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The 10 Best Albums of 1984

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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Prince
Photo: Warner Records

Ocean Rain

5. 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. Jesse Cataldo



The Smiths

4. 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



Let It Be

3. 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



Born in the U.S.A.

2. 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 chockfull 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



Purple Rain

1. 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. Ed Gonzalez

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The 10 Best Albums of 1985

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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Kate Bush
Photo: Rhino

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, 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. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: LL Cool J, Radio; Talking Heads, Little Creatures; John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow; Lizzy Mercier Descloux, One for the Soul; The Velvet Underground, VU; Husker Du, New Day Rising; Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm; Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto; The Smiths, Meat Is Murder; The Mekons, Fear and Whiskey



Fables of the Reconstruction

10. R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

Thematically, Fables of the Reconstruction is one of R.E.M.’s most cohesive albums, drawing heavily from Southern iconography and folklore. Bands like Drive-By Truckers have, in recent years, taken up the cause of reconstructing and deconstructing the mythology of the modern South, but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is, unsurprisingly, far less literal. Southern myths are often preoccupied with mysterious, hermit-like older men, and many such characters serve either as protagonists or sources of inspiration on the album. “Life and How to Live It” was famously inspired by the life story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from the band’s native Athens, GA, who bifurcated his home into two completely distinct dwellings. “Maps and Legends” is a complex tribute to Reverend Howard Finster, one of the most famous figures in the “outsider art” movement. What makes Fables of the Reconstruction such a rich, deeply rewarding work is that it isn’t simply a retelling of these myths or a hagiography for these men, it’s that the album is a pointed, thoughtful consideration of what these stories mean and, specifically, of how the band perceives them. Jonathan Keefe



Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

9. The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Landing chronologically and stylistically in the Pogues’s discography between the extremely drunken revelry of Red Roses for Me and the extremely drunken but more refined If I Should Fall from Grace from God, the also extremely drunken Rum Sodomy & the Lash may well be the quintessential Pogues experience. These rowdy drinking songs, both traditional and original, are of course tremendous fun. But it’s the album’s (relatively) sober laments—“The Old Main Drag,” the historical ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” featuring lovely gender-bending vocals by Cait O’Riordan—that proved the band’s Celtic folk-punk wasn’t just a novelty, but a rich and inventive new form. Jeremy Winograd



Low-Life

8. New Order, Low-Life

If Movement was the funeral and Power, Corruption, and Lies was the haunting, then Low-Life was the exorcism, the moment when New Order fully freed themselves from the ghost of Ian Curtis and set in motion their second life as the U.K.’s finest purveyor of electro-pop dance-floor fillers. Even the song that’s about Curtis, the funereal “Elegia,” isn’t overly indebted to the band’s post-punk roots. From the galloping opener “Love Vigilantes” to the glitchy “Face Up,” Low-Life is the product of a band whose members are deeply in sync and pushing each other in new directions. Bernard Sumner is still finding his voice here—lyrics were often New Order’s Achilles’ heel, and this album features some cringey turns of phrase—but the band’s musicianship has been honed to a razor’s edge. Bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris are locked in with each other, and Gillian Gilbert’s synths pair dramatically with Sumner’s spare guitar lines. The highlight is “The Perfect Kiss”: When that keyboard part picks up, Thatcher is in 10 Downing Street and it’s midnight on the Hacienda’s dance floor. Seth Wilson



The Head on the Door

7. The Cure, The Head on the Door

The Cure’s The Head on the Door is a cheery pop album as envisioned by a goth-rock master. And weirdly, it works perfectly. Monster hooks flow effortlessly out of Robert Smith, and notably, none of them sound much alike. The speedily strummed “In Between Days” is easily the album’s catchiest song, but nearly every other track is of the same melodic caliber. The joy of The Head on the Door is the dizzying array of different styles Smith manages to cram into easily digestible pop packages. From the high-drama guitar riffs of “Push” and the driving flamenco rhythms and Arabic accents of “The Blood,” to the plinky atmospherics of “Kyoto Song” and the hopped-up minimalism of “Close to Me,” each new element is as surprising as it is hummable. The Head on the Door isn’t as sprawling as some of the Cure’s other beloved albums, but that’s exactly why it’s one of their most essential: It cuts right to the gooey melodic center at the heart of Smith’s songwriting. Winograd



Songs from the Big Chair

6. 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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.

But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.

When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.

However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.

The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.

Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown


Drums Along the Mohawk

100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)

If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy


Death Rides a Horse

97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)

In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund


Westward the Women

95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)

Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming.

