Saturday, December 23, 2017

Our Wild Year: My Favorite 2017 Albums

Continuing the trend from last year, it seems I've become just another statistic and am listening to less and less new music. Dammit, I hate it when science is right! I don't have my data yet (because I'm trying to complete this list before 2017 actually ends), but of this top 20, there are only two albums from artists I was not familiar with before 2017. I gave a lot of new artists the old college try, and I enjoyed albums by Greta Van Fleet, Charly Bliss, Sampha, Japanese Breakfast, and various Steven Hyden recommendations, but I found myself more gravitating toward new music from familiar artists rather than actively seeking out previously unknown artists. I'd like to say I'll try to seek out more new artists in 2018... but I doubt I actually will. Oh, and I hardly went to any concerts this year either. It's time to truly embrace being an Old, I suppose. But before I start yelling at everyone to get off my lawn, here are my favorite records from 2017, starting with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
Cory Branan – Adios
Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
HAIM – Something to Tell You
Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
New Found Glory – Makes Me Sick
Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Van Morrison – Roll with the Punches

10) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Stars – There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light (tie)
Best Tracks: "High Ticket Attractions" and "This Is the World of the Theater" (New Pornographers); "Alone" and "Real Thing" (Stars)

I've always had a soft spot for Canadian indie rock bands, especially those with talented female vocalists (including and especially Metric and Emily Haines). No disrespect to Carl Newman or Torquil Campbell, but Neko Case and Amy Millan make both these bands, and both these records, that much better. For the Pornographers, Whiteout is probably their best record since 2005's Twin Cinema (still my favorite of theirs). It's equally stylish and idiosyncratic, with precise rhythms undergirding bouncy synth lines and jubilant vocals, as in "Attractions." Even better is "Theater," a mesmerizing showcase for Case's unique vocal talents and the highlight of the record. First hearing her voice soar over the chorus is one of the true thrilling music moments of 2017.

No less baroque but with perhaps a bit more flair for melodrama are Stars, who favor more lush arrangements and vocals, as evidenced on "Alone," a Campbell-centric lament of urban isolation. Stars has never exactly shied away from the occasional cliché—still, it's a powerful song and one of my favorites of the year. Ditto "Real Thing," an '80s synthpop ballad featuring Millan at her swoon-inducing best. (It's even got a kickass guitar solo to boot.) Each song shimmers like a little indie pop gem from the lovingly detailed production—there may not be any love in fluorescent light, but there definitely is under studio sheen.

9) The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Best Tracks: "Up All Night," "Holding On," "Strangest Thing," "Thinking of a Place"

When I write, I like to listen to film scores to try to get into the right headspace. Mansell, Murphy, Martinez, and Reznor/Ross are my favorites—atmospheric, entrancing, and largely free of the rigid structures of popular music. It's easy to let your mind drift to places it might not otherwise if distracted by hooky choruses and the jarring start-stop rhythm of traditional albums. I say all this because The War on Drugs puts me in the same mindset as a good film score. Not that it doesn't have lyrics or hooks or discrete tracks, but it has the same focus on mood and melody as a film score, and the songs often meander, expanding and contracting without the urgency of the typical four-minute verse/chorus/verse rock song. But this is very much a rock record—the influence of Pink Floyd is obvious, but there's also an element of early-'80s Dire Straits in the guitarwork and mid-'80s Moody Blues in the keyboard flourishes and vocals. (Congrats, by the way, on both bands for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. The Rock Hall is very, very stupid, but I've loved both these bands since I was a kid, so it's still pretty cool.) But back to The War on Drugs. A Deeper Understanding doesn't quite have the killer-track high points as Lost in the Dream (those first two tracks though), but when Adam Granduciel and Co. catch a pop groove—like they do on "Up All Night" and "Holding On"—it makes you think these guys might make the Rock Hall one day. I don't go to many concerts these days, but if TWOD come to Phoenix anytime soon, I'll definitely buy a ticket.

8) Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Best Tracks: "Hot Thoughts," " Can I Sit Next to You," "Shotgun"

Like almost everyone, I first heard Spoon when "The Way We Get By" was on an episode of The O.C. They've been on my radar as a "like not love" band ever since—I'll generally check out their albums and dig a track or two, but they're more likely to make the honorable mentions list than crack the actual top 10. This year, it's different with Hot Thoughts—I was hooked from the first listen. The self-titled opening track swaggers and shimmies its way into your brain, making your foot tap and your head nod like a not-unwanted parasite. The record is full of similarly invasive earworms—the rhythms are tight, the grooves are grimy in the very best way, the choruses are slick as all hell, and there's just enough off-kilter weirdness to keep you on your (tapping) toes. The highlight is "Shotgun," a relentless, propulsive, sweat-tinged stomper that sounds like the kind of music Radiohead would be making if they remembered they were a rock 'n' roll band. Spoon seems like they're at the top of their game now, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if their next album ranked even higher on my year-end list.

(Two quick asides: 1) I *love* the first two seasons of The O.C. I stopped watching after season 2 and I think I made the right choice, from what I've heard. 2) The use of "The Underdog" in Spider-Man Homecoming was *perfect* and one of many excellent uses of rock songs in superhero movies this year.)

7) Jay Som – Everybody Works
Best Tracks: "The Bus Song," "1 Billion Dogs," "One More Time, Please," "Baybee"

Other than reaching my mid-30s, I think one of the main reasons for the lack of new artists on my year-end lists is Grantland shutting down. I miss a lot about Grantland (including the last readable Bill Simmons columns, Bill Barnwell's "Thank You for Not Coaching" columns, and their pop culture brackets), but the thing I might miss the most is Steven Hyden's "Songs of the Week" columns. Steven Hyden is my favorite music critic mostly because he is my spirit animal—he's also a schlubby-ish, bearded white dude raised on Tom Petty who seems somewhat exasperated but accepting of rock's ever-receding cache in the cultural marketplace. His columns (and now tweets) introduced me to Lydia Loveless, The War on Drugs, and the band that appears at #1 on this list... as well as this entry, Jay Som, aka Melina Duterte. Duterte is a one-woman wunderkind, writing, playing, and recording everything on the record herself. Everybody Works is shimmery, seductive, confessional lo-fi pop for people who live alone in apartments. Each word seems whispered directly into your ear, each note seems like its plucked from the other side of an empty bedroom. The album runs the gamut from uplifting ballads ("Bus") to rousing indie rock ("Dogs") to daydreamy synthpop ("Please," my personal favorite). It's intimate, yet accessible, and I'll eagerly be keeping an ear out for her next release.

6) Dave Hause – Bury Me in Philly
Best Tracks: "With You," "My Mistake," "The Mermaid," "Bury Me in Philly"

Dave Hause is the erstwhile lead singer for the short-lived (although not officially disbanded) Philadelphia-based punk band, The Loved Ones. The Loved Ones came up around the same time as fellow East Coasters The Gaslight Anthem, and I have very fond memories of listening to early albums from both bands as I puttered around my hometown after grad school before I got my first teaching job down in Phoenix. The Loved Ones haven't released an album since 2008's Build & Burn—a true hidden gem and one I still listen to to this day. And perhaps it's better that they haven't, given what happened to Gaslight... That said, frontman Hause's new record that sounds a lot like what I imagine a new Loved Ones record would sound like—humble, heartfelt punk rock with a mischievous streak. Humility is found in "Mermaid" ("Don’t wanna sing no flannel whiskey songs and try to make them art"), heart in spades throughout, and plenty of mischief in "Dirty Fucker" (the title says it all). I honestly didn't think this album would rank this high earlier in the year, but I found myself coming back to it time after time due to Hause's ceaseless cheerfulness—it's a feel-good record (musically if not entirely lyrically) in a year in desperate need of them.

5) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Best Tracks: "DNA.," "LOYALTY.," "HUMBLE.," "DUCKWORTH"

Another year, another Kendrick album in my top 10—that's now 3 years in a row (and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City might have been my top album of 2012 if I had listened to it when it first came out). Of his four major releases, DAMN. is probably my third favorite, behind To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid but ahead of Untitled Unmastered. (I'm honestly not familiar enough with Section.80 or his mixtapes to offer an educated opinion.) DAMN. doesn't have the masterful storytelling and gripping narrative of Good Kid or the zeitgeist-seizing immediacy and powerful lyricism of Butterfly, but it is his most cohesive and confident record yet. The record harnesses his raw talent and channels all his rage, frustration, and confusion as he tries to reconcile his upbringing, race, and fame in the wake of last year's election. It's a tall order, and if DAMN. isn't quite as thematically focused as Butterfly, it's at least more sonically consistent, making it his most accessible record yet. That might bode well for his Grammy chances in 2018—can he finally win a major award outside the rap categories? Not even Kanye has pulled off that feat. The Grammys are ultimately meaningless as far as determining the quality or importance of music, but there's no denying winning a major Grammy would confer a modicum of mainstream prestige on Kendrick individually and rap music as a whole. While I certainly won't be watching the ceremony, I'll at least be checking my Twitter to see if Kendrick (or, okay, Childish Gambino) can finally break through.

4) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Best Tracks: "Cumberland Gap," "White Man's World," "If We Were Vampires," "Anxiety"

Like DAMN., Jason Isbell's new album somewhat obliquely addresses our current political landscape. While Kendrick samples the blithering blowhards on Fox News, Isbell writes about the people watching on the other side of the screen. Similar to his complicated relationship with country music, Isbell also seems conflicted about his race, equally excoriating and empathizing with the wide swath of the Venn diagram between country fans and Fox News consumers. "White Man's World" is an indictment of the "forgotten men and women" rhetoric of the Trump campaign ("There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for"), while "Cumberland Gap" laments the fate of those same men and women ("There's a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff" and "So I cash my check and I drink 'til I'm on my ass again"), referencing both the war on coal and the opioid crisis. However, the album coalesces around the more universal theme of people struggling to get through the day, week, year on "Anxiety." The crescendoing guitars and Isbell's pained delivery of "I'm wide awake and I'm in pain" encapsulate 2017 about as well as anything released in this shitty, fucked-up year—a sentiment echoed on "Hope the High Road" ("Last year was a son of a bitch / For nearly everyone we know"). That's not to say the whole album is stuck in the quagmire of Trump's America—hope is offered in the form of a couple vintage country love songs. "Vampires" uses the idea of mythical immortality to remind us that this is just temporary ("It's knowing that this can't go on forever"), while the final track, "Something to Love," begins and ends with a beautiful, plainspoken appeal: "I hope you find something to love / Something to do when you feel like giving up / A song to sing or a tale to tell / Something to love, it'll serve you well." Here's hoping everyone has something or someone to love in 2018.

3) Paramore – After Laughter
Best Tracks: "Hard Times," "Rose-Colored Boy," "Fake Happy," "Pool," "Tell Me How"

Paramore's latest is a a loose concept album based around the feeling you get when you say, "Fine, thanks!" to a passing coworker when they ask how it's going. Nothing is fine, not in 2017, but it's easier to act like it is than to explicitly confront the fact that it's not. To that end, Hayley Williams couches her struggles with depression, anxiety, and pessimism in the glossiest, poppiest music of the band's career. "Hard Times" wraps its plunge to rock bottom in '80s-style MTV pop-rock, "Rose-Colored Boy" is the most cynical powerpop jingle you'll ever hear, and "Fake Happy" crystallizes the theme of the album in diamond-hard synth notes and prismatic production flourishes. At the center of it all is Williams, at her peak powers as a songwriter and vocalist. The material is a far cry from the cheerful pettiness of "Misery Business," and her range and pathos as a singer have never been stronger, both of which are on full display in album-closer "Tell Me How," a winsome, whisper-soft elegy on losing and loss. Her voice conveys that sense of loss directly to your heart, and it doesn't leave until long after the final, forlorn note of the song ends. It's the best song of the album and one of the very best of the year overall.

