Contenders to Catch Up On

Contenders to Catch Up On

Oscar season is upon us, but that doesn’t mean the only contenders for 2018 will be released in the next few months. While the majority of nominations and winners get spread out among the fall and winter releases (nine of the last ten Best Picture winners have been released in the October-December window), the rest of the months of the year still have a say in what happens on Oscar night. Get Out, released in February last year, nearly stole this year’s show from Three Billboards and The Shape of Water, released in November and December respectively.

So having already posted the contenders being released in October, I thought I’d look back on the previous nine months and highlight the contenders we need to catch up on. There are several Best Picture contenders, and a lot of long shots. I’ll start with the long shots and end with the contenders for the most awards.

Production note: There aren’t odds out for all the craft awards, so I only included likely nominations and long shots for the categories I care about. Some of these movies will compete for things like Best Score or Best Costume Design, but I’m not focusing on those right now.

01The Death of Stalin (released in March) and Sorry to Bother You (released in July)

Long shots (respectively): Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay

02The Screenplay awards always see a couple of lower-profile movies enter the fray (see: The Big Sick and Molly’s Game from last year). Usually a Best Picture nominee will win, so for these movies, it’s an honor just to be nominated. The Death of Stalin is a comedy about Stalin, which is weird, but it’s directed by Armando Ianucci, who created the Emmy-dominating Veep and was nominated in this category for 2009’s In the LoopSorry to Bother You is a kinetic story about a black telemarketer that discovers that using a white voice gets him far, and it’ll probably end up on a lot of critics’ Top Ten lists in a couple of months. Writer-director Boots Riley has a better chance at a nomination than Ianucci, because Sorry was such a breakout indie hit, but neither should make plans to attend the ceremony just yet.

03First Reformed (released in May)

Long shots: Actor, Original Screenplay

In a perfect world, First Reformed would be the frontrunner for both of these awards with a shot at Best Picture. It is an original, bold work of art, and Ethan Hawke is astounding in it. But it’s also dark and disturbing, and its ending is hard to wrap your mind around. The Actor field is too crowded with performers from true Best Picture contenders, and the most likely dark horse nominees are older actors that voters will think are due, like Willem Dafoe and Robert Redford (see below). Its most likely chance to sneak in is Original Screenplay, if some of the Best Picture contenders have more support in other areas, like if Green Book proves to be more of an acting showcase than a good script.

04The Old Man & the Gun (released in September)

Long shots: Actor, Supporting Actress

Robert Redford has been nominated only once before, for 1973’s The Sting, so it’s fair to say the Academy hasn’t valued his acting chops very highly. That’s a shame, since he’s one of the great movie stars, but The Old Man & the Gun, while supposedly very meta and a tribute to the kinds of movies Redford did in his prime, might be too slight to garner the support he needs for a nomination. Sissy Spacek is an even longer shot, but love and respect for their careers from the Acting branch may push them both over the edge.

05Hereditary (released in June)

Long shots: Actress, Original Screenplay

Horror movies rarely ever get Oscar love, but it’s not unheard of. In fact, the Best Actress award went to an actress from a horror movie two years in a row in 1990-91 (Kathy Bates for Misery, Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs), so there would be precedent for Toni Collette to get nominated. She certainly deserves it; she takes horror movie acting to an unusually high level. But that field is crowded. After Get Out‘s Original Screenplay win last year, a nomination for Hereditary in that category is a little more likely.

06A Quiet Place (released in April)

Long shots: Picture, Original Screenplay

Again, genre fare is not traditionally recognized well by the Academy. But John Krasinski’s labor of love was a huge hit in the spring, and its story and script are ingeniously structured in a way that could have grabbed voters’ attention. Look for voters to be looking for a way to nominate more popular movies so as to curb the governors’ ill-advised desire for a Best Popular Film category.

07Crazy Rich Asians (released in August)

Long shots: Picture, Supporting Actress

Michelle Yeoh is a respected veteran of world cinema (most famous in America for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and she brings a lot of gravitas to a movie that is largely light. If there’s a surprise nomination in the Supporting Actress category, it will be her. Normally, romantic comedies would not be in play for Best Picture, but the significance of the movie’s all-Asian cast and its surprise hit status make it a player, if an unlikely one.

