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
Dope
The Hateful Eight
It Follows
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario

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!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

2016 Oscar Predictions (continued)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Emmanuel Lubezki – The Revenant
All five nominees did excellent work, but make it three Oscars in a row for the Mexican wunderkind, and for three very different films. Maybe one day Deakins will finally get one of these...
My Non-Existent Vote: John Seale – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST EDITING
Margaret Sixel – Mad Max: Fury Road
ACE Eddie winner Sixel should win, and deservedly so, for easily the best edited film of the year. It's a two-hour chase scene that feels like an epic poem. (The Big Short was also well done.)
My Non-Existent Vote: Sixel

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson – Mad Max: Fury Road
Their achievement is especially impressive when you consider most of the sets in the film were mobile. I don't really think any of the other films offer much competition.
My Non-Existent Vote: Gibson and Thompson

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Paco Delgado – The Danish Girl
This is perhaps the toughest category to pick of the night—there's Sandy Powell's two noms, as well as two Best Picture nominees. But I'm going with The Danish Girl in an upset.
My Non-Existent Vote: Sandy Powell – Carol

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega, and Damian Martin – Mad Max: Fury Road
The War Boys are shiny and chrome, the Oscar is shiny and chrome(ish). It just makes too much sense, especially with only two other nominees, one of which no one has seen.
My Non-Existent Vote: Vanderwalt, Wardega, and Martin

BEST SCORE
Ennio Morricone – The Hateful Eight
One of cinema's most influential composers will finally earn a competitive Oscar, nine years after his honorary award and 15 years after his last nomination. (Sicario's score was incredible as well.)
My Non-Existent Vote: Morricone

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Lady Gaga and Diane Warren – "'Til It Happens to You" (from The Hunting Ground)
With a win, Lady Gaga would be halfway to an EGOT (missing an Emmy and a Tony). The only other nominee I heard was awful (the Spectre song). Furious 7 was robbed, yo!
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain

BEST SOUND MIXING
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom, and Chris Duesterdiek – The Revenant
This pick is more about the narrative surrounding the film (shot on location, in natural light, etc.) than the technical achievement itself. I think that's what the voters will go for.
My Non-Existent Vote: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SOUND EDITING
Mark A. Mangini and David White – Mad Max: Fury Road
Believe it or not, the Doof Warrior was actually playing guitar *for real* (which is more an achievement for the above award, but whatever). Regardless, props to the foley team on Mad Max.
My Non-Existent Vote: Mangini and White

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Chris Corbould, Roger Guyett, Paul Kavanagh, and Neal Scanlan – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Mad Max (with a lot of practical effects) and The Revenant (with literally one major VFX scene) are contenders, but, I'm going with Star Wars, and I think voters will too (dat Jakku chase scene doe).
My Non-Existent Vote: Corbould, Guyett, Kavanagh, and Scanlan

BEST ANIMATED FILM 
Inside Out – Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera
One of the easier calls of the night, and a deserving winner—high concept, executed well, and it pulled all the right heartstrings. The only other nominee I saw was the overrated Anomalisa.
My Non-Existent Vote: Inside Out

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Son of Saul – László Nemes (Hungary)
I haven't seen any of the nominees (although they all sound interesting), but this is the consensus favorite—I haven't seen anyone pick another film in this category. So that's what I'm going with.
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Amy – Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees
Again, I haven't seen any of the nominees, because I'm the rare White Person who doesn't like documentaries. I hear Cartel Land and The Look of Silence are excellent, but this is the favorite.
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Body Team 12 – David Darg and Bryn Mooser
Once more, I haven't seen the nominees, but this one is the favorite according to many prognosticators. There's a Holocaust one and a sick kid one going against it though, so who knows.
My Non-Existent Vote: Abstain

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
World of Tomorrow – Don Hertzfeldt
I've seen all the nominees here, and World of Tomorrow is by far the best—crudely animated, but it's darkly humorous and deeply philosophical. As usual, Pixar is a contender (but it was just meh).
My Non-Existent Vote: World of Tomorrow

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Day One – Henry Hughes
This is another one of the toughest categories, mostly because the nominees are all underwhelming. The German and Kosovar entries are the best, but this trite, histrionic US entry could easily win.
My Non-Existent Vote: Everything Will Be Okay – Patrick Vollrath (Germany)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Stuff White People Like: 2016 Oscar Predictions

The picture on the left here. The tuxedos on the red carpet. Chris Rock on stage at the Dolby Theater. Those three things are about as black as this year's Oscars are gonna get. Yes, for the second year in a row, #OscarsSoWhite is the prevailing narrative ahead of the annual cavalcade of old white men and the things they like. Last year, it was an "insider" film about an aging white actor (albeit directed by a Mexican) and Eddie fucking Redmayne. This year, it's a cornucopia of films about white men (albeit a few about white women) and... Eddie fucking Redmayne again. Seriously, what's the biggest role for a black actor in any film nominated for Best Picture? Chiwatel Ejiofor in The Martian? (Shoutout to my boy Childish Gambino though.) But it's a fruitless exercise to blame the nominated films, or even the people nominating them. So who to blame then? It's the system, man. The system that sets white actors up for success and makes it near-impossible for black (and other non-white races) to succeed. If there were more (and better) roles for non-white actors, even the stodgy old guard of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be forced to recognize (and nominate) them. So how do we get there? Well, short of Will Smith going Nat Turner–style on the studio heads, there's no easy solution. But, with out country growing more diverse every year and Baby Boomers (aka Ol' Whitey) getting older, this problem may take care of itself in the not-too-distant future. That's cold comfort to Smith, Michael B. Jordan, Sam Jackson, and all the other non-white Oscar-worthy performers this year, but at least they know Rock will get a couple good zingers in on Sunday night. So, rant out of the way, let's get to my annual predix. I've once again seen all the major nominees, so at least you know I'm not bullshitting. I'll try to do better than the 3/8 on these picks last year (which shouldn't be too hard).

