When I was eight years old, my mother was forced to give me “the talk.” “I Want Your Sex,” the lead single from George Michael’s solo debut, Faith, was in heavy rotation on MTV during the summer of 1987. I approached my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “What’s monogamy?” Michael writes the word in red lipstick on the naked back of his then-girlfriend, model Kathy Jeung. Quick on her feet, my mother offered a thoughtful, albeit predictably heteronormative, answer: “It’s when a man and a woman are married.”
Over a decade later, Michael’s “Outside” introduced my teenage brain to “cottaging” long before I even knew there was a term for it. A tongue-in-cheek response to the singer’s arrest for soliciting sex in a public restroom in 1998, the song prompted Michael to finally come out as gay. The former Wham! frontman’s sexuality, of course, had been grist for the rumor mill for years, and for those who cared to notice, his ambivalence was delicately documented in his lyrics. For an adolescent or teenage fan questioning his or her sexuality, Michael’s reluctance—or inability—to go public made him easier to identity with than, say, a bold, out-and-proud performer.
Even as he began to slowly reveal himself to his fans, though, Michael began to retreat from the public eye. His refusal to appear in his own music videos seemed audacious and cocky, predating Eddie Vedder’s rejection of the media hype surrounding grunge in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Michael’s protest resulted in some of the most visually striking and powerful music videos of the 1990s, including “Praying for Time,” “Freedom! 90,” “Too Funky,” and “Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
A contractual dispute with Sony Music meant nearly six years would pass between Michael’s sophomore effort, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, and 1996’s Older, an album that’s been largely overlooked in the celebrations of Michael’s career in the days following the 53-year-old’s death on Christmas day. That album’s singles, three of which appear on our list of Michael’s best songs, capped off a decade of the some of the most ambitious, genre-defying pop music by one of the world’s most reluctant gay icons. Sal Cinquemani
The kinky leather daddy to the comparably vanilla “I Want Your Sex,” the similarly squelchy “Freeek!,” from 2004’s Patience, is a virtual-reality tour through cybersex fantasy and webcam exhibitionism. If the former song feels kitschy in all its time-stamped Casio keyboard glory, “Freeek!” is thumping and robust, a strapping dance track built around samples of Aaliyah’s “Try Again” and Kool & the Gang’s “N.T.” by way of Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop.” Cinquemani
On the surface a finely constructed bit of straightforward ‘80s dance-pop, given extra edge by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (fresh off their instantly iconic work on Janet Jackson’s Control). Then the frustration evident in Michael’s lyrics starts moving from exasperated to, ultimately, over it. Maybe it’s a song written from both sides of the closet door, or maybe it’s a little more universal than that—an anthem for anyone who’s ever loved someone who isn’t willing or able to meet in the middle. No monkey business here. Eric Henderson
13. “Praying for Time”
When I was a child, I misinterpreted a lyric in “Praying for Time”—“Turned his back and all God’s children crept out the back door”—by mishearing “and” as “on,” suggesting God turned his back on his people and crept out the back door, not the other way around. It’s an insinuation befitting a modern-day “Imagine” that trades John Lennon’s optimism with world-weary despair. (It’s also a comment on how cynical I already was at just 10 years old.) My recent discovery that that’s not, in fact, what Michael sings was initially disappointing, but as 2016 comes to a close, the accusation that God’s children have abandoned all that is just—bolstered by lines like “The rich declare themselves poor”—seems more prescient than ever. Cinquemani
An ode to one-night stands, nostalgically dressed up in the sultry disco stylings of a period when such things weren’t potentially fatal, 1996’s “Fastlove” pulses with a sullen undercurrent. The song was written in the wake of the AIDS-related death of Michael’s lover, and though the lyrics seem to push back against the oppressiveness of heteronormativity (“My friends got their ladies, they all have babies/But I just wanna have some fun”), “Fastlove” ultimately reveals Michael’s pursuit of pleasure to be an attempt to soothe his grief: “In the absence of security, I made my way into the night/Stupid Cupid keeps on callin’ me, but I see nothin’ in his eyes/I miss my baby.” Cinquemani
11. “Star People ’97”
The album version of “Star People” was a little too starched to fully embody Michael’s bad faith in the celebrity machine. The ’97 remix loosens up the straps and cuts a much nastier rug, like a dance-floor Maps to the Stars. Michael spitting taunts of “Maybe your mama gave you up boy/Maybe your daddy didn’t love you enough girl” would sound like victim-blaming in any other context, but by the time the song explodes into an extended outro vamp accompanied by a replayed vamp from the Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” it’s clear Michael himself knows all too well the sting they feel. Henderson
Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.