08Eighth Grade (released in July)

Likely nomination: Original Screenplay

Long shot: Picture

People love this movie. Eighth Grade will likely clean up at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before comedian Bo Burnham’s screenplay is honored just to be nominated at the Oscars. If some of the presumed, yet-to-be-released contenders like Adam McKay’s Vice and Steve McQueen’s Widows don’t play as well as expected, this coming-of-age indie could sneak into the Best Picture slate.

09The Wife (released in August)

Likely nomination: Actress

The Best Actress field is wide open right now. For a while there, Glenn Close was the frontrunner, but A Star Is Born‘s release has changed the game a bit. Close plays the wife of a writer who is being given the Nobel Prize for Literature, though the couple is harboring a secret.

Reviews laud Close’s performance as a career best, which is saying a lot. For anyone that grew up in the ’90s, you may only know her as Cruella de Vil, which is a shame. She was one of the big movie stars of the ’80s, a decade in which she was nominated for five Acting Oscars. She was perhaps most famous for Fatal Attraction, in which she boils a pet rabbit. The ’80s were crazy.

Right now, Close is almost assured a nomination. Her campaign will play the “she’s due” card, which is hard to argue with. Lady Gaga is a force of nature in A Star Is Born, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Olivia Colman in The Favourite are right behind them. The race to win will be hard to call, but Glenn Close will definitely get her seventh nomination in January.

10Black Panther (released in February)

Likely nomination: Picture

Long shots: Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography

This may seem like wishful thinking. After all, no Marvel movie has been nominated for Best Picture yet. Indeed, no superhero movie has ever been nominated for the big one, which is a great reminder that the Academy thought The Reader was a better movie than The Dark Knight back in 2008. PSA for the Academy: just because a movie uses the Holocaust as part of its plot doesn’t mean it’s a good movie.

Anyway, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Black Panther will land a Best Picture nomination in January. It has no chance of winning, but it’s almost universally beloved as a blockbuster. Also, its technical achievements go beyond special effects to the level of detail given to the costumes, music, and production design, especially for a superhero movie. The support of all the craft guilds, along with the more diverse Academy voting body, should get it in the race.

Other top awards are less likely, but still possible. Director Ryan Coogler is popular, and he has the reputation of a cinematic pioneer within the industry, turning tentpoles into must-see, prestige events. The cinematography is meticulous and beautiful, and the screenplay is remarkably coherent and meaningful. But the best chance Black Panther has at another top award is for Michael B. Jordan’s performance as the movie’s villain. If Sam Rockwell’s turn as George W. Bush in Vice is more caricature than performance, Jordan will take his place and earn his first nomination.

11BlacKkKlansman (released in August)

Likely nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay

Long shots: Actor, Supporting Actor

BlacKkKlansman is the biggest contender that’s already been released this year, which is somewhat surprising. The movie was branded as a comedy, and comedies don’t often get the critical or awards attention they may deserve. And while Spike Lee has the reputation of a directing icon, he’s never been nominated for Best Director. That’s right- they have never nominated the man who directed Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), and 25th Hour (2002), all of which are legitimate contenders for the best movie of their respective decades.

But that should change this year! BlacKkKlansman was a big hit at the Cannes Film Festival in May, winning the Grand Prix, which is effectively second place to the Palme d’Or. It went on to gross $48 million, which makes it the biggest movie Lee has made since 2006’s Inside Man. Not everyone loved it, but I think BlacKkKlansman is the best fiction film he’s made in 20 years (since the pretty great He Got Game).

The movie has a clear message that’s easy to sell to voters: the Klan was bad in the ’80s, and things aren’t much better now. Lee makes some directorial choices that add to this message at the risk of muddying the narrative, but those choices make the film stronger in the end. I’m excited for this movie to get more attention during awards season, because it deserves it.

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Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Oscar season has begun, so what better time to look back at last year’s best of the best? Awards season is always busy and fraught with narrative. It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the midst of so much noise. I always benefit from months of remove to determine what I actually prefer.

It was a good year for the movies, but a great year for performances. A few notable performances that did not make my list:

  • Margot Robbie or Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I love Janney, but her character is cartoonish in this movie. Robbie is very good, but the movie and its characters didn’t resonate with me at all. I found the screenplay very surface-level and uninteresting, playing at stereotypes rather than nuance.
  • Sam Rockwell or Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: I liked both of them in this movie, but neither of their characters has that many notes to play in this screenplay. Also, they both pale in comparison to Frances McDormand, at no fault of their own.

