Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominations Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishful thinking: Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Music Is All We Got: My Favorite 2016 Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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