Gold = Predicted Winner

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

This is a strong group of nominees—there's not a single undeserving nominee among them and not an egregious snub either (although I might have nominated Vikander a second time for Ex Machnia instead of Winslet). Of the five, Leigh is probably the longest shot, as the Academy didn't show its usual love to Q, and hers is a hard performance to stomach. (For the record, she was very good, but I think I liked her better in Anomalisa, even though it's a voice-only performance.) McAdams is probably the next-longest shot—she seems to be well liked, but her first nomination is likely her reward. That leaves Mara, Vikander, and Winslet, all of whom have won a number of precursor awards for their performances. When the nominations were announced, I thought Mara would be a shoo-in winner, but it's really a lead performance and doesn't seem to have much momentum. Winslet won the Golden Globe, but she's already got a statue and her film doesn't have many other nominations (usually a bad sign). So, I think it'll be the new "it-girl," Alicia Vikander, who takes home the prize. She gave a compelling, thoughtful performance opposite the rhombus-headed Redmayne and was also stellar as a robot in Ex Machina (whereas Redmayne just plays a robot in everything). That performance won't be forgotten come Oscar night, and neither will she.

My Non-Existent Vote: Mara

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge Of Spies
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

This category is a fascinating two-man race between Stallone (sentimental favorite) and Rylance (critical darling). Bale is a previous winner here and actually gave a pretty humdrum performance. There are at least a half-dozen better performances that missed out because of his nom (Elba, Del Toro, and Shannon, just to name three). Tom Hardy is always a welcome sight, but I honestly don't buy into the hype for his work in The Revenant. He was a menacing idiot with a clenched jaw—Bronson toned down a few notches in a coonskin cap. But he had a strong year with this and his expressive, largely-wordless work in Mad Max, so I have no problem with his nomination. He's just not winning. Even mid-tier work by Mark Ruffalo is better than most actors' A-game (as is the case this year), and he'll get his statue someday—just not this year. Of the frontrunners, Rylance was stronger by far—a terse, technical performance not unlike Gary Oldman's work in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—but artistic merit might not mean squat in the face of CANCER. Yes, I think Sylvester Stallone and his well-intentioned but ultimately hokey performance of punch-and-cancer-drunk Rocky Balboa will win here. But you know what? I'm fine with it. He wasn't *that* bad, it's (somehow) the only award Creed was nominated for, and it's a nice tribute to Stallone, once one of Hollywood's biggest stars. And no one's really getting shafted here, not really. Bale has an Oscar, Hardy and Ruffalo figure to be back, and Rylance has a handful of Tonys. Plus, there won't be a dry eye in the house if/when Stallone steps up to the stage. Hopefully he'll remember to acknowledge his director this time though.

My Non-Existent Vote: Stallone

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

While there is still a lot of, ahem, drama in the supporting category races, the two lead categories seem all but locked up. If anyone but Brie Larson goes home with the Oscar on Sunday, it will be a monumental upset. Her award will be well deserved, too, as her performance in Room is easily the strongest of the nominees. (And my third-favorite lead actress performance of the year—stay tuned for my top 2016 movies post!) She was very good in the titular Room—scared yet steely—but I thought perhaps the hype had been overblown when—SPOILERS—she got out of Room with nearly an hour left of the movie. I was wrong. She saved her best work for the world outside of Room, running the emotional gamut without reaching, nailing scene after scene. The TV interview especially stood out to me. See Room if you haven't! Of the rest of the nominees, Rampling gave my second-favorite performance, which surprised me, 45 Years being the last of the major nominees I watched. Her work is deep, resonant, and indelible. (And how her costar Tom Courteney didn't get nominated is tough to fathom.) But she has no shot here, especially after her tone-deaf comments about #OscarsSoWhite. Blanchett was characteristically excellent, but Carol did nothing to make her stretch her considerable talents—her grace and vulnerability are effortless, as ever. She's probably our best working actress (Streep included). Here's to her taking bigger chances in 2016. (I liked but didn't love the movie.) Ronan is probably the closest thing to competition for Larson here, and she's one of my favorite young actresses (Atonement and Hanna, yo!), but... Brooklyn didn't do much for me. It's a perfectly lovely movie, but it's devoid of dramatic tension and completely falls apart during a second-half interlude in Ireland. Finally, Lawrence. She's a fine actress, but she and David O. Russell need to break up so they both can make more interesting movies. Joy was a fucking mess, and I don't think much more highly of American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook either (in fact, I hardly think of them at all). Give us back the Russell of Three Kings and the Lawrence of Winter's Bone, please.

My Non-Existent Vote: Larsen

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

If #OscarsSoWhite is the biggest storyline of this year's Oscars, #LeoIsDue is a close second. Not since Kate Winslet in 2009 has there been such a groundswell of "they're due" sentiment. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a Leo fan, but the rabble-rousing is a bit ridiculous, especially for someone so young, and especially for a performance that's more about superficial elements than actual *acting* (not unlike last year's winner in this category). Where's the not-quite-concealed, deep-seated pain he showed in Catch Me If You Can? The maniacal profundity of The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street? The nuanced emotions of The Departed (still his best performance, to me)? Hell, even opulent heartache of The Great Gatsby was better. But still, Leonardo DiCaprio will at last have his Oscar after Sunday (and it's still the best performance of this bunch). This is Matt Damon's third acting nomination, and expect him to become the next cause célèbre when he walks away empty-handed again. He's gregarious and resolute in The Martian, but it's hardly the stuff of Oscar snubbery. Fassbender does well with the Sorkin-isms and turtlenecks, but his performance is ultimately hollow, much like the film itself—well executed, but with no discernible significance. Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo is basically pizza-throwing Walter White in movie form, with social studies class–level analysis of his politics. It's basically the male equivalent of Streep as Thatcher, which she won for. Cranston will have no such luck. As for Redmayne, I think I've made my opinion about that Simple Jacklooking mother f*cker pretty clear. STOP. NOMINATING. HIM.