Here are the contenders for the best performance of 2017:

Top Ten

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10. Robert Pattinson, Good TimeIf you don’t pay attention to indie cinema, you probably only know Pattinson as the sparkly Edward from the Twilight series, but Pattinson has been quietly building a reputation as a serious actor willing to take risks in collaborations with directors as varied as David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), David Michôd (The Rover), and James Gray (The Lost City of Z). There are times in the Safdie brothers’ (Heaven Knows WhatGood Time where you could convince yourself that Pattinson’s Connie truly cares about his brother, but by the end of the movie it’s hard to believe he cares about anyone but himself. Pattinson gives us a portrayal of a true con man: he’s conning himself too.

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9. Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer: I could have easily slotted any actor from Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Lobster; they’re all that good. But Farrell is the natural choice, since the central conflict- one of his family members, his wife, his daughter, or his son, must die to save the other two- revolves around his decision-making. The impossibility of both the decision and the circumstances surrounding his family are evident in the tension in Farrell’s body and face throughout the entire movie.

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8. Zoe Kazan, The Big SickAs great as The Big Sick is, it would not work without an actress as strong as Kazan. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious, and this role (as himself, which couldn’t have hurt) is the most natural he’s ever been onscreen, but without Kazan’s mix of confidence and doubt, The Big Sick would just feel like a showcase for Nanjiani as a comedian. With Kazan, the story feels like it’s about real people.

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7. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: When I first saw Get Out, I appreciated the movie far more than I appreciated Kaluuya’s performance, thinking of him as a cipher that the brilliant story carried along with it. But rewatching the movie, it becomes clear how much work Kaluuya is doing at every point in the movie, whether it’s to maintain his cool surrounded by weirdness or to hold on to reality before falling into the Sunken Place. Kaluuya is not an emotive actor, but that’s a good thing; his strength in Get Out is how he portrays Chris actively trying to hold up a front while his emotions burst through anyway.

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6. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled: Nicole Kidman continues to make wonderfully offbeat choices for her career, eschewing mainstream roles (which probably also speaks to the quality of the roles offered to a woman in her 50s) for prime starring roles under talented directors like Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola in The Beguiled. As the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War, Kidman struggles to hold the school together after a Union soldier turns up wounded on the school grounds. The sexual tension that plays out after his arrival is delightful, and Kidman’s character is not immune, but it is a joy to watch her choose between her desire and her principles.

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5. Meryl Streep, The Post: Oh, how original, putting a Meryl Streep performance in the Top Ten. Yes, but did you see this Meryl Streep performance? While Tom Hanks chews the scenery as Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (and I mean that as a compliment), Streep’s turn as the newspaper’s owner grounds the movie in real concerns over a woman’s (lack of) power and control in a field dominated by men.

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4. James McAvoy, Split: This role could have been so laughable- a multiple-personality horror-movie villain? Give this role to an actor who’s not ready for it, and it could derail the whole concept. But McAvoy is a revelation, jumping easily between personalities as varied as an uppity British woman named Patricia to a frightened little boy named Hedwig.

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3. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: Saoirse Ronan is 24 years old and already nominated for three Oscars, so she doesn’t need any praise from me to validate her talents. But I’ll do it anyway: Ronan is the best young actress of her generation. At some point they tried to make her into a young-adult star, but thank God that failed, because watching her thrive equally well as a willful Irish woman in Brooklyn and as a lost Catholic schoolgirl in Lady Bird has made Oscar season fun the last few years.

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2. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your NameThere’s a lot to process about the quality of Chalamet’s performance in this movie. He certain doesn’t stand alone. He has a great script that provides him ample opportunity to showcase emotions and internal reactions. Chalamet also stars in the best-directed movie of the year, with beautiful shots and locations to frame his character’s coming-of-age story in the most idyllic way possible. And his costars are seasoned performers at the top of their games, so surely their presence elevated his performance.

There may be a mathematical way to separate out all these factors and truly rate a performance for what the actor does on his own, but I don’t know it. I can only report how I respond to a performance, and Chalamet’s performance moved me deeply. I saw so much of myself in his character, Elio, as he stumbled along the path to discovering a little more of who he is.