92. Crash (2005)
Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have Won: Munich
91. Cimarron (1931)
As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard
What Should Have Won: The Front Page
90. Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Color Purple
89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez
What Should Have Won: Gosford Park
88. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick
What Should Have Won: Babe
87. The Broadway Melody (1930)
Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona
86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion
85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin
What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line
84. Gladiator (2000)
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene
What Should Have Won: Traffic
83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man
82. American Beauty (1999)
A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene
What Should Have Won: The Insider
81. Argo (2012)
There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty
Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.
This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp
8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)
Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole
7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)
Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole
6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)
“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown
5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)
The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey—And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti
4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)
Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen
3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson
2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)
The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole
1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick
Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked
As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2
First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.
76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”
The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.
75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2
A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.
74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1
This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.
73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4
It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.
72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3
Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).
71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6
If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.
The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs
We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.
Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.
Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani
24. “All for You”
Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson
23. “Funky Big Band”
Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson
22. “Velvet Rope”
A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani
Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson
The 50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s
The decade proved that the future of TV lies in its ability to democractize via technological expansion.
We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadn’t decimated the last remaining movie houses, and there were only three networks: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Two thousand and nineteen was a watershed year for the expansion of streaming, so it seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the events that led to the Great War.
If the aughts represented a new golden age of television, then the following decade proved that the future of the medium lies in its ability to democractize via technological growth. Event television has replaced appointment television, as the sheer volume of content continues to balloon and more viewers shift to on-demand viewing. Our expectations, too, have evolved as the format bends and morphs to adapt to its new environment, with years-long gaps between ever-shorter seasons and shows once thought dead resurrected like zombies from our salad days.
And yet, humans crave familiarity: Game of Thrones reinvented the viewing party; networks rebooted or revived well-known properties, albeit to varying degrees of success; and we’ve replaced our old cable bill with an à la carte menu of streaming options that add up to more or less the same price. More importantly, as we venture out into the proverbial Wild West, and as the boundaries between TV and film continue to vanish, one thing remains constant: our desire for stories that reflect who we are, what we fear, what we treasure, and what we find side-splittingly funny. But then, even those lines have begun to blur. Sal Cinquemani
The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, 911 dispatchers are inundated with calls from beet-eaters) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Peter Goldberg
49. House of Cards
House of Cards allowed David Fincher’s seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TV’s well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but that’s almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spacey’s silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wright’s stirring performance as the politician’s better half—and worse half in the show’s botched final season. In the thick of it, this addictive series convincingly depicts a shifting political landscape, wherein an ascending class of strong and brilliant women retools man’s ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin
48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Marvel’s Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at arm’s length—a masterstroke because the series understands that it’s a story Jessica isn’t ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvel’s Daredevil, no matter how kinetic and operatic in its brushstrokes, is primed to excite, the violence on Jessica Jones seeks to disarm our pleasure centers. And if this violence is so discomforting, it’s because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily it’s rooted in the traumas that connect the victims of the ominous Kilgrave (David Tennant). The aesthete in me wishes the series exhibited a more uncommon visual style. At the same time, maybe the show’s portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldn’t exert half the chill that it does it didn’t approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez
47. Killing Eve
With Killing Eve—which Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the whip-smart voice she employed in Fleabag to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Those shows are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger
Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius. Ted Pigeon
It’s the tension between Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment, and Ramy derives its soulfulness from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan
David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin
43. The Handmaid’s Tale
Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis
42. High Maintenance
High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin
41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife
The 100 Best Music Videos of the 2010s
In many ways, the rebirth of the music video set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly.
