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The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

As for the just-burgeoning hip-hop genre, acts like Public Enemy and De La Soul not only had a conscience—they served as ours.

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The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

While ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. They say all politics is local, and the incisive perspectives of the decade’s defining acts were likewise geographical: Released in the U.S. in January of 1980, the Clash’s seminal London Calling ushered in a new decade with disgruntled punk rock from across the pond, while U2’s early focus was on the violence in their homeland of Ireland. Back in the U.S., Springsteen spoke to the struggles and dreams of the working class, and Michael Stipe began using his increasing rock-star status to react to the rising conservatism in American politics. By the end of the decade, the Reagan era’s biggest pop stars (Michael, Janet, Madonna) were transformed into cultural critics too, reflecting on poverty, race relations, and what Prince called “a big disease with a little name.” Though women were entering the workforce in record numbers, the surprising (even to us) lack of female artists on our list points to a music industry that, perhaps, needed a few more years to catch up to the feminist movement, but the women who left the most indelible marks bravely pushed the boundaries of sexuality and gender. And as for the just-burgeoning hip-hop genre, acts like Public Enemy and De La Soul not only had a conscience—they served as ours. Sal Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

100. Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One

Less a product of its own decade than a prophecy of the next one, Soul II Soul’s debut presaged the development of downtempo and trip-hop by blending the seductive depth of R&B with reggae, funk, and hip-hop, all while remaining firmly planted in the disco-soul aesthetic of U.K. house. Groundbreaking sound design notwithstanding, Club Classics Vol. One also showcases, in the three-headed vamping of Caron Wheeler, Rose Windross, and Doreen Waddell, one of the finest soul-diva lineups ever to grace a dance album. And what’s more impressive? That the album’s classic singles (“Fairplay,” “Keep On Movin’,” and “Back to Life”) don’t sound anything like one another, or that, two decades of girl groups later, they still sound totally unique? Matthew Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

99. Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Rap’s premier storyteller, London-born Richard Walters burst onto the scene in 1988 with The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, an album with such a unique style that it changed hip-hop. Rick weaves compelling narratives from the first and third person, using the Queen’s English and a devilish sense of humor to make each of these 12 tracks quirky and utterly irresistible listens. Relishing in whimsical wordplay, Rick adopts a hilarious high-pitched squeal for the dialogue of his female characters, and makes shifts in style when stepping into alter egos like the Ruler and MC Ricky D. Of course, there are times when Rick’s tales can fringe on vulgar and misogynistic, but his storytelling prowess is second to none. Huw Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

98. X, Los Angeles

A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X’s roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album that’s both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the album’s cover. Jesse Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

97. George Clinton, Computer Games

George Clinton’s solo debut begins, almost oddly, with the former Parliament and Funkadelic frontman putting on his clothes. But the song’s message is a naked one: the promise of a throw down—to bring on the funk, the soul, and the psychedelic like no one’s business. What follows is an almost spotless blitzkrieg of jams that run the gamut from the rousing (“One Fun at a Time”), to the poignantly metaphoric (“Free Alternations”), to the playfully infantile (“Pot Sharing Tots”). “Loopzilla” is a master class in sampladelic overload, and the title tune suggests Kraftwerk put through a P-Funk filter, but it’s the synth-funk “Atomic Dog” that remains the album’s triumph, an unbelievably improvised totem to Clinton’s own stray cock strut, and one that makes a world without Adina Howard and Snoop Dogg seem impossible. Ed Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

96. Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring

For many bands, transitional albums are most valuable for establishing context between distinct phases of a career arc. Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, however, stands as one of the band’s most satisfying standalone albums, even though it’s a clear bridge between their origins in new wave and the post-rock of their later albums. Songs like “Life’s What You Make of It” and “I Don’t Believe in You” strike a perfect and often beautiful balance between Talk Talk’s extraordinary gifts for memorable pop melodies with a newfound experimental bent that finds them replacing the synths and guitars of the era with flourishes of organ, sax, and even a children’s choir. Jonathan Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

95. Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair

In which an attempted primal scream ends up coming out as an incredibly pitch-perfect crying jag. (Boy, am I glad the word “emo” wasn’t around in 1985, though Richard Kelly’s use of the dreamy “Head Over Heels” in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

94. U2, War

The aptly titled War found U2 not only diving into the jagged terrain of British politics, but likewise, developing a harsher, needle-nosed sound. The album finds the band in attack mode, where on standout tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” an instrument as refined as the violin takes turns playing electrical whip, wailing animal, and battle cry across the song’s marching protest beat. This is U2 at their angriest, each piece infused with a sense of dark urgency that reaches a frothy head on “New Year’s Day.” Bono’s resolution, “I will begin again,” is perhaps indicative of the spiritual introspection to come on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, but for War, the music is as immediate, violent, and striking as its subject matter. Kevin Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

93. The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace

This Nation’s Saving Grace is the most accessible release from a band that can, at times, border on the completely inaccessible. Mark E. Smith makes no attempt to curtail his ominous murmuring, and his bandmates are as prone as ever to prickly songcraft and thrashing, but the grooves and melodies here showcase the Fall at their least abrasive. With “Barmy,” “What You Need,” and “Spoilt Victorian Child,” the group strikes the perfect balance between bilious dirge and subversive pop, while “Paintwork” is a charmingly tongue-in-cheek homage to ‘60s pop. A little bit of melody goes a long way for the Fall, making this a quintessential album in a unique and strangely interesting canon. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

92. My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything

It’s easy to dismiss Isn’t Anything as Loveless-lite, but My Bloody Valentine doesn’t attempt anything quite as epic or ambitious on their debut as they would just two years later. But even when they’re less grandiose, the shoegazing pioneers’ music is just as fascinating and hypnotic. Guitarist and songwriter-in-chief Kevin Shields employs reverb, feedback, pitch bending, and heavy distortion throughout, creating music that’s capable of simultaneously soundtracking our most ethereal dreams and most violent nightmares. Isn’t Anything beautifies all that should be ugly, and deserves a spot as a lo-fi masterpiece in its own right. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

91. Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II

Unfortunately for brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood, it took a guest appearance alongside Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged in 1993 to immortalize their legacy, a feat which 1984’s Meat Puppets II was fully capable of doing on its own merits. “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire”—the three songs that Cobain performed with the band—are especially alluring examples of the group’s cowpunk formula, and they strike similar success with the alluring “We’re Here” and endlessly infectious “The Whistling Song.” And with instrumental tracks “Aurora Borealis” and “I’m A Mindless Idiot,” the group is still in excellent form, serving up front-porch psychedelica of the highest order. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

90. Metallica, Master of Puppets

In retrospect, Master of Puppets exists as a kind of rapid-fire last hurrah for Metallica’s status as L.A.’s favorite underground thrash metal band. For a major-label debut, the album is unapologetically metal, brandishing wave upon wave of knifing guitar, percussion that rattles like tank treads, and nary a fully-formed melody to break through the rage, testosterone, and noise. Lest one thinks it’s all speed and mechanics, though, there is substance in the machine: Between the titular reference to drug abuse and swipes at evangelical commercialism, Master of Puppets isn’t just Metallica’s best album, it’s also their most heartfelt. Liedel

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The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

89. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues

If the title of the Talking Heads’ sixth album found them embracing their lyrical Dadaism with an almost religious zealotry, and if the title’s mission statement is more than fulfilled in the likes of “Moon Rocks” (“I ate a rock from the moon/Got shicked once, shocked twice”) and “Girlfriend Is Better” (where “Stop making sense” became a mantra), it’s also worth noting that the tunes were counterintuitively accessible like never before, no more so than “Burning Down the House,” which set fire to no wave and planted one of the many seeds for new wave. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

88. Pet Shop Boys, Actually

Actually, it explains nothing, but alludes to everything. Actually, it dances around the outskirts of dance music without ever diving headlong into disco hedonism. Actually, Neil Tennant’s yawn could conceivably greet any DJ set that dares to drop “One More Chance” or “Hit Music” alongside, say, “The Pleasure Principle.” Actually, Chris Lowe’s synth lines make cheap sound posh and vice versa. Actually, you know what you’ve done to deserve this, but are afraid to admit it. Actually, it isn’t a sin, but it’s more fun if you think it is. Actually, it’s hiding in plain sight. Actually, none of your business. Actually, this is all precisely the point. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

87. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club

Bless Mariah for sampling “Genius of Love” or we may remember Tom Tom Club only as a kookier-than-Taking-Heads offshoot. The band’s debut album, which shares a really messy loft in my medulla oblongata with Björk, David Lynch, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, is a smart-alecky cacophony of giddy rhymes, ballsy raps, blissed-out melodies, and lush bells, whistles, beeps, splats, and just about every other sound Moog synthesizers were capable of back in 1981. Not only does Tina Weymouth, on “Wordy Rappinghood,” show why humorless white girls like Madonna should never take up the rap mantle, she and hubby Chris Frantz’s production proves to the Paul Simons of the ‘80s how to ebulliently transmute exotic sounds without whitening out their essence. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

86. The Human League, Dare!

Stoic but danceable, detached but emotionally sincere, Dare! was, at the time of its release, simply the finest set of synth-pop songs ever compiled. The album has lost a lot of its futuristic sheen in subsequent decades, but “Seconds” still sounds sweeping and lush, while “I Am the Law,” with its bursts of rumbling bass and off-kilter harmonies, will never be anything but captivating. There’s always been something severe, even clinical, about Dare! (the same interplay of coldness and candor that made Joy Division so great), and with its technology dated, it sounds more tragic than ever, imparting a sense of deferred emotional connection akin to finding a breakup letter in a time capsule. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

85. The Clash, Sandinista!

The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an album—36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!—is fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be won’t notice. Truly an album without borders. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

84. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album

For any student of hip-hop or dance music, the first two tracks of electro-funk pioneer Afrika Bambaattaa’s Planet Rock alone make this landmark album worth the price of admission, stocked as they are with lessons on both the history and future of the genres. “Looking for the Perfect Beat” is still emulated by hip-hop and dance producers to this day, while the title track, first released as a single in 1982 and constructed from recreated portions of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” (from the German group’s Computer World), singlehandedly fathered both ‘80s Latin freestyle and the entire hip-hop genre as we know it. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

83. Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

A twitching sonic collage that falls somewhere between studio experiment and gonzo pop record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts challenges the often egg-headed nature of its presentation by being sneakily and eminently listenable. These are songs, despite their scrambled nature and lack of traditional vocals, and as a collection they reverberate with nervous energy. Whether it’s the voice of an exorcist on “The Jezebel Spirit” or a nervous radio-show caller on “Mea Culpa,” Brian Eno and David Byrne harness these disparate voices as the engines for a series of amazingly diverse tracks. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

82. Sonic Youth, EVOL

Jittery and eclectic, 1987’s EVOL stands far apart from the later, more cohesive Daydream Nation; it’s a difficult album that’s nonetheless one of the best latter-day invocations of no-wave chaos. Full of sustained bursts of cathartic noise, the album kicks off with the jagged squeal of “In the Kingdom #19,” which employs Minuteman bassist Mike Watt over a spoken-word account of a car crash, months after the death of bandmate D. Boon in similar circumstances. Lydia Lunch contributes vocals to the blown-out wasteland “Marilyn Moore,” adding to the weird collegial air of one of the group’s strangest albums. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

81. R.E.M., Reckoning

There’s no way Reckoning could ever have been as revelatory as Murmur, a fact that plays an obvious role in determining their respective legacies in R.E.M.’s catalogue. It’s a matter of “importance” versus “quality,” and, while Murmur certainly wins in the former category, there’s a strong argument to be made that, song for song, Reckoning might be the better album, even if it is rightly overshadowed by its predecessor’s greater historical impact. Informed by the death of the band’s close friend, photographer Carol Levy, Reckoning is focused on emotions of anger and regret, and it’s that focus that makes songs like “Harbourcoat” and “So. Central Rain” some of the most captivating in R.E.M.’s embarrassingly rich catalogue. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

80. The Clash, Combat Rock

“This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” The album’s famous first words, and a perfectly concise summation of the Clash’s uniquely exuberant and stylish craft, their provocative blending of political provocation with eclectic musicality. Their evolution was such that they became catchier as their convictions became more dense, which may explain Combat Rock’s somewhat ill repute; there would be hits, and as such it was conceived, wrongly, as a sell out. To me, the stream of consciousness of “Car Jamming” attests like few other Clash songs to Joe Strummer’s social consciousness, restless even when he was standing still. They saw rock, like fascist might, as a power, and so it is that their music feels as if it hits you with the force of a club or a boot to the face. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

79. The Cure, Pornography

The general read on the Cure’s legacy has been unfairly reduced to music for mopey goth kids, which misses the breadth of the band’s actual output. But it’s not like that reputation emerged from a vacuum: There’s Pornography, which opens with the line “It doesn’t matter if we all die” and then gets even more bleak from there. A thick, sludgy album that underscores its miserable bent with portentous arrangements that are brooding and uncompromising, Pornography peaks with “The Figurehead,” on which Robert Smith outlines his vision of hell in unflinching detail. The themes may be dire, but Smith elevates his unrelenting pain into real art. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

78. The Bangles, Different Light

It’s telling that, in a decade dominated by men, the first all-girl band to top the Hot 100 (with the kitschy “Walk Like an Egyptian”) featured a name, lush harmonies, and guitar riffs that all hark back to the 1960s. The caveat to their accomplishment, of course, is that producer David Kahne infamously excised drummer Debbi Peterson from the track. The album’s biggest hits were written by other people (including the somewhat out-of-place yet nonetheless hard-to-resist “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Prince-penned opener “Manic Monday”), but it’s the simple sophistication of the songs composed by the band themselves, like the rollicking title track and the haunting acoustic ballad “Following,” that makes Different Light more than simply a collection of Top 40 hits from a bygone era, but one of that era’s best pop albums. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

77. Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime

The punk-rock scene was built on a discontented ethos, but it was often a challenge in itself to decipher just what bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat were raging against. Minutemen, though, always stood out for the lack of ambiguity in their mission statement, and Double Nickels on the Dime features D. Boon and Mike Watt’s fiercest social and political tirades. What’s more, given Watt’s propulsive basslines and Boon’s eclectic guitar work (shifting from soft Spanish-guitar interludes and shrill punk riffs with the greatest of ease), the album also boasts far tighter and more varied musicianship than anything they did before or after. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

76. Art of Noise, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise?

“In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born,” wrote Luigi Russolo in a letter to fellow Italian futurist composer Balilla Pretella. And in the late 20th century, avant-garde electronic-pop collective Art of Noise, who took their name from Russolo’s famous essay, was born, concocting cacophonous collages of digital beats and samples that would influence an entire generation of knob twirlers. The group’s 1984 debut opens with the proto-political “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid),” portions of broadcasts from the U.S. invasion of Grenada building to industrial beats and a minimalist sub-bass that informed the work of future pioneers like Björk and Tricky. Surprisingly, it’s the album’s least noisy track, the 10-minute instrumental chill-out “Moments In Love,” that truly veers off into some exhilaratingly strange, unexpected territory. Russolo would be proud. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

75. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses

Communication is a recurring theme on Depeche Mode’s landmark Music for the Masses, and from the sampled radio broadcast of “To Have and to Hold” to the collage of grunts and moans of “I Want You Now” and the use of chamber choirs on “Sacred” and “Pimpf,” voices play a pivotal role in conveying Martin Gore’s missives of repentance and redemption. The high drama that’s so often proven to be the band’s Achilles’ heel works impeccably here, each song seguing effortlessly into the next, each histrionic verse and melodramatic key change aiding in the creation of a bona-fide pop-rock opera. While the band’s music wouldn’t truly meet the masses until 1990’s Violator, Music for the Masses stands as an early masterpiece of the synth-pop genre. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

74. Cocteau Twins, Treasure

No, you still can’t make out a damn thing that Elizabeth Frazer sings on Treasure. But you don’t need to: Her rolling, ululating syllables impart the kind of feelings that verbal communication is notoriously ill-suited for, and besides, when she swoops between the extremes of her range on a devastating number like “Lorelei,” you’ll swear you’re speaking her language. Robin Guthrie’s hypnotic guitar playing, by turns majestic and muscular, is everything that dream-pop guitar should be—if not for My Bloody Valentine, maybe all it ever would be. Critics sometimes protested that the Cocteau Twins shouldn’t really be considered a rock band at all, and that’s fine by me: When “Donimo” closes the album with operatic splendor, it’s clear that they’re something far more special. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

73. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade

With 1984’s Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü married their fast and furious brand of punk with swirling psychedelica, elaborate noise arrangements, and a newfound melodious side. Bob Mould’s cacophonous solos and treble-heavy riffing are raw and intense, while his sullen acoustic jams are gorgeous in their own melancholic way, and he even gets raise-your-fist anthemic with “Turn on the News.” With all this sonic shapeshifting, and an exhausting 70 minutes on the clock, Zen Arcade is something of an operatic frenzy, one where violent forays of rapid-fire punk are set to eccentric and elaborate structures. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

72. Sonic Youth, Sister

Overshadowed both critically and commercially by its successor, Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth’s Sister is the last great punk album of the Reagan era and the first great pop album to emerge from the American underground. The chiming, bending guitars of “Schizophrenia” interject a gorgeous haze into a sad, understated song about a friend’s crazy sister that immediately signaled a new era in the band’s development. Across the album, tightly interwoven textures of machine noise, feedback, and distortion are balanced out by shimmering harmonics and unprecedented warmth. Sure, the album still seethes with disaffection, but the avant garde never sounded so inviting. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

71. Kate Bush, The Dreaming

As far as 1980s female-centric performance-art-cum-mutant-pop goes, Kate Bush is the explosive sensualist against Laurie Anderson’s cool, detached yogi. Years removed from the idyllic anticipation of “This Woman’s Work,” The Dreaming is a violently singular work that places its creator’s emotions in their most natural environment: inscrutable and volatile. Each song, from the pedagogically impatient “Sat in Your Lap” to the trap-door hysterics of “Get Out of My House,” is a Joyce-worthy confluence of footnotes-to-be, and the key keeps getting tantalizingly passed between tracks via Bush’s darting tongue. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

70. Lou Reed, New York

A poison-pen letter to his hometown, Lou Reed’s New York devotes itself to rapidly fading objects, things that always seem to be in danger, from blue whales to the familiar nature of a city. Obsessed with the soiled underside of mid-‘80s NYC, acting as a grimy catalogue of police shootings, bigotry, and murder, Reed’s last great album also contains a fair sprinkling of affection. His love for the manifold details and innate possibilities of this complicated place is never more intact than on “Halloween Parade,” which documents the annual Greenwich Village tradition with a tender eye for minutiae, depicting a city that slips into a different costume every day. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

69. The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come

Whether or not Strangeways, Here We Come ended the Smiths’s brief career with their best album has been the subject of considerable debate for nearly a quarter century, but it definitively stands as the band’s most lush, richest work. Johnny Marr’s signature guitar work is at its most varied and widest-ranging here, and, thanks to producer Stephen Street, the contributions of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce’s rhythm section are actually given the chance to shine, which was rarely the case on the band’s first three albums. Morrissey, for his part, contributes lyrics that are dense and heady, steeped in imagery of death that reflects the demise of one of modern rock’s most influential bands. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

68. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!

