Best Musical Artists of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

One more list! One more list!

My Best of the 2010s list-making journey has finally come to a close! (Or has it? … For now, it has at least. The future will come as it may, and it may just surprise you, and me.) All this week, I’ve been posting my rankings of a few categories that I was inspired to put together after submitting them to a Best of the 2010s polls that I’m participating in with some of my fellow cultural aficionados. To wrap it all up, I guide you along to the realm of music and lyrics, as I present the Best Musical Artists of the 2010s.

My criteria was similar to that of my choices for Best Film Directors. I considered a combination of how much I enjoyed their musical output as well as how much – and how well – they influenced the industry at large.

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Best Songs of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

Of all the pieces of art and entertainment that I’m ranking for the decade, songs are probably the most personal. Yet somehow I feel compelled to consider how they affected the world at large moreso than all the other categories. The tunes that I value the most aren’t just the ones that make my own heart sing but also the ones that draw all of us closer together. So as I assembled this list, I asked myself both, “What has made me dance these past 10 years?” and “How would I like to dance with everyone else?” Here’s what that playlist looks like.
(I aimed to stick only to songs that were released as singles, as opening this to deep album cuts would’ve made things so overheated.)

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This Is a Movie Review: Meet the ‘Ocean’s 8’ Heist, Same as the Old Heist

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden

Director: Gary Ross

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Indulgent Behavior That Might Be Incriminating

Release Date: June 8, 2018

I am always wary of crime flicks in which the criminals are the protagonists and get away with it. Sure, cinema can be escapist fantasy, and I trust that most audiences understand that the glorification of illegal behavior does not make it okay in real life. But there is a moral component to movies, so this genre needs to be careful about the messages it sends out. That is what most concerns me about Ocean’s 8, much more so than whether or not it is a good idea to have all-female spinoffs or if these ladies would be better off assembling for some original concept (it is at least theoretically possible to have both, after all). We can rest assured that Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) heist is mostly a victimless crime, although maybe a few millionaires take a hit. There is no sense, though, that this is a matter of acting on behalf of the little guy to stick it to the 1%. The underlying message is basically that you do what you do because you’re good at it, and that cavalier attitude is not exactly ruinous, but it can be mighty discomforting if you think about it.

But if we can allow ourselves to revel in the fantasy for two hours, does Ocean’s 8 deliver the entertainment that it is designed to? It takes a while to get going, with a rather sluggish pace as Debbie assembles her crew. And it does not help that we have seen these character types before: the tech expert, the street scam artist, the suburbanite trying to hide her criminal past. But once the plan gets going, the pace clicks along nicely. The heist itself – get celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a famous necklace worth millions at the Met Gala, swipe it off her and replace it with a convincing facsimile – is adequately innovative. As everyone carries out their jobs, the cast comes alive, with Hathaway in particular having a blast. And it pulls off the third act moments that make you go, “They did it. Those magnificent bastards pulled it off!” There are the moments when we learn what really went down that we didn’t see at the time, and then here comes a new major character who helps the ladies wrap it all up in a bow. Nothing is getting reinvented, but the gears are still turning smoothly.

Less interesting, and much more perfunctory, are the connections to the Ocean’s franchise at large. A few vets of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pop in for cameos, which might spark thrills of recognition. Much is made of Debbie’s connection to her brother, the supposedly deceased Danny, that is meant to go beyond, “Hey, remember this character you already love?” There are some ideas about genetic destiny that are worth exploring more in depth, but Ocean’s 8 mostly plays these moments as just a toast to its forebears. Acknowledgement of one’s predecessors is generally a good idea, but you need to take it a step further if you want to truly slay.

Ocean’s 8 is Recommended If You Like: All the typical heist film beats, Suspending your moral compass for two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blind Spots

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is Confident and Visionary in a Way All Films Should Aspire To

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© 2016 VALERIAN SAS Ð TF1 FILMS PRODUCTION

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke

Director: Luc Besson

Running Time: 137 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers, Gunplay, and the Accompanying Alien Splatter

Release Date: July 21, 2017

My quick pitch for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is “Star Wars but more European and colorful.” Now, don’t take that mean it is overly derivative. Most great modern stories are just variations on the classics, space fantasies especially so, Star Wars more than any other. Even if a movie finds inspiration from the tales of the Jedi, there is a genuinely strong chance it has a fair degree of originality. Valerian’s source material predates Star Wars, as it is based on the long-running French comic series Valérian et Laureline, which was first published in 1967 and, in the vein of John Carter, was by all accounts an influence on George Lucas. I cannot speak to how closely the film hews to the original, but I can say without hesitation that the result is the delightfully unfiltered vision of Luc Besson.

After I first watched the trailer for Valerian, my take on its prospects for success was that while it looked spectacularly unique, there was no way it could be a box office hit. It would be too lavish, too weird, too alien. But here’s the thing: that’s a bunch of baloney. If people who like movies want to be entertained, they need to go see Valerian. It is such a crowd-pleaser. Yes, it is a little more out-there than your average blockbuster, but it is not as impenetrable as something like Jupiter Ascending. The plot is straightforward and weighty enough to be neither confusing nor laughable, and if folks cannot appreciate the beautiful production design, fleet-on-its-feet action, and overall good vibes, then I don’t know what’s what.