The 2010s saw the continued democratization of media: more content, more ways to access and consume it, and, as a result, a more diverse audience. In many ways, the rebirth of the music video, formerly the withering marketing tool of what Jack White might refer to as the “corporation,” set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly. Choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and how often. Even more so than film and TV, though, short-form videos have the potential to provide an almost real-time commentary on the politics, technologies, and even sexual mores of the times. Of course, MTV programmers have been replaced by YouTube algorithms, which, when they’re not sending you down a rabbit hole to white supremacist screeds and 9/11 conspiracy theories, force-feed us what’s already popular. The decade’s most viewed music video, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” has been streamed 6.5 billion times in two years. In fact, none of the clips in YouTube’s Top 10 came even close to cracking our list of the 100 best music videos of the 2010s. The more things change…. Sal Cinquemani
100. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
Lorde has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani
99. Alex Cameron, “Miami Memory”
Having met while making a mockumentary-style video for the song “Marlon Brando,” Alex Cameron and Jemima Kirke continue their fruitful collaboration with “Miami Memory,” at once a Technicolor dreamscape and a fearlessly intimate exploration of their dynamic as a real-life couple. The first third of the video seems to cast Kirke as a beautiful object—Cameron films her receiving a massage, then watches her dance—but the remaining two-thirds reset the balance. Kirke matches his gaze with hers, taking the camera over for herself, directing him, taking her turn to watch him dance. Anna Richmond
98. Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”
Target teamed up with Gwen Stefani for the first music video ever created on live TV, which aired during the Grammy Awards in 2016. The video, which opens with the No Doubt singer awakening after an ugly car crash and being primped for a first date, offers audiences the chance to bask in its creators’ virtuosity, as well as the thrill of watching them fall on their faces—figuratively and literally. In fact, Stefani and longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, who directed the clip, were clearly betting on the latter sensation. During the song’s vocal breakdown, Stefani’s glittery orange high heels are swapped for roller stakes by a stagehand whose fingers momentarily peek into frame, and Gwen is whisked off to an adjacent roller rink, where she’s cleverly swapped for a body double who takes a hard spill. It’s quickly revealed, of course, that Stefani is safe and sound in the center of the rink, preparing for the video’s impressive final aerial shot. Cinquemani
97. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
If the surreal images in “We Can’t Stop” were simply a tribute to youthful hedonism, it would be among the decade’s most pupil-dilating eye candy, but deconstructed down to its macabre symbols—edible skulls, blow-up dolls, taxidermia—it’s one of the trippiest, scariest videos of the 2010s. Cinquemani
96. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”
Though it was filmed in the Czech Republic, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s breathtakingly shot “No Church in the Wild” plays as a broader comment on the civil unrest that’s enveloped both the Middle East and director Romain Garvas’s native Greece, as well as the violent conflict that seems to be roiling beneath the surface in places as distant as Wall Street and Madison, Wisconsin. Cinquemani
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
The ambitious “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Zachary Hoskins
93. Chairlift, “Met Before”
Jordan Fish’s video for Chairlift’s “Met Before” gives viewers the freedom to dabble in some alternate outcomes for a trio of uncertain science grads caught in a potential love triangle. In having users act as the powerbrokers for all sorts of subtle decisions, Fish has essentially constructed a Choose Your Own Adventure for the YouTube generation. Kevin Liedel
92. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”
Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Josh Goller
91. Grimes featuring Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”
Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller
90. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “In Good Faith”
A simple song for dark times, “In Good Faith” is nothing short of a secular hymn. Will Oldham sings about small moments of grace and nature: rocks being shaped into diamonds, people helping one another through each day. The accompanying video is similarly gentle, with a documentary-style look at a group of people making their way through the world. We see them in homes, tending crops, generally filling their time with the tasks that constitute the bulk of life on Earth. The climax shows most of the characters singing in Sacred Harp choirs, joyfully joining voices to celebrate the possibility one finds in the sacred and infinite. At a time when religion divides people as much as any other force on the planet, the song and the video gesture to a world where our shared humanity joins us more than our ideas divide. You can’t go five minutes on the internet without seeing someone accused of lacking it, but “In Good Faith” celebrates the possibility that we might all make it out alive. Seth Wilson
89. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Alexa Camp
88. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Brando”
In her video for “Brando,” filmmaker Gisèle Vienne isolates a child’s glimpse of a disturbing image and lingers on it, suspended in perilous motion—a cinematic motif comparable to Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s knack for stretching a single reverbed-out twang to a repetitive standstill. This is a story of trauma told with the fewest possible strokes, wherein the dew in the mountain air feels fresh even as you realize you’re witnessing a long-buried memory play out for what must be the hundredth time. Vienne closes with an isolated, insinuating close-up that silently tells you everything you need to know. Steve Macfarlane
87. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. James Rainis
86. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
In capturing the playful spirit of Dan Bejar’s air-rock odyssey, director Dawn Garcia has rewritten the manual. Clearly, if you want to make a good music video nowadays, it needs to include soft erotica, greasy teenagers, false oases, and flying whales. Liedel
85. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Vince Staples & Casey Veggies, “Hive”
If Tyler, the Creator’s videos are all about overblown, colorful images in line with OFWGKTA’s Loiter Squad aesthetic, Earl’s “Hive” acts as a counterbalance, more in touch with the menacing Odd Future of a few years ago. The minimalistic, barely lit setting presents Earl and his crew as a hooded force lurking in the shadows, and suggests that Odd Future—and rap music—doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive to be threatening. Kyle Fowle
84. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
As if the threat of having a scathing pop song written about them weren’t enough to make the world’s eligible young bachelors think twice about shacking up with the country starlet turned pop star, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” portrays the singer-songwriter as, to quote the song’s lyrics, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In the clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, Swift and model Sean O’Pry spend a romantic weekend at the former’s lavish mansion. When she suspects him of texting another woman, she flies into a mascara-streaked fit, taking a switchblade to his portrait, a torch to his clothes, and a golf club to his sports car. By the time Sean discovers a hallway lined with the defaced paintings of Swift’s former suitors, it’s obvious Swift has also taken a skewer to her (perhaps unjustified) reputation. Cinquemani
83. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as an ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis
82. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Director Chino Moya paints a vibrant but empty portrait of a techno dystopia filled with clean lines, monotone colors, and dull, repetitive tasks to complement Annie Clark’s ambivalent reflection on our digitally consumed lives. Donning a dress that pointedly resembles a straitjacket, Clark’s mindless drone warns of a future where TV replaces windows and, in turn, windows become mere objects over which to hang venetian blinds. Cinquemani
81. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”
Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins
The 100 Best Singles of the 2010s
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which officially met its demise in the wild west of the streaming era.