The clip in the link is a great example of how I felt much of my teenage years: struggling to project confidence while actually being self-conscious about my imperfections and body and sexuality. There is another scene in the movie in which Elio collapses in tears against Oliver (Armie Hammer) out of shame and fear that he will lose him. It’s by God’s grace alone that I don’t perpetually live in that state.

Chalamet also featured in another Best Picture contender from last year, Lady Bird, as an aloof sexual partner for Ronan’s Lady Bird. He actually has one of the best lines in the movie: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in in your life.” Elio could never say that line; he could never be cynical enough, and it’s a sign of Chalamet’s talent that both characters feel real. Chalamet has the potential to be a big star, an Oscar winner (this year, maybe!), and a generation-defining actor. If he does do big things, it will all have started with this simple, sad, soulful performance.

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1. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water: Hawkins has impressed me before, most notably in Happy-Go-Lucky as an always-look-on-the-bright-side schoolteacher. But she reaches another level in The Shape of Water as Elisa, a mute janitor for a government lab. The Shape of Water is a fantasy movie in which Elisa falls in love with a humanoid river creature. I could write so many words about this movie and the deft way it speaks for those who are silenced by society, but I’ll focus on her performance for now.

We never find out why Elisa is mute, only that there are scars on her neck, so the movie implies her mutism is the result of some sort of trauma. Regardless, she has no voice. No voiceless performance should have the range that Hawkins displays here, giving us moments of pure bliss and then moments of desperation, such as in the clip in the above link. The intensity in her expressions and her signs in that scene are palpable, as she pleads for the life of the creature she loves. She struggles against her mutism to be heard by her best friend (Richard Jenkins), striving against hope to get through to him that they must save her love.

Most of you probably know that I’m a speech-language pathologist, and some of you are most likely aware that I have a stutter. I don’t talk or write about it much, mostly because I don’t find it that interesting. It’s been my reality for 29 years, and on top of how mundane it seems to me, it’s a pretty mild stutter. I promise that isn’t false humility or an attempt to deflect; I may be the only person you’ve come across with a speech impediment that lasted into his adult life, but so many people have much more trouble communicating than me.

That being said, because of my fluency difficulties, I have a small taste of what it’s like to have trouble communicating. The one that gets on my nerves the most is that my jokes don’t land- my stutter ruins my comedic timing. That’s small, but making your friends laugh and seamlessly working a joke into a conversation is a gift, and it’s frustrating that sometimes I just make group situations awkward. On top of that, I know what it’s like for people to make judgments of you based on one characteristic: that I’m not smart because I have trouble telling you my name, or that I’m a nervous person because I stutter when I meet you and can’t look you in the eye while it’s happening.

That’s about as hard as it gets for me though. So many of our patients at the J.D. McCarty Center are essentially trapped in their bodies without a voice or even a functional way to communicate. I’ve had students with debilitating stutters, where they can barely get through one word without stuttering. I’ve worked with stroke patients who will never get their original communication skills back, and the best I can do is tell them we’re going to our best to help them. Their stories are hard when you consider their disabilities alone. Their stories get harder when you realize that some of them have no one advocating for them.

The Shape of Water is a movie, not real life. But I believe stories have power, if not to change the world or change lives outright, then at least to provide the initial push toward that change. Sally Hawkins’s performance as Elisa is speaking for all those people who cannot speak for themselves. The Shape of Water extends this outside of those who truly cannot speak to those who are too marginalized within society to be heard, whether because of their sexuality or their race or their gender.

The movie is great, but it hinges on Hawkins’s ability to communicate that desperation to be heard. I cry thinking about that above clip, because she’s so successful. My hope is that people who have been hardened to the needs of others are softened by her portrayal of the voiceless. I have been.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetically)

2018performancebummys11Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute): Watching a character suffer through AIDS is always tough, but before Biscayart begins his descent, he gives us a man so vibrant and passionate that it makes watching him fade all the more difficult.

 

2018performancebummys12Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project: As the beleaguered manager of a motel near Disney World, Dafoe has never been warmer or more lovable.

 

2018performancebummys13Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread: Day-Lewis needs no more accolades, but it must be said that this may be his most delightful performance.

