s horny yang. If Speakerboxxx hints at the pop-friendly funkadelic stylings of Prince, Dre’s The Love Below fully channels his purple majesty’s libido, not to mention his sometimes-sexy, sometimes-irksome falsetto. “Love in War” is Dre’s response to Big Boi’s “War,” while “Vibrate,” a sly ode to masturbation disguised as a pro-environmental ditty (“Mother Earth is dying and we continue to fuck her to death…The future is in your hand”), suggests that the cure for loneliness and despair can be found in the battery-operated self-massager in your top drawer. Whether he’s imagining his two-timing girlfriend crashing into a ditch while applying make-up in the car or re-imagining Cupid as a gun-toting thug on “Happy Valentine’s Day,” humor is key to the success of Dre’s half of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While the album probably should have been whittled down to the best of both discs, Dre not only trumped his pal, he made the most subversive and inventive hip-hop album of the year.


6. Carla Werner, Departure

It’s truly startling how much of an impact the late Jeff Buckley’s music has had on an entire generation of musicians, most of whom are still scribbling song lyrics in science notebooks and building fresh calluses on their fingertips. Even more impressive is his widespread geographic appeal; his music has reached the ears of European followers like Travis, Coldplay and Starsailor as well as a growing number of female singer-songwriters like New Zealand’s Carla Werner. Werner’s debut, Departure, draws on a multitude of influences that range from Zepplin to Kate Bush to, of course, Buckley, and even hints at her country music roots. Werner, though, is not a mime. Departure resounds with the purity and ingenuity of a seasoned original, with just a touch of earnest self-deprecation. It’s not unusual for artists to be expert spectators, but Werner is a remarkable kind of sponge: what she absorbs seems to drip out in strikingly unique forms.


7. Teitur, Poetry & Aeroplanes

Emotionally engaging, ornately arranged and expertly sweetened with shades of optimism, Teitur’s solo debut, Poetry & Aeroplanes, plays like a sonic postcard from a nomadic artist. Teitur, who hails from Denmark’s remote Faroe Islands (nestled somewhere between Iceland and Scotland), grew up loving American pop music, and his own songs—embellished with organs, strings and the like—are plainly informed by early influences such as James Taylor and Suzanne Vega. Veteran Rupert Hine’s production is lush, yet more importantly, intimate. By album’s end, it’s difficult not to forget that Poetry & Aeroplanes was created under such lovelorn conditions and that, perhaps, Teitur’s creative home is one of such (seemingly) emotional deficiency.


8. Postal Service, Give Up

Give Up, the debut album from the Postal Service (the mail-order side project of Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard and Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello), is an arresting fusion of emo indie-rock musings and DIY laptop electronica. Call it smart pop, or semi-intelligent dance music. The album alternates between dazzling, revelatory out-of-body love songs and universally eco-aware ruminations on the state of the world, the binding thread being Gibbard’s often potent stream-of-consciousness and bright, jangly guitars and Tamborello’s infectious ambient house beats, faux strings and video-game bleeps. Whether it’s love or the world’s problems, Gibbard, despite what he says, seems incapable of “giving up.” Like on Death Cab’s equally stunning Transatlanticism, he ardently builds castles in the sky because, like he says on the album’s first single, “Such Great Heights,” everything looks perfect from far away.


9. Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys

Once you realize there’s nothing new about neo-soul, it’s easier to appreciate the music for what it is and what it honors, rather than what it’s supposed to represent in the current not-so-grand scheme of R&B music. Perhaps that’s why the arrival of Alicia Keys’s 2001 debut Songs in A Minor—though slightly overrated amidst all the anti-pop excitement—seemed like such a vibrant beam of light, and perhaps that’s why her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, will undoubtedly prompt slightly overblown expectations. But the fact of the matter is, Diary builds on the promise of Songs in A Minor and, in many ways, trumps that album’s achievements. Though there’s nothing as immediate as “Fallin’,” or anything as empowering as “A Woman’s Worth,” the album is a deft mix of street and class. Sonically, Diary Of Alicia Keys is like the younger sibling of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, rummaging through her older sister’s vintage record collection and discovering what modern R&B has been missing all this time.


10. Missy Elliott, This Is Not a Test!

An artist as prolific as Missy Elliott is bound to stumble. This Is Not a Test!, her third album in as many years, pales in comparison to the steely, futuristic club thump of 2001’s Miss E…So Addictive and the warm, old-school vibe of Under Construction, but even Elliott’s missteps are infinitely more graceful than most of her contemporaries’ slam-dunks. In many ways, Elliott and longtime producer Timbaland can only be outdone by themselves, and Timbo, as always, saves his best beats for his lady, who never fails to bring them to sweating, heaving—if not cartoonish—life. Though the album doesn’t live up to (or hardly addresses) its war-meets-blaxploitation cover art, Elliott comes off like the Maya Angelou of hip-hop, waxing poetic on the state of the genre and sounding like a 21st century post-feminist on tracks like “Toyz” and “Let Me Fix My Weave.” In the end, it’s all about sloppy sex, self-gratification, and good hairpieces. And in times of war and exploitation, that’s what truly matters.


SINGLES AND MUSIC VIDEOS


Top 10 Albums, Singles, and Music Videos of 2003

1. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love”

Beyoncé Knowles’s first solo outing, last year’s soundtrack cut “Work It Out,” a post-disco/funk work-out that positioned the curvy bottle blonde as an MTV generation Tina Turner, wasn’t exactly a smash, but it hinted at what was to come. Enter “Crazy In Love”: Armed with a horn-y Chi-Lites sample, several pairs of hot-pants and some neon Barbie Doll pumps (not to mention that voice, which puts Mariah to shame—almost), the lead single from Beyoncé’s debut album was hands-down the song of the summer and easily the best single of the year. The bootylicious video, directed by newcomer Jake Nava—who went on to direct the baby-oil-logged follow-up “Baby Boy” and Kelis’s “Milkshake” (see #6 below)—pairs the singer with thug-toy Jay-Z, who seemingly blows up Beyoncé’s car…while she’s still in it. Beyoncé rises from the flames like a pimped-out phoenix and closes out the clip with some inventive runway-inspired choreography in the hottest alleyway I’ve never seen. Beyoncé is allowed more room to experiment vocally on Dangerously In Love, the best mainstream R&B album this year, exploring softer registers and lathering on the coquettish persona that was only hinted at in her work with D.C. Added guilty pleasure points for a sexed-up, promo-only [insert sad face] redo of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (see #7).