2) Brand New – Science Fiction
Best Tracks: "Waste," "Same Logic/Teeth," "137," "Out of Mana," "In the Water"

I'll just start with it: There's no way to discuss this album without mentioning the sexual misconduct allegations against lead singer Jesse Lacey. But I don't think I can discuss the best albums of 2017 without this album. Many mainstream music outlets feel differently. Even bringing up this trifling conundrum feels like a disservice to those affected by his actions, so I'll just say that I'm only discussing this album in the context of the artistic achievements of the band as a whole. That said, the first thing I think about when I think about this album isn't Lacey's lyrics or vocals, but Vincent Accardi's guitarwork—which is definitely a first for a Brand New album. Simply put, it's nothing short of virtuosic (keeping in mind that The War on Drugs also appears on this list), and is maybe the best guitarwork on an emo/punk record since Thrice's Vheissu (and there are shades of Teppei Teranishi's work on this album as well). Accardi deftly switches between styles and instruments between each song like six-stringed maestro. On "Waste," he creates waves upon waves of airiness and reverb; on "Same Logic/Teeth," it's all snarling riffage and mechanized wailing; "137" is a slow, lilting build to a nuclear apex; and "In the Water" is a post-levee-Zeppelin-esque epic that might be the best track on the album. The album as a whole is on par with Deja Entendu and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me as the band's best and will serve as a iconic, albeit complicated, final album for a band that's been one of my favorites for over a decade. I hope Lacey and, more importantly, those hurt by him—both directly and indirectly—can all heal from this.

1) The Menzingers – After the Party
Best Tracks: "Thick as Thieves," "Midwestern States," "Black Mass," "Your Wild Years," "After the Party"

If the rest of this top 5 are very 2017 albums in their own ways, my #1 album revolves around a different number altogether: 30. As in, "Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?" That line, from the chorus of opening track "Tellin' Lies," serves as the thesis to The Menzingers' After the Party, a punk concept album about growing up. Not the "Well, I guess this is growing up," the leaving your hometown or your first love, of "Dammit," but the settling down kind of growing up you do in your 30s. If your 20s are all about "always running like Dean and Sal" ("Lookers") and "stumbling home with the sun" ("The Bars"), then your 30s start to feel a lot like life "After the Party." Having turned 34 in 2017, I can relate to guitarist/vocalist Greg Barnett's feeling of being "not young enough to be a companion / not old enough to be a guide" ("Tellin' Lies" again) or seeing an ex with her "new husband and a baby on the way" ("Bad Catholics"). Mostly, though, I can relate to Barnett's musings in "Your Wild Years," which is my favorite song of 2017. In it, Barnett can't seem to escape from feeling like the alcoholic fuck-up he was in his 20s, paranoid that it's going to ruin the adult relationship he's found himself in: "I toss and turn at four in the morning / Petrified of where our future's going / ... / So I fix a drink nice and strong in the kitchen / Something quick that'll cure my conscience," and later, "I got drunk in the afternoon with your father in the living room." But he's trying to grow up, and maybe he's not gonna fuck this one up: "You smiled, know that I was trying the best that I can do." The song is kinda sad, kinda sweet, and perfectly captures a very specific emotion in under just 4 minutes. It was the song I listened to the most in 2017, and it'll always be the song I think of first when I think back to this year. Here's to growing up and not fucking things up.

Bonus: My 5 Favorite Songs of 2017 (in alphabetical order):
"Anxiety" – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
"One More Time, Please" – Jay Som
"Tell Me How" – Paramore
"This Is the World of the Theater" – The New Pornographers
"Your Wild Years" – The Menzingers

Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear about the albums and songs that helped get your through 2017. Here's hoping 2018 is better.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