In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981’s country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowie’s misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the style’s past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

67. XTC, Skylarking

The story behind the recording of XTC’s Skylarking is that the band absolutely hated working with producer Todd Rundgren, whom they found overbearing and snide, but none of that behind-the-scenes tension translated into the finished product, as joyous and buoyant a pop album as has ever been recorded. The songwriting is balanced between Andy Partidge’s more twee impulses and Colin Moulding’s grounded, dry wit, while Rundgren’s on-point production splits the difference between the band’s Pet Sounds inspiration and new wave’s bounce. Even when the band explores headier themes, such as the working-class disaffect on standout “Earn Enough for Us” and the potent defense of atheism on minor-hit single “Dear God,” their melodies are outsized and sunny. Skylarking might not have been fun to record, but it’s still a blast to listen to. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

66. The Replacements, Tim

On the continuum of ‘80s rock acts with a pronounced rock n’ roll influence, the Replacements fall somewhere on the spectrum between Bruce Springsteen and the Mekons, styling a skuzzy blend of mutated rockabilly that absorbs and adapts ‘50s tropes with propulsive glee. There’s a glimmer of punk attitude in all of Tim’s hurtling songs, but each one is too piercingly romantic and sincere to fit into that genre; witness “Kiss Me on the Bus,” which caps off with a joyous wave of sleigh bells. The result is a collection of booming love songs that find the spirit of the adventure in the most domestic of settings. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

65. Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell

It wasn’t the album that made hip-hop “safe” to white, middle American audiences (that didn’t come along until M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em), but Run-D.M.C.’s landmark Raising Hell was the album that truly gave a broader pop audience an entry point into hip-hop music. That Run-D.M.C. were able to break through on such a massive scale without sacrificing their aggressive sampling of harder-edged rock music or their inimitable lyrical flow speaks to the skill, unrivaled at the time, that they displayed on Raising Hell. Thanks to producers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the fans who were initially hooked by the group’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” discovered the depth of sound, purposeful use of samples, and razor-sharp wordplay that made the mid-‘80s rap music’s golden age. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

64. Pretenders, Pretenders

The Pretenders’ debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the band’s glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky “Brass in Pocket,” where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock n’ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Private Life” prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

63. Tina Turner, Private Dancer

Like another mega-successful pop monster, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Private Dancer is a staggering display of self-affirming artistry and vocal expression. For Turner, who was 45 when the album was released, it also represented a kind of vindication, with songs like the gritty, powerful “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and the sultry ultimatum “Better Be Good to Me” all but destroying the false pretense that she was somehow only fit to play second fiddle to Ike. Both a personal liberation and sonic redemption, Private Dancer established Turner not only as a genuine diva, but a bona fide force of nature. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

62. George Michael, Faith

Written, arranged, composed, and produced by George Michael almost entirely by himself, Faith put the former Wham! singer in the same league, if not on the same team, as Prince, and its blockbuster status and franchise of hits gave the King of Pop a run for his money in the late ‘80s. The album fuses pop and R&B with funk and jazz elements (the three-part “I Want Your Sex” alone traverses no less than four or five different styles), and just as the tracks are composed of a mix of canned Synclavier loops and live instruments, Michael himself is presented as one part slick lothario and one part socially conscious crusader. When he wasn’t luring some young thing into his bed with gin and tonic and pleas of “c-c-c-come on,” the middle stretch of the album found him sounding off on such patented ‘80s signposts as materialism and heroin addiction. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

61. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

Inseparable from Jonathan Demme’s concert doc of the same name, arguably the finest concert film ever made, and subject to endless hemming and hawing among Talking Heads’ diehards for the elisions made to said concert’s set list when the soundtrack was being produced, Stop Making Sense remains a divisive album. A 1999 reissue rectified many of the most common complaints about the original release, nearly doubling the length of the album and restoring some continuity to the band’s performance, but that takes nothing away from the fact that Stop Making Sense, even in its truncated original form, is a testament to one of the most compelling, forward-thinking bands of the rock era at the peak of their craft. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

60. Madonna, True Blue

Sure, some of the production choices on True Blue sound chintzy and dated in comparison to those on Madonna’s other ‘80s releases, but there’s no getting around the fact that five of the album’s nine tracks are among the strongest individual singles of her career. More importantly, though, True Blue was the album on which it became readily apparent that Madonna was more than just a flash-in-the-pan pop star. It’s when she began manipulating her image—and her audience—with a real sense of clarity and purpose and made sure she had quality songs to back up her calculation and world-dominating ambition. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

59. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom

Imperial Bedroom can be a challenging listen at times, but the hooks and melodies are so beguiling and infectious that it’s about as close to pop as Costello has ever gotten. There’s a myriad of sounds and styles coalescing wonderfully throughout, and the quirky songwriter punctuates each of his sonic detours with jaunty badinage and pert observations. The album boasts some absolutely astonishing wordplay, with even its most personal harangues arriving veiled in clever allegories and razor-sharp double entendres. Despite its lackluster commercial performance, then, Imperial Bedroom affirms Costello as a poet laureate for the counterculture and a restless musical genius all in the space of 50 topsy-turvy minutes. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

58. Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain

Black-velvet rock with a distinct romantic bent, Echo & the Bunnymen’s fourth and best album, Ocean Rain, flirts with ridiculous excess but remains sturdily in check, anchored by Ian McCulloch’s big, crooner-style voice. Never as silly as the gaudy goth luminaries that surrounded them, the band employs many of the same elements and flirts with similar deathly impulses, shaping a dreamy sound that utilizes a full orchestra to call up extravagant flourishes and explore pools of inky gloom, using tracks like “The Yo-Yo Man” to hint at dramatic excess without ever veering into outright theatricality. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

57. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Strip the bombastic showmanship from Bruce Springsteen’s back-alley narratives, take away the E Street Band, and you get Nebraska, a fragmentary collection of four-track demos that ended up being viable all on its own. These embryonic shells place the lingering desperation that had always lied beneath the surface of his songs into sharp relief, from the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate on the title track to the last-ditch liaison of “Atlantic City.” Incorporating such far-flung influences as Suicide, whose desperate whoops Springteen emulates on the grim, haunting “Highway Patrolman,” it’s a desolate sonic landscape that’s leagues more progressive than anything he recorded before or after. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

56. Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden

Opener “The Rainbow,” a deconstructed blues song splayed out over seven minutes, sets the perfect tone for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, the song’s blown-out harmonica wheezing over barebones soft-jazz backing. The album presents a series of similarly deliberate excursions, whose sustained focus on individual elements, like the harmonica and rudimentary blues arrangement of that opening song, twists and transforms them. Despite the initial air of chilled-out simplicity, each of these songs is actually a twitching patchwork of carefully blended elements, with twinkling piano crawls that blossom into sustained electronic explosions, all bracketed by a mystical, quasi-religious style of lyrical wordplay. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

55. Kate Bush, The Sensual World

It’s hard to pin down what makes Kate Bush’s music so completely infectious, but it probably has something to do with the reckless abandon with which she tackles what could otherwise be preposterous material. The topics on The Sensual World, ranging from a musical rendering of the epilogue of Ulysses to a love song directed at a computer program, are often wholeheartedly silly, and yet these songs never come off as anything less than totally and achingly believable. Blessed with one of music’s most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

54. 808 State, 90

If 90 was “Pacific 202” and 30 minutes of tape noise, it’d still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 State’s signature song (here a truncated six minutes of sax, synth, and roiling, rubbery bass), is just the most successful condensation of the diverse sonic tendencies explored on 90. Paced like an excellent DJ set from guys who’d spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesn’t build so much as it ebbs and flows between the assertively groovy and the totally blissed out. A thrilling expansion of the possibilities for acid house and arguably the best LP ever produced in the style, 90 shows that even a transient fad can be an impetus for world-making. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

53. Prince, Dirty Mind

Prince, unlike George Michael, doesn’t feel the need to justify sex, that it’s natural, it’s good. He’s content to let his dick do the talking, without apology. But Prince isn’t simply shooting his dithering load on this 1980 breakthrough, he’s radically redefining sex, its expression and power. Just as the album’s production is a succulently bouncy and interwoven tapestry of funk, pop, and rock, the wily Prince fearlessly and mischievously indulges fantasy and ambiguously adopts countless roles and personas, addressing throughout both his anima and animus. He will daydream of fucking some honey in his daddy’s car, getting head from another on her wedding day, but he will also sneak in glistening moments of doe-eyed romanticism, even a startlingly metaphoric commentary on race and class. This is liquid love in its purest and most thought-provoking form. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

52. R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant

In which the college (rock) kids graduate and head into the real world, ready to take over. And, in R.E.M.’s case, they came pretty close to doing just that. Lifes Rich Pageant stands as a nearly seamless transition between the band’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall On Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on pop hooks. In striking that balance, Lifes Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

51. The Smiths, The Smiths

There’s no reason why a mordant, sexually frustrated disciple of Oscar Wilde who loved punk but crooned like a malfunctioning Sinatra should’ve teamed up with a fabulously inventive guitarist whose influences were so diffuse that it could be hard to hear them at all and formed one of the greatest songwriting duos of the ‘80s. On classics like “Hand in Glove” (which had Morrissey outing himself before anyone had even thought to speculate about this sexuality) and “This Charming Man,” Morrissey says a lot but always insinuates more. Though that’s not the case on “Suffer Little Children,” a ghoulish retelling of a real-life tragedy in which five children were sexually abused and murdered. Its unforgettable refrain finds Morrissey channeling the ghosts of Britpop’s sacred city: “Manchester, so much to answer for.” Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

50. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine

Ever look back at your old junior high school yearbooks and see, with a shock, the last picture the kid voted “Most Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduation” took before encasing himself inside that filthy, black trench coat? The last one he took with his natural hair color? The last one in which his eyes that would later reflect only cataracts of the soul still glinted with the hint of something obscene? That’s what it’s like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, “I’d rather die than give you control!” in “Head Like a Hole.” Before attempting suicide in The Downward Spiral and living with the wrist scars in The Fragile, Pretty Hate Machine sent out sleek, danceable warning shots. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

49. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

Both the pop music landscape and political climate of the ‘80s were defined by a me-first sense of opulence and entitlement, nearly a full decade of the haves flaunting their wares and promising the have-nots that, someday, those wares would trickle down to them too. Tracy Chapman’s unassuming, self-titled debut laid bare the fundamental injustice and dishonesty behind the prevailing policies of the day; she wasn’t just “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” she aimed to start one. But what makes Tracy Chapman more than just a leftist course-correction or an antidote to hair metal are Chapman’s unabashed sincerity and empathy and the robust quality of her songwriting, which make songs like “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You” no less powerful or moving today. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