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time
Photo: Playdead

When people think of horror-themed video games, their minds often go to the survival-horror conventions popularized by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. Of being stuck in claustrophobic and menacing places, of running low on resources, of limping from an injury as some ghastly being drags or stomps toward you, following your trail of blood. To survive in the world of these games depends as much on how players use their unique skill sets as it does on how they learn to manage their nerves.

Yes, sometimes the effect of a horror game is not unlike that of a schlocky jump scare-athon, but horror comes in many shades across all mediums. For one, there are the action titles, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Bloodborne, that rely on the concepts of well-known horror stories, sinister and theatrical music, and well-above-average difficulty levels to intimidate and overwhelm players. And the terrifying logic of fever dreams, rather than the creaky old machinery of horror, can foist an otherwise non-gloomy series like The Legend of the Zelda into the realm of nightmares.

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming. But more than anything, the following selections represent what we believe are the most provocative, well-executed, and timeless examples of horror in the medium. Jed Pressgrove


Paratopic

25. Paratopic (2018)

Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic’s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Steven Scaife


Castlevania: Bloodlines

24. Castlevania: Bloodlines (1993)

The gothic-themed Castlevania games have always featured a wide assortment of iconic scary figures, from Frankenstein to the Grim Reaper to primary antagonist Dracula. But it wasn’t until 1993, with the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, that the series achieved a more chilling and disorienting brand of horror, with platforms that inexplicably drip blood, a boss that may arouse your unexpected sympathy when it begins to nervously clutch its beaten head, and a Leaning Tower of Pisa stage that imprisons the player in a state of hurried movement and vertigo. Visual tricks throughout the game ratchet up a sense of shock and confusion, culminating in a final level that defiantly cuts the traditional side-scrolling view into three uneven sections so as to scramble the positions of the main character’s body parts on the screen. A masterpiece of ambitious 2D game design, Castlevania: Bloodlines doesn’t need three-dimensional space to discombobulate one’s senses. Pressgrove


Parasite Eve

23. Parasite Eve (1998)

With its concise length, mixture of active time battle and survival-horror gameplay, and modern New York City setting, 1998’s Parasite Eve was a dramatic risk for director Takashi Tokita. Leaving behind the traditional adventurous spirit of the games that made Square famous as a company, Parasite Eve is marked by a melancholic and disturbing type of energy, as in its opening doozy of a scene, which starts with the Statue of Liberty looking as if she’s been struck by grief and ends with an opera performance that climaxes with its audience members bursting helplessly into flames. The game’s emphasis on gun resource management suggests a nod to the tension-building methods of Resident Evil, but the true terror in Parasite Eve lies in the emotional and psychological vulnerability of rookie cop protagonist Aya, who mourns her dead sister and whose source of supernatural power has an uncomfortably close connection to the evil feminine force that she must conquer.Pressgrove


The Last of Us

22. The Last of Us (2013)

Come for the zombies, stay for the giraffes. Dead Space fans will smile as they navigate claustrophobic sewage tunnels, Metal Gear Solid vets will have a blast outmaneuvering a psychotic cannibal, Resident Evil junkies will enjoy trying to sneak past noise-sensitive Clickers, Fallout experts will find every scrap of material to scavenge, Dead Rising pros will put Joel’s limited ammunition and makeshift shivs to good use, and Walking Dead fans will be instantly charmed by the evolving relationship between grizzled Joel and the tough young girl, Ellie, he’s protecting. But The Last of Us stands decaying heads and rotting shoulders above its peers because it’s not just about the relentless struggle to survive, but the beauty that remains: the sun sparkling off a distant hydroelectric dam; the banks of pure, unsullied snow; even the wispy elegance of otherwise toxic spores. Oh, and giraffes, carelessly walking through vegetative cities, the long-necked light at the end of the tunnel that’s worth surviving for. Aaron Riccio


Will You Ever Return? 2

21. Will You Ever Return? 2 (2012)

Jack King-Spooner’s singular vision of hell is grotesque and discordant, with bits of clay jammed together amid cut-out art, jaunty tunes, and squishy noises. Playing as the mugger from the previous game (which is bundled with this sequel in the Will You Ever Return? Double Feature), you take in infernal sights that, at first, seem impossibly goofy. There’s only one real jump scare in the whole game, yet the way this visual and aural assault oscillates between comedy, sadness, and ominous prescience accumulates its own disturbing, soulful power. Staring long enough at the jerky, claymation torture rooms sneaks beneath our usual resistance to traditional horror imagery, prodding at philosophical weak points we didn’t know we had. The mugger’s journey of self-discovery takes him through his own sins and fears, leading to a place of acceptance that emphasizes humanity’s ability to rob one another of the only things that truly matter. Scaife

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Vogue” Turns 30

From MTV to Madame X, the queen of pop’s ode to voguing continues to endure three decades later.

