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
---
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
---
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
---
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!