Sunday, February 26, 2017

Can't Stop the La La: 2017 Oscars Precidtions

Oscar day is officially here (by a couple hours)! Although it usually leaves me feeling frustrated (see: The King's Speech over The Social Network) or thoroughly meh (last year's Spotlight win), it really is one of my favorite days of the year. This year should be an especially interesting ceremony. Although the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of last year is behind us—this year's nominees are welcomingly diverse—the perceived racial overtones of the La La Land vs. Moonlight competition for several major awards could become the dominant storyline of the ceremony. I hope it doesn't—films don't have a race, people—but it has to be mentioned given the perhaps outsized importance placed on films in general and the Oscars specifically in pop culture. That out of the way, I'm going to try to keep my predictions brief this year, having gotten most of my opining out of the way in my top films of 2016 post. Besides, many of the major categories seem all but decided (with a couple notable exceptions). I got 6/8 major categories right last year and did okay on my Mad Max–heavy picks in the technical categories. I'm on a multi-year losing streak in my annual Oscar pool, so here's hoping I can end that this year. (I'm also on a multi-year streak of seeing all the major nominees... not that it's helped with these predictions.)

Gold = predicted winner

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

This one's really easy—Viola Davis is going to win. The other nominees all gave fine performances (especially Williams, although I'd have preferred Janelle Monae over Spencer for Fences), but Davis—who, yes, is actually a co-lead in Fences—has won just about every precursor award and will add a (probably overdue) Oscar to her trophy case. I can't wait for her speech!

My Non-Existent Vote: Davis

Best Supporting Actor
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Dev Patel – Lion
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

The supporting acting categories are usually some of the first categories of the night, and when Mahershala Ali wins in this category—and he will—#OscarsSoWhite will officially be dead (for this year at least). Bridges, Patel, Hedges, and (especially) Shannon were all deserving nominees, but Ali is the clear standout and will be a very deserving winner. Also looking forward to his speech.

My Non-Existent Vote: Ali

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Emma Stone – La La Land
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Three categories, three locks—prepare your speech, Emma Stone. (She'd better thank her aunt.) There was a time when it looked like Natalie Portman (whose performance/imitation really didn't really do much for me) or Huppert (the most deserving winner here, in my eyes) was the frontrunner, but other than Huppert's Golden Globe, Stone has picked up most of the precursors. She was very good in La La Land and will be the first native Arizonan to win Oscar gold. (Grand Canyon state shoutout!)

My Non-Existent Vote: Huppert

Best Actor
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences

Three of these guys really have no business here, at least for these particular films. Mortensen was the best part of a deeply flawed film, but I didn't see much awards-worthy in his performance. Garfield and Gosling were both far, far superior in Silence and The Nice Guys, respectively. But none of them is a contender, as this will come down to Affleck vs. Washington—and, more specifically, Affleck's sexual harassment allegations and stash of precursors vs. Denzel's SAG win (typically a very strong indicator). Going on nothing more than a hunch, I think Denzel's late charge comes up just short and Casey Affleck takes home the statue to taunt his brother with. (I know he has two, but none of them is for acting.) His speech should be... interesting.

My Non-Existent Vote: Affleck

Best Adapted Screenplay
Luke Davies – Lion
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
August Wilson – Fences

Heisserer or Schroeder/Melfi have an outside shot, but Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney are the favorites and will likely win here. This is the Academy's best chance to reward Jenkins (although I hope that isn't the case), but at least he shouldn't go home empty-handed. I slightly prefer Heisserer's script myself, while the Hidden Figures script was a solid crowd-pleaser and Lion really fell apart in the second half. As for Fences, Wilson has been dead for 12 years, so I'm not sure how much "adapting" was going on there. (It's a powerful script/film though.)

My Non-Existent Vote: Heisserer

Best Original Screenplay
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

This figures to be one of the few major categories for which it's nominated that La La Land doesn't win. I see the Academy rewarding Kenneth Lonergan here much as Jenkins above for the highly regarded (and deserving) Manchester. If it turns into a historical night for La La Land (a distinct possibility), Chazelle could win for the weakest of these nominees. My vote would go to Mills, but Sheridan (I quite enjoyed High Water) and Lanthimos/Filippou (I did not enjoy The Lobster but the writing was strong) are also worthy.

My Non-Existent Vote: Mills

Best Director
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

I usually fuck myself over in a category or two by going with my heart over my head. But not this year. So I will resignedly mark down Damien Chazelle on my Oscar ballot before the ceremony. He's just won too many precursors and the milieu of La La Land is basically sweet, sticky crack cocaine (I don't really know much about drugs) to Oscar voters. I really like the movie and it is well directed (although Whiplash was better in both aspects), but Jenkins and Moonlight are clearly superior. (And I still think he has a tiny chance at a major upset.) But this is also clearly a case where Moonlight will have the more lasting legacy, so I won't fret. Both Lonergan and Villeneuve would make fine choices in many other years, and may eventually claim a statue of their own. Gibson does not belong in this race, and that's all I have to say about that.

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

I would say Moonlight has a chance here, but realistically, this is Trump's America—a still largely white (and anonymous) voting body is not going to pick the (again, superior) film about a gay black man over the whitebread throwback musical. So, La La Land it is. Again, I liked the film, but it's just so obviously the wrong choice, especially this year. (I had much more to say about this in my top films write-up if you're interested.) Of the rest of the nominees, they run the gamut from outstanding (Arrival, Manchester) to very good (High Water, Fences, Figures) to just okay (Lion, Hacksaw). Overall, another pretty strong group of nominees. Here's hoping the nominees are just as good this time next year.

Onto the rest of the categories, lightning-round style...

Best Animated Film 
Zootopia – Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Clark Spencer
Kubo and the Two Strings (which I meant to see) has an outside shot, but Zootopia is easily the best bet on the board. The only nominee I saw—Moana—was great and would get my vote.
My Non-Existent Vote: Moana

Best Foreign Language Film
The Salesman – Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Iranian Farhadi (who will not be at the ceremony) has an Oscar (for 2011's excellent A Separation), but a win in the political climate of 2017 would be doubly sweet. (It'll be Toni Erdmann otherwise.)
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain (have not seen any of the nominees)

Best Documentary Feature
OJ: Made in America – Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow
Going chalk here, as I'm not a documentary fan, so I again have not seen any of the nominees. Most prognosticators have OJ winning here, so that's my pick. If not, it'll be 13th, seemingly.
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain (have not seen any of the nominees)

Best Documentary Short
The White Helmets – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
This could cost me the Oscar pool—I'm going against the Holocaust one (Joe's Violin). Of the three(!) nominees about Syria/Syrians, my five minutes of research gives this one the best chance.
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain (have not seen any of the nominees)

Best Animated Short
Piper – Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer
I usually see these and this year is no exception. And unfortunately, it looks like the worst of the nominees—Pixar's Piper—will take this. Blind Vaysha or Pear Cider and Cigarettes are far better.
My Non-Existent Vote: Pear Cider and Cigarettes – Robert Valley and Cara Speller

Best Live Action Short
Ennemis Intérieurs – Sélim Azzazi
So say the prognosticators. This one about an Algerian Muslim applying for French citizenship was okay, but I preferred the more lighthearted Sing and Timecode.
My Non-Existent Vote: Sing – Kristóf Deák and Anna Udvardy

Best Score
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land 
This is quite possibly the lock of the night. It's a fine score—amiably nostalgic—but Mica Levi's score for Jackie is better (better still is her score for 2013's Under the Skin).
My Non-Existent Vote: Mica Levi – Jackie

Best Original Song
"City of Stars" – Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul (from La La Land)
Even in a category with a JT banger and an absolute scorcher from Moana, the humming song from La La Land is going to win. But it's a good song, so no complaints. (And it's better than "Audition.")  
My Non-Existent Vote: "How Far I'll Go" – Lin-Manuel Miranda (from Moana) (and for the EGOT)

Best Cinematography
Linus Sandgren – La La Land 
I badly want this to be Moonlight or Arrival, but it seems that this one is La La Land's to lose. It's a great-looking movie, but its visuals aren't as tied in to character or theme quite like the other two.
My Non-Existent Vote: James Laxton – Moonlight

Best Editing
Joe Walker – Arrival
I'm going against the grain and the potential La La Land juggernaut here, but did anyone watch La La Land and say, "Man, that was well edited?" Meanwhile, that's exactly what I said about Arrival.
My Non-Existent Vote: Walker

Best Production Design
David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco – La La Land
Again, La La Land is a good looking movie, but these two didn't have a particularly difficult job—recreate contemporary Los Angeles. Yawn. But it's a fairly weak category, so whatevs.
My Non-Existent Vote: Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh – Hail, Caesar!

Best Costume Design
Madeline Fontaine – Jackie
Coleen Atwood (Fantastic Beasts...) is a beast, and it's probably unwise to bet against La La Land, but Jackie O's clothes were actually important to the film (and memorable), so I'll pick it here.
My Non-Existent Vote: Fontaine

Best Makeup And Hairstyling
Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo – Star Trek Beyond
So, the alien chick in this kind of gave me a weird boner, which is as good a reason as any to go with it over freaking Suicide Squad and a film I've never heard of.
My Non-Existent Vote: Harlow and Alonzo

Best Sound Mixing
Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee, and Steve A. Morrow – La La Land
"Hmmm, the sound categories... oh, La La Land is a musical! Let's put that." – Most Oscar voters, presumably. Sadly, Kevin O'Connell stays on the scheid.
My Non-Existent Vote: Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye – Arrival

Best Sound Editing
Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright – Hacksaw Ridge
Honestly, I have even less of an idea about the sound categories this year than usual. But musicals and war films typically do well, so I'll split it and give the sound effects award to the war film.
My Non-Existent Vote: Mackenzie and Wright

Best Visual Effects
Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Dan Lemmon – The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book is the obvious choice here for turning an L.A. soundstage into an entire jungle. Doctor Strange would be a worthy winner as well, but Jungle Book likely has this locked up.
My Non-Existent Vote: Legato, Valdez, Jones, and Lemmon

There it is—24/24. Mark it down. And all in once place this year! I wish everyone the best of luck in their Oscar pools, and for the love of god please let Moonlight (and Jenkins) win.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Under the Moon and Stars: Films of 2016

If you're a reasonable, intelligent human being with a full set of working human emotions, you know that 2016 was an awful year for a variety of reasons. But movies is not one of those reasons—in fact, I'd say that 2016 was stronger than 2015 in almost every way. While there wasn't quite a comparable cinematic experience to Mad Max: Fury Road (you can't have everything), 2016 was the more top-heavy and deeper year. Only my top 3 of 2015 (Mad Max, Sicario, and It Follows... maaaaybe The Big Short as well) would've cracked this list, while 4-5 movies outside of this year's top 10 would likely have made last year's list. So 2016 was a quality year for cinema. And what better way to reward quality than handing out fake awards? (Insert Grammys joke here.) For the second year in a row, I've got fake awards for Picture, Director, two Writing categories, and four Acting categories. (Although I did have just one Writing category last year—2016's scripts were stronger than 2015's.) So let's see who won these highly prestigious awards, shall we?