48. Michael Jackson, Bad

Michael Jackson’s Bad, perhaps the most highly anticipated album of all time, took the multi-format approach of 1982’s Thriller and magnified it to larger-than-life proportions. The pop was poppier, the rock was rockier, the dance was dancier. (Notably, R&B took the form of carefully placed elements as opposed to the bedrock of the songs.) The album was sonically more adventurous than its predecessor, resulting in more missteps, but perhaps even more rewards. Bad found Jackson taking more creative control, composing the majority of the songs on his own, making the breadth of album’s variety all the more impressive and solidifying many of the artistic and personal quirks and preoccupations that would come to define him in the last two decades of his life. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

47. Eurythmics, Touch

If Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) proved that the Eurhythmics had mastered the new wave genre’s icy detachment and ironic distance better than just about anyone, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s follow-up, Touch, found them ready to move on to greater challenges. The album may not be as song-for-song consistent as Sweet Dreams, but it’s far more diverse in its style, leaning heavily on the soulfulness of Lennox’s performances to keep its synth-pop aesthetic grounded in palpably human emotions. To that end, standout cuts like “Who’s That Girl” and the defiant “Aqua” confirm Lennox’s status as one of pop music’s most gifted, singular vocalists. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

46. Sinéad O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra

The title of Sinéad O’Connor’s debut was culled from Psalm 91, in which God promises to protect his people from the lion and the snake—symbols of bold and sly danger, respectively. O’Connor is more lion than snake, of course; she purrs like a kitten you’re fully aware is capable of lunging for your throat at any moment, and she often does—shrieking at dead lovers, admonishing her country’s leaders. The Lion and the Cobra is regal, majestic, and allegorical, an album rife with images of war, slain dragons, and ghosts, and it’s one of the most electrifying debuts in rock history. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

45. Roxy Music, Avalon

It’s not that the most common criticisms of Roxy Music’s final album, Avalon, don’t have merit: It’s absolutely fair to acknowledge that it’s divorced from the truly progressive aesthetic that made the band’s ‘70s-era output so vital and influential, and that the few members of the original lineup who still remained by the early ‘80s were so marginalized in the recording that the album plays more like a Bryan Ferry solo project. What those criticisms fail to account for is that the actual music on Avalon, taken on its own merits, is nearly perfect. The meticulous, spit-shined polish of the production can’t mask some of Ferry’s finest pop melodies, nor can it hide the lived-in worldliness that makes Avalon so much cooler and more knowing than the countless New Romantics imitators it spawned. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

44. Laurie Anderson, Big Science

My love affair with Laurie Anderson began with her recent Homeland, an album perfectly and succinctly described by Robert Christgau as a collection of “very scary stories whose endings nobody knows.” But this metropolitan performance artist and borderline cat lady was scaring us as far back as Big Science, on which she asks, “What is behind the curtain?” Then and now, her humor is lacerating, her fondness for BPMs cheekily abstract, but most fetching are her articulations of powerlessness—that even she doesn’t know what’s behind the curtain. Her experiments in syntax and sound eerily echo her concerns with the irreversible tides of change, most spectacularly on her finest song and only sorta-hit, “O Superman,” an attack on American military might that begins almost sensibly with a mother leaving an embarrassing, existentially fraught message on her child’s answering machine. Like progress, Anderson’s music resists resistance. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

43. Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control’s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits (the final of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released), it was one of the decade’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

42. New Order, Movement

In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is the intermediate space in between death and rebirth. It would have made an appropriate debut album title for the remaining members of Joy Division, reincarnated as New Order, following the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis. “Movement,” however, works just as well, evoking the fluidity of Bernard Sumner and company’s still-evolving sound. “Dreams Never End” is an apt opener; it’s the only song on the album with a traditional live-rock arrangement, featuring vocals by bassist Peter Hook, whose voice sounds closer in tone and cadence to Curtis’s than Sumner’s does. The rest of Movement exists almost exactly in between Joy Division’s post-punk sound and the synth-pop style that would come to define New Order and influence pop music for decades. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

41. Peter Gabriel, So

Home to the colossuses “Red Rain,” “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Big Time,” So is Peter Gabriel’s most accessible yet ambitious work. A chronicle of political, emotional, and artistic exploration, the album finds the Genesis co-founder attempting to balance standard pop orthodoxy with his still-rumbling desire for sonic experimentation. When Gabriel strikes that balance, the results are nothing less than sublime, such as when the untamed vocals of Youssou N’Dour join in on the melodious climax of “In Your Eyes.” Notwithstanding its successful expansion of Gabriel’s sound, So succeeds on quirky offerings alone: What’s not to love about an album that features a duet with Kate Bush and a shakuhachi solo? Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

40. Grace Jones, Nightclubbing

In go Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the Police, Bill Withers, and Astor Piazzola. Out comes Grace Jones as though none of the others ever existed. (All right, Jones’s dubby take on “Use Me” is no patch on Withers’s original. A minor chink in the armor.) With backing from Sly & Robbie, Jones’s Nightclubbing performs double duty, building up the singer’s legend even as it makes attempts at deconstructing it (as in “Art Groupie,” in which she enunciates “Touch me in a sculpture” so that it sounds like “Touch penis sculpture”). But the boogie masterpiece “Pull Up to the Bumper” removes such academicism from the table entirely. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

39. The Replacements, Let It Be

In the rough and raw underbelly of hardcore punk, naming your LP after a seminal Beatles album and peppering it with coarse ballads and painfully intimate moments is certainly a brave move. But that’s exactly what Paul Westerberg and company did on Let It Be, and that decision puts the accent mark on what is their strongest work by some stretch: “Unsatisfied” is a jagged ballad on which Westerberg howls his lungs out, while “Androgynous” is a tender, heart-on-the-sleeve piano number that finds the singer in equally gripping form. Make no mistake: The Replacements still fulfill their obligation to exhilarating punk jams, and the band is at their anthemic best on “I Will Dare,” but the album’s really remarkable moments arrive whenever the group dares to leave their hardcore comfort zone. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

38. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy

Shaping fuzz into a potent, tactile instrument, the Jesus and Mary Chain helped establish the style of distortion-laden fogginess that would eventually become the foundation for shoegaze. Possibly their most amorphously detailed album, and probably their best, Psychocandy buries snide and snotty vocals in a rolling sea of noise, an enormously effective approach that’s still being imitated today. The musical backing may be spare, like the faint guitar shimmer and lonely hi-hat smack of “Just Like Honey,” or it may be dense, the roiling chaos of “In a Hole,” but it remains effective throughout, leaving each song encased in a thick viscous shell. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

37. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction

The Sunset Strip didn’t spew the decade’s noisiest music. It just produced the most popular noise. In some cases, the sound disguised an iffy supply of fury. Despite initially boasting what would’ve been one of the most nasty-as-we-wanna-be covers ever attached to a diamond-selling blockbuster (Robert Williams’s comic-strip panel depicting the aftermath of robot rape) before caving into retailer pressure, and beyond such liquor-soaked speed-metal anthems as “You’re Crazy” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” the bleeding heart at the center of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” proves Axl Rose was always one good bender away from getting all “November Rain” on us. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

36. Pixies, Surfer Rosa

The scary thing about Surfer Rosa is that the songs are so damn catchy you’re in danger of not only deciphering the initially incomprehensible lyrics, but of singing them out loud. Which is great, since “Bone Machine” has a memorable bridge about being molested by a priest, “Broken Face” is yet another terrific Pixies song dedicated to the inbred, and “Cactus” finds Black Francis missing his lover and wishing to slip into one of her wet, bloody dresses. But the hooks are as grotesquely powerful as the imagery, and against all odds the Pixies created some bizarrely poignant moments in unexpected places (like Fancis’s trippy scuba fantasy, “Where Is My Mind?,” and Kim Deal’s “Gigantic” ode to the well-endowed), a fact which owes, more often than not, to Joey Santiago’s endless supply of otherworldly guitar leads. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

35. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.

The ironic misinterpretation of Born in the U.S.A.’s title track has been well-documented, and persists as a rather inane flap as it pertains to the album’s real import: Bruce Springsteen’s transformative leap from bar muse to blue-collar rock god. Born in the U.S.A. is chock-full of working-class anthems that fueled that metamorphosis, from burners like “I’m on Fire” to the wistful “My Hometown,” where the Boss sings of old Buicks, racial tensions, and the sting of economic downturn. Rounded out by the mixture of sex, magnetism, and poetry in “Dancing in the Dark,” Born in the U.S.A. propelled Springsteen not only into a pop-radio staple in the ‘80s, but cast him as the voice of the disillusioned American everyman. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

34. Pixies, Doolittle

Doolittle is their manifesto for ‘90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixies’ sound and the countless bands that followed in their wake. Arriving in 1989, Doolittle served as vanguard for modern rock both sonically and tonally, as evidenced by the descriptive, almost metaphysical nature of the band’s lyrics. When Black Francis screams, “God is seven!,” on “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” there’s little doubt about the gravity of the message—or where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

33. Madonna, Madonna

Few would deny that Madonna went on to pursue deeper goals than the simple pop perfection of Madonna. But any debut album that yields a “Holiday” and a “Lucky Star,” both released as singles in the span of two consecutive days (albeit an ocean apart), is still pretty untouchable. Wistful and eager to please, Madonna’s sparkling ditties aren’t so much “post-disco” as they are “disco ain’t going nowhere, so shut up and dance.” Like a heavenly body atop the surging underground currents of every synth-heavy dance subgenre that preceded her, Madonna’s cultural co-opting is nothing if not fervent. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

32. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full

Many would argue that the late ‘80s was the absolute pinnacle for hip-hop, and it’s difficult to argue against Paid in Full being a benchmark of the era. Rakim’s methodical and meticulous approach to his delivery provides a stark contrast to that of his contemporaries, while his mastery of internal rhymes underlines his status as a superbly technical wordsmith. For his part, Rakim didn’t need to rely on macho jargon and trite gangsterisms for his self-aggrandizing sermons; he would simply reel off line after line of spellbinding wordplay, influencing an entire decade of tongue-twisting MCs in the process. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