 

2018performancebummys14Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant: I’ve loved the past two Alien movies, even if they didn’t quite reach the heights of the original, but I have to admit that Fassbender is the main reason for any non-fan to watch either Prometheus or, especially, Covenant.

 

2018performancebummys15Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread: As delightful as Day-Lewis is, he is nearly outdone by Krieps, in her acting debut, as an ingenue who proves to be every bit Day-Lewis’s designer’s match.

 

2018performancebummys16Jennifer Lawrence, mother!: mother! is better experienced than described, but Lawrence deserves more attention than she received for carrying such an ambitious movie.

 

2018performancebummys17Sophia Lillis, It: Lillis’s Beverly could have easily been the Losers Club’s manic pixie dream girl, but she breathes more life into the movie than the rest of a very good cast of kids.

 

2018performancebummys18Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand is a national treasure, and she deserved this Oscar, for all the curse words, yeah, but also for the rare moments in Three Billboards when she lets her guard down.

 

2018performancebummys19Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird: Portraying motherhood in cinema can be a thankless task, even when the role is as well-written as Metcalf’s is here, but her warmth would have lifted any role.

 

2018performancebummys20Carey Mulligan, MudboundMary J. Blige got the Oscar nomination, and she is good in Mudbound, but I came out of Mudbound most impressed with Mulligan’s mix of resilience and desperation.

 

2018performancebummys21Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: This is the kind of performance that the Academy drools over, but Oldman, for all his scenery chewing, gets at the quiet moments in Churchill’s everyday life as well.

 

2018performancebummys22Brooklynn Prince, The Florida ProjectIt’s difficult to judge child actors, because they’re often doing something very different from adult actors, but it’s impossible not to recognize how brilliant Prince is in The Florida Project, because most child actors have a hard time balancing petulance with legitimate feelings, and she seems to have no trouble at all.

 

2018performancebummys23Patrick Stewart, Logan: Stewart must have had so much fun making Logan, more than the other X-Men movies, and not just because he got to curse, but because he got to do more than be concerned about the fate of his students or play at the stern father.

 

2018performancebummys24Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name: The performance on the whole is too slight to be in my Top Ten, but his end-of-the-movie monologue alone deserved an Oscar.

 

2018performancebummys25Izabela Vidovic, Wonder: Wonder is obviously Augie’s story, but my heart went out to Via as his caring sister, who understands why she doesn’t get as much attention as Augie, but still longs to be noticed.

 

Past Top Tens

2016

Natalie Portman, Jackie
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Amy Adams, Arrival
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Emma Stone, La La Land
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Brie Larson, Room
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Maika Monroe, It Follows

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Emma Stone, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dane DeHaan, Chronicle
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises

October 2018’s Contenders

October 2018’s Contenders

October is the official beginning of Oscar season- meaning the months in which studios (both major and indie) plan movie releases with awards in mind. Most of the movies gunning for awards inclusion have been screened at festivals (Toronto, Telluride, New York, etc.) over the last two months to varying degrees of hype. Only movies released in a theater by December 31st will be eligible for nominations, which will be announced on January 22nd. The ceremony takes place on February 24th.

Some of you couldn’t care less about the Oscars, which is fine. I pay far too much attention to the Oscars, because I think they’re historically a good way to find quality stories I may not have otherwise sought out. I also think the movies that end up getting attention during the Oscar telecast are made by filmmakers who are really going for it, which leads to either momentous or disastrous results.

Anyway, I’m going to embrace the fact that I know too much about the Oscars, and the fact that I included the word “contender” in the name of this blog, and finally devote some space to Oscar predictions and explainers. We’ll start simple and useful- what movies coming out in October will likely be nominated come January? I’ll start with lowest number of likely nominations and end with the highest.

Production note: There aren’t predictions out there for a lot of the craft awards, so I’ve stuck to the categories I care most about. And I’m taking “likely” at face value; there are a lot of movies in the running, but only a few make it to the finish line.

octobercontenders02Beautiful Boy (released wide October 12th)

This looks very depressing, and like the kind of typical Academy Award fare that makes many people skeptical about the Oscars. Steve Carell stars as the father of a young man (Timothée Chalamet) who is stuck in the cycle of addiction and recovery. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a major landing ground for awards contenders, to decidedly mixed reviews, though by all accounts the performances are good.