Gold = winner
* = also nominated for an Oscar

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis – Fences*
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures and Moonlight
Tilda Swinton – A Bigger Splash
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea*

Category fraud alert! There's little doubt that Davis is a co-lead in Fences, and it could be argued that Monae (in Figures) and Swinton are co-leads as well. (Gerwig and Williams play more typical supporting roles.) But Davis explicitly campaigned in this category and Monae and Swinton both received other supporting actress nominations, so that's what I'm going with. Plus, Best Actress is LOADED this year. But that's not to say that these performances are any less laudable.
  • Williams, with the least screentime of the group, had perhaps the most powerful scene of the year in Manchester by the Sea ("Can we ever have lunch?"—my god). But, as will happen on Oscar Sunday, her lack of screentime works against her here.
  • Gerwig, in the other true supporting turn, does outstanding work as a wayward twentysomething playing a surrogate older sister to Lucas Jade Zumann's Mike Mills stand-in in 20th Century Women. She likely just missed out on an Oscar nomination this year, but one is undoubtedly forthcoming. (A makeup nomination for Frances Ha, no doubt.)
  • Monae had the misfortune to be overshadowed by her Oscar-nominated costars in both Moonlight (Naomie Harris) and Figures (Octavia Spencer), but she gave the better performance in both films in my eyes—more nuanced in Moonlight and more fiery in Figures. It remains to be seen whether 2016's successful foray into film will be a permanent one for the singer, but I'd certainly love to see more of her work.
  • Swinton was nothing less than magnetic as one of the sides of a rickety love quadrangle in the underappreciated Splash. Although it's mostly a silent role (see the movie to know why), she doesn't have to say much to take over a scene, even opposite the loquacious Ralph Fiennes. I'm not sure what happened with this movie's Oscar campaign. I would have thought it would have made a bigger... oh, never mind.
  • The other four nominees were all great, but I agree with the oddsmakers and prognosticatorsViola Davis gave the best "supporting" actress performance of the year (and maybe even best performance, period). In Fences she's a powerhouse opposite a heavyweight performance from Denzel and brings a cinematic gravitas to a role she won a Tony for playing on Broadway. She'll be a deserving Oscar winner who will surely bring the house down with her speech.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight*
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water*
Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Yōsuke Kubozuka – Silence
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals*

Apologies to Lucas Hedges, Billy Crudup, Liam Neesons, the various Chirons and Kevins of Moonlight, Ben Foster, and John Goodman, but this category is full of great actors, stacked to the rafters. It was especially painful to leave Crudup off the list for two great, under-the-radar performances in Jackie (where he made Natalie Portman's robotic Jackie O seem nearly human in their scenes together) and 20th Century Women (as a clueless ex-hippie handyman). Someone please find him an Oscar-worthy role, pronto. (Not that he needs the validation.)
  • Bridges's character in High Water is so similar to Shannon's that I almost left him off this list. That's obviously a dumb reason though, so he made the cut for his typically superlative work as an outmoded Texas Ranger in neo-Western High Water, creating an entire character with just a scowl and a series of off-color wisecracks. Bridges is getting up there, but I have a feeling this isn't the last great performance he has in him. (Stay the fuck away from beloved aging celebrities, 2017.)
  • In an alternate world where Silence was the Oscar heavyweight it probably should have been, there's a good chance you'd be hearing Kubozuka's name as a contender in this category. Like his character in the film, you just can't shake his performance loose after you see it. As the comic relief and spiritual analogue to Garfield's character, it's equal parts pratfalls and prostrations. The movie wouldn't work nearly as well without him.
  • Nocturnal Animals is a movie you're either going to love or hate (my opinion will become abundantly clear if it isn't already), but Shannon's performance as Detective Bobby Andes should be beyond reproach even from the haters. The character radiates the casual intensity that Shannon is known for, and he gets almost all the best lines. Without him, the "book" storyline falls flat and the film falls apart; with him, it's one of the year's best.
  • This was a tough category, and I almost picked Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!... would that it were so simple. His work as Hobie Doyle is the best comedic performance of any actor this year (just watch the linked clip for proof), and one of my favorites in any category.  It's an instant classic Coen Brothers performance, another one of their blissful idiots (although Doyle just seems like one) who pushes the plot forward through happenstance or sheer force of gumption. Next up for Ehrenreich? The decidedly un-Doyle-like Han Solo.
  • Finally, Mahershala Ali delivers one of the true great performances of 2016 in Moonlight, an utterly empathetic turn as what could have been a stock character as drug dealer Juan. While he only appears in 1/3 of the film, his absence in the final two acts is keenly felt in every frame, whether haunting Chiron's every gesture and conversation in Act 2 to almost being reincarnated on his very visage in Act 3. He can add this fake award to his trophy case, along with the for-real Oscar he'll win tomorrow.

Best Actress
Amy Adams – Arrival
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert – Elle*
Kim Min-hee – The Handmaiden
Ruth Negga – Loving*

No slight intended to Emma Stone—I quite liked her in La La Land and she just missed the cut here. While she's likely got the Oscar in the bag, I don't think she's in the same class as any of the five nominees here. (I thought Natalie Portman's work in Jackie was more impression than performance, which typically doesn't resonate with me.)
  • I haven't seen Florence Foster Jenkins (EDIT: I now have, and it's not very good), but I can't imagine Meryl Streep's 67th-best performance* (*all numbers estimated) was better than either Adams in Arrival or Bening in 20th Century Women (EDIT: it's not). Adams carried a sci-fi opus while making Jeremy Renner look like little more than a sidepiece (a dichotomy that is almost always reversed). Arrival hinged on Adams making us believe her character's professional expertise and emotional resiliency, and she pulled both off with aplomb.
  • At this point, Bening seems destined to pop up in every "best actress never to have won an Oscar" debate. (I'd say Adams is on pace to join her, but she'll get the Kate/Leo "she's due" treatment before too long... probably for her next lowercase-g-great performance.) She gives another expressive, lived-in performance in 20th Century Women, a fictionalized version of writer-director Mike Mills' mother. A similar performance won Christopher Plummer (as his elderly father) an Oscar for Beginners a few years ago. Too bad Bening didn't get a similar chance this year.
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see Negga's name on nomination morning (although, to be honest, I would have nominated Adams or Bening over her). While Loving largely lacks the emotional fireworks and crowd-pleasing payoff scenes you might expect, Negga is the best thing about it as its living, beating heart. (She's also the best part of AMC's Preacher, a show she almost single-handedly makes watchable.)
  • I almost nominated both Kims of The Handmaiden—Tae-Ri and Min-hee. But, like I said, this category is LOADED. Tae-Ri is very good, but her performance is mostly reactive, while Min-hee balances between proactive and reactive and ultimately has the stronger arc. She transforms from cold, porcelain statue to hot-blooded lover to scheming seductress and you believe every second of it. It's a phenomenal performance, and one that could very well result in a nomination for someone in the inevitable American remake in a few years.
  • While Kim Min-hee's non-English-language performance was doubtlessly overlooked for that reason, thankfully Isabelle Huppert's was not for the wonderfully dark and complicated Elle. This is a film that never quite decides if it wants to be a dark comedy or a psychological drama, and Huppert wisely never commits to either tone in her performance as Michèle, who is (SPOILERS, kind of) raped in the opening scene. That's a dangerous gambit for any film, but Elle doubles down by subversively treating it as more of a plot point than a character-defining event. No, the film—and Huppert—is interested in more than victimhood. Watching Huppert explore the dark corners of Michèle's psyche—and seeing her grapple with what she finds—is one of the true cinematic revelations of 2016.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea*
Ralph Fiennes – A Bigger Splash
Andrew Garfield – Silence
Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys
Denzel Washington – Fences*

Going on names alone, 4/5 of my picks align with the Academy's—only Big Vig missed out in my list. (Although saving Captain Fantastic from being a complete dumpster fire with a typically committed performance is an achievement in and of itself, I suppose.) But the AMPAS voters whiffed badly with Garfield and Gosling, nominating vastly inferior performances from more Oscar-friendly films.
  • Let's start with Gosling in The Nice Guys, who took to Shane Black's dialogue even better than I had hoped. (The same could not be said of co-star Russell Crowe—he was game but couldn't quite pull it off.) The script, predictably, is full of zingers, and Gosling either handled or set up most of them. And that's without mentioning his gift for physical comedy. As much as I like Gosling in Steve McQueen mode (Drive, etc.), perhaps action-comedy is his true calling. (Not his true calling: musicals. He was just okay in La La Land.)
  • On to Garfield, whose mis-nomination was even more egregious. Hacksaw Ridge over Silence? Really? Hallmark war movie of the week over a late-period Scorsese masterpiece? A five-minute crisis of faith squeezed in between (admittedly very well done) action set pieces over a 160-minute meditation on faith and sacrifice? But maybe the achievement is that he could do both. I honestly have no idea how this happened. That accent. Ugh.
  • Of the two guys who were actually deservingly nominated, Washington had the showier performance—good god there was a lot of capital-A-Acting in Fences. Denzel is at about an intensity of 8.5 in the opening scenes and is rarely below a 9.0 for the rest of the movie. (In comparison, Davis hums along quite nicely below 5.0 for stretches of the film.) It's actually a physically exhausting movie to watch. But he is magnificent, especially late in Act 2 when he receives news of a death.
  • He's in the conversation for the Oscar, although Affleck the Younger seems to have the inside track for the Affleck family's first acting Oscar. (Although the allegations against him could impact on his chances at gold, fairly or not.) He'd be a deserving winner (again, just based on the quality of his performance). His work as Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea is a different kind of performance than Washington's (Fences definitely wears its origins as a play on its sleeve), about as unshowy as it gets. It almost makes you forget you're watching a movie and instead are just watching a real man live his (unbelievably tragic) life.
  • Not so my pick for the winner here, A Bigger Splash's Ralph Fiennes, whose Harry Hawkes is a purely cinematic creation, a larger-than-life force of ego who couldn't possibly be a real person. At least, that's what Fiennes and the film want you to think at first. Splash—and Fiennes—does a clever thing by having Hawkes (the character) act for 90% of the film, putting up a massive front to hide his true intentions. (Which aren't nearly as well hidden as he thinks.) The result is a fascinating, multi-layered character and performance that couldn't have been duplicated by anyone... although I'd love to have seen Big Vig try.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese – Silence
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Eric Heisserer – Arrival*
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight*
Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung – The Handmaiden