31. Janet Jackson, Control

The story goes that Papa Jackson warned producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, former members of the Time, not to make his daughter sound too much like Prince on her breakthrough album, Control. Not only did they fail, but they failed spectacularly. The keyboards and synth melodies on tracks like “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “You Can Be Mine” are quintessential Minneapolis pop, but Jam and Lewis also previewed what would become their signature industrial beats and spliced-and-diced vocal treatments (which, it should be noted, is all the rage in indie pop today) on the title track. Janet would go on to release more “important” albums (namely Rhythm Nation and The Velvet Rope), but track for track, Control is still her strongest. Her albums would get longer as her waistline got slimmer, but Control boasts little padding. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

30. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

It’s hard to think of a band that matched malice with infectiousness as well as Sonic Youth, that pulled of this tricky balance most adroitly on Daydream Nation, the shining capstone on a strong decade of experimentation. Combining consummate songcraft with the furthest reaches of noise, they end up with withering digressions like “Silver Rocket,” which derails its hooky, slithering guitar line to plunge into a two-minute-long sea of noise, and “Total Trash,” which recalls Television with its rambling, seven-minute-plus exploration of a looping melody, buttressed by increasingly frantic walls of noise. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

29. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man

Pop goes Leonard Cohen and it soars. I discovered this poet prophet through McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his deadpan baritone passing throughout Robert Altman’s dreamy film like opium smoke. The almost synth-pop production of this 1988 masterwork, arguably his finest next to his stunning debut, would seem to be a terrible match for his customarily dense and nuanced lyricism. But Cohen has always been a man of many hats, and here he ballsily suffuses his pained declarations of romantic and spiritual desperation with a wryness that’s matched almost subversively beat for beat by the sugariness of the background vocals. With great courage and conviction, the man turns a sermon into a cabaret. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

28. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses

In hindsight, The Stone Roses is essentially a lithe and sinuous greatest-hits album, a string of would-be singles blaring from the speakers of a Madchester baggy disco, dominating dance floors still reeling from the acid-house scene and the new-romantic era. Mani’s thundering basslines and John Squire’s kaleidoscopic guitar parts keep the sound firmly rooted in indie-rock territory, their anthemic refrains setting a number of Britpop trends in a heartbeat, while John Leckie’s psychedelic production won over pill-popping ravers en masse. The Stone Roses is an unashamedly British album, a love letter to its working classes and an ultraprecise predictor of what was on the horizon for Her Majesty’s airwaves in the ‘90s. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

27. David Bowie, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) catches David Bowie on the cusp of international megastardom and is widely regarded as the glam-rock icon’s last truly great album. Bowie bridles the experimentation of his Berlin trilogy and channels those synth flourishes and off-kilter guitar licks into one of the decade’s quirkiest pop albums. “Ashes to Ashes” is absolutely mesmerizing, and “Fashion” almost sets the tone for the entire decade by itself, and even beyond these singles are countless examples of utterly flawless pop. That it’s difficult to even notice Brian Eno’s absence is a testament to how convincing this madcap milieu really is, and affirms Bowie’s reputation as the maharishi of avant-garde pop. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

26. Tom Waits, Swordfishbones

At the turn of the decade, lowlife laureate Tom Waits was well on his way to becoming an industry-vetted, Hollywood-normalized singer-songwriter. Think Randy Newman if Randy Newman wrote songs about hookers. Swordfishbones marks the beginning of a genius period, which, judged by last year’s Bad As Me, isn’t winding down anytime soon. Here, he trades barroom ballads for disorienting, percussive songs that sound like a junkyard come to life, and on “Down, Down, Down” and “16 Shells from a 30.6” he unleashes the gravely howl that would become his trademark. Waits was always a reliable guide to the desperate underbelly of American city life, but with Swordfishtrombones, it became clear that this was only the first stop on an itinerary eventually destined for hell. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

25. Kraftwerk, Computer World

In the beginning there was light, said Genesis. Then came apes and space travel, an odyssey immortalized by Stanley Kubrick. And somewhere between there were computers, their rise the theme of the maximalist Computer World, the eighth and last great album by chilly electronic geek-teurs Kraftwerk. Consistent with the pioneering German band’s body of work, the album is an exploration of the effects of technology on modern urban living, which will sound as torturous as a Todd Haynes film lecture to someone who’s never actually heard Kraftwerk’s music. Across seven gorgeously lurching and exacting tracks, we are made to understand the angst and hilarity of our inextricable, personality-warping ties to the computer. This prescient sonic landscape still leaves one feeling with the sensation of having swum through a prickly but immaculate ocean of 0s and 1s. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

24. U2, The Joshua Tree

Never has an album synthesized angst, spirituality, love, and politics in just its first three tracks as well as The Joshua Tree, the only U2 album that seriously threatens Achtung Baby as the band’s greatest accomplishment. With “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You,” three of the band’s most aching, impassioned songs back to back to back, the band became lords and emperors of anthemic ‘80s rock. Perhaps on a more meaningful level, though, the universality of The Joshua Tree completed U2’s evolution from Irish ruffians to globe-straddling rock heroes. “Outside is America,” Bono sings on “Bullet the Blue Sky,” prescient to the fact that with the album’s astounding success, U2 no longer belonged to Dublin, but the world. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

23. New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies

From the instantly recognizable surf-guitar riff that opens “Age of Consent” to the poignant, observational lyrics of “Leave Me Alone,” New Order’s second album finds the band working with broader sonic and emotional palettes than on their debut. Movement was apiece with Joy Division’s dismal worldview (the suicide of a dear friend does not often prompt a positive reassessment of one’s lot in life), but Power, Corruption & Lies marks the real beginning of New Order’s career. Sweet pop songs like “The Village” are juxtaposed by beautiful, melancholy compositions, none of which stand out as elegantly as “Your Silent Face.” With Bernard Sumner’s fragile, boyish voice giving the album a human center, the dance-rock pioneers had crafted their first perfect pop record. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

22. Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual

An absolutely peerless collection of profound pop jewels that achingly and euphorically speak to the heart and soul of a girl grappling with loneliness, carnality, being down and out, the pressures of growing up, knowing that you have to even though you don’t want to, and the paradoxes of being a girl in a society that doesn’t respect you. And maybe it’s because Cyndi Lauper is a girl that the album still doesn’t get the respect it deserves from chauvinistic rock critics that would hide her away from the rest of the world—or maybe it’s because two of its greatest songs are covers, which trivializes her outstanding retaining of Prince’s pronouns for her take on “When You Were Mine,” one of pop music’s most radical sleights of hand. Like the fluttering production of “All Through the Night,” there are some mightily empowered hooks here that still send shivers up my spine, that once made me believe that this wonderful kook really could walk in the sun. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

21. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes

Folk-punk pioneer Gordon Gano wrote the songs on Violent Femmes’ 1983 debut when he was still in high school, which goes a long way toward explaining why the songs possess such an authentic sense of teen angst. Of course, Gano’s creaky voice aids in the image of a pimply social outcast scribbling in his notebook late at night or in the back of a classroom. Violent Femmes is horny, cheeky, and audacious, but it’s also musically sophisticated and deftly executed, with infectious hooks and harmonies (“Please Do Not Go”) and some of the slickest acoustic ax riffs and tightest rhythm sections (“Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off”) put to tape. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

20. Madonna, Like a Prayer

For her fourth album, Madonna went back to her roots. Like a Prayer is decidedly retro, the ultimate genre pastiche of all of singer’s early influences: Sly Stone, Simon & Garfunkel, the Association, the Beatles. More significantly, it found Madonna reflecting on marriage and family, subject matter that bonds her musical influences together into a cohesive—and confessional—collection. For all of her vocal limitations, Madonna often sings with more feeling than many of her more technically gifted peers, and with her voice left shockingly unpolished here, the album offers some of her most soulful, vulnerable performances. Upon revisiting Like a Prayer, I made a new discovery: a whirring synth on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a non-cloying song about her marriage to Sean Penn, that mimics the sound of a car speeding away as the song fades. Likewise, the album begins with a slamming door—the closing of a chapter, if you will, and the beginning of a new one. By the late ‘80s, Madonna was already one of the biggest pop stars of all time, but with Like a Prayer, she became one of the most important. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

19. Paul Simon, Graceland

Modern-day indie purveyors like Vampire Weekend, Tanlines, and even the Very Best owe the lifeblood of their mbaqanga-meets-baroque pop sound to Graceland, the album that singlehandedly revived Paul Simon’s career in the ‘80s. The album is gorgeous and diverse by way of its quirkiness, a multi-sided gem drawing on a limitless number of styles and influences and combining them with an almost celebratory humor. “You Can Call Me Al” is a prime example of that winning formula, where the typically witty existentialism of Simon’s lyrics is paired South African basslines, worldly percussion, and even a pennywhistle. With Graceland, Simon completed the journey from Garfunkel to funky, and to this day, imitators can’t quite match the record’s blithe mosaic. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

18. N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton

“Do I look like a motherfucking role model?!” You know your debut has truly caught people’s attention when even J. Edgar’s descendant soldiers are wiring you demerits. Given the carnage on display, though, it’s not hard to see why G-Men started getting a little testy when they caught wind of G-funk’s prehistory emerging from speakers everywhere in the form of the metaphor-free “Fuck tha Police.” The juxtaposition of midtempo, Cali-languid grooves and violent wordplay positioned Straight Outta Compton as the sound of the West Coast firing on New York’s Fort Sumpter in what would become ‘90s culture’s biggest Uncivil War. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

17. R.E.M., Document

Michael Stipe has said he knew he wanted to play in a rock band when he heard Patti Smith’s Horses at the age of 15. I have to think that Document, made 12 years later, is the R.E.M. album that Smith would be most proud to have inspired. Stipe’s lyrics had never been as political, though with the exception of “Exhuming McCarthy,” he avoids making accusations, instead using desolate midtempo numbers like “Welcome to the Occupation” and “King of Birds,” which paraphrases Reagan’s State of the Union address from the same year in its chorus, to evoke the confusion and frustration of the era. Ironically, it was by rediscovering the power in the original outsider stance, reflected sonically in their step back from the crisp production of Lifes Rich Pageant, that R.E.M. made their breakthrough, not so much crossing over into the mainstream as piercing it with their most focused and intelligent work to date. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

16. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

There may never again be an indie-rock album as good as The Queen Is Dead. Johhny Marr proves himself to be the consummate indie guitar hero by never allowing his Rickenbacker to jangle quite the same way on nay two songs, and, crucially, never taking a single solo. Even so, bouncing pop numbers like “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” are as much his showcase as they are Morrissey’s, who only really steals the show on “I Know It’s Over.” On that desolate breakup number, he gives the vocal performance of his life, finding a new way to contort his larynx each time he begs his mother for consolation. His lyrics had never been more revealing: By the end of the album, we learn that Morrissey is the type of person who imagines himself burning at the stake on a bad day, and on a good night allows himself to fantasize about dying in an incredibly romantic bus accident. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

15. The Cure, Disintegration

After two albums’ worth of uncharacteristically light-hearted pop, Disintegration might’ve sounded like something of a relapse for the Cure. It’s a dreamlike album that turns nightmarish in places as its icy, imperious pop epics channel Pornography’s atmospheric despondency. Depression is often associated with the inability to feel, but Disintegration proves that sorrow is, as much as love, a many-splendored thing. For all his infamous melodrama, Robert Smith can be a plainspoken and relatable lyricist; this is an album with songs about hungry spider men and hopeless prayers, but its most memorable lines are simple and heartfelt. If not for Smith’s wardrobe, we wouldn’t call this goth. We’d call it sad, pretty pop music. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

14. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs

Early in his transition from post-beatnik piano man to percussive backwoods hobo, the Tom Waits of Rain Dogs still had the residual stink of a boozy poet left on him, which resulted in the snappy rhythms of this big album. At 19 tracks and 53 minutes, it’s the most overstuffed and expansive effort of his long career. From the squealing free jazz of “Midtown” to the jaunty music-hall balladry of “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and off-kilter accordion jangle of the title track, Rain Dogs is a skuzzy, dynamic mural, awash in film-noir-inspired textures and all kinds of detailed color, a sleazeball concept album pickled in cheap gin. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

13. R.E.M., Murmur

For many, this was their first taste of Michael Stipe’s wistfulness, that artful, almost autistic lyricism that would have been completely impenetrable if not for the inviting warmth of his voice. There was also, of course, the playfulness of Peter Buck’s just-shy-of-strident guitar and Mike Mills’s harmonious basslines. There are R.E.M. albums I cherish more, but Buck and Mills never played better than they did on “Radio Free Europe,” “Moral Kiosk,” “Catapult,” “Sitting Still,” and “9-9,” a gorgeous and unexpectedly sexy cacophony of sound and canny wordplay that gives striking expression to Stripe’s social anxiety. Listening to Murmur today is bittersweet, because as the spell of its dreamy melancholy breaks, we realize we must resign ourselves to a world where R.E.M. didn’t stay. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

12. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill

You can blame them for a lot of things (introducing full-bore misogyny to hip-hop; paving the way for rap-rock with their aggro, guitar-based beats; sticking to the same whiny flow patterns), but the Beastie Boys’ first album also drastically modernized rap. Rife with layer upon layer of sampling, start-stop transitions, and aggressive beats, it helped transform the genre from a direct dialogue between MC and DJ into a piercing, multi-threaded narrative. Making way for the even more complex textures of Paul’s Boutique, it’s a groundbreaking classic that helped set an exciting template for the future. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

11. Prince, Sign o’ the Times

Finding Prince at an all-time high of musical creativity and an all-time low of horniness, Sign o’ the Times is Prince’s most varied album and his most self-consciously auteurish. It collects tracks from a few years’ worth of shelved experiments, which means it lacks the coherent sound of a Purple Rain. But what chance does aesthetic unity stand against such gleefully generative pluralism? The psychedelic stomp of “Play in the Sunshine” and the nervy, obsessive sexuality of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” could be spun off into whole albums. The truth is, 1999 and Purple Rain have been the blueprint for more than a handful of R&B careers, but no one’s quite figured out how to follow Prince’s trail this far. For all of the new musical possibilities that Sign o’ the Times opens up, it also prompts the sobering realization that most of them will only ever be possibilities for one musician. Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

10. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

My mother, a freak for the Victorian, once defied by father by naming me not after him, his father, and his father’s father, but after an Emily Brontë character, so it was destiny that lured my imagination to the wily, windy moors from which Kate Bush appears to sing these tales of longing and remembrance. The album is a haunting—lush with playful and dramatic dreaming, metaphor and symbolism, motifs of running and hiding, beats that gently fall like raindrops. She plays child, woman, beast, and witch, standing on the ground but sounding as if she’s flying through the sky. She is hunter and huntee at once, and she makes you feel her transformation from one to the other, quite literally, with a howling. A whistle becomes a gust of wind, and it takes you away in its wraith-like arms to a place of very warm comfort. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

9. De La Soul, 3 Feet High & Rising

De La Soul were easy and breezy when it seemed everyone else winning the game preferred sleazy. So you just knew white folks from the Pazz & Jop roll call all the way down to college DJs in Wyoming were going to flip their token for the ‘60s utopianism and overachieving, carnivalesque sonic display of 3 Feet High & Rising (as they later would over Deee-Lite’s plastique-fantastique, vitamin C-infused inversion of underground house). But you can’t listen to Prince Paul’s stitchery with the Funkadelic bounce of “Me Myself and I,” the saxy “Potholes in My Lawn,” or the scratching of “Buddy” and still hold that against them. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

8. Prince, 1999

If Prince’s reign over the airwaves ended a good deal earlier than the year he predicted the world itself would end in 1999, the album still marked the grand crossover moment for the decade’s most versatile, least predictable pop superstar. Positioned between—and embodying the strengths of both—the rambunctious, genre-defying immediacy of Dirty Mind and Controversy before it and the dick-waving rock majesty of the Purple Rain soundtrack that followed, 1999 is an expansive, disturbed communiqué from the nexus of naked funk and sexual obsession. “Some people tell me I’ve got great legs.” Nope, this is not your grandfather’s rhythm and blues. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

7. Joy Division, Closer

The fact that Joy Division’s very name is synonymous with ‘80s post-punk despite their having released only one album in the decade speaks to Closer’s looming impact on the genre it helped propel. A similar shadow was cast by frontman Ian Curtis’s death shortly before the album’s release, lending Closer an added layer of mystique to the band’s already-bittersweet unfulfilled promise. Though the remaining members would go on to form seminal synth-pop group New Order, Closer exists as Joy Division’s magnificent epithet. Its songs are beautifully crafted dirges, with thrumming, ghostly synths and plumbing basslines bolstering Curtis’s imaginative but morbid lyricism. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

6. Talking Heads, Remain in Light

Paul Simon’s Graceland gets much of the credit for the revival of African-inspired pop music in the mid-‘80s, but the Brian Eno-produced Remain in Light broke that ground six years earlier with a joyous meld of Afrobeat and post-punk. This is Talking Heads at their best, a band that had once teased its listeners with full-fledged worldbeat experimentation now reveling in the interplay between South African harmonies, new wave looping, and funk rhythms. Remain in Light is, in effect, one long, finely crafted global jam session, delivered by a group of musicians who can ably handle its assortment of eclectic parts and intricacies. As predictable as it might be to point to “Once in a Lifetime” as a perfect microcosm of everything that’s right about Remain in Light, the point holds true: The track, like its album, is blithe, bizarre, noisy, unpredictable, and a deliciously energetic slice of pop virtuosity. Liedel


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

5. Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique

Those who dismissed the music of the Beastie Boys as hackneyed frat-boy gimmickry—and those who expected these three white Jews to descend into novelty caricatures—were forced to eat their words with the release of Paul’s Boutique. And though it was a complete commercial disaster in 1989, this spastic blitzkrieg of pop-culture references and madcap sampling marks the moment where the Beastie Boys were taken seriously as artists. The trio redefined the posse-rap dynamic with their furious to-and-fro changeovers, punctuating their rhymes with sassy samples to further energise their unorthodox sound. Paul’s Boutique is the sound of hip-hop sneaking into mainstream consciousness, purchasing property in affluent suburbia and inner cities alike, all thanks to three born-again punk rockers. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

4. The Clash, London Calling

A large part of the musical narrative of the ‘80s involves the parasitic influence of punk, as its rough attitudes and stripped-down approach spread out to consume and incorporate outlying genres. One of the first instances of this spread occurred as the decade was just dawning, on a sprawling album that expands to cover Jamaican ska, northern soul, and American pop, creating both a searing document of a world in flux and a convincing precedent for the rest of the decade. All this in addition to a sharp lyrical sense, which espouses revolutionary rhetoric without sounding completely idiotic. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

3. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Now that hip-hop has become so intractably linked to mainstream pop, the idea of a hip-hop album as revolutionary as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is hard to fathom. In the nearly 25 years since the album’s release, hip-hop culture has been embraced by the very nation of millions Public Enemy railed against. It may not sound as groundbreaking as it once did (though, thanks to the Bomb Squad’s most creative productions, it’s still catchy as all hell), but it’s a testament to Public Enemy’s power and intelligence that the album’s ferocious political outrage and its damning portraits of institutionalized racism and class warfare are still as relevant as they’ve ever been. Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

2. Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain

On which Violet the Organ Grinder takes us to church and straight into the confession box. The album may not possess the salaciousness of Dirty Mind, but even at its softest, its most “mature,” it exudes a rapturous sense of feeling. From elevators to hotel lobbies and beyond, Prince resigns himself to love and makes you feel the funky stirrings of his heart, perhaps most expressively on “The Beautiful Ones.” From here to there, life to death, there’s a startling, telling fixation on movement. This is, after all, a companion piece to a film that ostentatiously depicts the Kid’s rise to fame. And there’s no fall here, only one gorgeous climax after another, immaculately and luxuriously sustained from beginning to end. Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

1. Michael Jackson, Thriller

What additional praise can be heaped on Michael Jackson’s genre-mashing magnum opus except to say that even the lesser hits like “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” are perfectly rendered pop gems? That seven of the album’s nine tracks were all Top 10 hits reinforces how much of a culture-defining gargantuan Thriller was and continues to be. And yet, despite the well-earned acclaim and its unquestionable unification of fans across class, age, gender, and racial lines, Thriller is an album steeped in angst and loneliness. Lest we forget from years of grotesque eccentricity, Jackson was once the original Kanye West, and this album was his own dark, twisted fantasy—a glimpse into a creative but fissured mind that sought, above all things, unquestionable greatness. MJ achieves that countless times on Thriller, arguably the most sublime 42 minutes of pop music ever recorded. Liedel

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on the Friendship Behind The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Fails and Talbot live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat majesty.