2. Madonna, “American Life” (Director’s Cut)

The sad sequence of headlines went something like this: February 14, 2003, “Madonna Defends Her Violent ‘American Life’ Video”; March 28, 2003, “Madonna Edits Controversial ‘American Life’ Video”; and, just two days later, “Madonna Yanks Controversial ‘American Life’ Video.” Sure, she’s made better videos, and she’s caused bigger controversies, but to release “American Life” during the lynch-mob mentality of Bush’s war on Iraq would have required bigger balls than even Madonna has, and she knew it. The video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, juxtaposes images of war with the most capitalistic, materialistic, and seemingly superficial industry in the world: fashion. Models dressed in military garb and gas masks (one male model sports a half-shirt that reads “Fashion Victim”) and three Middle Eastern children strut down a runway while Madonna and her troupe of decidedly unconventional beauties prepare for their fashion terrorism in a backstage restroom. Madonna carves “Protect Me” on the partition of a stall, giving the otherwise militant proceedings a sense of desperate humanity, before she and her disciples engage in some fiercely aggressive choreography (intercut with images of a detonated atom bomb), and crash the fashion show and pummel the photographers with an industrial-strength water hose. Madonna may have never actually been on the frontlines of a battlefield, but she’s been spotted in the front row of more than a few fashion shows. It’s this hypocrisy that makes the video so damn intriguing. It’s the same contradiction that runs through the “American Life” song itself: the Material Girl is denouncing material things? You mean she was being ironic back in 1985? Madonna’s made it clear she’s not anti-American, just pro-peace: The new Madonna writes morality tales for infants, not bomb-making manuals for infidels. Disappointing for sure. In a time when most pop singers are too afraid to stand for much of anything at all, seeing the most famous woman in the world pull a grenade pin out with her teeth and toss the bomb into Bush’s lap (the typical, Madonna-style twist is that the grenade is actually a lighter, the moral being, presumably, that something destructive can be turned into something useful) is nothing short of explosive.


3. Queens of the Stone Age, “Go with the Flow”

“We collide and divide, go swimming and trailblaze into the sunset,” Queens Of The Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri told MTV earlier this year. That more or less describes “Go with the Flow,” the award-winning video clip directed by visual artist collective Shynola. Inspired by the bold comic book images of Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” “Go with the Flow” is a combination of live action and rotoscopic animation (the kind made famous in a-Ha’s “Take on Me”). Silhouettes of the band barreling down a desert highway in the back of a pick-up truck toward a rival gang of “skulls” are juxtaposed with a blood red sky and overtly sexual metaphors (including a slow-motion collision that results in an explosion of animated sperm cells and a squirting slurpee).


4. Sigur Rós, “Vaka (Untitled #1)”

Unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in January, this Floria Sigismondi-directed clip won the Best Video trophy at the 2003 MTV Europe Awards (evidence alone that America has a long way to go—no offense, Missy). The video opens with the sullen faces of grade school children being inspected before rushing outside for recess. Donned in gas masks (a quaint new pop-culture fixture in the wake of recent chemical warfare advances—see #2 above), the children play as if the scorched, red sky and falling ash are everyday occurrences (frighteningly, in Sigismondi’s post-apocalyptic creation, they are). Because it was released just prior to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the video has been criticized for being propagandistic, even manipulative—a symbolic dead white dove is seen rotting in the ash early on in the clip. In the end, though, the powerful “Untitled #1” (a.k.a. “Vaka”), from last year’s ( ), adds another notch to Sigur Rós’s impressive video belt and is easily Sigismondi’s most evocative work to date.


5. Jewel, “Intuition”

If the definition of “selling out” is changing your music to sell records, then Jewel has been guilty of the charge since her first album, a folk collection of coffeehouse recordings that were completely re-recorded for radio consideration. Jewel’s fourth album, 0304, may have disappointed some of the singer’s fans and confused much of the public, but the album presents one of the most startling—yet oddly fitting—transformations in pop history. In many ways, Jewel is simply fulfilling her destiny: she’s become the pop tart her critics have accused her of being from the very start. But just one look at the cheeky music video for the hit “Intuition” and it’s clear she’s in on the joke. “Jewel’s music sounds much better now that she’s dancing!” reads a fake TRL crawl. What’s more, if you’re going to sell out, at least do it with an infectious pop song like “Intuition.” She urges us to follow our hearts but then taunts, “Sell your sin/Just cash in.” And that’s exactly what Jewel did: you could hear the French accordion of “Intuition” in a commercial for a razor of the same name all year long. Ah, the sweet smell of contradiction.


6. Kelis, “Milkshake”

Though her second album wasn’t even released in the U.S., Kelis scored an instant hit with “Milkshake,” the lead single from her new album Tasty. Written and produced by te Neptunes, the kitschy, metaphor-heavy track (Kelis espouses the virtues of concocting the perfect blend of sweet and spicy) features the duo’s standard minimalist beats, grinding bassline and a barely-there “la la la la la” pre-chorus. Kelis’s pseudo-rap hook is downright irresistible: she knows she’s got what brings the boys to the yard. Jake Nava’s sexy video interpretation, set in an old-fashioned diner and featuring a cameo by Kelis’s beau Nas as a short-order cook, is all freshly-baked buns and dancing waitresses with two cherries on top.


7. 50 Cent, “In Da Club”

And the award for best gunshot-wound-to-the-face slur goes to Eminem protégé 50 Cent, who owned the charts with “In Da Club,” the lead single from his debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (a fixture in the Top 10 of the albums chart all year long). Add to that his successful G-Unit side project and 50 Cent owned hip-hop in ’03. Hey, 50: Here’s hoping your son won’t outgrow his mini-bulletproof vest before you get a chance to cash that next royalty check.