This is a category I'm usually not that invested in. It's not because writing an adaptation isn't as challenging as writing an original script (just ask Charlie and Donald Kaufman), but it's because awards bodies usually treat the category as "best script based on an existing property" without taking into account the specific challenges of adaption for each script. The Oscar nomination for Fences this year is a perfect example of this—the script is almost entirely unchanged from the play upon which it is based. That's not adaptation, that's transcription.
  • That said, there were some very good adaptations this year, starting with one that might not technically be an adaptation—Jenkins adapting McCraney's unproduced play for Moonlight. Category confusion aside, it's one of the finest scripts of the year and a potential Oscar winner. It keeps a play-esque three-act structure but isn't dialogue heavy, instead relying on action and mood to tell its story. But when dialogue is featured—especially in the third act—it excels at that, too.
  • I'd hoped that Ford's script for Nocturnal Animals would have snagged an Oscar nomination, but the film's divisive critical reception probably doomed it. Too bad, as it is as brilliant as it is audacious, juggling three separate storylines (present world, "book" world, and flashbacks) while expertly threading emotional and thematic throughlines through each. It's impressive work, even if the subject matter isn't for everyone and it occasionally takes too-easy potshots at L.A. culture, a "la" another major Oscar contender.
  • Perhaps the most daunting challenge of the bunch was Scorcese and Cocks taking on Shūsaku Endō's largely epistolary classic novel, Silence (which I have not read). They use voiceover, internal monologue, dialogue, even prayer to discuss themes of faith, sacrifice, pride, and vanity. The script asks more questions than it answers, but that's kind of the point. Silence is one of the most complex and thought-provoking films I've seen in years. I'm still thinking about it weeks later.
  • Park and Chung had a wholly unique challenge with The Handmaiden—take a novel set in Victorian England and transpose it to post-WWI Korea. Not only did they have to keep the essential plot elements intact—the scheming, the twists, the same-sex love story—but they had to make it make sense in a different time period and culture, and do it in multiple languages. They completely pulled it off, resulting in one of the most clever, heartfelt, and transgressive stories of the year.
  • But, to me, Eric Heisserer's script for Arrival is the best adaptation and best script of them all. He, too, had multiple challenges—making the minutiae of translation cinematically interesting, duplicating the complicated structure of the original story (which I also have not read), and hiding the infamous "twist" in plain sight. He managed to do all that with consummate leanness and exactitude, without a misplaced word or extraneous scene, all the while delivering the perfect message to US audiences after Election Day. Coincidental? Yes. But it's enough to put an already... stellar script over the top here.

Best Original Screenplay
Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi – The Nice Guys
Joel and Ethan Coen – Hail. Caesar!
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea*
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women*
Jeremy Saulnier – Green Room

Original Screenplay, on the other hand, is typically one of my favorite categories (I studied screenwriting in grad school, what do you want?), and this year is no different. There were quite a few near misses here, including Hell or High Water, Everybody Wants Some!!!, Sausage Party (seriously), and The Lobster (even though I didn't care for the film itself). But these five, from established masters and up-and-coming prodigies alike, are as good as it gets.
  • First, Saulnier—the auteur behind 2014's excellent Blue Ruin—belongs on this list for Green Room's logline alone: "A punk rock band is forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar." What a fucking premise. And Saulnier delivers, too, cultivating a brutal kind of heightened realism—the situation is plausible if not realistic, but the characters and their actions (and reactions) are entirely authentic. And, as in Ruin, violence is used not as a plot point or a device to mete out justice, but to explore character, which too few filmmakers do today.
  • On the other hand, Black (one of my favorite screenwriters) and his partner Bagarozzi uses violence largely for comedic effect in The Nice Guys, almost parodying the buddy cop action flicks that earned Black his reputation (and his millions). It's also chock full of his trademark dialogue, which the cast (especially Gosling and his on-screen daughter Angourie Rice) take to with gusto. It reminds me a bit of (at the time) future Oscar-winner(!) Adam McKay's script for The Other Guys in that it both sends up and celebrates the buddy cop genre while also tackling a Serious Issue (fiscal malfeasance for McKay, political corruption for Black).
  • Hail, Caesar! is a relatively middling Coen Brothers movie—the various subplots don't all quite come together in the end, and it doesn't seem to have a concise overall theme—but there are enough moments of sheer brilliance in the script to earn it a spot here. From the clergymen roundtable scene to "No Dames" to the "would that it were" scene linked above (and really everything Hobie Doyle says), it has some of the smartest, funniest writing of the year.
  • While Saulnier's script is built around a unique premise, and the Black/Bagarozzi and Coen scripts are more obviously "written," the genius of Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea isn't as immediately apparent. There are no extraordinary situations, no larger-than-life characters, no instantly quotable lines. Instead, it's a small story about one man's life-altering tragedy, steeped in humanism and deep empathy. It posits the very uncinematic idea that there are some things in life that simply can't be overcome. It's a raw, powerful statement, and one that may very well win Lonergan an Oscar tomorrow night.
  • But fellow real-life nominee Mike Mills is my choice here for 20th Century Women, a gem of a film that deserved much more than the one Oscar nomination (in this very category) it received. Drawing on his experiences growing up in Santa Barbara in the 1970's, Mills creates the most vivid ensemble of characters of any movie this year, a quasi-family made up of the conflicted matriarch, her gawky proto-punk son, his capricious best friend/would-be girlfriend, the recovering cancer patient/artist roommate, and the very Zen handyman who may or may not be full of shit. The film finds a way to present these five lives in their entirety, an astounding achievement.

Best Director
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight*
Park Chan-wook – The Handmaiden
Martin Scorsese – Silence
Paul Verhoeven – Elle
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival*

Just missing out here were Mills, Lonergan, and Ford, probably in that order. There was also another tier of guys like Nicolas Winding Refn, Saulnier, Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special and Loving), and Robert Eggers (The Witch). (Yikes, it is just "guys" isn't it? I'm a bad cinephile—I clearly need to seek out more of these films.) I never really considered  Damien Chazelle—La La Land had none of Whiplash's masterful deployment of tension or anything like the stunning final sequence. He's absolutely one of Hollywood's rising stars, but his likely Oscar win tomorrow won't be for an especially great directorial achievement.
  • Of the actual Oscar nominees, Jenkins is clearly most deserving of the award, and I very nearly went with him myself. Moonlight is an incredible film, somehow even more accomplished than it is important as a critically acclaimed story about the gay black experience. The film is suffused with a subtle eroticness that tinges many of the films most imporant scenes, from a young Chiron and Kevin roughhousing to the teenaged oceanside encounter to the entirely of the final 30 minutes. (And for me, it's not the diner scene that's the most profound, but the kitchen scene afterward.) I'll be rooting hard for an upset tomorrow night.
  • Villeneuve would also make a fine Best Director winner for his work behind the camera on Arrival, a film every bit as good as Sicario but in a very different way. Where Sicario delved deep into the darkness humanity is capable of, Arrival shows what we're capable at our very best. Villeneuve nests a personal tragedy nearly on the level of Manchester within a cerebral, globe-hopping sci-fi story, with each plot point and emotional beat perfectly captured, culminating in one of the most earned "aha!" moments I've seen in a long time. Oh, and he invents and decodes an alien language along the way. If only he'd found a way to save jazz too. (Don't worry, I'll have good things to say about La La Land soon, I promise.)
  • Verhoeven (2016 was apparently a good name for European directors with last names beginning with "V") probably never had a shot at an Oscar nomination, which is a shame—it would have been well earned and a nice recognition for an eclectic, always interesting career. And Elle might be the weirdest and best film of his career, which is saying something. The way it tiptoes between tones, refuses to blanch, and consistently subverts expectation is a singular achievement from a singular mind. He originally wanted to make the film in the US with a more recognizable "star" than Huppert, but fortunately for us, it didn't work out and we got this delightfully discomfiting and endlessly fascinating film.
  • I thought Scorsese might snag an Oscar nomination for Silence, easily the year's most intellectually challenging and ethically complicated film. But, no, they instead went with fucking Mel Gibson for Hackneyed Ridge. (Which is a... fine WWII film that has no business being in any of the main Oscar categories.) Silence is an admittedly tough watch—160 often harrowing minutes of physical torture and spiritual crisis. But it is by far the film that stayed with me the most in 2016. Even many films that are probably "better" (Moonlight, Manchester, Arrival) are fairly self-contained—the say what they came to say but don't really ask any questions or confront viewers with agonizing moral dilemmas. Not so Silence. Like in all of his best films, Scorsese unflinchingly challenges his audience and delivers yet another masterpiece at age 74.
  • Here's a sad but true Oscar fact: No (South) Korean film or filmmaker has ever been nominated for Best Foreign Film. Much less Best Picture or Best Director. That's almost unthinkable for a country with such a successful, vibrant film industry. Perhaps no director would be more worthy of recognition from the Academy than Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Thirst, Stoker) for The Handmaiden, which, somehow, wasn't even South Korea's official submission for Best Foreign Film. In a perfect world (which, after 2016, we know we don't live in), the Academy would have recognized Park and his film anyway for its intricate plotting, its skillful interweaving of genres, and the way it manages to be at once salacious and heartwarming. It's a truly one-of-a-kind film from one of the most underappreciated directors on the planet.