My Non-Existent Vote: DiCaprio

Best Adapted Screenplay
Emma Donoghue – Room
Drew Goddard – The Martian
Nick Hornby – Brooklyn
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – The Big Short
Phyllis Nagy – Carol

I'm generally pretty ambivalent to this category—it's usually the territory of formulaic prestige pictures and staid literary adaptations. While the occasional interesting nominee sneaks when an auteur deigns to adapt someone else's story (Inherent Vice, No Country for Old Men) or due to miscategorizaion (Whiplash, Before Midnight), I'm usually not too fired up about adapted screenplays. Not so this year, as one of the main contenders—The Big Short—is one of my favorite scripts of the year. I'll be the first to tell you that I couldn't follow the financial minutiae, but it elucidated the bigger concepts with panache and verve, usually courtesy of a celebrity cameo. It's deliberately pandering, yet its done with a wink, all while juggling a half-dozen separate plot lines effectively. Oh, and did I mention that it was co-written by the creator of Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and Brennan and Dale? (Forget that the other co-writer wrote The Life of David Gale.) That's right, I think Adam McKay and Charles Randolph will both be able to call themselves Oscar winners after Sunday. Their biggest threat—and it's a very real one—is probably Donoghue, who adapted her own book to earn a nomination. Her script is fine, but it suffers from a lack of focus (it wants badly to be the boy's story, but it's not), I'm not sure the intermittent voiceover works, and I suspect there's more to the mythology of Room than is delved into (haven't read the book). Nagy and Hornby are likely neck and neck for third. Both films are probably too restrained for their own good (albeit in different ways) and are probably more perfunctorily liked than actually loved by the Academy. Goddard (director of The Cabin in the Woods, one of my favorite recent horror films) is just happy to be here. I'm not sure how much is related to the source material (haven't read this one either), but the writing is among the least impressive things about The Martian. The movie really goes downhill when—SPOILERS—the ship's crew turns back to rescue Damon instead of returning to Earth. And I swear, I'm walking out of the next movie where a ship "slingshots" around a celestial object of any kind. But this should slingshot Goddard to more (hopefully original) work, which is a good thing.

My Non-Existent Vote: McKay and Randolph

Best Original Screenplay
Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman – Straight Outta Compton
Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen – Bridge Of Spies
Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, and Meg LeFauve – Inside Out
Alex Garland – Ex Machina
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer – Spotlight

This one's probably going to Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for Spotlight, the only one of these films in the conversation for Best Picture. It's solid, if not spectacular, work, making mundane tasks like retrieving court records and combing library shelves seem gripping and giving each member of the ensemble their own Oscar reel scene (and it worked for Ruffalo and McAdams). It's also got the Important Issue factor going for it, which none of the other nominees can boast (unless you count Straight Outta Compton as a message movie). Speaking of the other nominees, the two likely challengers are Garland and the Inside Out team—the former for its marriage of high concept and constrained quarters, the latter for its playfulness and inventiveness. Inside Out would probably get my vote if I had one (R.I.P. Bing Bong.) I've also been a fan of Garland's since his novel The Beach (yup, the same as the Leo movie—the book is really good though), so it's cool to see him nominated here (also shoutout to 28 Days Later and Sunshine). It's odd to see the Coens in this category and not be a contender—and in a Steven Spielberg film featuring Tom Hanks, no less. Bridge of Spies is easy to admire, but it's tougher to say it's really deserving of any of the awards its up for. It's polished, dignified entertainment, but it's nothing we haven't seen from those involved before. (Side note: Janusz Kamiński was robbed of a nomination for cinematography. Robbed!) Finally, we have the only nomination for Straight Outta Compton... and it's two white people. Oh well. It's actually a fairly prototypical biopic script, which is usually good enough for a nomination if the film is good (and it is—good, but not great).

My Non-Existent Vote: Cooley, Docter, and LeFauve

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson – Room
Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Once upon a time, the man responsible for the most visionary, technically brilliant, viscerally engaging film of the year was the frontrunner for this award. That man is George Miller, and that film is Mad Max: Fury Road. Then the big precursor awards started going Alejandro González Iñárritu's way, and that was that. It'd take a pretty big (but not unprecedented) upset for Miller (or perhaps McCarthy) to nab the statue instead of Iñárritu, but I'm not holding my breath. I went against Iñárritu's bombastic, unsubtle direction last year (and for a much better film), so I'm not going to make the same mistake again this year. That said, I think the film is quite good (it sits just outside my top 5 of the year), but I'm not sure how much credit goes to Iñárritu. The Revenant is much more of a piece with his earlier films (especially Biutiful) in that it's a real slog at times, putting its characters (and audience) through the meat grinder. It makes me wonder if the virtuosic Birdman was an aberration. I'd like to see more films in that vein than another 150-minute death march like The Revenant again, gripping though it may be. Of the rest, McKay deserves the most plaudits for his vibrant, vital work on The Big Short—it takes the Important Issue formula and tosses it into a bubble bath with Margot Robbie. Other than Mad Max (and we'll get back to Miller), I didn't see a film that felt more joyfully alive than The Big Short in 2015. It could've been another self-serious, straightforward message movie (like, I dunno, The Life of David Gale), but instead it played with the formula, took chances, went for (ahem) broke. Bravo, McKay. Can't wait to see what you do next. I don't have a lot to say about Abrahamson or McCarthy—a lot of their best decisions were just getting out of the way of their talented casts. Still, Abrahamson imbued the very troubling story of Room with a sense of something very close to whimsey, allowing the audience to relate to the characters as humans rather than simply victims. But back to Miller (I *really* don't have much to say about McCarthy). I know I accused Iñárritu of being bombastic and unsubtle, and no one would say Mad Max is restrained or subtle, at least on the surface. But Miller took what is essentially a two-hour car chase and made it both achingly personal and grandiosely cinematic, full of thrills both visceral and emotional. Not since, well, Birdman has a film pulled off that feat. Here's hoping the Academy recognizes the superior work this year.