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Madonna, Vogue
Photo: Warner Bros.

Released in March of 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue” wasn’t just a hit single—it was a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, no other song better exemplifies both the singer’s influence on pop culture and the accusations of appropriation that have been lobbed at her over the years. The track, produced by Shep Pettibone, is at once a musical map of disco, shamelessly ripping MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break),” and an enduring prototype of its own, spawning countless copycats and spoofs in the early ‘90s and inspiring covers by more contemporary acolytes like Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. The queen of pop herself has even paid homage to her own hit, erupting into the song’s refrain at the end of her 1992 single “Deeper and Deeper” and sampling elements of the track on 2015’s “Holy Water” and her most recent club hit, “I Don’t Search I Find.” Like the Harlem drag balls that inspired it, “Vogue” is about presentation, and unlike, say, “Like a Virgin,” the queen of reinvention has found little need to fuss with perfection. Sal Cinquemani


Music Video (1990)

Look closely when that butler brushes off the bannister. Nope, no dust there; the finger pulls clean. Those who objected to Madonna’s co-opting two vibrant New York scenes—ball culture and the house underground—had every reason to cast any available aspersions once the instant-classic music video for “Vogue” hit the airwaves. Directed with diamond-cut precision by David Fincher long before he became the fussiest of the A-list auteurs, the already plush song became a plummy fantasia of Old Hollywood luxury, and an actualization of the sort of glamour Paris Is Burning’s drag queens and dance-floor ninjas openly longed for. And it came with a steep price tag. “It makes no difference if you’re black or white,” goes the familiar refrain, but it’s unclear whether Madonna realized to what extent the clip’s flawless, monochromatic cinematography would underline the point. To some, the video (like New York’s ball scene) represented the ultimate democratization of beauty. To others, a presumptuously preemptive eradication of the racial question entirely. Eric Henderson


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Compared to the spectacles Madonna would go on to stage for the song over the next quarter century, the premier live performances of “Vogue” were surprisingly quaint. Stripped down to the bare basics (aside from the dancers’ headdresses, even the costumes consisted solely of simple black spandex), the Blond Ambition version of the song came closest to capturing the essence of the gay ballroom scene the lyrics were inspired by: presentational, preening, and all about the pose. Cinquemani


Rock the Vote (1990)

Along with “Vogue,” this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization aimed at mobilizing and registering young voters. In 1990, the group made its national debut with a TV spot featuring Madonna and two of her Blond Ambition dancers harmonizing to a cheeky, revamped version of her then-recent smash. In what might seem tame by today’s standards, the sight of the world’s biggest pop star draped in the American flag, comparing freedom of speech to sex, threatening to give non-voters a “spanky,” and name-dropping Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all while dressed in red lace lingerie, twisted more than a few panties among the Moral Majority. And that was before it was revealed she wasn’t even registered to vote. Cinquemani


MTV Video Music Awards (1990)

Indulging in a cheeky bit of dress-me-up make believe, Madonna’s performance at the 1990 VMAs gracefully elided politics altogether in favor of lace-front cosplay. Borrowing liberally from Dangerous Liaisons, specifically costume designer James Acheson’s cleavage-crushing bodice, Madonna and regalia flitted around a rec room, taunting a bevy of eligible suitors in short pants, punctuating every tease with an audible snap of fans that sounded more like trashcan lids. Sandwiched as the song was between “Like a Prayer” on one side and “Justify My Love” and Erotica on the other, it was nice to see at least one performance of the song that revels in the simple thrill of innocent ribaldry. Henderson


The Girlie Show Tour (1993)

Not by any stretch the most iconic performance of the tune, and in fact very likely the most rote of the bunch, especially when you consider its place in context with the surrounding Erotica-heavy content, against which “Vogue” can’t help but sound just a smidge “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.” The Mata Hari headdress promises subversion that never really materializes, which is hardly a surprise given Madonna—clad in a boy bra and chunky platform military boots—has probably never looked more rectangular. This marked the last time she would perform the song in concert for more than a decade, and the vague sense that an increasingly doom-obsessed Madonna was vaguely bored with the song’s escapism is palpable here. Henderson

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel

It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.

The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.

The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.

As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.


The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown


The Ascent

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard


Asparagus

Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson


Begone Dull care

Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)

If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson


Body and Soul

Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown

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The 15 Best Björk Music Videos

One of pop music’s most forward-minded performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium.