Likely nominations: Supporting Actor.

Chalamet was nominated last year for his breakout turn in Call Me by Your Name, and he seems to be a star that Hollywood wants to anoint. Even though most people didn’t love the movie, Chalamet is the favorite right now to win Best Supporting Actor.

By the way, he’ll be 23 years old on Oscar night, but he won’t be the youngest Supporting Actor winner ever. That honor goes to Timothy Hutton, who won in 1981 for Ordinary People (directed by Robert Redford). Hutton’s best known now for his role on the TNT show Leverage. I’m not convinced this is a real show. He was very good in Ordinary People, when he was 20.

So Chalamet will only be the second youngest performer to win Best Supporting Actor. Should have tried harder earlier, my dude.

Long shots: Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay.

The movie probably won’t have enough broad support to factor in the Best Picture race, but that competition is very top-heavy (with RomaA Star Is BornFirst Man, and The Favourite as the co-favorites), so if the Acting Branch of the Academy voters gets behind Beautiful Boy, it could sneak in a field that could be anywhere from five to ten nominees, depending on the weight of the voting.

Carell is getting very good reviews, but the Actor category, as always, is crowded, and Chalamet reportedly steals the show. Beautiful Boy is based on memoirs by a father and son, so if the Writing Branch appreciates the difficulty in adapting these two stories fairly, maybe the screenplay gets nominated.

octobercontenders03Can You Ever Forgive Me? (released wide October 19th)

Melissa McCarthy stars in the based-on-a-true-story story of a biographer who falls on hard times and begins forging rare literary letters. I’m surprised this is receiving as much attention as it is. The trailer (see the link above) does not look like your usual Oscar fare, and there’s no one involved (besides McCarthy, of course) who has a past filled with Academy love. It’s directed by Marielle Heller, who made the well-received The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015, and written by Nicole Holofcener, a comedy director with a lot of critic love, but neither has ever been nominated for anything…

Likely nominations: Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay.

…which is probably why the main contenders here are performers. McCarthy was nominated once before for her hilarious breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids. Richard E. Grant, a veteran British actor, has never been nominated, but reports are that their chemistry elevates the movie. Also, the script played well at Telluride and Toronto, and it seems like the most likely way Academy voters will honor the movie.

Long shot: Picture.

octobercontenders04First Man (released wide October 12th)

Perhaps best known for a fake controversy surrounding the supposed exclusion of the American flag (which, come on, it’s in the movie), First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey from grief over a lost child to the moon. This seems a little bit been-there-done-that to me, since this is basically the plot of Gravity, but perhaps the true-to-life nature of it all will lift up the material.

Likely nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography.

My skepticism notwithstanding, First Man looks to clean up in nominations come January. It premiered in Venice in August to great reviews. Director Damien Chazelle (who looks like he’ll help whoever’s next at the Genius Bar) already has an Oscar (he was the youngest ever to win Best Director two years ago at the age of 32), but will likely be nominated again as a producer and director. The action sequences are supposed to be very harrowing, like Dunkirk, but in space. Ryan Gosling impressed in an understated performance as Neil Armstrong, and Claire Foy looks to be playing that role of worried wife that gets the older, male Oscar voters’ dander up every time.

octobercontenders05A Star Is Born (released wide October 5th – today!)

I saw this last night with my wife, Vicky, and I want to make big pronouncements that First Man might clean up with all the nominations but A Star Is Born will clean up with all the wins, but I haven’t even seen First Man and February is a lifetime away. A Star Is Born follows Lady Gaga as Ally, an amateur singer who gets discovered by Bradley Cooper’s country-rock star Jackson Maine. They enter a relationship through their music, and as her star rises, his falls.

This is the fourth time this story has been told under this name- the first starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937, the second starred Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, the third starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. (Why didn’t someone complete the circle by making one in the ’90s, I wonder?) All three were nominated for multiple Oscars, the 1937 version at the most with seven, including Picture, and winning for Original Story, a defunct category.

This version will almost certainly have more than seven nominations.

Likely nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography.