8. Fischerspooner, “Emerge”

The electroclash boom wasn’t so much an explosion as it was—well, for lack of a classier metaphor—a fart, a burp, a blip on the landscape of popular music, and Fischerspooner’s “Emerge” was its theme song. Okay, so that doesn’t exactly sound very appealing, but when VH1 uses your song in their promo commercials you must be doing something right, right? Referencing ‘80s synth-pop, Eno-esque soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder basslines, “Emerge” is a sonic retro feast.


9. No Doubt, “It’s My Life”

The 1930s film noir-inspired clip for No Doubt’s “It’s My Life” finds Gwen Stefani doing her best impersonation Jean Harlow (whom Stefani portrays in the upcoming biopic The Aviator). In the video, Stefani plays a femme fatale who’s on trial for killing off her three lovers one by one. Like “Don’t Speak” before it, the David LaChapelle-directed clip could be a comment on Gwen’s impending band-killing solo career. Culled from No Doubt’s greatest hits collection (get it? Gwen plays a hit-woman), the band’s cover of the 1984 Talk Talk hit is given some additional pop-cult allusion thanks to a “Billie Jean”-style rhythm section.

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David Fincher’s Films Ranked, from Alien³ to Mank

On the occasion of Mank’s release, here’s a ranking of every Fincher feature film, from worst to best.

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The Films of David Fincher Ranked
Photo: Netflix

The controversy of authorship that continues to engulf Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane hinges on whether or not Herman J. Mankiewicz deserves primary credit for the film’s sensibility. Such insistence rests on the naïve notion that screenplays are pearls that remain unchanged and uninfluenced by other craftspeople throughout a film’s production. Mankiewicz’s acerbic wit is very alive in Citizen Kane, but so is Welles’s beautiful brio—his formal flourishes and innate instinct for lacing a punchline with ironic tragedy. These two elements combust, in fact, to yield a film that suggests a link between the fast-paced, no-bullshit American newspaper comedies of the 1930s, many of which Mankiewicz worked on, and the German expressionism of the 1920s, among other things. This irresistible union brokered a new idea of the American auteur.

David Fincher’s Mank opens in 1940 with Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) en route to a ranch in Victorville, northeast of Los Angeles. This idle has been arranged for Mank by Welles (Tom Burke) so that the former may recover from a broken leg, as well as, more pressingly, dry out from booze so as to knock out a draft of a project called American in three months, which is to be Welles’s cinematic debut after blazing a glorious trail in the worlds of theater and radio. Riffing on the flashback structure of Citizen Kane, Fincher jumps around in time throughout the ‘30s, as Mank alienates himself from Hollywood and its true, subterranean source of power, which is represented by publishing giant William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

With his sharp tongue and profound alcoholism, Mank gradually works his way toward a fate of sitting in a cabin, ailing, essentially alone, penning a screenplay that’s probably intended as a form of revenge against those who rejected him over the years, while also serving as a Proustian expression of longing over lost days and unrealized promises. In real life, the script would be retitled, stripped down, haggled over and shot—transformed into a film that would be viciously contended with, hailed as a classic, and debated endlessly throughout the epochs of time. For cinephiles, Mank may rekindle such a debate. Chuck Bowen

On the occasion of Mank’s release, here’s a ranking of every Fincher feature film, from worst to best.


Alien³

11. Alien³ (1992)

Alien³ may be the only film ever made to peak with its logo. As the 20th Century Fox fanfare crescendos over the studio’s familiar logo, the music holds on the minor chord before the usual last note, replacing jubilant bombast with a dissonant groan of strings. The alteration produces an immediate sense of discomfort and unease, setting the tone for something ominous and fearsome. It’s an ingenious shot across the bow from Fincher, ushering in a feature career dotted with immaculately ordered, carefully scored works of blockbuster entertainment that veered from audience-pleasing major keys to their grim underbellies. The perversion of the Fox theme epitomizes a succinct grasp of horror that only occasionally surfaces in the film proper. Too often, Alien³ shows its seams, whether in its thematic arc or the design of the xenomorph, and at not even two hours it still feels weighed down by unnecessary exposition and padded suspense scenes. Jake Cole


Panic Room

10. Panic Room (2002)

In one way or another, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room are all about the same things: confrontations between classes in capitalistic society; the extreme measures necessary to jolt people out of complacency; the ways in which class distinctions suppress the natural instincts and morality of citizens. The most style-forward of these films, Panic Room is a violent ballet between a representative of the upper class (Jodie Foster) and the representatives of the lower classes. There’s a formalist sensibility in Fincher that often shows itself even in small or seemingly unimportant moments. But in Panic Room, his love for objects and abstract composition takes over the film, sacrificing too much of the characterization and narrative drive that have propelled his more successful work. Still, his fluid camerawork, augmented by computer tricks, is wondrous to behold, for the way it gives the impression of flowing through anything in the camera’s path, peeking inside to see how objects are assembled and how things are laid out. Ed Howard


Gone Girl

9. Gone Girl (2014)

The sea-sawing motions of the novel’s he-said-she-said structure, which so cunningly toys with our expectations of narrative and relationships, clearly appealed to Fincher, whose art has always been devoted to the enigma of personality and memory. But he catalogues the events of the novel with an elegant brusqueness that feels wiped clean of potential resonances, like the kitchen floor where Amy (Rosamund Pike) lost copious amounts of blood. Fincher’s detachment is fitting here only insofar as he’s dealing with characters who are always on guard. But there’s detachment, and then there’s disinterest. In flashbacks that punctuate the film, Amy is scrutinized with a transparency that’s laughable. Woe is Amy, a practically brick-to-the-head example of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, and woe is Nick (Ben Affleck), the prototypical nebbish who’s unlucky to have gotten caught in her crosshairs. Or any woman’s crosshairs, for that matter, which is consistent with the book’s vision of Nick being incessantly victimized by the other sex, women who are depicted only as shrill, lecherous, petty, or conniving. There’s a comic streak to the film that suggests Fincher may understand the material as trash, but it’s the kind of affectation that only reinforces, rather than dulls, its insults. Ed Gonzalez