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Björk
Photo: YouTube

Though Björk had enjoyed minor cult fame as the lead singer of the prog-punk band the Sugarcubes, it only took one solo album to solidify the Icelandic artist as a viable pop iconoclast. The plainly titled Debut and its accompanying music videos showcased the endlessly fascinating sides to Björk’s offbeat persona, from sweater-clad explorer (“Human Behaviour”) to trailer-hitch improvisational performance artist (“Big Time Sensuality”). Subsequent eras found the singer delving deeper into surrealism (“Army of Me”), technology (“Hyperballad”), and, occasionally, raw performance (“Pagan Poetry” and “Black Lake”). One of pop music’s most forward-thinking performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium, a true multimedia pioneer whose influence can be seen in the work of Arca, FKA twigs, and countless others who have followed her wake.


15. “Army of Me”

Directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, the video for “Army of Me,” the first single from 1995’s Post, is a surreal vision that complements the track’s call for self-sufficiency with a dreamlike, often nonsensical, narrative. On a mission to rescue a man from an art installation at a local museum, Björk drives a giant tank—a nod toward the film Tank Girl, in which the song is featured—through a cartoonish urban landscape, encountering a thieving gorilla-dentist who snatches a diamond from the singer’s mouth along the way. Sal Cinquemani


14. “Human Behaviour”

Björk’s very first music video as a solo artist was also the start of a fruitful professional relationship with frequent collaborator Michel Gondry. “Human Behaviour,” in which the singer is chased by a stuffed bear in a twisted nod to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, literally set the stage for both of the respective auteurs’ careers. Cinquemani


13. “Crystalline”

The eighth (and, to date, most recent) collaboration between Björk and Michel Gondry, 2011’s “Crystalline” boasts a charmingly and deceptively simple concept—Björk portrays a lunar goddess-cum-club-kid overseeing a meteor shower on the surface of the moon like a musical conductor—that nods to both A Trip to the Moon and early stop-motion animation. Cinquemani


12. “The Gate”

In the same sense that Stéphane Sednaoui’s interpretation of “Big Time Sensuality” stripped away everything extemporaneous to find more than enough in that essential Björkish energy, director Andrew Thomas Huang sees the spectrum of life itself within his muse and assigns it the only appropriate visual analogue. Dressed in a corrugated prism, Björk gets her groove back in a spasmic frenzy of pure, OLED fireworks. In “All Neon Like,” she promised to weave a “marvelous web of glow-in-the-dark threads,” and with “The Gate,” she’s delivered. Eric Henderson


11. “Mutual Core”

Eric Henderson calls this video “little tectonic plate of horrors.” The lyrics to “Mutual Core” sometimes feel like Björk is reading from a science textbook (“As fast as your fingernail grows/The Atlantic Ridge drifts”), but the video, a sort of sequel to the Gondry-directed 1997 clip for “Jóga,” brings the song to explosive life, with Björk, naturally, in the role of neglected Mother Nature. Cinquemani

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The 10 Best Albums of 1983

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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Tom Waits
Photo: Island Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, 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. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This); Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Doppelganger; David Bowie, Let’s Dance; Malcolm McLaren, Duck Rock; The Pointer Sisters, Break Out; Minutemen, What Makes a Man Start Fires? ; Def Leppard, Pyromania; Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones; Cocteau Twins, Head Over Heels; Zazou/Bekaye/CY1, Noir et Blanc



Synchronicity

10. The Police, Synchronicity

Their status as classic rock radio titans has made the Police seem like a much less weird band than they were. On paper, a fusion of jazz-reggae and world-punk with yowly, philosophically inflected lyrics might sound like abject torture. And yet, for a couple of years, they were pretty much the biggest band in the world. Like all Police albums, Synchronicity has a couple of clunkers—the Andy Summers-penned “Mother” is a howling nuisance, and the loping “Walking in Your Footsteps,” in which Sting asks dinosaurs for advice about nuclear disarmament, is less playful than it should be—but the heights are sublime. The band comes out with guns blazing on “Synchronicity I,” a head-spinning song that makes a forceful case for Stewart Copeland being the best drummer in rock history. “Synchronicity II” and “Miss Gradenko” are excellent Cold War-era time capsules into the growing disaffection with Western culture. At its heart, Synchronicity is a breakup album though. During recording, Sting was in the process of divorcing his first wife, and the band wouldn’t survive much longer. The triptych of “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” depict all the messy ugliness, from obsession to miserable wallowing, that accompany the death of a failed relationship. After this album, Sting would dissolve the band so he could focus on making the type of music that fades into the background at a grocery store, but he’ll always be the king of pain. Seth Wilson



War

9. 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



Speaking in Tongues

8. 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. Eric Henderson



Touch

7. 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. Jonathan Keefe



Madonna

6. 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

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All 25 Justin Timberlake Singles Ranked

We’ve ranked all 25 of Justin Timberlake’s singles from worst to best.