Lady Gaga isn’t the frontrunner for Best Actress yet- that honor belongs to Glenn Close for something called The Wife. But Gaga will be after this scores big at the box office this weekend and holds well into November. Our screening was packed, and people laughed through the whole movie and cried at the end. The movie is exactly what you expect it to be, but it just works. Unless Black Panther is nominated, it will be the most popular Best Picture nominee by far. Add that to its prestige roots- directed soulfully by Bradley Cooper, who just wanted to make art, dammit- and it deserves to be the frontrunner.

By the way, if Cooper is nominated for both Director and Actor (he will be for Acting; the Directing category is even more stacked- but the Academy loves actors who direct), it will be the 11th time someone has been nominated in both categories for the same film. No one has won both. He’s the Actor frontrunner right now.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS Is One of a Kind

CRAZY RICH ASIANS Is One of a Kind

Bona fide phenomena don’t come around very often. Last year only saw one in Get Out’s surprise run of eight weeks in the Top 10. 2016 saw Hidden Figures rise into the Top 15 of the year, and 2015 saw The Martian dominate for seven weeks and land in the year’s Top 10. This year, one could make the case that Black Panther’s ascent into the Top 10 of all time qualifies as a phenomenon, but, as unexpected as that was before the movie premiered, Black Panther still belongs to one of the most successful franchises of all time- so we’ll let the money be its own reward, or maybe a future Best Popular Film Oscar.

Crazy Rich Asians, on the other hand, belongs to no franchise. The movie was based on a book from a popular trilogy, but that alone would not account for its $139 million gross to date, placing it in the Top 15 for the year. It will likely end up in the Top 25 when the year comes to a close. The movie sat at No. 1 for three straight weekends, rising 7% in that time. And on top of that, Crazy Rich Asians is the first all-Asian cast in a studio movie since The Joy Luck Club, 25 years ago. Crazy Rich Asians is a phenomenon.

My wife and I saw Crazy Rich Asians opening weekend, when it was expected to fall below The Meg‘s second weekend. We expected an enjoyable rom-com, which is what we got. But Crazy Rich Asians is also more than that. It’s a well-balanced drama with ideas and themes that outkick its coverage. All Crazy Rich Asians had to be was enjoyable. Instead, it crushed The Meg by $5 million in 750 less theaters.

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While the trailer made Crazy Rich Asians look like Sex and the City 3: Singin’ in Singapore, this movie is smarter than the vast majority of recent attempts at romantic comedy. The central relationship- between Asian-American economics professor, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), and her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), who happens to be…yes, yes, crazy rich, is treated seriously, as if they’ve actually built trust over time, rather than just met cute. When they travel to Singapore to attend the wedding of Nick’s best friend, the obstacles that come their way- Nick’s family, especially his mother, Eleanor (the venerable Michelle Yeoh), does not approve of Nick marrying 1) an American, and 2) someone from a lower-class family- feel thought through, rather than just plot mechanisms to keep our heroes apart.

Indeed, for a movie from a director who has never made a movie with tangible plot, this is quite an achievement. Jon M. Chu has directed two Step Up movies and two Justin Bieber documentaries, which made me skeptical at first. But those movies have a lot of moving parts and require a deft hand to navigate them. Crazy Rich Asians has so many characters, but the plot is never less than clear. And above that, Chu gives his characters time in scenes to be people and to breathe, especially our heroine, Rachel. She is not a bumbling victim of her own silly mistakes; she is competent, caring, and careful around Nick’s family. Studios haven’t been affording romantic comedies the care that went into this movie, and it shows in its quality.

Another way the care shows is in its all-Asian cast. The filmmakers committed themselves to the representation of Asian-Americans and of the Chinese diaspora to an unprecedented level. The aforementioned Joy Luck Club was successful as well, but at half the budget of Crazy Rich Asians. Warner Bros. had more at stake with Crazy Rich Asians, and they should be commended for the support they gave this movie. Of course, it’s ridiculous that a studio should be commended for committing to representation, but here we are.

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Several quibbles with the movie have arisen since its release. Some are frustrated that more Asian cultures were not represented; for example, the only South Asian characters are servants and other similar, non-speaking roles. A movie with “Asians” in the title would seem to have more of a burden to be all-encompassing, even if it is telling a specific story about Chinese ex-pats. Asia is like Africa, in that the West sees it as a monolith rather than a place with more diversity than all of the Western countries combined. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t do much to change this. It’s worth noticing this fact and bringing it to light, but it does not damn the movie. Its quality and success is still a monumental step forward for representation in Hollywood, if not the industry worldwide.