My Non-Existent Vote: Miller

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Like last year, this is a solid group through and through, without a glaring weak link. But there are only three contenders here—The Revenant, Spotlight, and The Big Short. They've largely split the precursors and have dominated the blogosphere babble. To quickly address the rest: I've heard some say Room is a dark horse, but I don't see it (because it's so dark). It's much too small of a film to make any noise here (but it is an excellent film, sitting right inside my top 10). Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn both fall under the prestige picture umbrella, and their nominations are a courteous tip of the cap to their filmmakers. The Martian is a wonderful popcorn movie, and that films like it can be nominated is one of the only reasons I'm glad they expanded the field. Unfortunately, the other popcorn nominee—and my favorite film of the year (SPOILERS!)—Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn't seem to have much of a chance here, unless the tech guilds find some way to rig the ballots. A shame, too, because giving the trophy to a two-hour feminist car chase directed by a septuagenarian retread would've been a helluva narrative. But as it is, the three contenders are all fine films—Spotlight is earnest and riveting, The Big Short is whip smart and cutting edge, and The Revenant is epic and harrowing. But it will be the latter taking home the prize, as films that have won the prizes The Revenant already has—Golden Globe, DGA, BAFTA—tend to do *really* well. I'll be rooting for an upset—c'mon, Mad Max or Big Short!—but I won't be that upset if Leo Is Cold and Also a Bear Mauled Him and Then He Was Cold Some More: The Movie wins the big prize. It's not the best picture of the year, but then, the winner of Best Picture rarely is. In my book, you have to go back to maybe 2008 (No Country for Old Men) or 2007 (The Departed) to find a year those two things aligned. So, I'll settle for having a very good movie win—and hey, at least it's not a thoroughly mediocre piece of pap like The Artist, right?

My Non-Existent Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road

Final random observations:
Nominees I'll be rooting the hardest for: McKay, Miller, and Mad Max
Most likely category for a WTF? win: Best Supporting Actor
Strongest overall category: Best Supporting Actress
Weakest overall category: Best Actor

I'll predict the rest of the categories Sunday morning. Until then, feel free to chime in with your own predictions!

Monday, January 18, 2016

What's the Jams?: Best Music of 2015

I turned 32 in 2015. This article claims that people stop listening to new music at age 33. I'm not saying I'm there yet, but according to my iTunes, I "acquired" almost exactly half as much music as I have in each of the previous 5 years. It's also probably a sign I'm getting old that I even still use iTunes in the first place. But I also finally splurged on Spotify premium in 2015—which may also explain my decline in music "acquiring." Either way, I haven't reached this point yet—I actually listened to the most music I have since 2010 according to my Last.fm. (Last.fm is another thing olds use.) But I digress. This ramble is all just to say that I have fewer favorite albums to write about than in years past. So there's no faux-Grammy setup like the last two years. There's just a few honorable mentions (that I kind of had to scrounge for) and a top 10 (that I didn't exactly have to scrounge for but still doesn't feel as strong as previous years). That out of the way, it's less talk, more rock... er, more talk about rock, anyway. Let's get to it.
* = saw live in 2015

Honorable Mentions, Part 1: Film Scores (alphabetical order):
Ex Machina, The Hateful Eight, It Follows, Mad Max: Fury RoadSicario
This was actually a really great year for film scores. Film scores have long been my favorite thing to write to, and these all fit the bill. Sicario is probably my favorite.

Honorable Mentions, Part 2: Record Albums (alphabetical order):
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
John Carpenter – Lost Themes
Ryan Adams – 1989
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

10) Dustin Kensrue* – Carry the Fire
Best tracks: "Ruby," "Back to Back," "Gallows," "Juggernaut"

Erstwhile Thrice frontman's first solo album, 2006's Please Come Home, is one of my favorite unsung releases of the past 10 or so years. (Okay, it was actually sung, but whatever.) Having traded in Thrice's trademark aural assault for an acoustic guitar and harmonica, it's 8 dusty, sun-scrubbed tracks you could imagine him playing in a bar in the middle of the day in the middle of nowhere. That said, Carry the Fire hews closer to his band's albums than Please Come Home did, but I like it almost as much. The opening troika of "Ruby," "Back to Back," and "Gallows" is the album's high point, adding propulsive bass lines and incendiary electric riffs to the "drifter with a guitar" persona established on Please Come Home. But the openers belie the less brawny nature of the rest of the album, which ranges from merely subdued ("There's Something Dark") to mournful ("Of Crows and Crowns"). The playful "Juggernaut" is a late-album highlight, but some of the rest are a little too Mumford and Sons-y for my tastes (the closing two tracks in particular). Regardless, this is a strong album from an underappreciated songwriter, clearly comfortable free from the grandiose ambitions of his band. (Side note: I saw Kensrue live both solo and with Thrice, and the solo show blew me away.)

9) Metric – Pagans in Vegas
Best tracks: "Celebrate," "The Shade," "Too Bad, So Sad," "The Governess"

Metric has been one of my favorite bands since 2009, when Fantasies knocked my socks off—ultramodern and ultracool, it's impossible to resist Emily Haines's brashly vamping over what could be a lost John Carpenter score. But 2012's Synthetica was even better—intellectual and hip, a nearly flawless exploration of art and artifice, and the most enchanting album about the apocalypse I've ever heard. Needless to say (so why am I saying it?), I had high expectations for Pagans in Vegas. Did it live up to them? My reaction to lead single "The Shade" about sums up my thoughts on the album as a whole—very good but overproduced. "The Shade" is one of the best songs on the album (with maybe the chorus of the year), but the video-gamey "bleep-bloops" throughout just don't work, an unneeded studio touch that distracts from really strong songwriting. While the band has grown more assured as songwriters and musicians, each release since their debut has been more polished as the band has transformed from punk to post-punk to electronica to, now, synth pop. While I applaud the genre-hopping (and they can still play them all well), each subsequent release has added more varnish, more sheen, to each album's production values. The result here is a patina of artifice that the band (I think) means to transcend, as on Synthetica, but they fall just short this time around. Even so, the strongest tracks (see above) have just enough 'tude and catchiness to make up for some of the more hollow, overproduced tracks. My opinion on this one could change when I see the band in L.A. in February though. Maybe the new stuff plays better removed from the studio?

8) Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
Best tracks: "Young Moses," "Getting Ready to Get Down," "Where the Night Goes," "A Big Enough Sky"

Josh Ritter is a masterful storyteller, and has always been at his best when he does just that—"Lillian, Egypt" and "To the Dogs or Whoever" immediately come to mind as narrative masterpieces. That's why his last record, 2013's The Beast in Its Tracks—inspired by his recent divorce—didn't pull me in like his best albums. It was too dark, too intimate, largely devoid of the vivid characters and lively picaresques of his best work. Sermon on the Rocks, thankfully, is a return to form. This time 'round, Ritter spins yards about itinerant preachers, Bible school trysts, murder victims, and "tough girl[s] from bad town[s]", all with his typical rakishness, and all against the familiar backdrop of the American Midwest. While he's sowing fields he's sown before (yes, Johnny Appleseed pops up here), to call Sermon recursive would be reductive—"Seeing Me 'Round" is a Nick Cave–esque murder ballad, and "Lighthouse Fire" is a fuzzed-out scorcher with hauntingly layered harmonies, both unlike anything he's done before. But, as always, a Josh Ritter record hinges on the lyrics, and Sermon delivers there. I'll leave you with the beginning of the chorus of "Where the Night Goes," as fine a piece of lyricism as you'll find this year:

"In those long nights, old cars
Back roads and the boneyards
You drop the pedal like a holy roller
Sheriff of Hell couldn’t pull you over"

7) Doomtree – All Hands
Best tracks: "Final Boss," ".38 Airweight," "The Bends," "Marathon"

Minnesota's Doomtree has always combined disparate influences to great effect—what else do you expect from a hip-hop collective made up of one black MC, one Hispanic MC, two white MCs, a white female MC, and two white producers? Never has that idea—discordant ideas making a cohesive whole—been more evident than on their latest release, All Hands. Written in a snowbound Minnesota cabin far removed from the influence of modern technology and society, All Hands weaves references to video games, super hero comics, Bernhard Goetz, and a sustained obsession with 1980s culture into a tapestry that's starkly representative of contemporary America. POS, Dessa, and the crew touch on drug laws ("They’re just looking for a buyer / Easy meat, cheap prey supplier" from "Final Boss"), violence against black youths ("Bernhard Goetz"), gun violence ("Move around with a gat from a gun show / Middle of a murder ‘Merica" from "Generator"), and other modern ills. The centerpiece, to me, is "The Bends," a Dessa-led roadtrip through a pre-apocalyptic Midwest, 5 prophets foretelling the doom of America. Heavy, heady shit, and one of the best rap albums in years.

6) The Decemberists* – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Best tracks: "Make You Better," "The Wrong Year," "Carolina Low," "A Beginning Song"

Like Metric and the band at #2 on this list, if The Decemberists put out an album, it's probably going to be in my top 10 of the year. While their first album in 4 years didn't finish as highly as their last one, What a Terrible World... nevertheless landed comfortably in my top 10. At 14 tracks and 52 minutes, it's not as focused an effort as The King Is Dead, but the high points (see above) are every bit as good, featuring consummate musicianship, heartfelt lyrics, and understated eloquence—the last a trait not found on many of their earlier albums, and some of the low points of this one ("Philomena," any reference to Axe shampoo). Take the best two tracks on the record (and of the year): "Better" and "Beginning." There's no roguish characters, no elaborate wordplay, no ornate literary references—just assured, earnest songwriting about tried-and-true topics: love, relationships, children. Perhaps it's welcoming back founding member Jenny Conlee after a cancer scare, or perhaps it's just a band maturing naturally, but the best songs here are among the best the band has written. Just maybe cool it with the branded hygiene product shoutouts next time.

5) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Best tracks: "Elevator Operator," "Pedestrian at Best," "Aqua Profunda!", "Dead Fox"

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate wordplay, and Courtney Barnett's second album is the best display of lexical facility as you'll hear this year. With sharp wit and boundless verve, she writes about corporate drudgery "Elevator," "Dead"), dealing with the "small success" she's achieved as a musician ("Pedestrian"), and social anxiety ("Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party"). She's equally adept at describing people—there's a woman with "hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton" in "Elevator"—and complex emotions—"I wanna wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide / I dislike this internal diatribe when I try to catch your eye" ("Pedestrian"). Sometimes I Sit... showcases a talented songwriter user her wit as a weapon as she navigates a world that is bigger and more complicated than she ever thought, simultaneously letting listeners hear her innermost thoughts and keeping them at a distance with blithe sarcasm and casual cynicism. It's a helluva journey, and I can't wait what to see what album #3 brings (and hopefully a live show too!).