Best Picture
20th Century Women
The Handmaiden
La La Land*
Manchester by the Sea*
The Neon Demon
Nocturnal Animals

A few excellent films came up just short of the final 10 (I cheated a bit and went with the maximum 10 possible nominees rather than the total of 9 films nominated this year), including Hell or High Water, Green Room, The Nice Guys, and A Bigger Splash. And believe it or not, Captain America: Civil War was the first runner-up here. Big fan of that one. (None of the other actual Oscar nominees was particularly close, although I thought they were all at least pretty good.) I'll go with a numbered list for this category (none of the other categories is ranked aside from the winner) to mirror my Letterboxd top films of 2016 list.
  • 10) The Neon Demon – This one might come as a bit of a surprise, given that it was not nominated in any of the other categories. No, there is nothing particularly impressive about the acting or writing here, but, like most of Winding Refn's films, it has an unmistakable style and atmosphere. It would likely dominate the technical categories if I added the them to this write-up (I'm not that obsessive... yet). I'm not particularly sure what it's about (and I don't think Winding Refn really knows either), which gives the film a kind of hollow, empty quality (appropriate for an L.A.-set film... ZING!), but that only matters so much when it's as accomplished as it is in other areas.
  • 9) Elle – This was the last film I saw to crack this list. I watched it a few weeks ago to check my Isabelle Huppert box in my yearly pursuit of seeing all the major Oscar nominees. (Another success this year, I'm happy to report.) I'd heard it was worth it for Huppert's performance but the film itself wasn't great overall. I was very pleased that this was proven wrong. Elle is just the kind of film I tend to love—dark, weird, smart, a little funny, artfully made. It's certainly not for everyone, but it really clicked for me.
  • 8) La La Land – Here we are. I've made a few slights at La La Land over the course of this write-up, but the truth is I really liked it. I wasn't sure if I would—I've never been a fan of musicals—but dammit if I didn't find myself charmed by the music, enthralled by the visuals, and swept up in Sebastian and Mia's story. I left the theater with a smile on my face and more than a little ache in my heart at the ending. No, it's not the Best Picture of the year (even though it will almost certainly win the Oscar), but it is an exceedingly well made and enjoyable movie. The backlash is real, if not entirely warranted—but it certainly won't be an Artist-level catastrophe if/when it wins.
  • 7) Nocturnal Animals – This is perhaps the most divisive film on the list, even more so than The Neon Demon or Elle. (La La Land was was hardly divisive before this recent backlash.) More than a few critics I respect outright hated it, and far fewer liked it. I recognize its flaws—the present world plot with Amy Adams is cliché-ridden and largely emotionally inert, and the flashbacks are melodramatic af (shoutout to Laura Linney though)—but what works—namely the "book" plot—really works. It's a stark, brutal story that doesn't so much use rape as a plot device but rather uses rape used as a plot device as a plot device, if that makes sense. That and the way the events and emotional reckonings of the fictional story reverberate through the other two plotlines is ingenious. And, I mean, that Mikey Shannons though.
  • 6) 20th Century Women – I *think* I watched Thumbsucker, Mills's debut, 10 or so years ago. It's also entirely possible that I'm imagining that. Either way, I need to revisit/rewatch it immediately, as his subsequent two films, 2011's Beginners and 20th Century Women, both semi-autobiographical, are outstanding. In Beginners, Mills explored his father's dying years, while Women explores his teenage years with his mother. I think Beginners is ultimately the more resonant film (despite a flat note or two), but Women is more assured, and Mills' Oscar nomination signals the undeniable arrival of a major voice in American film. Women is full of rich characterization and genuine warmth, is unafraid of complicatedness, and revels in the joyous messiness of growing up—which, as Mills posits, is a constant process for everyone, never really finished.
  • 5) Silence – I said all that needs to be said about this one above. See it, contemplate it, see it again. Preferably with me, because I definitely need to, if only to try to get it out of my head.
  • 4) Manchester by the Sea – Unlike Mills, I know for sure that I've never seen Lonergan's first feature, 2000's You Can Count on Me, which is insane because it has Mark Ruffalo, who is in the conversation for my favorite actor. I'll go ahead and put that one on my "must-watch" list as well, because Manchester and 2011's Margaret are absolute stunners. Since I also covered my thoughts on Manchester above, let me instead wholeheartedly recommend Margaret as one of the unimpeachable (if entirely under-seen) modern classics of American cinema. A simple description of its premise—a girl witnesses/maybe causes a bus accident—doesn't do justice to the depth in which it explores the concept of guilt and its effect on a person, which I would argue it does even better than Manchester. If you have a spare 3 hours and a well of inner strength, you must watch it.
  • 3) Arrival – While Arrival probably won't win any of the major categories—it has no shot at Picture, Villeneuve is an also-ran for Director, and and Moonlight figures to win Adapted Screenplay—it should be a contender in several of the technical categories. It's nominated for Sound Editing and Mixing, Production Design, Cinematography, and Editing. It'd be very deserving of the last two especially. Bradford Young (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Selma, A Most Violent Year) is fast becoming one of my favorite DPs, and one who seems equally adept at shooting on film and digitally. And Joe Walker would be my choice for Editing by far for the flawless way the subplot with Adams's daughter is woven into the rest of the film. It wouldn't pack nearly the same emotional punch without Walker's fine-tuned work.
  • 2) Moonlight – To make a comparison between a semi-relevant awards show (the Oscars) and a completely irrelevant one (the Grammys), the race this year between Moonlight and La La Land is a lot like the Album of the Year race in the 2016 Grammys between Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift. Much like 1989, La La Land is an immaculate pop composition, critically praised and commercially successful. But let's not pretend for even one second that 1989/La La Land are greater artistic achievements (i.e., what awards shows are supposed to decide) than To Pimp a Butterfly and Moonlight. To do so would be willfully disingenuous at best and gobsmackingly ignorant of the role of art in culture at worst. The shimmery pop album and the nostalgic musical have nothing of note to say about the human condition. They don't necessarily have to, but if we want to be in the business of deciding what the "best" art is (a dubious proposition, but we're well past that), then we have to stop picking albums and films like these. They might be (okay, *are*) incredibly enjoyable and make you feel good, but they have nothing new or interesting to say about the human experience. Butterfly and Moonlight do, and they are incredibly enjoyable and make you feel good to boot—at least when they're not illuminating some of the more unpleasant aspects of the human struggle. And that's what good art—the "best" art—should do: make you uncomfortable *and* uplift your heart. It has to do both, otherwise it's just safe and boring and stagnant. So tomorrow, I'll be hoping for edgy and exciting and progressive. I'll be rooting for the two black boys kissing under the moon rather than two white people dancing under the stars.
  • 1) The Handmaiden – All that said, The Handmaiden was still my favorite movie of the year—the smartest, the sexiest, the loveliest, and the one that left me the most slackjawed at the end (and not just from the scissoring). It's the one I know I'll rewatch the most, whose score I can't get enough of, and whose many facets I look forward to exploring more. For those reasons and more (and, okay, the scissoring), it's my #1 movie of 2016.
Another year, another overlong fake awards ramble. But hey, I got it done before March this year! For-real Oscar predictions to follow shortly. (Ever the procrastinator.) Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominations Predictions

It's that time of year again -- the Golden Globes are in the rearview and the next exit is Oscar Nomination Tuesday (if we can get through the traffic jam on the 110, that is). As usual, I will have plenty of catching up to do, but I've at least seen the consensus frontrunners of La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea. Just on the merits of those three alone, it's a stronger field than last year (to say nothing of Arrival, Silence, and Hell or High Water -- also fantastic). I have yet to see a number of the more awards bait-y potential nominees, but I'm confident I'll once again be able to see all the major category nominees before the big show. (Thank the cinema gods for leaked FYC screeners! Trust me, it's not a big deal.) But even with a few blind spots, it's time to get my predictions on record. I set a high bar last year with 39/44 correct picks. While I'm not expecting to do that well again (this is a tougher year to predict), I'll settle for doing better than the 31/45 from the year before. As usual, this is just for the top 8 categories (with all nominees listed in order of likelihood).

* = haven't seen it
^ = early winner prediction

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight^
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures*
August Wilson – Fences*
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Next in line:
Luke Davies – Lion*
Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan – Hacksaw Ridge*
Todd Komarnicki – Sully*
Jeff Nichols – Loving

Comments: I'm only 100% confident on Moonlight's gripping "a life in three acts" masterpiece. Any of the other four could miss out and I wouldn't be shocked. Arrival seems to be in the next-best shape, with a likely Best Picture nomination coming its way. It's nearly flawless script should pick up a nom as well. Hidden Figures and Fences -- stories focused on race -- should benefit from topicality and a (hopeful) backlash against the "#OscarsSoWhite" nonsense of the past couple nomination mornings. (Will both get nominated though?) I think Tom Ford's complex, if uneven, writing for the excellent Nocturnal Animals will prove a bigger draw for the writers than Lion (supposedly too maudlin -- but then, I haven't seen it). Hacksaw Ridge and Sully seem to still have a little bit of buzz about them, so a nom here wouldn't be shocking, while Loving seems to have lost whatever momentum it had -- and it's probably too low-key for a nomination. (Too bad though -- it's very good.) There is also a good a good possibility for a left-field nominee here (Deadpool?).

Wishful thinking: Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung – The Handmaiden

Damien Chazelle – La La Land^
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou – The Lobster
Noah Oppenheim – Jackie
Next in line:
Various – Zootopia*
Matt Ross – Captain Fantastic*
Paul Laverty – I, Daniel Blake*

Comments: Speaking of left-field nominees, this category is famous for them. Can 20th Century Women sneak in here? Toni Erdmann? My left-field nominee of choice is Jackie for no other reason than it looks prestigious on the ballot. Truthfully, it could be any of the "next in line" options -- but I haven't seen them (that said, none of them strikes me as Oscar material). The Lobster might strike some as a left-field choice as well, but it's unique enough (not necessarily in a good way) that it has likely stuck in voters' heads. (The top three -- two best picture shoo-ins and the indie darling of the summer -- seem secure.) This will be the first category I look for in the morning.