It's Good to Be King: The Best Songs of Tom Petty

I'll just come out and say it: I think Tom Petty is the greatest American rock 'n' roll songwriter we've ever had. Granted, I'm incredibly biased in this—his music has been a constant and important presence in my life since I was a kid, and he's my favorite musician ever—but hear me out. Some of the names that probably came to mind at first (Dylan, Simon, Cash) aren't really "rock 'n' roll" if we're splitting genre hairs (and we are), and his closest competition—Bruce Springsteen—is probably a better storyteller than songwriter. He just doesn't have quite the same ability to crystallize a feeling in the straightforward way Tom could, a kind of plainspoken poetry that can strike you down with its simplicity. His songs always had an off-the-cuff feeling, but he always wrote with his heart on his sleeve. There's never been anyone better able to simultaneously speak to the masses while making it seem like he was writing about something that happened in *your* life. He's indelible, and there's never been—nor will there likely ever be—anyone better.

I'm going to miss him dearly, but he left behind a catalogue that's as extensive as it is ubiquitous (including the greatest greatest hits album of all-time). For every song you've heard a hundred times on the radio, at the bar, in a movie, there's four or five more deep cuts that are almost as good. I mean, I'm still discovering amazing songs as I go through his oeuvre in mourning—"Change of Heart" from Long After Dark just floored me earlier today. So read this list knowing that it's just the tip of the alligator in the expansive Florida swampland. These are my favorite songs from my favorite songwriter of all time.

Honorable Mentions: "Don't Do Me Like That" (Damn the Torpedoes), "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (Greatest Hits), "Southern Accents" (Southern Accents), "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" (The Traveling Wilburys' Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1perhaps apocryphally co-written with Bob Dylan), "You Wreck Me" (Wildflowers)

10) "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"
Album: Stevie Nicks's Belladonna
Year: 1981

And, of course, we'll start with a song that's not even from a Tom Petty record. But Stevie Nicks was always kind of an honorary Heartbreaker (as there were "no girls allowed in the Heartbreakers")—frequent collaborator, often muse, always friend. The story goes that Petty promised her that they'd collaborate on a song for her debut solo album, Belladonna. That song was supposed to be "Insider," but Petty liked it too much to give up. (It wound up on Damn the Torpedoes.) Instead, they cut "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"—and I think Petty gave up the wrong song. Nicks and Petty always had a certain vulnerable brashness in common, which is on full display in "Draggin'." Stevie takes the verses, Tom pops in for the pre-chorus, and their considerable powers combine in an absolutely smoking chorus (backed, of course, by the Heartbreakers at their coolest, smoothest best). One of my biggest regrets is missing a Tom Petty show in Glendale where Nicks popped on stage to do this one. But who knows, maybe the Heartbreakers will decide to do a tribute tour with some old friends of Tom—his old Wilburys bandmates Lynne and Dylan, some of the guys from Mudcrutch, perhaps Eddie Vedder... and maybe, just maybe, a certain girl who only ever wanted to be part of the boy's club.

9) "Refugee"
Album: Damn the Torpedoes
Year: 1980

Even if you don't buy that Petty is the best American rock 'n roll songwriter ever, you've got to admit that he's written some of the best choruses of all time—think "Here Comes My Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'." But "Refugee" might be his best, and it's only eight words: "You don't have to live like a refugee." Of course, that's not counting the epic harmony provided by Stan Lynch (perhaps the most underrated of the Heartbreakers, and an absolute character in his own right): "You don't have to live like a refugee (don't have to live like a refu-geh)." Just try to sing the line without instinctually adding the harmony—you can't do it, it comes unbidden like some kind of verbal tic. That's the mark of a true earworm, and it should come as no surprise that this was one of Petty's highest-charting singles with the Heartbreakers. Speaking of which, this song is an excellent showcase of the band as a whole. Stan Lynch's perfect harmony has already been mentioned, and he's a steady presence behind the kit, as is two-time Heartbreaker Ron Blair on bass. But the interplay between Mike Campbell's lead guitar and Benmont Tench's work on the keys really makes this song—each accentuates the other, almost like duelling lead guitars, and each takes the limelight for a few bars here and there. You don't have to be backed by one of the best studio bands of all time to be considered a great songwriter, but it sure helps.