4) Best Coast – California Nights
Best tracks: "Feeling OK," "Heaven Sent," "Jealousy," "Sleep Won't Ever Come"

I'll start out by stating the obvious: Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino is not the same caliber of lyricist as Courtney Barnett. Barnett writes nuanced, deeply funny song-poems; in contrast, Cosentino's lyrics read like scrawlings from a daydreamy teenager's notebook. That's not meant as disrespect—there's a charming simplicity to lines like "I blame it on the moon, I blame it on my moods" ("Sleep"). But Cosentino is a better arranger and a far more polished singer—Barnett's songs have a nonchalant, dashed-off quality, whereas Cosentino's are flawless little gems, rays of SoCal sunshine and glittery city lights compressed into song form. Both qualities are intentional, extensions of each writer's personality and tendencies. I like both artists and albums quite a bit—but, if I'm being honest (and my Last.fm will back this up), I listened to Best Coast a lot more this past year, so it gets the slight advantage. The fact that it's called California Nights also helps—those two words are probably the simplest distillation of my aesthetic wheelhouse. Someone get Michael Mann to direct their next music video, pronto. *swoon*

3) Brandi Carlile* – The Firewatcher's Daughter
Best tracks: "Wherever Is Your Heart," "The Eye," "Mainstream Kid," "Alibi"

This album's placement is a testament to the power of live music: The Firewatcher's Daughter probably would have been toward the back end of this list until I saw Carlile perform at Kaaboo back in September. I'd always liked her music, but I had no idea how great she was live. From the simple strumming and lovely harmonies of "Eye" to the rousing "Heart" to the righteously rockin' "Mainstream," the album more than held its own with her older stuff. ("Raise Hell" from 2012's Bear Creek was a memorable standout.) Throw in covers of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" and, especially, Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," and hers was one of the best sets I saw all year. I put this album on constant rotation after the festival, and it rose all the way to #3 on this list on the strength of Carlile's powerful songwriting, her band's superb musicianship, and the ease with which they moved from the plaintive ("Heroes and Songs") to the trenchant ("The Stranger at My Door") to the rollicking ("Alibi"). Carlile wields her guitar like a cannon, and if you give her a chance, she'll knock you off your feet just like she did to me.

2) Lucero* – All a Man Should Do
Best tracks: "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles," "The Man I Was," "Can't You Hear Them Howl," "I Woke Up in New Orleans"

If the phrase "California nights" represents a broad view of my personal aesthetic, the song title "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles" is like Lucero frontman Ben Nichols went into my brain, grabbed a few stray neurons, and wrote a song about what he found. I grew up listening to my dad's Warren Zevon LPs, I fell in love with L.A. when I lived there for 3 years for grad school, and Nichols' personal brand of whiskey-drenched philosophy has been known to make a burly, bearded fellow such as myself misty-eyed on occasion. Getting the chance to tell the man himself just that (or close enough, as it was definitely a whiskey-drenched conversation) after seeing them at Kaaboo as well was a highlight of my year. So to was hearing All a Man Should Do, their first album since 2012's solid Women & Work and very much of a piece with their phenomenal 2013 EP Texas & Tennessee. "Zevon" and "The Man I Was" are two of the most personal songs of Nichols' career, and two of the very best of the year, equal parts anguish and hope as Nichols grapples with what it truly means to be a man in all senses of the word (father, son, husband, human). He pours years of pain into every word, every stroke of string and key, and listening along as it all coalesces into the clarity of realization is truly moving. Only a transcendent record from a generation-defining artist kept this one from #1.

1) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Best tracks: "King Kunta," "These Walls," "Hood Politics," "Complexion," "The Blacker the Berry"

While I can understand, can empathize with the problems Nichols contends with on All a Man Should Do, I can't say the same for the topics Kendrick explores on To Pimp a Butterfly, far and away the best album I heard in 2015. I'm a white hipster(ish) with a beard and glasses from Arizona; I don't know shit about being a young black man from Compton, much less one who has had the mantle of speaking for a disillusioned, malcontent, mistreated, and misrepresented generation thrust upon him at the same time that he tries to come to terms with massive fame and success. This is a hyperintelligent, fiercely passionate album, from the fervent, Chinua Achebe-referencing "King Kunta" to the devastating twist at the end of "Blacker" to the Tupac interview he reframes with himself as interviewer to cap the album that he, unbelievably, completely pulls off. I could focus on all that, on all the important, bigger picture stuff, but others have done it better than I can. So instead I'll end by saying how fantastic this album is *musically*, independent of it as a piece of social commentary. The opening sample ("Every N*gger Is a Star") is about as on point as it gets, the hooks are flawless (especially Anna Wise's work in "These Walls"), the beats put the pussy on the chainwax, and Kendrick's flow is fucking *immaculate* throughout. Just an impressive, impressive album—a perfect gem, no matter what facet you look at.

Songs of the Year, Part 1: Honorable Mentions
Brandi Carlile – "The Eye"
Courtney Barnett – "Dead Fox"
Doomtree – "The Bends"
Dustin Kensrue – "Gallows"
Josh Ritter – "A Big Enough Sky"

Songs of the Year, Part 2: Top 5
5) Metric – "The Shade"
4) Best Coast – "Heaven Sent"
3) The Decemberists – "Make You Better"
2) Kendrick Lamar – "These Walls"
1) Lucero – "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles"

I mentioned all these songs above, so I'll end here. I managed to pare about 1,000 words from last year's entry, so I'll consider that a small success. I'll try to keep it under 3,000 again next year (and hopefully post it before year's end as well). Now, gotta get to work on my top movies of 2015 post... Until then, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Urgent and Horrifying News: 2016 Oscar Nomination Predictions


I have some urgent and horrifying news: Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow morning. This year, I feel even more behind on awards season than usual. (Don't feel bad for me though—a big reason is that I spent a week in Hawaii for Christmas.) I've caught up as best I can in the cultural wasteland that is Arizona (seriously, sometimes it's harder to see an art film here than it is for Mad Max to find water), but there are still a number of prestige films I haven't seen, including Bridge of SpiesRoomJoy, and The Danish Girl. The former two are on my must-see list regardless of nominations; tomorrow morning will tell me if I have to slog through the latter two. (I'd be totally okay if Jennifer Lawrence and Eddie Redmayne stopped making movies.) But, underprepared as though I am, it's time to make my annual Oscar nomination predictions. Even though I was better prepared, I didn't do so hot last year—31/45, a failing grade at 69%. The bar is low, but hopefully I can improve on that this year. Here goes. (I'll list everything in order of likelihood of a nomination.)