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

While Fincher’s deliberate, rather perceptible “reimaginings, compressions and reductions” of the novel’s lurid, soap-operatic plot, which is rife with the familiar intrigue of your average mass market paperback (rape, incest, serial murder, Nazis, and a shitload of clue-solving), can’t elevate trash to art, they do give one the impression of attending the most handsome funeral procession ever mounted—which is, in the end, better than feeling like you’re the corpse lying inside the coffin. If Lisbeth’s goth armature feels less like a stunt this time around, it’s because Rooney Mara understands it as such, a calculated bit of theater that the character is only committed to in the abstract; it’s a purposeful exaggeration meant to deliberately alienate the world. Of course, that Lisbeth, in the end, is at her most vulnerable when pining for Mikael may flesh her out as a character, but it also confirms that Dragon Tattoo, in all its incarnations, is really nothing more than the story of girls running to and from their daddies, and no matter how you dress it up, it’s inherently retrograde. Gonzalez


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Fincher would seem an unlikely choice to helm The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an era-spanning epic whose sweeping, poignant romance doesn’t seem a natural fit for a digital-era auteur whose films are generally typified by cool, sleek, exacting meticulousness. And yet that measured, distant disposition is, in fact, what prevents his latest from sliding into the mawkishness for which it so often seems destined. As written by Eric Roth, the saga (adapted—and, more fundamentally, expanded—from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) is in many ways a kindred spirit to the screenwriter’s Forrest Gump, in that its center is an especially unique individual whose life, and unflagging amour for a beauty he can only temporarily be with, plays out against the backdrop of 20th-century America. However, whereas Roth’s prior, Robert Zemeckis-helmed Oscar darling was as mushy as a box of chocolates melted by the midday sun, Fincher’s is a far more reserved portrait of everlasting love, a work whose aspirations for grandeur are, more often than not, mitigated by a controlled aesthetic and emotional rigor that situates the film in a comfortable—if nonetheless sometimes problematic—middle ground between the sentimental and the standoffish. Nick Schager


Mank

6. Mank (2020)

As he was in The Social Network, Fincher is conscious throughout Mank of the explanatory clichés of the biopic and avoids them. Penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, the film abounds in barely articulated cross-associations that suggest a bygone society driven by an infrastructure of unknowable vastness. And the opportunity to conjure such a labyrinthine and increasingly sinister impression of community is what excites Fincher throughout. Like many of his other films, especially Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network, Mank is a parable on the limits of control, fashioned with rueful self-awareness by one of Hollywood’s most famous contemporary control freaks. As a cartoonist had to live with his inability to crack the riddle of the Zodiac killer, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) must live with an existence, fashioned in part by his own self-loathing and lack of discipline, in which he’s to ineffectually bear witness to the flexing of American corruption as represented by an intersection between the press, Hollywood, and the government. Such a theme also very consciously aligns Mank with the “fallen, not-quite-great man” themes of Citizen Kane. Bowen

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Midnight Special

10. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray


Mad Max

9. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Chuck Bowen


Jurassic Park

8. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Even detached from the fuzzy flow of nostalgia, Jurassic Park’s splendor remains firmly rooted in a fixed set of attributes, particularly the way Steven Spielberg girds his high-flown fantasy within a context of concise, carefully constructed filmmaking. It’s this combination of flashy thrills and solid fundamentals that makes for what’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of the Spielberg brand, with its giddy embrace of the fringe possibilities of special effects, its blending of swashbuckling adventure with overtones of genuine terror, the fondness for small personal stories couched within impossibly large narratives. While even his best films involve a certain measure of hokey schmaltz, he should be equally noted for the precise craftsmanlike qualities that turn them into uniquely rewarding experiences, his insistent focus on assembling worlds from the ground up, accounting for visceral details, no matter how ridiculously fantastical the story may be otherwise. In Jurassic Park this means building an outlandish dream kingdom on a bedrock of scientific detail, on a narrative level, and mixing still-shaky CGI effects with more large-scale models, on a visual one, qualities which help make that grandiosity tactile. Jesse Cataldo


Her

7. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love. Calum Marsh


Back to the Future

6. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)

Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Eric Henderson


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

As omniscient as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about the bond a lonely young boy shares with the alien he all-too-briefly calls his best friend, some of the film’s most pitch-perfect moments subtly suggest how children regard the inscrutable behavior of adults, especially parents. The film, among other things, pulls grown-ups back into the vortex of feelings they’ve either repressed with age or have allowed to break toward bitter instead of sweet. Steven Spielberg in his prime was so adept at reflecting the innocent simplicity of childhood feelings that his talent seems to draw out the worst suspicions among life’s lost souls, those to whom the concepts of purity and simplicity have somehow become weapons in the mind’s battle with the heart. E.T., a visitor whose biological makeup ensures his stay on Earth won’t be for long (which he realizes when he makes the tear-jerking decision to sever the bio-rhythmic tether between him and Henry Thomas’s Elliott), is something of an abstraction for the grief Elliott feels upon his father’s abandonment. His departing aphorism, “I’ll be right here,” is sage advice for someone who understands profoundly the loss Elliott feels and the capacity for him to forgive. Henderson


The End of Evangelion

4. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Jeremiah Kipp


A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Kipp


Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: MGM

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins



Cam

10. Cam (2018)

When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard


Monster

9. The Monster (2016)

In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

7. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

6. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Session 9

5. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

4. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

3. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

2. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

1. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 29.

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Interview: Joyce Chopra on Creating a Believable Teen Movie with Smooth Talk

Chopra discusses the joys of reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.

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Interview: Joyce Chopra on Creating a Believable Teen Movie with Smooth Talk
Photo: Janus Films

“The teenagers in Smooth Talk would love the romantic notions of Pretty in Pink, but would die before admitting it,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby in 1986. His piece bridged the gap between two teen films that opened in theaters within close proximity but otherwise shared little else. Smooth Talk director Joyce Chopra cites the review as a favorite interpretation of her work, namely for the way that Canby properly contextualizes the measured realism of the film as swimming upstream against the sugary pop fantasies of so much Reagan-era youth cinema.