Wishful thinking: Jeremy Saulnier – Green Room, Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi – The Nice Guys, Joel and Ethan Coen – Hail, Caesar!, Various – Sausage Party (great year for screenplays)

Viola Davis – Fences*^
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea
Nicole Kidman – Lion*
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures*
Next in line:
Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures*
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women*

Comments: This one seems too easy to call, which makes me nervous. It'd be an upset if any of the top four miss out in the morning, going by precursors and prognostications. Spencer -- a previous nominee and a showier performer than Monae (who I preferred to Harris in Moonlight, by the way) -- figures to take the last slot. Williams is probably the least sure thing given her relative lack of screentime, but she makes up for it with some of the most powerful scenes of the year. If anyone falters, Monae or Gerwig would be the beneficiary. I don't really see a wild card here, but you never know.

Wishful thinking: Janelle Monae – Moonlight, Abbey Lee – The Neon Demon

Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight^
Dev Patel – Lion*
Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins*
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Next in line:
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Kevin Costner – Hidden Figures*

Comments: This one also seems too easy -- Bridges and Ali are locks, Patel seems safe, and there is the growing sentiment that Grant is "overdue" for an Oscar nomination (I don't particularly want to see his film, so I'm hoping he misses out for selfish reasons). Hedges' performance isn't as polished as the rest of the nominees or "next in line" guys, which might work against him, but he nails the minutiae of teenage grief better than just about anyone I've ever seen. If he misses out, I'd be happy to see Taylor-Johnson or Ben Foster in his stead (for two very similar performances). Costner has a good shot if Hidden Figures has a big morning. These guys seem to be about the only real contenders here.

Wishful thinking: Yōsuke Kubozuka – Silence, Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals, ‎Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!, John Goodman – 10 Cloverfield Lane

Emma Stone – La La Land^
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Amy Adams – Arrival
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins*
Isabelle Huppert – Elle*
Next in line:
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women*
Ruth Negga – Loving
Emily Blunt – Girl on the Train*

Comments: Note to self -- see more female-led films next year. That's over half the contenders for the two actress awards I have not seen. Yeesh. Anyway, this is a crowded field -- there are really 7 strong contenders for 5 spots. This much I know -- Stone and Portman are in. No need to discuss those two. Adams is probably safe, but it seems like she's been nominated every year recently, which might work against her. I wonder if that same logic applies to Streep? I'll keep her in the fold just to be safe, especially after that Golden Globes speech. That leaves Huppert (also a winner at the Globes), Bening, and Negga for the last spot. (I doubt Blunt gets there -- I mean, she somehow missed for Sicario -- but she's Emily fucking Blunt, so who am I to doubt her?) None of them is a particularly big movie -- no Best Pic nom figures to be forthcoming to boost their chances here -- so you gotta go with who has the most hardware, which would be Huppert. (But I'd *love to be wrong and see Tulip -- I mean, Negga -- get nominated.)

Wishful thinking: Kim Min-hee – The Handmaiden, Kim Tae-ri – The Handmaiden

Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea^
Denzel Washington – Fences*
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge*
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic*
Next in line:
Tom Hanks – Sully*
Joel Edgerton – Loving
Andrew Garfield – Silence

Comments: As with most of the acting categories, I'm going chalk by picking the SAG nominees. (I only differed in the acting categories by not picking Blunt for Actress.) I don't feel nearly as confident about this category as I do the other acting categories, mostly because I thought the trailers for Hacksaw and Fantastic were laughably bad. Garfield's accent? Big Vig in Little Mister Sunshine? Give me a break. But both films were well reviewed and now their leads look a lot like frontrunners for a nomination here on Oscar Tuesday Eve. However it shakes out, it looks like I'll have to catch up on at least one movie I was hoping not to have to slog through, as Tom Hanks in Sully looks like a contender as well. (I don't think I've ever really liked an Eastwood movie that he didn't star in himself, although there are plenty I haven't seen.) In an ideal world, Edgerton and Garfield would sneak in for their excellent work in movies I have seen. But, as seems to be the theme, Loving just isn't melodramatic enough, while what little buzz there is for Silence is only equalled by what little music is used in the film. (Affleck, Washington, and Gosling -- for the wrong film, see below -- are untouchable.)

Wishful thinking: Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys

Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight^
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester By the Sea
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Martin Scorsese – Silence
Next in line:
Garth Davis – Lion*
David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water
Denzel Washington – Fences*

Comments: This is one of the tougher categories despite (seemingly) four safe bets -- Chazelle, Jenkins, Lonergan, and Villeneuve, who also, conveniently, directed the top four Best Picture bets. That leaves one slot for... many, many men (although I'd love to be proven wrong my Maren Ade for Toni Erdmann!). This is where we could see a true out-of-the-blue nomination -- remember, this is the category that has given us Benh Zeitlin and Lenny Abrahamson in recent years. Someone like Ken Loach or Ade wouldn't *shock* me this year. And there are a ton of other respected vets in addition to the "next in line" guys who could surprise (Gibson -- yes, that Gibson -- Ford, Mills, Nichols, etc.). But I'm betting on a different "out-of-the-blue" candidate in Scorsese. While his (very) challenging film might not have enough general support to crack the Best Picture race, it's not that tough to imagine the director's branch carrying him to a well-deserved nomination. This one will be a lot of fun to unpack in the morning.

Wishful thinking: Park Chan-wook – The Handmaiden, Nicolas Winding Refn – The Neon Demon, Robert Eggers – The Witch

La La Land^
Manchester By the Sea
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures*
Hacksaw Ridge*
Next in line:
Nocturnal Animals

Comments: I'm reasonably confident in 1 through 7. You can take the top four to the bank (although they'd probably look at you like you're crazy, bringing four movies to the bank), and the next three feel pretty secure. Lion sounds like perfect awards bait, High Water has the indie cred, and Figures... figures to be safe given its box office numbers and feel-good story. Fences and Hacksaw are shaky, but they would seem to have the actors behind them, while most of the "next in line" movies don't figure to as much. So I'm going with nine nominees, which is one more than last year. But could one of my last two projected nominees fall off? Sure. Could Loving or Nocturnal Animals cobble together enough support to make it an even ten for the first time since 2010? Why not. Regardless, there doesn't look to be a lot of, ahem, drama here -- this will come down to La La Land vs. Moonlight. I'll have much, much more to say about the race as we get closer. For now, suffice to say that I loved them both.

Wishful thinking: The Handmaiden, Captain America: Civil War (not kidding)

And a couple bonus categories before I call it a night:

Category I'll Be Most Wrong About: Best Original Screenplay
Movie I'll Be Most Wrong About: Lion
Film I'm Most Rooting For: Nocturnal Animals

And that's a wrap with just about 5 hours to go. Time to get some shuteye before one of my favorite mornings of the year. Keep a lookout for my favorite movies of 2016 post, as well as proper Oscar predictions (hopefully both before the ceremony, but I make no guarantees). Thanks for reading, as always!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Music Is All We Got: My Favorite 2016 Albums

The most surefire sign yet than I'm an Old -- in 2016, I listened to the least new music than I ever have. According to my, only 29% of the music I listened to this year was from artists I wasn't already familiar with. I don't have the figures from years past, but I'm sure it was near 50% within the past couple years (and maybe as high as 75% 10 or so years ago). In fact, of my top 20 albums, only 3 are from "new" artists, and only 1 in my top 10 (and at #9, at that). It's not that there weren't new artists that I enjoyed -- I really dug albums by Anderson .Paak, Car Seat Headrest, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pinegrove, Wet, and a few others -- but they didn't get nearly as much play as albums by some of the old stalwarts in my top 20. (And I'd be hard-pressed to tell some of them apart if they came up on shuffle.) So it looks like this article that I linked to last year was right, and I'm another year close to becoming this guy. We'll see if this trend continues next year. Until then, here are the records I dug the most in 2016 (even if most of the names are familiar).

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order):
Against Me! – Shape Shift with Me
David Bowie – Blackstar (RIP)
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Kevin Gates – Islah
The Lonely Island – Popstar soundtrack
Mudcrutch – 2
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death
Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
White Lung – Paradise

10) Phantogram – Three
Best tracks: "Same Old Blues," "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," "Run Run Blood"

I usually listen to the local radio on my commute to work (once again, I'm an Old). When not listening to sports radio, one of the stations I listen to the most is the local "alternative" station. It plays 21 Pilots about 70% of the time (ugh), so I was very pleasantly surprised when "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" from this record started getting regular airplay. It's a great introduction to Phantogram if you've never heard them—a massive, fuzzed out hook from beatsman Josh Carter and hypnotic vocals from trip-hop chanteuse Sarah Barthel. While not quite as strong an effort as 2014's excellent Voices, it's nonetheless one one of the most dynamic releases of the year, with slick production, swaggering beats, and Barthel's sirenic voice holding it all together.

9) Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis
Best tracks: "Perfect Strangers," "How I Love You," "California," "Drivin'"

I had the pleasure of discovering Robert Ellis on Spotify in 2016. I was listening to the generally excellent "Pulse of Americana" playlist at work when "California" came out of nowhere and hit me like a fucking hammer. I didn't know I was listening to one of the best songs of the year when it opened with a bluesy tinkling of keys, followed soon by Ellis's Texas-tinged drawl, but I knew it instantly when the first chorus hit—"Maybe I'll move to California with the unbroken part of my heart I still have left." It might seem like a melodramatic line on paper, but Ellis delivers it with just the right amount of wistfulness and weariness. The rest of the record didn't quite live up to the lofty standard of that song, but it's a strong showcase for Ellis's mastery of both guitar and keys, as well as for his impressive songwriting. I look forward to delving into his older albums in 2017.

8) Childish Gambino – "Awaken, My Love!"
Best tracks: "Me and Your Mama," "Boogieman," "Zombies," "Redbone"

If had told me last year that Childish Gambino's new album would be in my 2016 top 10, I'd have said, "Well, duh." I've long been a fan of Donald Glover's pop-rap alter-ego—2011's Camp is one of my favorite non-Kanye or -Kendrick rap albums of the decade. So, yeah, it wouldn't be a surprise for his latest record to make my top 10. But if you had told me that the record would be a funk record, I'd have been like, "Wait, what?" But both things are true: the new Childish Gambino record is in my top 10, and it's a funk record. It's only been out for a couple weeks, so I'm still exploring it, but it's pretty clear that Glover can do anything he sets his mind to. Create and star in one of the best new TV shows of the year? Okay. Play an iconic Star Wars character? Sure, why not. Make a funk record? Well, duh. If you see my nodding my head and tapping my foot at my desk next year, chances are I'm listening to this record.