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

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – The Big Short^
Aaron Sorkin – Steve Jobs
Emma Donoghue – Room*
Drew Goddard – The Martian
Phyllis Nagy – Carol
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Next in line:
Nick Hornby – Brooklyn
Alejandro González Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith – The Revenant
John McNamara – Trumbo*

Comments: As a huge fan of Anchorman (and Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers), I'm ecstatic to see Adam McKay as a possible Oscar contender. I was also blown away by his movie, as were a number of critics and awards bodies. He's a lock here. I was less blown away by Steve Jobs—it's a fine movie, but it fell far short of its spiritual prequel, The Social Network. Still, it's a strong script (last 5 minutes aside), and it's hard to bet against Aaron Sorkin here. He's in. The rest is a fustercluck. I have yet to see Room, but those who have *love* it, so I'm thinking it scores a nom here. I'm less sure of The Martian, as popcorn movies don't typically fare well in the screenwriting categories, but a *lot* of people like it, and how cool would it be for the guy who wrote The Cabin in the Woods to get nominated for an Oscar? The last spot could go to Carol (good but perhaps too austere), Brooklyn (good but perhaps too maudlin), or The Revenant (not at all the strength of the movie). (Trumbo got the fifth WGA nom, but doesn't seem to figure here.) I'll give the final spot to Nagy's script for Carol, as it's better than Hornby's work on Brooklyn and is more "writerly" than The Revenant's script.

Wishful thinking: Charlie Kaufman – Anomalisa*

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer – Spotlight^
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley – Inside Out
Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen – Bridge of Spies*
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff – Straight Outta Compton
Alex Garland – Ex Machina
---
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight
Amy Schumer – Trainwreck
Taylor Sheridan – Sicario

Comments: Ah, my favorite category, and a really interesting race. About the only sure thing is Spotlight, which might be the closest thing to a Best Picture frontrunner there is right now. It's strong work—it's well paced and juggles a multitude of characters and avenues of investigation effectively. Inside Out is a good bet to be the first animated film since 2010 (Toy Story 3) to get a screenplay nomination, and it'd be well deserving—Bing Bong, we hardly knew ye! The other three spots could go to any of the other six—or even a wild card, as this category is notorious for (In Bruges, et al.). I think the air of prestige Bridge of Spies brings—not to mention the Coens—has it looking good for a nomination. Straight Outta Compton has a number of flaws (e.g., treatment of women and the third act), but I could see the Academy embracing it after snubbing Selma in multiple categories last year (even though both writers are white). The last spot... *Chris Mannix impression* hoo boy, I have no idea! I have a feeling Tarantino's name won't be called in the morning—the dialogue pops and crackles like usual, and the interwoven histories and motivations of the characters is masterful. But I think the rampant n-bombs and misogynistic overtones will turn off a lot of voters. I liked Trainwreck but I think a lot of voters won't think it's "Oscar fare." I *loved* Sicario, but it has no buzz, save the WGA nod. So maybe Ex Machina, which is well liked, can snag the last spot. However this category winds up, there will be no complaints from me.  Strong work all around.

Wishful thinking: Rick Famuyiwa – Dope, David Robert Mitchell – It Follows

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
Rooney Mara – Carol^
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl*
Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
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Next in line:
Helen Mirren – Trumbo*
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Jane Fonda – Youth*

Comments: This one is about impossible to predict because of a little thing called "category fraud." Basically, Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander are co-leads in their films, but they are being campaigned in the supporting category to give them a better chance to win. There's a long history of this (just look at the awards Kate Winslet won for her role in The Reader), and it usually pays off. Buuut, just because a performance is campaigned as a supporting role doesn't necessarily mean Academy voters will listen. So I'm hinging these predictions on the Academy actually slotting Mara and Vikander as supporting. So yeah. Complicated. About the only sure things are Leigh (great in a thankless role) and Winslet (good as always, even with a finicky accent). If Mara and/or Vikander are nominated for lead instead, well, at least Vikander would be fine here, as she'd very likely snag a nomination for her (very good) work in Ex Machina. McAdams (well liked and in a very much admired movie) and Mirren (well liked and with a SAG nom to boot) are also very much in the conversation. The tiebreaker here is who's in the better regarded movie, so McAdams gets the last hypothetical spot here. This could look *very* different come morning though.

Wishful thinking: Laura Dern – 99 Homes, Rachel McAdams – Aloha (not even kidding)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Sylvester Stallone – Creed^
Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation*
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
---
Next in line:
Michael Keaton – Spotlight
Jacob Tremblay – Room*
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Paul Dano – Love & Mercy*

Comments: This is a *loaded* category. The only sure things are Rylance (haven't seen the movie, heard he's great) and Bale (good, but not the best supporting performance in the film—Jeremy Strong, yo!). No, Stallone is no lock—standing O at the Globes notwithstanding. He's missed a ton of precursors and wouldn't be the first "lock" to miss out in this category (Albert Brooks in Drive comes to mind). But if he's in the field—and I think he will be—he could easily take home the statue, deserved or not. (It's not a great or even good performance from a technical standpoint, but it's a great narrative, which the Academy could go along with.) Elba has a good shot to pick up a much-deserved first nomination (Stringer Bell, yo!), but will the Academy go for a performance first released on a new-fangled platform (Netflix)? The final nomination beats me—it could be either Spotlight guy, SAG nominees Tremblay or Shannon (one of the best, most intense actors around), latecomer Hardy, or early favorite Dano. But it's bad form to root against one of your favorite actors, so I'll give the spot to consensus favorite Ruffalo (he's a spot or two above Shannon on my list). This is a category I'll be eagerly checking come morning.