8) "Walls (Circus)"
Album: Songs and Music from "She's the One"
Year: 1996

Yes, you read that right: one of Petty's best songs comes courtesy of the soundtrack for a freaking Ed Burns movie (and one named after a Bruce Springsteen song, no less). The whole album is great, a kind of lost classic amidst a discography of better-known and -regarded albums—"Grew Up Fast" and "California" are great tracks—but this song especially is an underheralded gem in the Petty catalogue, an almost painfully earnest ditty (yes, ditty) that recalls The Byrds as much as the rosier tracks on Wildflowers, which immediately preceded the She's The One soundtrack. Petty embraced an especially pensive clarity during this period of his career ("You belong among the wildflowers / you belong somewhere you feel free"), which is encapsulated in one of my favorite stanzas in any of his songs:

"Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone"

This is maybe the best example of the "plainspoken poetry" I mentioned earlier—humble words, but they'll make you tear up if they catch you at the right (or wrong) moment. I know I've had to pull off the I-17 because of this song before. This song also merits a shoutout to the one and only Lindsey Buckingham, who provides some memorable backing vocals that buoy your heart (HEART) and the chorus at the same time.

7) "Time to Move On"
Album: Wildflowers
Year: 1994

This song marks the first appearance of Wildflowers, Petty's second solo album and the best of his career—with or without the Heartbreakers officially credited (although they all mostly played on his solo records as well). There are easily half a dozen or more tracks that could have made this list from Wildflowers, from the title track, to enduring singles "You Don't Know How It Feels" and "It's Good to Be King," to marvelous deep cuts like "To Find a Friend" and "A Higher Place." (Not to mention "You Wreck Me" in the honorable mentions.) But "Time to Move On" earns its place here for its winsome weariness, its hypnotic melody (more wizardry from Campbell and Tench), and its insistent rhythm courtesy of new Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone (who replaced Stan Lynch as drummer). It's another song that seems universal but can seem shockingly personal to different listeners (I know people who have related it to the death of a loved one, a breakup, or other various life changes). That it can also help you get over Petty's death is just a bonus. Time to move on, time to get going indeed.

6) "I Won't Back Down"
Album: Full Moon Fever
Year: 1989

I suspect this was the song most people listened to when they first heard the news about Petty's death... and then again when he actually died about 8 hours later. (For the record, the first song I played was "Wildflowers.") I also suspect this will prove to be his most enduring song, even more than "Free Fallin'" or "American Girl." There's just something infinitely timeless and eminently relatable about it—it's been played in countless sports stadiums and political rallies, and it's maybe Petty's most covered song, yet no one ever gets tired of it. (That's probably true of all of Petty's hits though. Who's ever like, "Ugh, this song?" when a Petty tune comes on?) "I Won't Back Down" is his best song to sing along to, perfect for road trips, a karaoke staple, and the soundtrack many a drunken sing-along as the bar is closing. Finally, to me, this is the song that most embodies Petty himself—he never backed down from anything, not early failures in his music career, not record companies, not drug addiction, not even cardiac arrest. I'll always remember Tom as he was in this song—rebellious, indomitable, and inimitable.

5) "Free Fallin'"
Album: Full Moon Fever
Year: 1989

Like a lot of artists who rose to stardom in the 1980s, Petty owes part of his success to music videos and MTV. And, like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1980s, the TV, and MTV in particular, was my part-time babysitter. (I had a real babysitter, of course, but she mostly just turned on MTV and let us watch.) So, of course, some of my first memories of Petty are his music videos. Kim Basinger's dancing corpse bride in "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Eddie and his leather jacket (with chains that would jingle) in "Into the Great Wide Open." Of course the Alice in Wonderland fever dream of "Don't Come Around Here No More." But the one I remember seeing first—and probably the least interesting of the bunch, honestly—was the one for "Free Fallin'" with its cast of SoCal preppies and skaters, and Tom in shades playing his 12-string in an abandoned mall. When I hear the song now—from the gorgeous 12-string strumming to the exultant chorus to all the forlorn characters—I still think of those preppies and skaters, the California sunshine, a sense of youthful carefreeness. Come to think of it, this song is probably the beginning of my lifelong love affair with LA. So does that mean Tom Petty is the reason I went to grad school at USC? Hmmm...