7) The Naked and Famous – Simple Forms
Best tracks: "Higher," "Last Forever," "Backslide," "Laid Low"

I didn't see a lot of live music in 2016. I don't think I even made it to 10 concerts, which is is incredibly low for me. [insert Lethal Weapon quote here.] But one of the shows I'm most bummed about missing is The Naked and Famous, who played the Marquee last month. I've seen them twice before and they're always a blast—you're always like "Fuck yeah, *this* song?!" at the first few notes of every song. I don't know many bands who can make every song sound as effortlessly anthemic as they do. That's especially true of their most recent record. I knew "Higher" was gonna be a jam when I first listened to the single on Spotify, and "Laid Low" might be the best song they've ever done. Just about everything on the album is masterfully calibrated: the female/male vocal interplay, the shifts in tempo and energy, and monster chorus after monster chorus. I don't think I would say the band showed much evolution on this record, but who needs to evolve when you've perfected your sound?

6) Blink-182 – California
Best tracks: "Cynical," "Los Angeles," "No Future," "Left Alone"

There is a song on this album called "Built This Pool." It is 17 seconds long. Here are the lyrics to that song, in their entirety: "I wanna see some naked dudes / That's why I built this pool." This album is my sixth-favorite album of the year. I'm not saying that these two things are related, but I'm not saying they're not either. Note that I said "sixth-favorite" rather than "sixth-best" -- there's no way this is the sixth-best record of the year, regardless of your criteria. But it's my sixth-favorite nonetheless, successfully mixing the wondrously juvenile antics of their early records with the more mature sound and worldview of their more recent stuff. Is it a bit overproduced? Yes. Is Alkaline Trio veteran Matt Skiba a more-than-adequate replacement for Tom DeLonge? Yes. Do I miss DeLonge's presence anyway? A little bit. (Always more of a Mark Hoppus guy.) Is this the album the most pleasantly nostalgic album on this list? Most definitely.

5) Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Best tracks: "untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.," "untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.," "untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016," "untitled 08 | 09.06.2014."

I'm not sure if it says more about 2016 or Kendrick that an album of castoffs from last year's #1 album is the fifth-best album of this year. (Note the switch to fifth-best—we're entering slightly less subjective territory here.) I'm also not sure if I'd rather Kendrick had just included the highlights from this release on To Pimp a Butterfly (see above, with the possible exception of "untitled 07" due it its length) and scrapped the rest, or fleshed this out into a proper follow-up. But what I do know is that this release is absolutely magnetic, even in it's unfinished state. I kept coming back to it every few weeks, and it seemed to get better and better with each listen. It's not quite as essential as Pimp or the other two rap albums on this list, but I found it impossible to put it any lower than #5. It's just that good, finished or not. There are very few artists than can pull that off. Kendrick is one—and another one is a little further up this list.

4) Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
Best tracks: "You With Me," "Sure and Certain," "Pretty Grids," "Pass the Baby"

I'm not sure why, but with every Jimmy Eat World record after Futures, I've been unable to form a distinct impression of it within the first few listens. Maybe it's because all Jimmy Eat World records tend to follow the same arc, stick to the same basic tempo/track length template, and explore the same emotional terrain. I think most Jimmy fans would admit there's a bit of a "samey" feel to their discography, and that can be hard to crack sometimes. But, with the exception of Damage, I've eventually ascertained the distinct shape and texture of each album. For Chase This Light, it was in buoyant danceability of "Here It Goes"—a dazzling ray of sunlight after the stormy Futures. On Invented, it was in the carefully crafted narrative of "Coffee and Cigarettes," as if it was plucked out of the pages of a short story collection. And now, with Integrity Blues, it was in trenchant guitar solo that comprises the last minute and a half of "Pass the Baby," like some primal feeling that's always been roiling beneath the surface of the albums finally breaking through to surface. (That it's also reminiscent of TDAGARIM-era Brand New doesn't hurt.) It is that fierceness, hints of which are present in just about every track (especially personal favorite "Pretty Grids"), that gives the album it's shape, and the texture is found, as always, in the emotional depth of the songs. It's every bit as good as Chase This Light and Invented—which is to say, it's as good as anything they've ever done.

3) Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Best tracks: "Ultralight Beam," "Famous," "Highlights," "No More Parties in LA," "Fade"

This was easily my most anticipated album of 2016. Yeezus was my favorite album (and the best album) of 2013, and I had no idea how he was going to follow up its abrasive, antipop aesthetic. Turns out, Kanye didn't either, as he "updated" the album no less than three times after it was released. It's the most Kanye thing possible, which means that this is the most Kanye album possible. It's not the best Kanye album (that would be My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy), my favorite Kanye album (probably also Fantasy), or the most influential Kanye album (808s and Heartbreak), but it's the purest distillation of the essence of Kanye. If Yeezus is Kanye's rampaging id in album form, then Pablo is all ego (I mean, just listen to "I Love Kanye"). Sonically, it also functions as somewhat of a career retrospective—the joyous "Highlights" could fit on any of his early albums, "Wolves" has the forlorn iciness of 808s, the opening salvo of "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands" hearken back to Fantasy, and one-time album closer "Fade" has the same dark maniacy of anything on Yeezus. It's an impressive album, and even more impressive live show (one of the few I saw in 2016, before he canceled the tour). Haters are gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), but keep doing you, Kanye.

2) Lydia Loveless – Real
Best tracks: "Same to You," "Longer," "Heaven," "Out on Love," "Midwestern Guys"

Lydia Loveless's follow up to 2014's Somewhere Else was also among my most anticipated 2016 releases. But I was also slightly apprehensive—I wasn't sure the new record would have the same balance of brashness and vulnerability, sarcasm and sincerity, boisterousness and coyness. I was happily proven wrong—Real runs the gamut and even ups the ante with much-improved production values. Album opener "Same To You" is a perfect example. The guitars sing, the hihats are crisp, the bassline is meticulous, and the vocals (both Loveless's and the male backing vocals) soar above it all perfectly. At times on Somewhere, the band felt more like a really good bar band (and they played live that way too); Real sees them becoming more comfortable in the studio. Loveless has matured as a songwriter as well—take album centerpiece (and song of the year contender) "Out on Love." There are no references to oral sex or poets, no namechecking country stars or '80s icons—just plainspoken language and plaintive longing, set to low, fuzzed-out guitar and hymn-like percussion. It's a slow-burning powder keg of heartbreak that never quite explodes. It's a song, and an album, that you can't quite shake. Nor do you want to.

1) Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Best tracks: "All We Got," "Blessings," "Same Drugs," "All Night"

Okay, 2016 was a no good, very bad, fucking dumpster fire of a year for a variety of reasons that we don't need to go into here. But if you're like me, pop culture helps you deal when the world throws a chunk of flaming shit at you. A number of books, TV shows, movies (future post), and, especially, albums helped me navigate 2016 without breaking something or just breaking down. And no album (okay, mixtape) helped like this one. Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book is, simply put, the best reminder that joy exists in the world and that better times are possible we could have asked for in 2016. From the beatific album cover and playful horns that open the "All We Got" to the (it must be said, Kanye-esque) choral backing vocals and each improvisational Chance squawk throughout, everything about this album lifts your spirits. There are even references to Hook in my personal favorite track, "Same Drugs"! (If Hook doesn't make you think happy thoughts, I just feel sorry for you. R.I.P., Robin.) When Coloring Book was released in May (before the worst of the year), I didn't know it was the album we would need most in 2016. But it was a touchstone I kept coming back to as the year got worse, and that makes it easier to face 2017 down. "Don't forget the happy thoughts / All you need is happy thoughts." Thanks for the reminder, Chance. I hope you all found an album, a movie, a show, that made you happy in 2016 as well.

Bonus: Songs of the Year (alphabetical order)
Chance The Rapper – "Same Drugs"
Jimmy Eat World – "Pretty Grids"
Kanye West – "Ultralight Beam"
Lydia Loveless – "Out on Love"
Robert Ellis – "California"

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sound and Fury: My Favorite Films of 2015

Here we are in March, and I haven't written about my favorite films of the previous year yet (again). It always takes me so long because I want to see most of the Oscar nominees and smaller movies I glean from other year-end lists. And those movies aren't always easy to see in Arizona. Although it's becoming easier thanks to websites of a certain repute, it's still a time-consuming process—and I still haven't seen everything I'd like to (including Beasts of No NationChi-Raq, The Assassin, and Phoenix). That said, I *have* seen all the major Oscar nominees, and as the awards were handed out a couple weeks ago, it got me thinking about how they jibed with my personal preference. Some categories had quite a few choices I agreed with (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress), while some had zero choices I agreed with (Best Supporting Actor). That got me thinking—why not have my own Oscars, rather than just writing about my top-10 or -20 favorite movies? So... here we are. I've got seven major categories, almost the same as the real Oscars (just combining both screenplay categories into one). Oh, and there will be no #FakeOscarsSoWhite controversy here, I promise. Preamble out of the way, here are my favorite performances, scripts, and films of 2015.