Wishful thinking: Walton Goggins or Kurt Russell – The Hateful Eight, Benicio Del Toro – Sicario, Michael Shannon – The Night Before (only kind of kidding)

BEST ACTRESS
Brie Larson – Room*^
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years*
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy*
---
Next in line:
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl*
Rooney Mara – Carol
Helen Mirren – The Woman in Gold*

Comments: Again, this one largely hinges on what happens in the supporting category. If the Academy slots Mara or Vikander here instead (I can't imagine either performance not getting nominated somewhere), Rampling and/or Lawrence would suffer. Larson, the presumptive frontrunner, Ronan, of whom I've been a fan since Atonement (and Hanna, yo!), and Blanchett, very good but not even her best role in a Todd Haynes movie (Jude Quinn, yo!), are all presumptive locks. This category more than any will tell me what I need to catch up on—I haven't seen a number of the contenders. (I'm really hoping Joy misses out though; I'm *so* over the Russell/Lawrence combo. Yawn.)

Wishful thinking: Emily Blunt – Sicario, Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ACTOR
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant^
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl*
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Matt Damon – The Martian
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo*
---
Next in line:
Johnny Depp – Black Mass
Steve Carell – The Big Short
Will Smith – Concussion*

Comments: This may be a bit hubristic, but this is a pretty simple category (I think). The first four should all be in, with either Cranston or Depp picking up the fifth nom. DiCaprio will win this thing in the biggest lock in this category in years. I think he's deserving, too, despite a bit of frontrunner backlash I've been seeing. He's certainly better than any of the other potential nominees (at least the ones that I've seen). In fact, there's only one male lead performance I prefer this year (see below). Of the rest, I just can't stand Eddie Redmayne; he's been on my shit list ever since My Week with Marilyn (one of the worst "prestige" movies I've ever seen), and him beating out Keaton last year didn't help anything. Fassbender plays a great asshole, which means he's a perfect fit for a Sorkin script. He could very well win a statue someday, but not this year. Damon was great in The Martian and is my second favorite performance of these contenders; the movie suffered noticeably when he wasn't on screen. I haven't seem Trumbo, so I won't comment on Cranston (Walter White, yo!). As far as Depp goes, he was actually pretty good—I was glad to see him retreat inward for a performance rather than lash outward as he has been wont to do in recent years. Someone remake The Departed shot for shot with Depp instead of Nicholson, ASAP. (Those are your contenders. I'd be shocked if anyone else cracked the top 5 tomorrow.)

Wishful thinking: Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight (yep, that's the one), Michael B. Jordan – Creed

BEST DIRECTOR
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant
Ridley Scott – The Martian^
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
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Next in line:
Todd Hayes – Carol
Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies*
F. Gary Gray – Straight Outta Compton

Comments: The top 5 all feel like they *should* be in, which is why this category reeks of upset to me. I have a feeling one or even two of these guys won't make the cut. (This category has been rife with curveballs in the past. Remember when Ben Affleck won Best Director? Me neither, because he wasn't even nominated.) To be honest, I'm not 100% about any of these guys (and they are all guys, again). I feel the best about McCarthy, director of the best bet for Best Picture (though I don't think he's much of a contender for the trophy here), and Iñarritu, who something, something, natural light (seriously though, The Revenant is excellent). If he's nominated (and the signs are pointing that way), Scott could become a cause célèbre as a beloved veteran without a statue, like the Martin Scorsese of action/sci-fi movies. (I'd totally be okay with that. Kingdom of Heaven, yo!). I think McKay's was the directorial achievement of the year—The Big Short is brimming with vitality and a fresh approach to storytelling, not to mention making opaque such dense subject matter. But is the Academy ready to anoint the guy who once filmed Will Ferrell putting a fake ballsack on a drumset? (To be fair, Scorsese just a couple years ago put Jonah Hill's prosthetic dong on camera). And George Miller... MAN, what a ride Mad Max was. I take back what I said about McKay—*this* is the directorial achievement of the year. The practical effects, the visual palette, the Doof Warrior. But is there room for two popcorn movies in this prestigious category? I have my doubts. If those doubts prove true, Haynes (Carol feels more like a curated museum piece than a film), Spielberg (haven't seen it), or Gray (strong work, and he's black—that's a toofer!) figure to benefit.

Wishful thinking: Denis Villeneuve – Sicario, David Robert Mitchell – It Follows, Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight, Ryan Coogler – Creed

BEST PICTURE
Spotlight^
The Revenant
The Big Short
The Martian
Mad Max: Fury Road
Bridge of Spies*
Carol
Straight Outta Compton
Room*
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Next in line:
Inside Out
Brooklyn
Sicario
Beasts of No Nation*

Comments: This one is notoriously tricky to call, as there can be anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees. That said, I think the first 7 are pretty safe and all follow recent nomination narratives. Spotlight is the consensus "important issue" prestige drama (Dallas Buyers Club). The Revenant is the big, showy spectacle (Gravity). The Big Short is stylish, witty ensemble piece (American Hustle). The Martian and Mad Max are the critically respected popcorn movies (Inception). Bridge of Spies and Carol are the distinguished period pieces (Lincoln and An Education). Pretty safe bets. Of the rest, Straight Outta Compton is the "Hey, we're not so out of touch!" nomination (Selma), and Room is the little indie that could nomination (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Of course, Inside Out could snag the Toy Story 3 animated film nom, while Brooklyn has the "overly sentimental Euro drama" nom written all over it (a la The Theory of Everything). Neither would surprise me. There's not a great parallel for Sicario (Captain Phillips maybe?) or Beasts of No Nation (never been a Netflix Best Picture nominee), so I'm leaving them out. I'm reasonably confident in the first 8, with one or two of the next three as solid possibilities. (I'd love to see Sicario nominated, but I don't see it happening.) Regardless, I've actually seen most of the contenders here (unlike, say, Best Actress), so not much research will be required.

Wishful thinking: It Follows, Dope, The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk

Looks like I got it in before midnight. We'll see how I did in less than 7 hours. I'm just hoping to beat last year's 31 and for Sicario to get nominated for anything big. In other news, posts on my favorite movies and music of 2015 are forthcoming (late as ever), as well as actual Oscar predictions. So keep a lookout. As always, thanks for reading!