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Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails
Photo: Adam Newport-Berra/A24

The surrealistic verve of The Last Black Man in San Francisco often makes the film feel as if it exists apart from time and reality. But perhaps no facet of Joe Talbot’s film cuts against the grain of the present political climate than the form of its nostalgia. In a time where politicians on the right are weaponizing a rose-colored view of America’s past in order to rouse action in support of a whiter, more homogenous country, Talbot and co-writer/star Jimmie Fails’s story pines for a truly diverse, pluralistic society in San Francisco.

Fails and Talbot, who sports a San Francisco Giants ballcap that’s been seemingly surgically attached to his head, live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat charms and majesty. Fails’s painfully personal biography is the backbone of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it connects to a larger history of San Francisco. Gentrification moves beyond serving as just an empty thematic buzzword and emerges as a process that takes tangible effects in its characters. As Fails, playing a version of himself, attempts to reclaim an old Victorian home built by his grandfather, he must directly confront the social and economic forces leading to his own obsolescence in the city that made him.

I chatted with Talbot and Fails about their creative partnership over coffee in New York—and, ironically enough, at a venue in a part of town that the Urban Displacement Project classifies as having fallen victim to “super gentrification.” Our conversation began with a discussion about their early work together in scrappy short films and closed with a talk about how they hope to encourage public dialogue about gentrification in the future.

Was the 2017 short film American Paradise your first collaboration together?

Joe Talbot: No, actually, we made movies together since high school. One of our first movies was called Last Stop Livermore.

Was American Paradise a proof of concept for The Last Black Man in San Francisco at all? Or just trying to level up a bit?

JT: We did a concept trailer for Last Black Man five years ago that was closer to proof of concept for this. It was essentially Jimmie skateboarding through the city. I’m hanging out of my little brother’s car filming it, very funky, and he’s skating and telling his story that inspired the film. That was the first thing we did. Jimmie’s wearing the beanie and red plaid shirt [an outfit he wears throughout the feature]. We put it online not expecting anything to happen. We’d never done anything big like this before. But we started getting emails from people who wanted to join and help us. They became a part of our film family, and as we developed Last Black Man over the next few years, basically learning how to write a script together, because we’d never done anything like that, and we had an opportunity to do a short film that eventually became American Paradise. In American Paradise, even though Jimmie’s character bookends it, it was a completely different story for us. It was a chance for us to come together and make something en route to making the feature.

So, like a ride with training wheels beforehand?

JT: A little bit, yeah! I had never been on a set. Part of it was that I knew I was gonna fuck up in some ways, so I wanted to lessen the chance of that.

You mentioned there being a long tracking shot in the trailer, and a lot of those shots made it into the feature. Is that something you always envisioned as a key part of telling Jimmie’s story?

JT: Yeah, I think the city lends itself to them in some ways. Obviously, it’s a beautiful city, a place you keep falling back in love with, but it’s a place we’re very critical of and have a lot of problems with. That’s part of the ambivalent relationship we have with the city.

Jimmie Fails: At the time that he did it, I thought it was very well put together. He edited and scored it himself. It makes sense why people reached out when they saw it. He did a good job.

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At what point did Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, come on board to help fund the film?

JT: Much later.

JF: Took a while! [laughs]

JT: Me, Jimmie, Khaliah, and a group of other people who saw that concept trailer became our film family. We spent these years working on it together. Then, Plan B saw our work, read the script, and we spent a little more time further developing it with them. They came on to produce it and went to A24 to finance it.

Did that change the scope at all or what you thought would be possible?

JF: We had big dreams! We can shoot it on Technicolor, we can shoot it on film—it could have cost $100 million. But we’re first-time filmmakers, so what the fuck do we know?

JT: It was an ambitious movie. And even finally getting a budget, it still required us to call in favors left and right, and a lifetime’s worth of experiences in San Francisco. It still felt in a way like a bigger version of the movies we made as teens, just with more people and more cameras. Like outdoing the same thing you’ve done for a long time.

JF: Pretty much, just more professionally.

How did you all come to determine the visual or tonal language for the film? It seems like the story came first since it has such personal roots, but was the poetic and surreal nature of the project always evident?

JF: I think that just speaks to our imaginations as people. We always try to make the best stuff kind of dreamy. Ghost World was a big influence. I think that’s important to tell that personal story, and it came first. But especially me, because it’s so personal to me, I don’t want to shove a personal story down someone’s throat without making it more magical or poetic.

JT: When Jimmie first told me the stories about his life, he always did it in that way. It always felt like he had some unique outsider’s context in the way he told it. I think he’s just naturally a really good storyteller. It was as much about the stories as the way he told them. And then, on top of that, he could take something that was true and then we could imagine. Mike Epps’s character was based on someone in Jimmie’s life, but it was funny to imagine someone who drove off with your car and coming back to pick Jimmie up. It was funny to think about Mike Epps driving around and not acknowledging that. That’s fucking funny, and Mike Epps is hilarious! A lot of it was starting with something real and then going off into our imaginations as to what we thought would be fun to watch.

I know that this project is an intense collaboration between the two of you, but Joe, as a white man conveying a very black story and history, was your job just to learn as much as you could from Jimmie and the community to be a faithful steward?

JF: I’m just gonna chime in. That’s the problem with change in San Francisco. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so we were around a lot of the same people. It was very diverse. There [were] white, black, Latino kids. Obviously, our experiences are different: His parents are white, and my family is black. He was around. It wasn’t like he had to come in and study the black community. He was already there. A lot of his friends were black. We all knew about everyone’s culture growing up in San Francisco, but not so much anymore because it’s changed so much. He’s also very well educated on San Francisco. His dad wrote a book called Season of the Witch that tells a lot of the black history that is important and central to San Francisco. He’s telling his friend’s story, and he’s black. I totally get the question, but we’ve known each other for so long that I can’t imagine anyone else telling the story.

JT: Yeah, I think that this story for us, everything we’ve made has come out of our conversations. This felt like an extension of that. That’s part of how this naturally unfolded. Had I come into a different situation, I might not be the right person to make that film. I think there are other films in San Francisco from other people in other experiences, and I’m certainly not the person to make [them] despite being a lifelong San Franciscan. Even then, it starts with us, but it’s also about the other people who are involved in the project. One of the first people to become involved, Khaliah Neal, is an East Oakland native who cut her teeth in New York producing. This was her first big leap into independent filmmaking as a lead producer, and she became our producing partner like Jimmie was my creative partner. I think that collaboration was really important because I’m a white guy, and even though we had grown up together, as many voices in the room helps in getting to a deeper truth. That way it’s not all on Jimmie, it’s on us as a group. And not even just in terms of race, some of our closest collaborators aren’t from San Francisco at all, so they don’t know the nuances of the shit we saw growing up. They don’t know what a candy house is necessarily. We see San Francisco in one way, with a very specific kind of love, but bringing in people who don’t know as much about San Francisco is important in telling a story that is going to exist outside it.

I was really struck by the “this guy fucks” moment, a reference to Silicon Valley, when Jimmie’s character sits next to a naked guy on a bench and watches a trolley full of tech bros chant the quote from the show. What inspired this scene and led you to put it in the movie?

JF: It’s supposed to speak to me coming from my dad’s house, which is a rough moment. He doesn’t respond how I wanted when I break the news that I’m back in the house. I think it’s representative of old San Francisco and new San Francisco meeting. Obviously, I’m unfazed by the naked guy because I see that all the time. I relate to him more than all the “this guy fucks” cable car. Visually, it’s old meets new. They’re listening to a newer version of “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. They’re on a cable car on wheels, which is a contradiction. It just goes to show that the people in San Francisco don’t pass judgement, really. You meet so many different people.

Is this a nostalgic film?

JF: Yeah. We’re nostalgic people. [laughs] That would have come through either way because we just go through life that way. I’m pretty sure any film he makes would be a little nostalgic.

What role should looking back at the city’s history play as it looks forward to the future?

JF: All I want is for friendships like ours to be able to exist, and that doesn’t exist in the new San Francisco. That’s really what it’s about, getting back to that point where artists and outsiders can live there. Where weirdos who didn’t feel accepted could come because that’s what it used to be about. That’s the best San Francisco in my eyes.

Now that this project has made you all cult heroes in the city, how do you view your role in the ongoing conversation about the future of San Francisco? Activists? Storytellers? Artists? Something else entirely?

JF: I think a little bit of all of that. I think you definitely want to speak out if you can and let the voice be heard. But we’re artists first and foremost. Let our art create that conversation where there can be activism. Start the dialogue. I’m going to be in contact with Danny [Glover, who co-stars in the film].

JT: Danny is a hero to us in San Francisco, because not only is he an actor who’s been in important work, but he was an activist in the city before that. We grew up on the stories of his activism. Those two things feel like San Francisco the best: art and politics. With someone like him, you look up to him and hope you can carry on, in some very small way, the tradition that he set forward.

There’s been quite a Bay Area Renaissance recently: Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, now The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Do either of you have theories about why this is all coming to pass now?

JF: Well, those are both Oakland movies. It’s about the same sort of thing, but they’re both Oakland, which is extremely different even though it’s across the water. Hopefully somebody else makes something else so we can have two.

JT: And Fruitvale Station. It’s always Oakland!

JF: Then they got Kicks too.