Gold = Winner

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – Anomalisa and The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Aloha and Spotlight
Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina

I think the Academy did a pretty good job in this category—I had four of five of the same nominees, if not for the same performances. For example, Vikander was pretty clearly a lead in The Danish Girl, so I swapped that performance for Ex Machina instead. Watching her learn what it meant to be a woman in a male-dominated world was incredible—at first you were fearful for her, then you hoped for her, then you cheered for her. Her performance was CGI-aided, yes, but you can't digitally enhance emotions ... McAdams was deservingly nominated for Spotlight—her interviews with a gay man who was abused as a child give the film much of its emotional grounding—but I also found much to appreciate in her work in Aloha, a teetering Jenga tower of a movie that threatens to collapse at any time due to an egregiously miscast Emma Stone, hammy performances from Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin, and nonsensical plot lines (both sub- and main). But it never quite topples due largely to McAdams's stabilizing presence—she effortlessly transcends the oft-cutesy material. Both performances are unshowy and equal in merit ... I double-dipped again for Leigh, who got a nod from the Academy for The Hateful Eight for a performance that was at times an effort in endurance, similar to Leo's statue-winning turn in The Revenant. That performance was good, but her voice work in Anomalisa was even better. Although it pains me to say it as a Charlie Kaufman devotee, she also transcends the material here—the script is banal and myopic. (The psychological underpinnings of the story are far more interesting than what actually happens, which is rare for a Kaufman film.) But Leigh's voice work is the lone bright spot in the film, sweet and sad and achingly real ... The one performance here that didn't overlap with AMPAS is Ridley's—her Rey was easily the most interesting of the new Star Wars protagonists, and Ridley's tough-yet-vulnerable portrayal kept me riveted far more than watching Harrison Fold scowl his way through space or Kylo Ren throw yet another hissy fit. I can't wait to see how she evolves in the next installments (both as a character and actress) ... That leaves us with Rooney Mara, my pick for the best supporting actress. While it's close to a lead performance, it's not as close as Vikander, and the other lead (Blanchett) is the title character, so I feel comfortable slotting her here. While Blanchett has the Oscar-reel scenes ("I just want my kids back!"), Mara has the more interesting character and the bigger challenge—she not only has to confront her sexuality, but she also has to find her place in the world. Her vulnerability over the first 90 minutes is striking, but watching her come into her own as a woman over the last 30 minutes is one of the acting triumphs of the year. I have no problem with Vikander taking home the Oscar, but I personally would've gone with Mara. (That said, I'm sure she'll have plenty of chances in the future.)

Best Supporting Actor
Benicio Del Toro – Sicario
Walton Goggins – The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell – The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes and The Night Before
Jeremy Strong – The Big Short

This is the one category where *none* of my picks were the same as AMPAS's. They were all deserving nominees to varying degrees, but I felt there were at least five better supporting actor performances out there. Shannon was probably the closest to a nomination in real life (with both a Globe and SAG nod), and he easily makes the cut here. His corrupt realtor in 99 Homes is equal parts '90s Pacino and Charlie Daniels—the devil went down to central Florida looking for a home to steal. His Satan in a sports jacket, complete with e-cig and Bluetooth, is utterly of-the-times, yet somehow indelible. But his work in The Night Before—I kid you not—put his 2015 over the top. He takes what could've been a bit part—a Dickensian drug dealer—and goes ALL IN, imbuing the role with the kind of sad fanaticism that is his trademark. He's got another Oscar nom (if not a win) in him someday ... I was glad to see AMPAS nominate someone from The Big Short's ensemble cast, but they picked the wrong actor. Christian Bale had the more noticeable performance (in a plot line largely isolated from the others, Bale spent the majority of his screen time by himself in an office), but Jeremy Strong had the much better one, as Vinny; a raging bundle of nerves and indignation, his fury at the regulatory malfeasance much more effective than Steve Carell (who he often shared the screen with) and his Donald Trump wig. A special Supporting Supporting nomination to his chewing gum as well ... I see Russell's and Goggins's characters in The Hateful Eight as being almost the inverse of each other—they represent two generations, two sides of the Civil War, and the dominate the first half and second halves of the film, respectively. Much has been made of Tarantino's revitalization of the careers of '70s-era stars (Travolta, Carradine, etc.), but his work with Russell might be the best. Death Proof's Stuntman Mike is one of the most chilling villains in recent memory, and John Ruth is tailor-made for his rough-edged charms (and Russell has the best ear for Q's dialogue of anyone not named Waltz or Jackson). Goggins's Chris Mannix has one of the more fascinating character arcs of the year—he goes from a loathsome racist to something approaching heroic over the course of three hours. There is much to fault with The Hateful Eight (which I'll get to in a bit), but the acting is uniformly excellent throughout ... But for my money, Benicio Del Toro gave the best supporting performance of the year in Sicario—it wasn't as theatrical as Russell's or as flashy as Shannon's, but it crackled with an intensity unmatched by any male actor in 2015. His Alejandro is a cypher—inscrutable in sunglasses and tactical gear. dangerous but you're not sure how, or to whom. By the time you crack the code, you're watching one of the most harrowing, morally complex scenes of the year, as viscerally disturbing as anything in The Hateful Eight and entirely more earned, a John Creasey–esque masterpiece. His character stuck with me more than almost any other last year, so he takes the hypothetical statue here.

Best Actress
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Brie Larson – Room
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Two of my nominees also received Oscar noms, while a third won in a different category—overall the Academy did a pretty good job with the female acting categories (the male ones, not so much). Community alum Brie Larson was a deserving winner—she carried the first hour of the film opposite a child actor and a largely unseen antagonist as a woman stretched to and past her breaking point but trying to hold it all together for her son. But just when you think everything will be okay, the real acting fireworks come in the second half of the film when she no longer has a reason to keep sane. I don't think I saw a better acted scene than the TV interview all year. There was just a scene or two that, while genuine, seemed forced (probably more the script's fault than hers). This was one of my toughest categories to pick, and she came up just short in this fake awards game ... I actually lied a a few sentences ago—the final scene of 45 Years is just as remarkable as the interview scene in Room. I was absolutely captivated by Rampling—her performance was vivid, lived in, and 100% free of pretense. If Larson's performance was capital-A "Acting," Rampling's was more like inhabiting; Larson created a character, while Rampling created a person, much like Marion Cotillard last year or Emmanuel Riva two years ago. These types of performances rarely win awards because it's harder to see the technique, the moving strings, the turning gears. Truth be told, it's probably a better pure performance than the one I chose, but just as with the real Oscars, there's more to award-giving than just singling out the "best" in a particular category—you also have to consider meaning, context, the bigger picture, and 45 Years just doesn't register on any of those levels. Not it's fault, nor Rampling's, but it has to be said ... Alicia Vikander's biggest achievement in 2015 wasn't being in seemingly every movie, nor was it her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. No, it was single-handedly dragging the plasticine, Gumby-faced Eddie Redmayne to a second Best Actor nomination. So impressive were her emotive capabilities that the secondhand refraction of them on the vacuous surface that is Redmayne was considered Oscar-worthy by the Academy. It's almost like she got the two Oscar nominations she deserved. Brava! (But seriously, she's great in The Danish Girl, conflicted yet resolute.) ... This fake award really came down to two women: Blunt (probably my favorite actress) and Theron. They're similar characters—strong, fierce women operating in a world ruled by dangerous men and both somewhat defined by their femininity, albeit in different ways. Blunt's ability to handle the trauma of the drug war is repeatedly questioned, while Theron's martial prowess makes her an anomaly among the War Boys. They both go through hell, driven onward by by a searing need (justice for Blunt, survival for Theron). However, their portrayals couldn't be more different—Blunt's Kate Macer is a twitchy, chain-smoking FBI agent equally out of place on a date as in a gun fight. She's competent but in over her head; the cracks that start to show in the first few minutes of the film eventually cause her to break. Not so Imperator Furiosa (easily the best character name of the year). She wavers a few times, but never breaks—she can't, she has too much to lose. She's the beating heart, the unyielding conscience, and the uber-badass hero of the most essential, culturally resonant action movie... maybe ever. She carries her movie as well as Larson, steals the show from her eponymous male costar like Vikander, says as much with a facial expression as Rampling, and giver her character as much depth and moral shading as Blunt. It's for those reasons that Charlize Theron is my pick for fake best actress.

Best Actor
Tom Courtenay – 45 Years
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Tom Hanks – Bridge of Spies
Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight
Michael B. Jordan – Creed

Of ten total male acting nominations, I only have one in common with the real-life Oscar nominees, and of course it's Leo. It's more a testament to the overall weakness of the male lead performances in 2015 than to his work in The Revenant though. It's a gritty, gutty performance, yes, but Leo has never been less brash or charismatic—two of his greatest attributes. I just wish he had won for a more classic Movie Star performance... but it's 2016, not 1936, and the Academy values external transformation more than technical nuance. I'm glad Leo finally has his Oscar, but it's at least ten years too late and for the wrong film ... But Leo having to wait until 2016 to win his first Oscar is a misdemeanor—Hanks not having won in 20+ years nor having been nominated in 15+ years is positively felonious. At the very least, 2002's Catch Me If You Can and 2013's Captain Phillips were Oscar-worthy. Ditto last year's Bridge of Spies, which is the kind of prestige popcorn picture for adults that seemingly only Spielberg can pull off. A slow-burning courtroom drama/spy thriller combo, it's as well made a picture as was produced last year, highlighted by Mark Rylance's Oscar-winning supporting turn and Janusz Kamiński's stellar cinematography. Somewhat unnoticed was Hank's performance, a star turn of effortless gravitas and considerable charm. Not much different than his work in Catch Me If You Can, really. Interesting to note ... Courtenay's work in 45 Years is another wonderfully subtle performance ignored by the Academy this year. (Michael Fassbender's interpretation of Steve Jobs is about the closest thing to subtle of the nominees this year, and he was working off a freaking Sorkin script.) Much of what I said about Rampling above applies to her costar: expressive, realistic, free of affectation. He gets the showier scenes compared to Rampling, but he crushes them just as she does the quieter ones. I just wish the film were as great as the sum of its parts. It's got novel ambitions but only reaches the level of novella, if that makes sense ... Michael B. Jordan can now count two Oscar snubs to his name: 2013's Fruitvale Station, one of the most devastating films I've seen in years, and last year's Creed. Both performances are earnest and unadorned, yet inundated with an undeniable vitality—in Fruitvale, it's in his eyes, his swagger; in Creed, it's in his jabs, his scowls. The script smartly distances him from his namesake and subverts expectation at every turn—Adonis Creed grows up in a mansion, drives a Mustang, works in an office. He's not the streetwise delinquent a lazier script would have allowed him to be, which allows Jordan to create a character all his own. He's more than up to the task, both in the ring and out, laying the groundwork for a new generation of one of cinema's great franchises. I'm all in for Creed 2: Take Me Higher ... I was as surprised as you to find that Samuel L. Jackson was the last man standing, so to speak, in this category. I suppose it's easier to associate one of our most ubiquitous, unique actors with being shark bait or hopping from blockbuster to blockbuster than with capital-A "Acting." He's one of the biggest box office earners of all time, awards be damned. But he's only been nominated once, in 1994 for, duh, Pulp Fiction. But Jules Winfield and Major Marquis Warren aren't so different—one's a hitman with a conscience, one's a bounty hunter with as much conscience as post–Civil War America will allow him to have. They both have their iconic scenes—the fake Bible verse for Jules, the interracial death fellatio story for Major Marquis. But Jules was a bit player; Major Marquis carries the second half of Tarantino's boldest film yet. Yes, it's stylized (because it's Tarantino), and yes, it's cranked up to eleven (because it's Jackson), but it's also the best lead acting performance I saw all year. Come for the fatal BJ (um, are we not doing phrasing anymore?), stay for the uncanny, unfiltered peek into what life is like for a black man in America, then OR now.