Though Smooth Talk debuted to favorable reviews and won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 1986, the film has fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years. An academic textbook that’s among the most authoritative compendiums of the American youth cinema after 1980 made but one passing mention of Smooth Talk—a fact that Chopra found amusing when I informed her of my own unfamiliarity with her debut narrative feature. Thanks to Janus Films, however, Chopra’s voice will be a much more prominent part of any future conversations about the decade in youth film. A new restoration of Smooth Talk debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival on its way to virtual cinema engagements and, presumptively, a Criterion Collection physical release.

The film represents a welcome expansion to the genre’s then-overwhelmingly male gaze as it explores the experience of young Connie (Laura Dern in a breakout performance) as she tentatively probes the limits of her nascently blooming sexuality. Smooth Talk depicts the joys of self-discovery, sure, but it’s also uncommonly attuned to the accompanying pains and dangers. By expanding Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole grant refreshing dimensionality to Connie’s antagonists—both her conservative mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place), and an alluring but menacing suitor, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). It’s jarring to see a film from the ‘80s that adequately recognizes the thin line between male seduction and coercion.

I caught up with Chopra shortly before Smooth Talk began its exclusive virtual engagement at Film at Lincoln Center. Our discussion covered how she and Cole built upon Oates’ slender source text, the joys of rediscovery and reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.

How does a film like Smooth Talk fall off the radar, and how did Janus Films and the Criterion Collection get involved with resurrecting it?

Criterion got involved at first through our producer [Martin Rosen]. He produced a film called Watership Down, an animated film. I think almost two years ago, he told me that Criterion was going to be restoring Smooth Talk. For the longest time, I didn’t hear anything, and then suddenly this year they got very active. I can’t honestly tell you more than that about it.

Why did it fall off the radar is a good question. Well, first of all, it [came out] 35 years ago. It went through different distributors. For streaming, it was on Netflix for a long time. Somehow, even that stopped, and I don’t know why some people couldn’t find it except by buying a DVD. I think what’s happened is just tremendous interest in Laura Dern.

Well, you’ve also gone through some reappreciation of your own with your documentary short Joyce at 34 getting revived at the Metrograph last year and now playing on the Criterion Channel.

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me to say go to the New Yorker website. Richard Brody had an article on 62 films that shaped documentaries, something like that. In the introduction, he listed Joyce at 34, which he’s included in that list. So, suddenly, I’m being revived!

What does that kind of reappraisal or rediscovery feel like?

It’s very pleasant. [laughs] I’ll tell you, the thing that I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of all, actually, was the New York Film Festival had us in their Revivals section. They showed it at a virtual festival where you could rent it, but they also showed it at a drive-in cinema in Brooklyn. I never in a million years imagined Smooth Talk playing at a drive-in movie theater.

The New York Film Festival is how I first encountered the film, which I found surprising because I’d just done a lot of research on the teen genre in the ‘80s this summer and Smooth Talk barely came up in my reading.

You’re kidding me! Let me ask you this, how old are you?

I’m 28.

Well, that would explain a lot. No, seriously. It had tremendous attention, it got great reviews. I think people who are probably 20 years older than you—anybody starting in their mid-50s—would know the film if they were aware of films. Do you know Vincent Canby, then the critic for The New York Times? He loved the film. But then, a week later, he did an articled—Pretty in Pink had just come out. And he did an essay comparing the two films and why Pretty in Pink fit the fantasies of young girls. Smooth Talk would never do that! Teens didn’t want to go see the movie. They’d probably never even heard of it.

Funny enough, I watched Smooth Talk after I’d done a big rewatch of a lot of the John Hughes films and others from the era. Smooth Talk stands as such a contrast to that era where you’d see predatory male behavior either excused or sometimes even glorified. Were you at all conscious when making the film about how it was going to be in conversation with other films that portrayed adolescent sexuality that played into rape culture with their aggressive male characters?

I don’t think I was thinking about that. I wanted to make a movie, and my focus was entirely on how to do this, how to raise the money. I didn’t even think about what would happen after I made it. It was just a dream to do that. It’s so different from those films, my god. I got to work with Molly Ringwald after, years later in a film for television. It felt very strange to me because she lived in my mind as [those characters].

Looking back now, do you see the contrasts? Or at the very least, do you appreciate that Smooth Talk represents a perspective that was so rare and underrepresented at the time of its original theatrical release?

The Canby essay clearly represented what I think now, still think. Different universes completely. Tom [Cole], my husband who wrote the script, and I just wanted to create something believable about this girl. I don’t know if you read the short story, but it’s very brief. A large part of it the confrontation with Arnold Friend. We had to create a whole universe for Connie, who’s almost unreal in the story. She’s referred to, she has a name, but the first line is: “She was a familiar figure in the malls.” The story so frightened me when I read it, I read it years before we made it. What kind of world did Connie live in? Who is she? Could we believe that the confrontation with Arnold Friend would take place? And so with that, we just chose little hints in the short story. The father didn’t exist, and there were very undeveloped characters. We created a whole world that we wanted to believe in. I can’t believe that John Hughes believed in the worlds of the films that he made. I mean, that was part of his ambition.

To your last point, in so many ‘80s teen movies, the parents are such stock characters who really exist only to further their children’s journeys or to represent some sort of ideology or authority that they rebel against. Mary Kay Place as Connie’s mom, Katherine, in Smooth Talk, however, has such dimensionality.

I can see looking back on that why that wasn’t very popular. Why is it popular now? People are just much more open to it. I think things have shifted with so much more awareness of what women are going through and what they feel. And that’s a completely different world. There were hardly any women directors making feature films. We were rare creatures, exotic creatures. You’re so young, take my word: It was a very different world. I could see the film, were it released now, sticking more. I’m delighted Criterion is releasing it, it’s great.