The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which dates back to Billboard’s jukebox charts of the early 1940s and which officially met its demise in the wild west of the current streaming era. In the end, though, a single is just a song, and these 100 songs defined the decade that began in the throes of recovery from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and ended with the systematic dismantling of our democratic norms.
The crumbling of our institutions was accompanied by the euphoric beats of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the former of which epitomized the increasing irrelevance of radio, the term “single,” and even the charts themselves. Hip-hop served as our cross-generational conscience, with veterans like A Tribe Called Quest and newcomers Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino reflecting and responding to the times. R&B and country, too, both staked a claim to the mantle of the decade’s most empowering songs, from Beyoncé’s “Formation” to Little Big Town’s “Little White Church.”
History will be the final arbiter of what we’ve done to the planet, to the country, and to each other over the last 10 years, but the songs that served as the soundtrack to this modern dystopia are already etched in time. Long live the single. Consider this list its epitaph. Sal Cinquemani
100. Clairo, “Bags”
With “Bags,” Clairo navigates the line between friend and lover with a crush who could be straight. Her approach pinpoints ephemeral moments with a wide-eyed recollection: the sensation of fingertips on her back, a mane of hair blowing in the wind of an open car window, a love interest standing in a doorway. You get the feeling that the experiences she recounts are firsts for her, so vivid and formative are her memories. Sophia Ordaz
99. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
Most of the songs on Angel Olsen’s 2016 album, My Woman utilize the singer’s marvelously evocative voice for poignant purposes, bemoaning the loss of love in damaged, defensive terms. But the undertone of aggression that undergirds those imprecations bursts to the fore on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” an attempt to salvage a foundering relationship that finds Olsen embodying both traditionally male and female roles simultaneously, delivering soft and hard in equal measure. Backed by a surging tide of guitar and drums, she pushes from wounded desolation to commanding confidence and back, eventually settling for the latter. Along the way, the song pursues a swaying, woozy build-up that walks a fine line between heartbreak and renewal, while working as a strong showcase for the singer’s staggering musical chops. Jesse Cataldo
98. Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do”
The similarly themed “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” whose bouncy pop beat and comical overtones recall those of past hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off,” might have made a safer choice to introduce the world to the New Taylor than “Look What You Made Me Do.” Which is exactly why this droll single—with its deceptively lush strings, pulsing hip-hop beat, and Right Said Fred-aping non-hook—will likely go down in pop history as Swift’s first bona fide misstep. It’s also what makes the track the boldest and, quite frankly, most authentic thing she’s released to date. Cinquemani
97. Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
Country singers are generally too polite to come right out and ask, “Whose pussy is this?” the way, say, Nicki Minaj might, but that’s still the gist of Little Big Town’s ultimatum here. Karen Fairchild gives a throaty, lived-in performance that spells out exactly what her man stands to lose, lest he make an honest woman out of her. The blues guitar riff that drives the song dirties up the arrangement a bit, but it’s the handclaps-only B section and, as always, LBT’s impeccable four-part harmonies that really make “Little White Church” distinctive and seductive. Jonathan Keefe
96. Sia, “Chandelier”
As a songwriter, Sia has scored copious hits by channeling the voices of pop stars as varied as Rihanna and Celine Dion. On “Chandelier,” her heart- and lung-rending delivery of a song about addiction feels entirely her own, the kind of full-throttle catharsis that you can’t fake no matter how big the paycheck. From the reggae-inflected verse asserting that “party girls don’t get hurt” to the sky-high chorus declaring the singer’s intent to swing from ceiling fixtures while drinking her face off, “Chandelier” captures how denial can morph into jarring revelations about the extent of one’s self-destruction. The song, however, keeps that reckoning in abeyance, riding its thudding beat and reveling in those final moments of exhilaration before the hangover inevitably hits. Annie Galvin
95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”
The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani
94. Lana Del Rey, “National Anthem”