Best Screenplay
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig – Mistress America
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley – Inside Out
Rick Famuyiwa – Dope
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – The Big Short
Taylor Sheridan – Sicario

Mistress America is the only film in this category that doesn't show up elsewhere in my fake Oscars. I considered co-stars Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in the actress categories, but they fell just short, and Baumbach has always been a stronger writer than director. But he and Gerwig are more than deserving of a nomination here for quirky (thanks to Gerwig), acerbic (thanks to Baumbach) script. It prominently features an undergraduate short fiction writer, and it has the same rhythms and tones as an overwritten intermediate short fiction workshop story. If that sounds like an insult, it isn't—it's charming in its roughness, endearing in its naiveté. It's not nearly as successful as 2013's Frances Ha, but then, few scripts are ... This is the first appearance of Dope (but not the last). There were a few other of my favorite films of the year that I was disappointed didn't get much year-end recognition, but none more so than Dope. It can be a little simplistic at times, and it's tonally inconsistent, but there wasn't a more heartfelt, genuinely enjoyable film released last year. Although it uses a well-trod milieu (smart kid growing up in a tough neighborhood) and has plenty of familiar tropes (drug dealers, super-hot love interest, corrupt power figures), it does so without falling into cliché. But my favorite part of the script are all the contemporary flourishes (GPS, drone footage, bitcoins) that make the classic story feel contemporary. Check out Dope for a better, more thought provoking Straight Outta Compton ... Two Oscar nominees (including one winner) also show up here in The Big Short and Inside Out. I said plenty about both these scripts in my Oscar predictions post, so I'll keep it brief here. The Big Short might not be the best written scripts of the year (in terms of dialogue and structure, although it's fine in those regards), but it's one of the most impressive feats of screenwriting nonetheless, taking a nigh-impenetrable topic like the housing bubble collapse and not only making it accessible, but entertaining as hell to boot. Like most Pixar movies, how a person reacts to a certain scene is like a Turing test to see if they have a soul. You've got the Anton Ego reveal in Ratatouille, the beginning of Up, and the end of Toy Story 3... and, now, (SPOILERS) the death of Bing Bong. *tear* ... But better than those four is our winner, Taylor Sheridan's script for Sicario. Not only is Sheridan responsible for creating two of the best characters of the year (Kate Macer and Alejandro), but he also wrote the most taut, tense script as well. From the opening sequence (shout out to Chandler, AZ, yo!) to the border crossing shootout to the white-knuckled final standoff, the tension doesn't let up, nor do you want it to. While some critics faulted the film for lacking a political agenda, I don't believe in ascribing your own desires onto a film. Take the film for what it is, not what you want it to be. And what Sicario is is the best, most intense action-thriller in years.

Best Director
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario
David Robert Mitchell – It Follows
S. Craig Zahler – Bone Tomahawk

Two Oscar nominees, one guy who was at least one the radar (Villeneuve), and two guys who most members of AMPAS probably haven't even heard of. David Robert... what? S. Craig... who? I'll start with Zahler, whose film is easily the smallest of any on this list—Box Office Mojo doesn't even have a listing for it. It's too bad, because Bone T (what those in the know call it) is one of the most unique films of the year. Part Western, part horror film, part existential drama, it combines disparate parts to form a wholly singular experience. It's bookended by sequences of stunning violence, but the middle two hours are a man vs. nature travelogue not unlike Meek's Cutoff (an alternate title could be Taint's Cutoff—see the film and you'll know what I mean). Terrific performances by Kurt Russell (duh), Richard Jenkins (double duh), and Matthew Fox (Jack Shephard, yo!) make the journey to the end worth the while, and once you're there, hoo boy! Zahler is equally adept at character development and gore—a rare feat. Just check out the film if you haven't heard of it (warning: strong stomach required) ... The other "smaller" film here is It Follows, easily the best and most original horror movie in years. While some deficiencies in the script kept Mitchell from a writing nomination here (why is it always so hard to have characters in horror movies act believably or logically?), his direction more than makes up for it. He cultivates a sense of foreboding and dread from FADE IN, and keeps the audience guessing as much as the characters. Especially impressive is the camerawork—a motif of 360° shots is particularly memorable, as is his reliance on long takes and avoidance of jump scares (although the few there are are very effective). Mitchell is the closest thing I've seen to John Carpenter I've seen in years (right down to the score), and I'm excited to see what he does next ... Like in the screenwriting category, I've extolled the virtues of McKay in other places, but I'll give him a brief shoutout here. His comedies have always had the slightest hint of social commentary (sexism in Anchorman and, yup, financial misdeeds in The Other Guys), so his transition to Oscar fare isn't entirely out of the blue. But just how *good* The Big Short is was a bit unexpected—it's complex, fiery, and a stylistic buffet. While I'd love nothing more than to see him continue in this vein, I also don't want him to abandon his comedic roots (more Will Ferrell collabs, please). Can he do "important" movies and stupid comedies both? ... I remember being intrigued by Prisoners and Enemy, but Sicario is the first Denis Villeneuve film I have seen. Those two films are now on my "must-watch" list—even if they're half as good as Sicario, they'd be well worth watching. Sicario is one of only two films I rated five stars in 2015 (guess what the other is), and it is in many ways a flawless film—there's not a moment wasted, nor an errant camera angle, nor a narrative misstep. Villeneuve is the steady hand weaving together some of the best acting of the year (Blunt and Del Toro), stunning cinematography from the man himself (all hail DEAKINS), and my favorite score of the year (courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson). The result is an action-thriller masterwork, in the same vein as Man on Fire and Drive, both among my favorite movies of all time. His next film sounds intriguing, but I can wait—I can just watch Sicario again and again and again ... Finally, we have the man who should have won Best Director, George Miller. When I first heard there was going to be a Mad Max sequel with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, I was mildly intrigued. I enjoyed the original movies, but I wouldn't say I was a major fan. Then I saw the teaser, and my expectations went through the roof. The easy comparison here is 300, one of the best teasers of all time with its promise of two hours melodic violence and stylistic virtuosity. Instead, we got about 30 minutes of ultraviolence and a bunch of interminable exposition, cringe-worthy subplots, and Dennis Rodman. But Mad Max: Fury Road delivered what the teaser promised: a two hour opera of gonzo car chases, balletic action choreography, and special effects wizardry, all immaculately shot and scored. The wide shots are painterly, the action scenes are rhapsodic, and Tom Holkenborg's score (much of it diegetic) keeps the tension ratcheted. But the most amazing thing is how *coherent* it all is, how cohesive—not an easy feat to pull off in a film that comes at you faster and more furious than most tentpole action movies. Forgive me for thinking the director of Babe: Pig in the City didn't have this in him, but I've never been happier to be wrong.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bone Tomahawk
The Hateful Eight
It Follows
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

The Academy had eight nominees this year, so I decided to follow suit—plus, after these eight, there weren't really any other films I was comfortable slapping with "top-10" status. Of the eight films here, they can be pretty easily clumped into four categories. First, you've got the epic revisionist Westerns (Tomahawk, Revenant, Hateful). Hateful is Tarantino's weakest effort since the second Kill Bill, and both films share similar flaws—a palpable sense of bloat, sluggish pacing, self-indulgent dialogue—but where Kill Bill: Volume 2 was saved by its final confrontation, Hateful's last 10 minutes left a bad taste in my mouth, like Q wrote himself into a corner and figured cheap brutality was the only way out. The violence wasn't as attached to plot and purpose as in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. But still, it's his most technically accomplished film and could have easily taken home a few Oscars in the tech categories if it weren't for Mad Max. When I first started putting this list together, I didn't think it would rank this highly, but I found myself unable to leave it off ... The same goes for The Revenant, another grand-scale exercise in audience endurance. But whereas The Hateful Eight felt claustrophobic at times, The Revenant often felt laborious, with its simple revenge story not always enough to support the colossal vision Iñárritu had for the film. I kept waiting for hints at some greater philosophical theme like the superior Babel and Birdman, but there just... wasn't. But, like with Tarantino's film, there's a lot to recommend—an absolutely exquisite first 30 minutes, lush, rustic cinematography, strong performances (especially Domhnall Gleeson), and a sense of awe that's impossible to ignore. (This is getting looong... lightning round for the rest.) ... Bone Tomahawk isn't quite on the same level as the other two films, neither artistically nor technically, but it was the most unexpected, unforgettable theater-going experience I had last year, so I had to include it here ... Dope and The Big Short are the contemporary comedy-dramas, as smart as they are funny, as vital as they are well made. They might say the most about 2015 as any films on this list ... It Follows and Sicario are the dark, gripping thrillers, with It Follows featuring a metaphorical terror and Sicario's all-too-real one. They both grab you from the opening moments and never let go. They'd be worthy #1s in most years ... If you've managed to read this whole thing (it's almost over, I promise!), then you'd know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the obvious winner here. It works on every level of filmmaking: visual, emotional, cultural, technical. In a year when most franchise blockbusters (the Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Avengers, Fast and Furious, and James Bond sequels) were full of sound and fury, but ultimately signified nothing, it was the loudest one that was the most resonant—like the Doof Warrior, it struck a chord like few films did this year. It's heartening to know that a movie can be *this* good even under the pressure to compete in the summer marketplace and make gobs and gobs of cash. We need "smaller" movies like Spotlight and Room, but without the blockbusters to keep the studios afloat, they wouldn't exist. So, thanks George Miller for proving that bigger *can* be better, that the loudest voice in the room *isn't* always the dumbest, that you *don't* have to pander to the lowest common denominator to make money. And thank you for making a movie that's both smart *and* damn entertaining. There are too few of those these days. Last year, this list was all about head vs. heart; this year, we got both. Here's to more like it in 2016.

These are just a few of the films I enjoyed in 2015. For a full, ranked list (that I'm still not quite happy with), check out my Letterboxd. Thanks for reading!