6. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul


Daniel McFadden / Twentieth Century Fox

Jason Drucker, Charlie Wright, and Alicia Silverstone in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The Wimpyverse returned to theaters after a five-year absence in May at the expense of a no-longer-age-appropriate original cast that got ruthlessly dumped like puppies that had grown into larger-than-anticipated dogs. The Long Haul‘s newer, spryer version of the Heffley clan was accordingly paired with a fresh, current topic — how to balance face time with screen time in the digital age. The road-trip comedy results were so dismal they might have killed the franchise for good, but in one aspect, at least, they were pretty on point: And that aspect is John Denver, whose music has bewilderingly been everywhere, at least at the movies, this year. At a low point for the Heffleys on their device-free, problem-plagued road trip to grandmother’s house, their luggage gets strewn all over the highway to the tune of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” But, like everything else in The Long Haul, its participation in 2017’s strangest soundtrack trend is just off: The movie opts for the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover instead of the Denver original. Get it together, Heffleys!

5. Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox

Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Pedro Pascal in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The greatest pleasure the underwhelming Kingsman sequel has to offer comes not from anything it actually puts onscreen, but from reading director Matthew Vaughn’s grumpy interview responses about realizing that his film is actually the sixth this year to feature a Denver tune. “I was like, fuck you, Ridley,” he (mostly jokingly) told Uproxx about discovering that his movie and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant share a song. “Not that he had any idea, but it did break my heart,” Vaughn said. And sure, it’s possible that The Golden Circle‘s incorporation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a scene of heroic sacrifice might have had more impact if audiences hadn’t heard it employed for a similar cornball-poignant effect so recently before. It’s also possible that the sequence would have fallen flat no matter what, given the only setup it got was a hurried earlier mention of a character’s unexpected fondness for country-western music. Like a lot of The Golden Circle, the moment plays like rough notes for a scene no one got around to actually writing.

4. Free Fire


A24

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Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor in Free Fire.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song,” “It’s Up to You,” and “This Old Guitar”

Ben Wheatley’s feature-length firefight takes place in the ’70s, which at first seems mainly like an excuse to dress its stellar cast in outlandish period fashions and to liberate the plot from pesky “why don’t they just use their cell phones” questions. But as the film goes on, it starts to feel like Free Fire was really set in the ’70s in order to make sense of its heavy use of John Denver tracks. The cynical shoot-em-up may not have the year’s best use of Denver’s music, but it definitely has the most, incorporating three songs into its scenario of criminals cracking wise while killing each other in a Boston warehouse. Chief among them is “Annie’s Song,” the surprisingly mellow choice playing in the van of the hotheaded Harry (Jack Reynor) as he pulls up to an arms deal that’s about to go spectacularly wrong. When, multiple acts of violence later, someone gets back in the van and starts the engine, the song gets cranked up again, becoming the perfectly incongruous accompaniment to a sloppy, brutal skirmish that concludes with the crushing of someone’s skull just as the song reaches its peak — fill up your senses on that.

3. Alien: Covenant


Twentieth Century Fox

Danny McBride and Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

We never hear the original version of John Denver’s most famous (and the year’s most cinema-friendly) song anywhere in Alien: Covenant. We only hear it sung posthumously by a character who died offscreen between films: Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientist who was one of the few survivors of Prometheus, the previous film in Ridley Scott’s planned trilogy of prequels. The cracked recording of Shaw croaking out the lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is beamed into space like a beacon (or a lure), leading the crew of the colonization ship of the title to land on the planet on which she’d gotten stuck. The more we realize about what happened on the ground, the more Shaw’s song choice turns tragic and haunting, because going home to the place she belonged wasn’t an option.

2. Logan Lucky


Claudette Barius / Bleecker Street Media

Channing Tatum and Farrah Mackenzie in Logan Lucky.

John Denver songs used: “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone)” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

If any film on this list is entitled to revel in “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it’s Steven Soderbergh’s joyous heist movie. The characters in Logan Lucky live in West Virginia, the state the song is about, even if work and eventual crime frequently take them into North Carolina. Matthew Vaughn could take a lesson from how Soderbergh’s film sets up its extremely effective John Denvery payoff. Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) telling his beloved daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about the song, making the case for it as one she should sing in an upcoming pageant. While she’s a fan, she opts for Rihanna’s more crowd- and costume-friendly “Umbrella” instead. But when it comes time to perform, and she spots her dad in the crowd, she makes the last minute decision to sing his favorite tune instead, a cappella, imperfect, and absolutely wonderfully. It’s an irresistibly tear-jerking moment, sure, this act of child generosity to a struggling parent, but it also captures the bittersweetness lurking underneath what is, on the surface, a rollicking comedy. Logan Lucky‘s characters may identify fiercely with the place they’re from, but they’re also constantly made aware of the economic tenuousness and limited options that come with it. Theirs is a strong love, but a painful one as well.

1. Okja


Netflix

Paul Dano in Okja.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song”

Okja‘s John Denver moment comes in the midst of a scene of madcap chaos: The title character, a genetically engineered superpig being hunted by malevolent global conglomerate Mirando, has been on the run with her owner, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the giant animal wild-eyed and panicking as she tramples through the crowded and unfamiliar urban territory. But just as Mija and Okja hit a dead end and Mirando’s men come blundering in, they’re rescued by the forces of the Animal Liberation Front, who’ve come to attempt to save the day. The action slows, “Annie’s Song” starts, and as K (Steven Yeun) helps the bruised Mija up, the rest of the ALF clash, amusingly, with the corporate employees, fighting them off with umbrellas and tablecloths. The camera holds on Mija’s face as she watches J (Paul Dano) tenderly pull a shard of plastic from Okja’s foot. How is this scene so silly and so profoundly moving at once? Maybe it’s director Bong Joon-ho’s astounding skill with balancing tonal juxtapositions, or the aura of serene kindness that Dano projects. Or maybe it’s Denver, singing that ode to his wife, the sweetness of his voice used not quite for irony or for pure sentimentality, but somehow both at once. There’s no more perfect accompaniment for this moment of grace in a movie that portrays the world as increasingly cold and cruel — it’s not just the best use of a John Denver song in 2017, it’s one of the best scenes of the year.

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