JT: Kicks and Licks. It speaks to how Oakland is a place that’s always birthed incredible talent. Boots Riley, long before that, recorded music in the Bay. Oakland has a really incredible history artistically. For us, it’s really cool to see that happen across the water, but like Jimmie said, San Francisco has a different history and a different relationship to gentrification as it exists now. We feel it in different ways than they do in Oakland. I think this movie is us trying to wrestle with our own situation.

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Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham

Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.

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The Times of Bill Cunningham
Photo: Harold Chapman

Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.

Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.

Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.

Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.

But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.

Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.

The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.

However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.

As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.

Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.

The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.

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The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time

Cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.

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The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Photo: Kino International

Three years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: “Say their names.” New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. “These,” as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell urged his viewers, “are the names to remember.”

The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael to Todd Haynes’s Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical acts—acts of becoming (Sally Potter’s Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. “My name is Harvey Milk,” the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. “And I’m here to recruit you!”

The cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the culture’s largest, brightest mirror. There’s rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we aren’t erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan


Michael

Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)

Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoret’s (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson


The Blood of a Poet

The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)

Enrique Rivero’s shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isn’t merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the film’s effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard


Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Much of Beauty and the Beast’s deep magic comes from Jean Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role—as the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be—the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch


Fireworks

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Anger’s own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Anger’s parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being “different” in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce


Un Chant d’Amour

Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet, 1950)

Jean Genet’s overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce


Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker’s flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but it’s Granger’s poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcock’s gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson


Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan


Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Punchline or not, “nobody’s perfect” may as well have been the “born this way” of the Eisenhower era. Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing parfait now feels like both a relic and also a carefree throwback to an era that, for all its copious and vindictive shortcomings, was more than a tad less solemn about identity politics and popular representation. Regardless of whether you believe the “humor” behind Daphne and Josephine’s deliberately crunchy drag feeds into the same mentality that gives a shit about which bathroom someone takes a piss in, it’s impossible to miss that Wilder’s true satiric target is the pathetic fragility of machismo. In that sense, few other contemporary drag movies can claim to be so modern as Some Like It Hot. Henderson


Victim

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)

There’s a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Dearden’s masterful Victim, a scathing examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. A duo of cops also provides an interesting dual perspective on the laws against homosexuality, with the elder being sympathetic and pragmatic and the younger entrenched in the more conservative majority opinion. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath

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Flaming Creatures

Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)

Flaming Creatures was Jack Smith’s first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen

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All 12 X-Men Movies, Ranked

On the occasion of the release of Dark Phoenix, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best.

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Dark Phoenix
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Ostensibly an attempt to atone for the flaws of the much-reviled X-Men: The Last Stand, which was loosely based on “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Simon Kinberg returns to the well with Dark Phoenix, a more direct adaptation that essentially repeats the 2006 film’s offenses, only this time with a different cast. Kinberg’s film, set a decade after the events depicted in X-Men: Apocalypse, is a stultifying affair that strips Chris Claremont’s classic story down to its basic narrative beats at the expense of the deep character relationships that give the extended X-Men storyline its emotional resonance. On the occasion of the film’s release, we ranked the 12 films in the X-Men series from worst to best. Jake Cole

X-Men: The Last Stand

12. X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006)

Throughout Brett Ranter’s X-Men: The Last Stand, issues of inclusion, intolerance, self-acceptance, and self-actualization are superficially trotted out to eat up time between the flashy, frantic set pieces and countless Marvel aficionados-directed references. The film eventually proves far more concerned with CG extravagance and big melodramatic moments full of grave soundbite-ready pronouncements than affecting relationships, thrilling conflict resolution, or a sense that the hectic proceedings are of any great consequence. Even if his animalistic Wolverine is reduced to a handful of tame one-liners, studly poses, and swift slayings, Hugh Jackman proves far more capable of transcending his goofy hairstyle than Halle Berry, unwisely given more to do this time around as dull weather woman Storm. Yet The Last Stand is ultimately a dreary species of empty pomp and circumstance, far too similar to many of its summer-movie brethren—and disappointingly dissimilar from its superior predecessors—in that, in its single-minded preference for spectacle over substance, it seems to have been put together primarily with its theatrical trailer in mind. Nick Schager

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

11. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009)

Fox may have been robbed of box-office booty when a leaked workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine landed online a month before its release, but the real victim of theft in this ordeal seems to have been the adamantium-clawed Canuck himself. Purists will surely bristle at the alterations made by Gavin Hood’s prequel to the origin story of feral Canadian mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman). Yet far more troubling than the specifics surrounding his transformation into the nearly indestructible Wolverine is the film’s fundamentally wishy-washy characterization of its protagonist, whose inherent animalism is oft-mentioned but never witnessed. In an attempt to pay lip service to his inner struggle with unseemly bestial instincts while simultaneously maintaining his unquestionable heroism, Wolverine turns its future X-Man into a blandly brooding bore too grumpy to be a prototypical do-gooder yet too noble to be a cold-blooded antihero. Schager

Dark Phoenix

10. Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019)

The mounting stress of Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) powers and suppressed trauma explodes in bursts of violence that have global, if not cosmic, implications of chaos, yet Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix remains inanely fixated on the immediacy of Jean’s impact on her friends. In the comics, an unfathomably powered Jean literally consumes the energy of a star, killing billions in an entire solar system. Here, her uncontrolled powers result in the death of a comrade—an emotional loss, sure, but not one with the genocidal stakes that prompted retaliatory action in the original story. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” saga boldly asked if a group of unambiguous heroes to weigh the desire to save a beloved a friend not in her right mind against the moral imperative to protect the countless lives she could, and did, terminate. Here, those who hunt Jean want nothing more than revenge, which divorces the film further from its source than even X-Men: The Last Stand. Cole

X-Men: First Class

9. X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Despite his apparent comfort with F/X-heavy projects, the obligations of duty to the brand are too much for Matthew Vaughn’s strange, singular voice, which rarely has the chance to shape the film unmolested by a curiously bland script, a dominant sense of too-much-ness, and the simple fact that such super-productions as these, with too much merchandising and cross-pollination at stake, are downright hostile to the director’s impulse to use more than a fraction of the potential of a large, diverse cast. The film is ultimately undone by that old paradox of Hollywood movie production: If you’re given an enormous budget, you have to spend every penny—a little like telling a chef he needs to use all of the spices in his cabinet, for a sauce that would be much improved by discipline and moderation. Historically, this results in modestly pleasurable films that run 20 minutes to an hour too long, distended by innumerable instances where the director is under orders to capture on film the exchange of cash for a thing of equal value (here, it’s a fleet of Soviet and U.S. battleships, a dozen massive sets, and January Jones’s eyesore of a mutation), and the fact that it’s 99% digital changes nothing about the way the slightest hint of specialness in X-Men: First Class is smothered in numbing exhibits of conspicuous consumption. Jaime N. Christley

X-Men: Apocalypse

8. X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016)

The main problem with X-Men Apocalypse isn’t, as it turns out, that the franchise left itself with too little to work with after the tidy ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but that Bryan Singer suggests so many possible directions to go in and still chooses the least interesting one. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his end-times aspirations drive the film in the direction of a disaster movie; large portions of the last act are devoted to terraforming Cairo, where the genocidal warlord plans to start his “new world.” Which is to say that instead of changing the narrative of the superhero film, as Singer’s already done for the narrative of the franchise he returned to, the filmmaker yields to its most generic, commercially viable plot progression. The final battle sequence is a twentysomething-on-one battle royale that shows just how much the film has come down from its promising start. Instead of emphasizing the dynamics of the filmmaking, or the 3D image, Singer sets up wide shots of each X-Man, in fighting stance, launching their respective assaults. All the thematic interest and character dimension that’s defined the best of this series falls away for a conventional action display. Somewhere in there, you’ll swear you hear, “Avengers, assemble.” Sam C. Mac

The Wolverine

7. The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

James Mangold’s The Wolverine suffers most from its plot’s eventual lack of risk, as the film proceeds to include a contrived romance, a pile-up of double-crosses, a lengthy villain’s manifesto, martyrdom, and fisticuffs with an end-level monster—because, well, that’s what happens in the finales of Hollywood flicks these days. Luckily, the film establishes an initial brute strength and uniqueness that work wonders to sustain its merit. Whereas Gavin Hood’s horrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine included foes like Sabretooth, The Wolverine almost entirely isolates its star from his popular cohorts and surroundings, and the benefits are immediately palpable. The first act is a largely muted character study, and when events shift over to Japan, which is presented with a refreshing lack of cultural condescension, there’s an invaluable appeal to the exotic locale—a colorful, history-laden, and architecturally varied realm that, for Wolverine, feels both new and natural. Mangold knows just when to ditch the dolly, when to have slain thugs fall into the camera, and when to fluidly follow a fighter as he (or she) leaps across buildings and vehicles (one sequence on the roof of a speeding train is at once ridiculous and spectacular). If The Wolverine may be remembered as the best superhero movie of its year, that’s because, for a sufficient amount of time, it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all. R. Kurt Osenlund

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.

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Cannes Film Festival Ranked
Photo: Neon
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, especially in recent years, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). From time to time, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Terrence Malick’s The Three of Life), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the majority of the members on the Cannes jury can agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And if you ask those who were lucky enough to see Parasite at this year’s festival, most will tell you the film checks off more boxes then almost any other winner in recent years. Check out our ranking of all the Palme d’Or winners since 2000 to see where Bong Joon-ho’s latest lands. Sam C. Mac


The Son’s Room

20. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter (Jasmine Trinca) with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score heightens the joy behind every smile, making clear that disaster is inevitable for this clan. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez


Fahrenheit 911

19. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


Amour

18. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh


I, Daniel Blake

17. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac


The Class

16. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.

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Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.

It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

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Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

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What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.

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Terrence McNally
Photo: Miller Mobley

It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.

McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.

Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?

Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!

Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”

There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.

McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.

You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?

McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.

Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?

McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.

Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?

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McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.

Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?

Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.

Now you’re speaking in the language of today.

Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.

If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?

McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.

Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?

McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?

Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.

McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.

What do you think of when you look back to that era?

McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.

Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.

McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.

That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.

The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.

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