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Rock Your Body: Justin Timberlake’s Singles Ranked
Photo: RCA Records
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on January 14, 2018.

By the time the teen-pop bubble burst in 2001, Justin Timberlake had shrewdly positioned himself as the de-facto frontman of NSYNC, parlaying the short-lived boy band’s success into a lucrative career as a solo artist and producer, and even managing to convince the likes of David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen to cast him in their films. The singer’s foray into Hollywood resulted in years-long gaps between studio albums, but that hasn’t stopped him from racking up the hits. Last week saw the release of the soundtrack to Trolls World Tour, which was executive-produced by Timberlake and features the singles “The Other Side” and “Don’t Slack,” with SZA and Anderson Paak, respectively. To celebrate the release of his 25th single, we’ve ranked all of Timberlake’s hits—not including tracks on which he’s credited as a guest, like Timbaland’s “Give It to Me” and Madonna’s “4 Minutes”—from worst to best. Sal Cinquemani


25. “I’m Lovin’ It”

McDonald’s reportedly paid Timberlake $6 million to sing the jingle for what would become the fast-food chain’s longest running advertising campaign. The story behind the ad’s conception is long and twisty, but it began in Unterhaching, Germany, where an ad agency came up with the slogan “Ich Liebe Es,” which as a hook would have made the single’s existence only slightly more tolerable. Cinquemani

24. “Drink You Away”

A special edit of “Drink You Away” was serviced to country radio programmers in late 2015, setting the stage for Timberlake’s impending bearded woodsman persona. The Memphis soul-infused track is driven by strained, cliché metaphors. “Bottom of the bottle,” indeed. Cinquemani


23. “Supplies”

The second single from Timberlake’s Man of the Woods did little to assuage confusion over the discrepancy between the album’s musical content and the Americana imagery touted in the project’s promotional materials. The track, co-produced by the Neptunes, pairs a plodding trap beat with sitar flourishes, staccato interjections from Pharrell Williams, and lyrics that liken romantic commitment to surviving the apocalypse. Cinquemani


22. “TKO”

The one saving grace of this unsuccessful attempt to recreate the magnificent bad faith of “Cry Me a River” is, at least for those of us who are “Mirrors” skeptics, imagining it to be the inevitable outcome for the 2013 hit’s protagonist. Like Björk once sang, how extremely lazy to think she could replace the missing elements in him. Henderson

21. “Not a Bad Thing”

The least ambitious track on either installment of The 20/20 Experience, “Not a Bad Thing” isn’t a bad thing, per se, but its guitar-driven blue-eyed sorta-soul represents the watering down of the formula established by the previous year’s “Mirrors.” The track sounds more like an NSYNC castaway than a representative of Timberlake’s most challenging album to date. Cinquemani

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Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.

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Eliza Hittman
Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features

The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.

Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.

But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.

I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.

Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?

They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.

That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?

And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.

Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?

“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.

Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?

I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.

Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?

I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in a scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. @ Angal Field/Focus Features

And how do you go about bringing all that to life?

Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.

The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.

They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.

Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?

The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”

Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?

In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.

You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.

No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.

Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?

I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.

The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.

Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.

Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?

I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.

I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?

I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.

With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.

I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.

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Features

The 25 Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now

These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.

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The 25 Best Netflix Original Shows
Photo: Netflix
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on February 20, 2019.

Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero


I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

25. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

Social discomfort leaks out of each and every sketch of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, as characters constantly double down, then triple down, then quadruple down on their inane schemes and insecurities. Throughout, already bizarre situations escalate to truly profound degrees of obstinance and delusion: denying responsibility for a crashed hot dog car while dressed in a hot dog costume, incessantly responding to a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker, vowing revenge on a magician who publicly humiliated you, attempting to assassinate baby bad boy Bart Harley Jarvis, and defiantly, inexplicably singing about the reanimation of some skeletons. The series reaches such dizzying, quotable absurdity that it seems to inhabit an abrasive and uncomfortable universe all its own. Steven Scaife


Marvel's Luke Cage

24. Luke Cage

The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin


Lady Dynamite

23. Lady Dynamite

Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian


The Crown

22. The Crown

Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian


Seven Seconds

21. Seven Seconds

The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis

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