The fifth single from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die doubles, much like the album, as a critique and a glorification of materialism and artifice, name-dropping “upper echelon” status symbols like the Hamptons, $2 million sports cars, and Page Six to paint a portrait of a girl looking for love in all the well-fixed places. Del Rey boasts of “blurring the lines between real and the fake” in the lyrics, and though she’s taken on various guises during her short run in the spotlight (“gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Ione Skye from Say Anything…, and, in the video for “National Anthem,” a 21st-century Jackie O), what makes the song feel authentic is the singer’s simple, robotic performance. She doesn’t try to affect a deeper, more “serious” tone the way she has on other songs, content to sing in her more natural higher register. “National Anthem” suggests what it might sound like if trip-hop had conquered hip-hop and Britney Spears actually had something to say. Cinquemani
93. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “Starboy”
Few people would accuse Abel Tesfaye of being too modest. Yet, the artist known as the Weeknd has described “Starboy” as his manifestation of the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside us.” That heightened swagger finds Tesfaye looking down at the gaudier accoutrements of the celebrity lifestyle, blaming pop culture at large for creating his outsized persona in the first place (“Look what you’ve done/I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy”), all while signaling a transformation that’s portrayed literally in the single’s music video, where Tesfaye assassinates his former palm-tree-afroed self to announce the arrival of his shorn Starboy period, a not-so-subtle nod to David Bowie. By joining forces with Daft Punk, Tesfaye adds gloss to this smooth, bombastic sound, resulting in a song that sleekly and effortlessly thrums and sparkles like one of his beloved luxury cars driven under neon lights. Josh Goller
92. LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”
Self-interested, defeatist, and angry, James Murphy is practically a distillation of every obsessive character from a Jonathan Franzen novel. He is also, like them, open to change, even if it sounds as if it will take much prodding for him to even get halfway there. The silver lining in This Is Happening’s collection of downers, “I Can Change” boasts the album’s most succinct and vivid illustration of Murphy’s doubts and resentments as a lover. It’s woozy, glitchy synths are the sounds of a man wanting but resisting to give in to happiness, light beaming outward from a very dark void. Ed Gonzalez
91. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
There’s something about “Digital Witness” that hearkens back to a song by one of Annie Clark’s most obvious influences: David Bowie’s “TVC15” Both songs use herky-jerky vocal hooks to deliver sly existential horror about the prevalence of technology in the modern age, and almost 40 years after Bowie sang about a television swallowing Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, Clark sounds even more distressed: “Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” But the funky, chopped-up horn bleats that form the backbone of “Digital Witness” manage to place the tune squarely in the 21st century. Jeremy Winograd
90. Janet Jackson featuring J. Cole, “No Sleeep”
Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album, Unbreakable. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Eric Henderson
89. Luke James, “Drip”
With a falsetto vocal that goes from aching to ecstatic and a wah-wah guitar lead that channels vintage Ernie Isley, New Orleans singer-songwriter Luke James’s “Drip,” the first single from his forthcoming sophomore effort, sounds like it could have fallen out of heaven, or at least the early 1970s. The only real clue to its 2017 origins are the lyrics, which don’t even try to pretend that the title isn’t about what you think it’s about. At a time when contemporary R&B at large was blander and more samey-sounding than ever, “Drip” was a breath of Afro-Sheen-scented fresh air. If every neo-neo-soul track can be this good, then sign us up for the revival of the revival. Zachary Hoskins
88. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not the One”
There’s nothing genuinely threatening or dangerous about Sky Ferreira, a former teen model who’s adopted a confrontational stance on her first album, Night Time, My Time, most clearly manifested in a revealing, forcefully unattractive cover photo and a faux-punk aesthetic. Yet these signifiers are useful in establishing the type of artist Ferreira wants to be: fearlessly self-possessed, sexual on her own terms, more focused on lacerating breakup songs than bubblegum love ballads. All these things come through on the intermittingly fierce, completely catchy “You’re Not the One,” its industrial drums and bittersweet vocals setting up another thick-skinned sendoff track from an artist intent on establishing her independence. Jesse Cataldo
87. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”