Did you see Joyce at 34 ever?

Yes, I just watched it on the Criterion Channel!

That film has always remained…I don’t want to say popular, but it’s been shown in festivals over the years. The subject is still the same: How do you work and be a parent? It’s still out there, and I’m very pleased that Richard Brody posted where I always knew it belonged. I was the first to use documentary techniques to make a film [set during pregnancy] about a person, rather than a big event. That was shocking.

At Smooth Talk’s NYFF Live talk, Laura Dern mentioned that people take different messages out of it. Since ambiguous morals were very uncommon in teen movies at the time, did you ever face pressure to make it more explicit or instructive in either direction? Or was that a benefit of being outside of the larger Hollywood ecosystem?

Exactly. We did it for a program on public television called American Playhouse that lasted all through the ‘90s. They gave chances to first-time film directors, you could have been a writer, an actor, making documentaries. They didn’t interfere at all. It was the only film I’ve ever made where I didn’t have producers nipping at me.

Do you think it’s a success that people can have such polar opposite opinions about it?

Yes. I showed the film to one group, and half thought Connie had a dream about Arnold Friend. They thought the scene wasn’t real. That was the most extreme form of it. I still treasure, in a way, a review in The Village Voice by B. Ruby Rich, who excoriated me for promoting that I was saying, “girls, don’t venture out!” [She thought] I was moralizing, I was a throwback to a dark age. She also reviewed Joyce at 34 and said that I shouldn’t have been allowed to make the film because, clearly, I was able to afford a nice apartment. She’s a very extreme feminist.

Well, another thing that stood out to me is how Smooth Talk walks such a fine line of being timely and timeless. There’s the time capsule element of mall culture that’s very specific to the time that you made it. But the film also has something that transcends time in the borderline allegorical centerpiece confrontation between Arnold and Connie. How did you go about striking that balance and making sure that, when the film shifts, it didn’t feel too jarring?

Yeah, it was a problem, and some people have pointed out that it’s two stories. But I hope most people don’t feel that way. If we’ve done our job right, it shouldn’t leap out at you. We tried to create a situation so that it would be believed that when Connie stayed home alone, this could happen. But also, her flirting or just trying it out, she didn’t really know! Laura expressed it very well in that interview, [that her character] was testing the waters. So, to me, it was believable that this whole scene would take place. And this character, Arnold Friend that Joyce Carol Oates created [sighs]…there are a lot of lunatics around.

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Every Kylie Minogue Album Ranked

To celebrate the release of Disco, we’ve ranked all 14 of the Aussie pop singer’s albums.

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Kylie Minogue
Photo: Darenote

In the three decades since Kylie Minogue’s debut, the Australian soap actress turned international pop star has released 15 albums and racked up an impressive 34 Top 10 hits in the U.K., though her career trajectory wasn’t always assured. After her initial breakout success on both sides of the Atlantic, with a cover of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” Minogue struggled to maintain interest among U.S. audiences. By the mid-1990s, she was eager to shake off her bubblegum-pop image, collaborating with the likes of Nick Cave and Towa Tei, and taking more creative control with the experimental Impossible Princess. The album flopped, but a turn-of-the-century renaissance found the singer embracing her dance-pop roots and cementing her status as a gay icon.

After a brief foray into country music with 2018’s Golden, Minogue makes a triumph, perhaps preordained, return to the dance floor with the pointedly titled Disco. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 14 of the artist’s non-holiday albums.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on April 5, 2018.



Kylie

14. Kylie (1988)

Then famous in her native Australia as Charlene in the soap opera Neighbours, Minogue became an unlikely pop star when her cover of the 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion” became an unexpected international smash. The 19-year-old was plopped onto English production trio Stock Aitken Waterman’s assembly line, where it sounds like she was forced to suck down a lungful of helium and sing along to their patented house blend of hi-NRG beats, Italo-disco synths, and Motown melodies. The resulting album, Kylie, is as lightweight and unsatisfying as cotton candy—and goes down just as easy.



Enjoy Yourself

13. Enjoy Yourself (1989)

There isn’t a whole lot to differentiate Minogue’s sophomore effort from its predecessor, right down to the oversized hat on the album’s cover. Released just over a year after the singer’s debut, Enjoy Yourself repeats the first album’s sonic template almost verbatim, including a cover of a classic pop song (in this case, the 1958 doo-wop hit “Tears on My Pillow”). Slight but much-welcomed diversions include the string-laden torch song “Tell Tale Signs” and the baroque-pop “My Secret Heart.” Notably, Minogue would later transform the album’s tonally incongruent lead single, “Hand on Your Heart,” into a poignant acoustic ballad on 2012’s The Abbey Road Sessions.



Let’s Get to It

12. Let’s Get to It (1991)

On her final album for PWL Records, Minogue continued to peel herself away from the SAW hit factory that helped make her a star. New jack swing, hip-hop, and house are more prominently featured, though none particularly successfully. Produced by the first and last thirds of Stock Aitken Waterman, tracks like “Word Is Out,” “Too Much of a Good Thing,” and “I Guess I Like It Like That” feel like inferior facsimiles of the distinctly American sound being created by the likes of Clivillés and Cole, Jam and Lewis, Full Force, and others.



Kiss Me Once

11. Kiss Me Once (2014)

Minogue’s first album not to spawn a U.K. Top 10 hit since 1997’s Impossible Princess, Kiss Me Once lacks a distinct sonic point of view, incorporating pop-rock, disco, dubstep, and R&B in equal measure. If there’s an overarching theme to the album, it’s sex and its various consequences: Minogue fantasizes about it on “Sexy Love,” she sweats about it on “Sexercize,” she struggles to define it on “Les Sex.” The sleek bonus track “Sleeping with the Enemy” seems to pay homage to Massive Attack’s sublime “Unfinished Sympathy,” while the Pharrell-produced “I Was Gonna Cancel” makes one wonder what an entire Kylie album of disco-funk might have sounded like. As it stands, Kiss Me Once is the most scattershot of Minogue’s latter-day efforts.