The opening montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” could be overly on the nose but is instead an ode to the human (or human/alien/all sentient beings) spirit. Over the course of decades on a satellite orbiting Earth, a trio of astronauts keeps welcoming a new trio of astronauts from all corners of the globe. After a century or so, the new entrants start to become extraterrestrial. Eventually, the station becomes so popular that it must break away from Earth’s gravitational pull and become an intergalactic hub: Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. The international/interplanetary cooperation is inspiring. This is not quite a utopia, but the effort of all involved to make it as close to one as possible is palpable.

The central conflict is a classic of the genre: an entire planet has been wiped out, and its surviving residents seek a new home. A device exists with enough energy to create a facsimile version, but its power makes it life-threateningly dangerous, and it may very well be in the wrong hands, so government operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are on the case. Often in this type of story, the destruction or conquest of another planet would be at stake, but the displaced here are a profoundly peaceful collective; in keeping with the utopian spirit, their goal fits this future’s high ideals.

There is a love story between the two leads that could have easily felt shoehorned in, but instead it is part and parcel of getting Besson’s message across. Despite a long list of past conquests, Valerian proposes to Laureline within the first ten minutes, desiring to prove that he is noble enough to turn their professional partnership into a life one. Their flirtation is playfully teasing, though their chemistry is never quite steaming. Still, their loyalty to each other ultimately demonstrates a high-minded connection of the variety that has united the peoples of Alpha.

In their travels to restore the balance of the universe, Valerian and Laureline come across a number of instantly lovable characters, both CGI and humans playing dress-up (or in some cases, both). There is an implied foundation of tolerance insofar as every interaction feels so lived-in and in how every outfit plus every style of skin (or whatever the alien equivalent of skin is) is matter-of-factly accepted. Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, and Ethan Hawke each play some degree of against type, but the biggest delight is Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien dancer named Bubble who aids Valerian and Laureline in a crucial escape mission. For those who have been waiting for the Barbadian singer to have an iconic cinematic moment, your time has come. She is the best part of the film, with her malleable nature fully inhabiting the theme that you can be and do whatever you want as long as you are fighting for what is right.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is Recommended If You Like: Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Art and Vocation of Filmmaking

Grade: 4 out of 5 Handshakes

Best Songs of 2016

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kiiara-gold

All songs on this list were released as singles in 2016, or 2015 but didn’t make an impact until 2016.

1. Kiiara – “Gold” – An ingenious production trick wins the top spot. The best music in the world rewires your brain.
2. Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Freedom” – Beyoncé BUSTS out every emotion of the year.
3. Phantogram – “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” – I can feel myself dissolving in the despair.
4. Lady GaGa – “Perfect Illusion” – GaGa’s crying out in beautiful pain.
5. Kanye West – “Fade” – From another dimension.
6. Rag‘n’Bone Man – “Human” – The blues are alive and kicking.
7. Sia – “The Greatest” – Sia’s career is the soundtrack for perseverance.
8. Alessia Cara – “Scars to Your Beautiful” – What could have been an anodyne message piece instead infuses an influx of attitude.
9. Flume ft. Tove Lo – “Say It” – An airy, effervescent blast from 2016’s top DJ.
10. Childish Gambino – “Me and Your Mama” – Where did this burst of neo-P-Funk come from?!
11. Rae Sremmurd ft. Gucci Mane – “Black Beatles” – This sounds like nostalgia and the future.
12. Glass Animals – “Life Itself” – Alternative quirk’s top spot of the year.
13. Bishop Briggs – “River” – I need at least one lady rocker belting it out like this per annum.
14. Beyoncé – “Formation” – The production is so much more adventurous and more mature from Queen Bey than ever before.
15. BANKS – “Gemini Feed” – Icy and boopy, with attitude to spare.
16. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker” – I’m vociferously nodding along to every declaration Mr. Cohen makes.
17. Kaleo – “Way Down We Go” – That title is sort of like musical onomatopoeia.
18. Highly Suspect – “My Name is Human” – These guys from Cape Cod ought to be rocking stadiums to their core.
19. Beck – “Wow” – Beck’s gonna keep uncovering these strange corners in the aural landscape.
20. Kongos – “Take It From Me” – These South African rockers are totally in control.
21. Tove Lo – “Cool Girl” – Tove keeps freaking up the airwaves.
22. A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People” – A necessary anthem.
23. Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills” – Bounce along when you’re looking for fun.
24. Ariana Grande – “Into You” – Features the year’s most killer opening line
25. Rihanna ft. Drake – “Work” – One of those great songs that defy natural analysis.

SNL Recap May 16, 2015: Louis C.K./Rihanna

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My full review of this episode can be found on Starpulse: http://www.starpulse.com/news/Jeffrey_Malone/2015/05/17/saturday-night-live-season-40-finale-r

It’s Summer (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+

Louis C.K.’s Monologue – B+

The Shoemaker and the Elves – C

Sprint Store – B

A Message From the Woodworkers Association of America – B

Rihanna – “Bitch Better Have My Money” – B-

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B-
Tom Brady – B-
Pete Davidson – C
Riblet – B

Vacation – C-

Police Lineup – C

A Message From the Woodworkers Association of America II – C+

Rihanna – “American Oxygen” – B+

Forgotten TV Gems – B