The title track and lead single from Hot Chip’s latest album may be the sweetest and most genuine ode to monogamy that exists anywhere. Forget about dates, forget marriage; Alexis Taylor is interested in so much more, as he affirms “I only wanna be your one life stand” with his convivial everyman charm. It’s a lovely message, and serves as a splendid centrepiece for this single. The verses are accentuated by deformed Caribbean steel drums and laser sound effects, while the chorus boasts a barrage of warm, sonorous synths. This could be the most radio-friendly slab of upbeat pop we’ve heard from Taylor and company, but it struggled to chart significantly on either side of the Atlantic as the record-buying company parted with their money for messages of promiscuity and bad romances instead. Oh well. Their loss. Huw Jones
86. Azealia Banks, “1991”
So maybe it’s all a bit too on-the-nose as an homage, but it’s not like Azealia Banks is one for subtlety. She’s dialed back the inventive potty-mouthing that made “212” such an attention-grabber, but there’s so much going on in “1991” that Banks could never be accused of slacking off. She spits a rapid-fire 16-bar rhyme that’s a triumph of female sexual agency and makes it sound as effortless as snacking on a little pain au chocolat, and then she nimbly interweaves those rhymes into an onomatopoeic secondary vocal track before unraveling it all so she can do a spot-on impression of Ce Ce Peniston. Keefe
85. Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys”
There are several very good songs with almost uncomfortably personal lyrics and poppy earworm hooks on erstwhile Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis’s third solo album, The Voyager, but “Just One of the Guys” is one of the few that had the benefit of not being produced by Ryan Adams, with his ‘80s AOR-rock fetish. Instead, the Beck-produced single possesses more of a late-‘70s singer-songwriter feel that suits Lewis’s voice and personality better. But it’s not the arrangement, or even the incredibly catchy see-sawing chorus that stands out the most; it’s Lewis’s daringly close-to-the-bone bridge: “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.” Winograd
84. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”
“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” Lorde sings on “Magnets,” an understated offering from Disclosure’s sophomore effort, Caracal. The tropical house track, which features Indian rhythms, backward synth washes, and a patient, pulsating beat, succeeds—with a little help from its fiery music video, of course—at shifting the New Zealand pop singer’s profile ever so slightly from gawky teen to sultry chanteuse, her performance at once singular in its edgy hesitance and startling in its unexpected seductiveness. Cinquemani
83. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jesus Alone”
The structure of “Jesus Alone” serves as an appropriate mirror for the emotional state its composer found himself in while formulating it. As the song begins, with a grumbling electronic groan and Nick Cave reciting vivid but obtuse imagery, the singer sounds despondent and detached, adrift in darkness and abstraction. But as the improvised track builds, its cold swirls of electronics, strings, and piano gradually coalesce into a grievingly reposeful refrain, as Cave comes to grips with his pain: “With my voice/I am calling you.” It’s a pretty chorus, but when considering that Cave is “calling” his dead son, it becomes far more devastating than the gloomier musical passages that precede it. Winograd
82. Kelela, “LMK”
Kicking off in the club and resolving in the gauzy ether of a potential meaningless hookup, Kelela’s “LMK” sounds both ominous and alluring, an aloof seduction condensed to three and a half minutes. In its delivery, the singer turns the standard come-hither suggestiveness of so much female-fronted pop on its head, abandoning intimations of virginal purity or masculine power transfer for cold transactional consumption, all cards immediately laid out on the table. By removing desire entirely from the equation, she reduces the procedural essence of the mating ritual to its barest elements, within a track that pulls off a similar musical process, stripped down to Jam City’s slim ambient production and the singer’s silky, expressive voice. Slinky and soothing despite its aggressive tone, blending plainspoken confidence with low-key virtuosity, “LMK” represents the finest qualities of Kelela’s sumptuous debut, concentrated into a sui generis amendment of pop sexual politics. Cataldo
81. La Roux, “Bulletproof”
There’s really no explaining how or why British synth-pop duo La Roux managed to sneak itself onto U.S. radio playlists while the likes of Robyn, Little Boots, and other Euro pop acts remained largely ignored. Not that “Bulletproof” is undeserving: It’s all video-game bleeps and stiff beats, with singer Elly Jackson fancying herself an impenetrable computer. But with a malfunctioning communication system (“I won’t let you in again/The messages I tried to send/My information’s just not going in”), Jackson’s declaration that “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” ultimately just sounds like wishful thinking. Cinquemani
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2019
Unlike past years, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed cearly and unapologetically negative.