Rhythm of Love

10. Rhythm of Love (1990)

From the disco-infused “Step Back in Time” to the techno-pop “Shocked,” the potency of Rhythm of Love’s singles alone makes it the strongest of Minogue’s PWL albums. With “Better the Devil You Know,” the singer had begun to shed her girl-next-door image, but the album also saw producers Stock Aitken Waterman developing their signature sound, which, by the end of the ‘80s, had reached peak saturation on both sides of the pond. The addition of outside producers, including frequent Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray, further expanded Minogue’s repertoire to include new jack swing and hip-hop, putting the artist somewhere near, if not in, the same league as her female chart rivals for the first time.



Kylie Minogue

9. Kylie Minogue (1994)

After churning out four albums in as many years with Stock Aitken Waterman, Minogue parted ways with the production team’s label in 1993 and signed with Deconstruction Records. The pop star’s first album with the label resulted in a creative rebirth that’s reflected in the eponymous album’s title and embrace of club music. (Perhaps emulating classic 12” house records, a handful of songs—“Where Is the Feeling,” “Where Has the Love Gone,” and “Falling”—all run about two minutes too long.) But Kylie Minogue’s biggest surprise is its midtempo material. Minogue doesn’t have the vocal prowess to carry some of these songs—“Surrender” is a less sultry rendition of a song recorded by Tia Carrere a year earlier—but she admirably pushes her voice to its limits on the string-laden “Dangerous Game” and “Automatic Love.” The cautionary “Confide in Me,” with its hypnotic hook, Middle Eastern strings, and ominous guitar riff, calls for a sensual and understated performance—and Minogue delivers.



Golden

8. Golden (2018)

The Nashville-inspired Golden, whose title commemorates Minogue’s impending 50th birthday, is the singer’s most personal album since Impossible Princess. Both her anxiety about and joyful resistance to her mortality is apparent in songs like “Dancing,” “Live a Little,” and the title track. “Sincerely Yours” is a “love letter” most likely directed at tour audiences—“This is not the end, I’ll come back again/You’ll still see me, you’ll still hear me”—but it’s hard not to imagine Minogue singing it as penance to fans eagerly awaiting her return to dance music. While country signifiers abound, from foot-stomping to fiddling, the songs on Golden also smartly juxtapose contemporary pop elements like soaring synth hooks and pitched-up vocals. If nothing else, Golden further bolsters Minogue’s reputation for taking risks—and artfully sets the stage for her inevitable disco comeback.

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Every James Bond Theme Song Ranked

From Shirley Bassey to Billie Eilish, we’ve ranked all 24 Bond themes from best to worst.

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Billie Eilish
Photo: Matty Vogel

Each new James Bond theme is almost as eagerly anticipated as the films themselves. While the franchise’s producers have often thought outside the box when choosing singers to headline each film’s soundtrack, they’ve increasingly skewed toward newer artists like Billie Eilish, who joins the ranks of musical vets like Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, and Madonna to provide the theme for the newest installment in the series, No Time to Die.

A willingness to adapt to the times, straying from the established formula of bombastic orchestral pop, has produced both hits (Wings’s art-rock-inflected “Live and Let Die”) and misses (the adult contemporary schlock of Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High”). Occasionally, the producers have returned to the template established by Bassey’s “Goldfinger” with similarly mixed results, from Lulu’s campy “The Man with the Golden Gun” to Adele’s theatrical “Skyfall.”

The world’s most famous secret agent reaches a new milestone with No Time to Die, the 25th film in the official series, tentatively scheduled for release in April after being delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 24 theme songs, excluding the original “James Bond Theme” and the instrumental title song from 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, both performed by the John Barry Orchestra. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Bond Theme playlist on Spotify.


24. Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall”

Sadly, the writing was on the wall as soon as Sam Smith turned in this narcoleptic take on a Bond song, from 2015’s Spectre. Largely an excuse for the kind of self-loathing romantic navel-gazing (“How do I live? How do I breathe?/When you’re not here I’m suffocating”) and empty showcasing of Smith’s vocal range that have become the singer’s stock in trade, “Writing’s on the Wall” has no real hooks or interesting textures. Instead, Smith relies on generic regal horns to announce an adult contemporary star at their commercial height who drank too much of their own punch. Paul Schrodt


23. Rita Coolidge, “All Time High”

The unfortunately titled Octopussy was the first Bond movie since Dr. No not to have a title track, and understandably so. Its theme, “All Time High,” sounds like an ABBA ballad with the wind knocked out of it. While the song’s lyrics gesture toward triumph and passion, its style is so languid that it leaves little impact even after repeat listens. When Coolidge sings, “Let the flight begin,” she doesn’t conjure the image of a pilot preparing for takeoff, but of a passenger popping a Dramamine. Her voice is soothing and pleasant, but ultimately the song’s greatest fault is that it simply doesn’t feel like a Bond song. Eric Mason


22. Lulu, “The Man with the Golden Gun”

Lulu’s theme for 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun is a pale imitation of Shirley Bassey’s imitable Bond vocal turns. Where Bassey embodied the films’ mix of sex, sorrow, and violence, Lulu sounds like she’s doing a highly unsteady stab at a coquettish burlesque routine—which, to be fair, could also describe the general aesthetic of numerous Bond films. Her attempt at a guttural low range is unlikely to unnerve a house cat, while her backing players try to revive the golden-age Bassey music with results that are quickly forgotten. Schrodt


21. A-ha, “The Living Daylights”

After a sufficient opening in which moody strings swell over a dark, driving bassline, A-ha’s theme for the first Timothy Dalton Bond film falls victim to an irredeemable ‘80s musical trend: a noodling synthesizer riff that attempts “sleek and sinister” yet comes off as a show-offy try-out for an Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover band. “The Living Daylights” never recovers, mostly because A-ha—best known for the unabashed romanticism of “Take on Me” and “Crying in the Rain”—are lovers, not fighters, while Bond is, of course, both. When lead singer Morten Harket uses his upper register to belt the chorus (“I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say/Save the darkness, let it never fade away”), he sounds like a self-remonstrating lost soul, not a hardened international secret agent. Michael Joshua Rowin