4) "Learning to Fly"
Album: Into the Great Wide Open
Year: 1991

I've seen Tom Petty live four times: once at the hockey arena here in Phoenix, once at the basketball arena, once in Golden Gate Park during Outside Lands (the best two hours of my concert-going life), and once at Wrigley Field in the rain about three months before he died. They were all amazing for different reasons, but one part of them was always the same: the part when they'd play "Learning to Fly" and Tom would step back from the microphone and let the crowd take over on a chorus. There's something indescribably magical about singing and swaying to the song, your arm around the shoulders of your best friends or your girlfriend or both, such undeniable feeling in the simple words, words that carry different meaning for everyone who sings them. It's always a highlight of his live show, and it's incredibly sad that I'll never get to experience it again. I'm so very glad that I made it out to that show in Chicago on his final tour—I'll never forget the roiling sky overhead, the warm raindrops hitting my skin, my favorite people by my side, and singing along to one of my favorite songs by my favorite musician of all time. Thanks for the memories, Tom.

3) "The Waiting"
Album: Hard Promises
Year: 1981

I think a big reason why Petty's death resonated like it did is that a ton of people under 40 associated him with their fathers. I mean, whose dad didn't have the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits CD in regular rotation in his truck? I know that was the case for me. (And you bet your ass I called my dad the day Tom died to grieve and reminisce together.) It makes a lot of sense because, really, who else was Tom Petty but America's rock 'n' roll dad? He was kind of awkward, magnificently bearded in his latter days, and had that inherent corniness that all dads share. Truthfully, a lot of his lyrics sound like fatherly aphorisms doled out over a beer from the front porch rocking chair. "She's gonna listen to her heart." "Even the losers get lucky sometimes." "Good love is hard to find." And, of course, this song: "The waiting is the hardest part. Every day you get one more yard." Only a dad would sneak a football metaphor into love life advice. I'm going to miss my rock 'n' roll dad dearly, but I thankfully still have my actual dad around for (hopefully) many more years. I know he loves The Byrds as much as Tom did (the opening riff to this song is straight out of the Roger McGuinn playbook), and while I don't think I've ever heard him play "The Waiting," he does a pretty mean "Free Fallin'." I'm sure he'll play it for us soon during our next back porch beer session.

2) "Crawling Back to You"
Album: Wildflowers
Year: 1994

"Crawling Back to You" is, quite simply, the best song on the best album of Petty's career. It was named Best Tom Petty Deep Cut by Rolling Stone readers, but I'll go a step further and say it's one of the best Tom Petty songs, period. It's got all the hallmarks of a Petty classic—briefly sketched (yet still vivid) narrative, shifts from 3rd to 1st person POV, short-but-stirring chorus—and some of the finest work the Heartbreakers ever did (Tench's keys take center stage here, but Campbell has his best solo this side of "Learning to Fly"). It's also got the most beautiful, perfectly wistful stanza Petty ever wrote:

"I'm so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway"

This is the song I've listened to the most since Tom died—yes, even more than the song at #1. It's a sad bastard song by a guy who could write sad bastard songs with the best of 'em, and a perfect song for mourning a legend.

1) "American Girl"
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Year: 1977

Sometimes, it's best to just let the man speak for himself:

"Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinkin'
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin'
She had one little promise she was gonna keep

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

Well it was kinda cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin' on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it's so painful when something that's so close
Is still so far out of reach

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl"

R.I.P, Tom. Thanks for the songs.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Can't Stop the La La: 2017 Oscars Precidtions

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

Gold = predicted winner

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Davis

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Ali

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Huppert

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Affleck

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Heisserer

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

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

My Non-Existent Vote: Mills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Under the Moon and Stars: Films of 2016

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

Gold = winner
* = also nominated for an Oscar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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