Unlike in past years, where many of our most-read articles were middling or even slightly positive takes on franchises whose ardent fans seemed displeased that we didn’t shower their favorites with praise, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed clearly and unapologetically negative. Our most-read review of the year, Avengers: Endgame, clocked more than twice as many eyeballs as the runner-up, a testament to the public’s continued interest in all things Marvel as well as the passion of the property’s followers. Of course, it wasn’t all pans: Our review of Madonna’s most daring album in years, Madame X, wasn’t just the site’s most popular music review of the year, but our most-read piece on the queen of pop ever. And you loved our painstakingly compiled lists more than ever, with our 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time and 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time cracking the Top 10. Alexa Camp
10. Film Review: The Lion King
It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment. [Read More]
9. Game Review: Remnant: From the Ashes
There’s a lot of deadwood, literal and figurative, in Remnant: From the Ashes. The literal kind stems from the plot, which tasks you with sending tree-like creatures known as the Root back into the dimension they were inadvertently, experimentally summoned from. And the figurative kind is just about everything else that stands in the way of this action shooter’s gameplay: three-player co-op with no means of communicating with your teammates; enemies that spawn directly over a downed teammate, keeping you from reviving them; and an as-yet unpatched glitch that may outright prevent you from seeing the ending. [Read More]
8. Film Review: Joker
Todd Phillips’s Joker is a film that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical bros at the center of the director’s Hangover trilogy during a blacked-out stupor. Not so much part of Warner Bros.’s ongoing Batman series as adjacent to it, Joker imagines a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like Manhattan in the early ‘80s, with crime-ridden streets, movie titles like Blow Out and Zorro, The Gay Blade on marquees, and trash piling up due to a garbage strike. The air is stinking with gloom and decay, and among the morbidly downcast populace is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Clown Prince of Crime to Be. [Read More]
7. Album Review: Madonna, Madame X
Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.” [Read More]
6. The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. [Read More]
5. Film Review: JoJo Rabbit
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is the work of a free man. A man, that is, with all the short-term independence that Marvel money and Hollywood blockbuster street cred can buy. This spectacularly wrongheaded “anti-hate satire” (as per the how-the-hell-do-we-market-this-thing ad campaign) is the feature-length equivalent of the “Springtime for Hitler” number from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, sans context and self-awareness. It takes place in a goofball period la-la land of its own creation, with sets as minutely detailed and shots as precisely composed as those in a Wes Anderson fantasia. Indeed, Jojo Rabbit suggests what that dapper hipster auteur might generate if he was to remake Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory, horrifying World War II epic Come and See, and that’s not a compliment. [Read More]
4. The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms. [Read More]
3. Game Review: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtedly talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted. [Read More]
2. Game Review: Days Gone
Days Gone is the apotheosis of the more-is-more philosophy: more bars to fill, more gates to progress, more hours of playtime, more zombies per square inch because “more” is supposed to fill the hole where some semblance of meaning ought to be, bridging the gap between one mind-numbing mission template and the next. It’s the purest example yet of the video game as mere content to be consumed, down to the very fact that each storyline you’re supposed to be emotionally invested in is marked with a completion percentage. Days Gone is a void. [Read More]
1. Film Review: Avengers: Endgame
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. [Read More]
The 100 Best Video Games of the 2010s
Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani claimed some years back that video games are the only art form that got better solely because of technology. While that’s arguably been true for much of the medium’s history, it ceased to be the case in the 2010s. The decade in gaming didn’t lack for astounding technical achievements, but its arc was defined less by powerful technology than powerful ideas.
This was the decade that saw tiny studios, lone creators, and crazy concepts reign supreme. This was the decade that saw every platform become a viable place for ideas to sprout and bloom. The limits of the medium are seemingly bound only by the human imagination, and at every level, regardless of the horsepower needed, it now feels like anything is possible.