20. Gladys Knight, “License to Kill”

The phrase “License to kill”—referring to James Bond’s legal right as an MI6 agent to end the lives of human beings, and serving as the title of one of the grittiest, darkest 007 films—doesn’t exactly evoke the name Gladys Knight. Not just because the legendary Knight’s style is anything but raw and brooding, but also because her theme (as written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff) for Timothy Dalton’s second and final Bond film in 1989 is fairly forgettable. Sounding more like an overproduced slow-dance number than an evocation of Bond’s rogue mission of revenge, “License to Kill” is only memorable for nicking the famous musical motif from Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and necessitating royalty payments to the writers of that far better song. Rowin


19. Sheena Easton, “For Your Eyes Only”

Sheena Easton’s soft-rock power ballad matches the glossiness of For Your Eyes Only to deliver one of the franchise’s peak-‘80s efforts—which is to say, forgettable even when it’s viscerally pleasurable. Easton gives her all like she’s trying to steal Pat Benatar’s career, and the hook is catchy, even when the bland come-hither lyrics sound like they’re more appropriate for a Palm Springs timeshare brochure than a major feature film about a guy who kills people for a living. Schrodt


18. Tom Jones, “Thunderball”

After the success of “Goldfinger,” Eon Productions sought to produce another eccentric orchestral pop song with “Thunderball.” In fact, Shirley Bassey was slated to perform the original Thunderball song, “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which arguably was even more committed to the “Goldfinger” formula than “Thunderball.” However, in a rush to replace “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with a proper title track, songwriters John Barry and Don Black left Jones with little in the way of compelling lyrical content. The 1965 song would feel like a pale imitation of “Goldfinger” were it not for Jones’s imposing vocal presence and impressive conviction (Jones reportedly fainted while performing the song’s final note). Mason


17. Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies”

Sheryl Crow remains a surprising and controversial choice for a Bond chanteuse. Crow is best known for VH1-friendly rock, and her voice isn’t exactly sultry or powerful, qualities possessed by k.d. lang, whose own contribution to the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack was relegated to the 1997 film’s end credits. For her effort, Crow received opening-title honors but also a ton of flak: While appropriately breathy in the verses, Crow sounds strained when reaching for the high notes of the bombastic chorus. Still, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” co-written with producer Mitchell Froom, is a somewhat underrated Bond theme, containing a complex yet classy orchestral arrangement that feels timeless compared to the other electronica-inflected themes of the Brosnan era. Rowin


16. Duran Duran, “A View to Kill”

Synth-heavy and melodramatic, “A View to Kill” is the most deliciously ‘80s Bond theme. Simon Le Bon’s piercing vocals imbue the song with invigorating urgency, elevating an otherwise nonsensical collage of fire and ice and fatal kisses to a new wave banger. Like its accompanying music video, which predicted the advent of drone cameras, what “A View to Kill” lacks in timeless elegance, it makes up for in its undeniable, danceable charisma. Mason


15. Matt Monro, “From Russia with Love”

Matt Monro’s “From Russia with Love” marks the first specifically tailored theme for a James Bond film, though with only two efforts under its belt, the franchise was still refining its trademarks in 1963: Rather than play over the opening titles, the song is first heard within the film and then over its end credits. It also doesn’t possess the qualities audiences would soon come to recognize in Bond theme songs, with a sound more in the romantic vein of Frank Sinatra than in the adventure-oriented vein of, say, Tom Jones. In that sense “From Russia with Love” (as written by Lionel Bart) is a proficient number that nonetheless leaves the listener craving something with a little more muscle. Rowin


14. Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World”

If Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” doesn’t sound quite like a James Bond theme, that’s because it isn’t. It’s actually the “love theme” for the most romantic of all 007 films, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and appears during a montage sequence within the film, not during its opening titles. That said, the jazzy ballad (with music by John Barry and lyrics by Burt Bacharach collaborator Hal David) is perfectly lovely and, due to ironically foreshadowing the doomed fate of Bond’s bride and one true love, effectively heartbreaking—a quality made all the more poignant by a tender vocal performance by the legendary Armstrong in one of his last major recordings. Rowin


13. Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better”

There are great Bond songs, and then there are decent tunes that happened to become Bond themes. From 1977’s thoroughly dull The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” slots firmly into the latter category, as the low-key singer shows no interest in delivering the jolts or theatrics of the franchise, and a perfunctory mention of a spy in the lyrics comes off as a contractual obligation. But her piano bar-styled, true-to-brand saccharine vocals are undeniably sweet. Nobody does it better, indeed. Schrodt

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The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time

The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.

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The 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time
Photo: Orion Pictures

One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?

A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.

So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.


Raw

100. Raw (2016)

As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen


A Bay of Blood

99. A Bay of Blood (1971)

Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene


Alice, Sweet Alice

98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz


Blood for Dracula

96. Blood for Dracula (1974)

The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard


Martyrs

95. Martyrs (2008)

Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams


Night of the Demon

94. Night of the Demon (1957)

With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith


The Devil’s Backbone

93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez


Let the Right One In

92. Let the Right One In (2008)

Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez


Black Cat

91. Black Cat (1934)

Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez


Brain Damage

90. Brain Damage (1988)

Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen


Gremlins

89. Gremlins (1984)

Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene


Angst

88. Angst (1983)

Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith


The Devils

87. The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins


The Blair Witch Project

86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick


Who Can Kill a Child?

85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp


The Haunting

84. The Haunting (1963)

Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson


Häxan

83. Häxan (1922)

Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard


In the Mouth of Madness

82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley


Near Dark

81. Near Dark (1987)

The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das

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Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked

We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.

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Janet Jackson
Photo: Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.



Dream Street

11. Dream Street (1984)

Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani



20 Y.O.

10. 20 Y.O. (2006)

20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson



Janet Jackson

9. Janet Jackson (1982)

If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson



Discipline

8. Discipline (2008)

The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani



Damita Jo

7. Damita Jo (2004)

At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani

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NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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