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Music Done Differently

'Straight Outta Compton'
Image: Universal Pictures

'Straight Outta Compton'

Straight Outta Compton

I still don’t know much about ’90s West Coast rap, but after watching Straight Outta Compton I have a much better sense of the milieu from which it emerged. The movie is surprisingly timely, exploring the cultural panic over “gangsta rap” and how critiques were often divorced from any understanding of the music’s context. Sure, it's got flaws. But it’s relatively rare to see a music film that’s making a strong, contemporary political argument, and this one pulls it off.

Love & Mercy
(CT’s review, by Brett McCracken)

Probably the most haunting scene in this film is where Paul Dano, playing the young Brian Wilson, is composing “God Only Knows”—one of the finest songs ever recorded—only to be shot down by his jealous, overbearing father. But what makes the film special (alongside its sound design, as Brett wrote in his review) is that it’s a musician biopic that drops all conventions of the genre that don’t serve the storytelling. So often, films about musicians follow the exact same narrative arc: sweet kid with talent has a breakout song, then gets hooked on drugs and a wild lifestyle, hits rock bottom, and is finally rescued (or not), usually by a loving woman. Wilson’s story is basically this, but the film cuts back and forth between past and present and is content to gesture at those crashes rather than depict them in detail—and that bit of genius construction means the film is fresh. (It also features Paul Giamatti in his second music-film role of the year as a skeezy, abusive leech—the other was in Straight Outta Compton.)

'Girlhood'
Image: Strand Releasing

'Girlhood'

Girlhood

This French film about teenage girls growing up in a rough neighborhood outside Paris isn’t about music, but that’s a big part of it. One unforgettable scene at the film’s center—in which Marieme, our protagonist, and her friends dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—may be the best crystallized moment of female coming-of-age I’ve ever seen, the moment when a girl goes from being a child to feeling like a woman. It’s integrated so naturally into the film that it takes your breath away.

Life, Death, and Trauma

'Room'
Image: A24

'Room'

Room
(My review)

I can’t get rid of Jacob Tremblay’s face in my mind; as the young boy raised by his mother entirely in the one-room shed in which they are captives, his is the breakout role of the year. But Brie Larson—who plays his mother—is just as fabulous, and this is her story. Trauma and PTSD are hard to portray well. The effects on the soul of not just individuals but whole families and communities is even harder. Room is somehow simultaneously uplifting and devastating.

Macbeth
(My review)

Speaking of tyrant tales, this is an underappreciated (as of yet) masterpiece of Shakespearean filmmaking that is more unsettling than any other adaptation I’ve ever seen, probably because it conceives of Macbeth’s descent into madness as the result of unspeakable loss. It is raw, with battle scenes as eye-popping as those in Mad Max, and leaves you with a knot in your gut.

Timbuktu

This film startled me. It’s about people living in and near the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali who are grappling with the everyday consequences of the jihadists who have occupied the town and are trying to control the way they practice their faith as Muslims. There’s some comedy in the jihadists’ ineffectiveness (even they are painted as humans, not cartoons), until they stop being ineffective and start wreaking havoc that has long-reaching repercussions for several families.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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