The decade’s best games took full advantage of that new freedom by pushing the envelope in every direction. Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward. Justin Clark
100. BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, only in suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
99. The Norwood Suite
The public is more aware than ever of the infallibilities of well-known artists, and Cosmo D’s The Norwood Suite evokes the discomfort that many of us often feel when the dirty secrets of an icon are put on display. The setting here is a hotel that houses the legacy of a bandleader named Peter Norwood, whose exploitative relationships with other musicians come to the player’s attention via surreal trips down hidden passageways. Yet this building also bears numerous odd pleasures to behold, not least of which is a soundtrack that seamlessly morphs as you move from room to room. The characters are literally riffs in Cosmo D’s stupendous orchestration; different instruments and notes accompany different lines of dialogue as they appear on screen. The more you explore this strange location, the more you see the threat of commercialization in the form of corporate employees aiming to turn the hotel into a greater moneymaking scheme. Cosmo D gives no easy answers on how capitalistic culture can reconcile the sins of artistic giants, and that ambiguity makes The Norwood Suite a complicated and essential illustration of contemporary concerns. Jed Pressgrove
To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise. Aaron Riccio
Downwell is a quarter-eater without the quarters, an arcade game from out of time. As your character tumbles down an enclosed space, collecting gems and shooting bullets from his feet, the game feels like something you play as much as you give yourself over to. Each run demands split-second decisions. Do you go back for more gems, as a cabal of monsters closes in behind you? Do you risk a stomp attack that demands more precision but will reward you with a badly needed reload? Do you break the block for gems at risk of losing space to maneuver? Each run showers you in game-changing upgrades that introduce still-more variables to consider at a moment’s notice, while you continue blasting your way into the abyss. Like the very best action games, Downwell becomes its own trance state. Steven Scaife
96. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Prepare to die a lot. The modern gaming landscape is one littered with checkpoints, save states, and wonky AI. 2K Games’s reimagining of the XCOM strategy series harkens back to the cult classic’s unsettling gameplay and punishing difficulty. The rewarding sensation one receives after successfully commanding a squad out of a heated skirmish with strange intergalactic warriors is unparalleled in modern games. These tense battles eventually lead the player to actually form an emotional bond with your team members, which makes their inevitable demise that much more crushing. These interactive elements lend XCOM’s tense action an atmosphere that’s engrossing and wholly addictive. It’s easy to treasure an old-school counter-offensive game that understands the motivating power of fear. Kyle Lemmon
95. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston
94. Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima’s first game away from Konami, Death Stranding, finds him tearing down the familiar structure of the open-world game and building it back up again as something weirder, more deliberate, and more honest about what it is. It transforms basic traversal into the entire conceit rather than more or less a time sink between story missions and side activities. It peels away the artifice of open-world structure, revealing the dressed-up delivery missions underneath while declaring that they’re a worthwhile pursuit in their own right. And once you’ve totally internalized that idea, the tools the game provides become enthralling revelations: You eventually build sprawling highways and ziplines that propel you across arduous terrain. You’ve worked for them. You’ve earned them. Death Stranding is an admirable experiment for big-budget game design, playing like one long, bizarre, and startlingly persuasive argument that the journey is fulfilling in its own right. Scaife
While Iconoclasts’s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts’s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
92. Yakuza 0
This prequel faced the unenviable task of taking a decades-old abstruse Japanese series and making it accessible for the masses. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, important underworld figures later in the series, are introduced to us as a low-level recruit and disgraced outcast, respectively, from different organized crime syndicates. They’re pulled into a conspiracy after Kazuma is framed for murder and Goro rejects an assassination job after finding out that the target is a defenseless blind girl. Their captivating narratives come together in a larger plot brimming with sociopolitical intrigue about property development and clan territory. Think of Yakuza 0 as noir through the lens of ‘80s Japan. Its gameplay simplifies the series’s complicated mechanics without limiting the player or compromising the variety in the details. One can take part in any manner of activities throughout the Tokyo and Osaka settings while progressing through the campaign, allowing the game to prove itself both as a compelling prequel to an ongoing series and as its own self-contained story. Aston
Arkane Studios’s Dishonored combines elements of other immersive sims, like BioShock and Thief, to create a mechanically enjoyable first-person stealth game that challenges your awareness and resourcefulness. While its narrative about betrayal and revenge is familiar, the game is enticing for the autonomy it offers players. Dishonored is very much a gamer’s game: It hands you a target—kill High Overseer Campbell, for example—before then turning you lose, giving you the freedom of the world and Corvo’s powers to deal with your target however you see fit. Though the end of every mission may resort to a binary lethal/non-lethal choice, the ways you can approach any mission are bountiful, making each run different enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. Jeremy Winslow
The Best Theater of 2019
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)
If Slave Play’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.
The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project)
The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.
Buried (New York Musical Festival)
Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.
Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)
For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.
Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.
Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.
Gary (Booth Theatre)
From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)
One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.
King Lear (Cort Theatre)
This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.
Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)
Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.
Mojada (Public Theater)
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.
Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)
The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.
one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)
Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.
The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)
For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.
Slave Play (Golden Theatre)
I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.
The Sound Inside (Studio 54)
Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.
What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)
When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.
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