There are also charges of lifestyle porn being levied against the film, glorifying the rich and putting the 1% on a pedestal. It’s hard to argue with that. The movie is unclear how it feels about wealth; while our heroes show disdain for Nick’s family’s lifestyle, the movie clearly revels in it. But again, you can notice this and still enjoy the movie. If I like looking at nice clothes and unbelievably expensive houses, what’s wrong with that? The harm comes in allowing the decadence to influence my own decision-making- and that’s not the movie’s responsibility, but mine.

Lifestyle porn or no, Crazy Rich Asians is absolutely delightful. The movie is built around a strong, smart female heroine, played subtly by Constance Wu, with empowering things to say about female friendship and the relationships we have with our mothers. I can’t wait for the sequel, though I hope I don’t have to wait till that movie for another Asian-led studio movie. Crazy Rich Asians deserves all the success it’s having. It wouldn’t be a phenomenon if it didn’t.

Oscar contender?: No. If Best Popular Film were a thing this year, then it would stand a good chance there. Maybe it will receive some Costume Design and Art Direction attention, but even that is doubtful, since those categories tend to stay around prestige fare.

Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Ten years ago, our cinematic conversations didn’t revolve around Marvel and Netflix. Now those two monoliths dominate the narrative, and blockbusters dominate the year, instead of just the summer. The movie landscape looks different, and you can trace it back to this year.

Obviously Iron Man was released, so the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its industry takeover. But 2008 was when Netflix solidified its commitment to streaming, changing the industry in so many ways. You can blame the expansion of the summer blockbuster season to the whole year on Netflix for forcing the studios’ hands. In order to compete with streaming, studios can only afford to invest their money in movies with the potential for big returns. They can no longer subsist on the mid-budget movies that used to fill the colder months.

It’s only fitting then that two of 2008’s three best movies were blockbusters: The Dark Knight and WALL-E. They’re exemplars for how to use broad cinematic language to tell universal truths. But then the rest of my top movies is filled out with indies. The second best movie of the year may be the least expensive on the list. Greatness comes in many forms.

Top Ten

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10. The Class: I haven’t seen anything else that French director Laurent Cantet has made, but if his other movies are anything like The Class, I need to remedy that immediately. This movie follows a white English teacher (François Bégaudeau, who wrote the memoir the movie was based on) teaching in a racially-mixed, interurban school. This isn’t Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers; François’s goal isn’t inspiration but engagement. The movie shows him walking the line between discipline and mutual respect. Having worked on his side of the racial divide in a school, I can tell you that the conflicts that arise are just as frustrating as real life.

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9. Anvil: The Story of AnvilThe title to this movie could not be more appropriate; this movie is indeed about the story of Anvil. So many critics called this a real-life This Is Spinal Tap when it was released. While it’s hard to argue with that epithet, it’s still not really enough of a descriptor. Anvil was the most heart-breaking movie of 2008, and not because the band never really achieved fame or success. No, it’s heart-breaking because this band still wants fame and success after all their failure.

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8. In BrugesNot enough movies are able to hold both comedy and tragedy equal within their run-times. We either get lower stakes because the movie really just wants your laughs, or the jokes are just window dressing to lighten up the mood every once in a while. In Bruges somehow commits fully to both, eliciting uproarious laughter one second and tears the next, over and over again. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are superb as bumbling hitmen with feelings, and Ralph Fiennes is a sinister yet empathetic mob boss. The real star is the Belgian town it all takes place in (pronounced “broozh”), with its fog and its canals, though the town isn’t as funny as the people.

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7. Let the Right One In: There are some movies that go places you never would have dreamed of. Let the Right One In is such a movie. On the one hand, it’s a vampire movie, filled with similar tropes to what you expect. On the other, it’s a movie about children and trauma, viewed through a supernatural lens. It’s horrifically disturbing at points, but never anything less than true.

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6. Slumdog MillionaireThe Best Picture winner at the 2009’s Oscars was my favorite movie of 2008 (until I saw the top movie on this list). I understood that the story was contrived, but the fairy-tale nature of it hooked me and reeled me in. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the movie and the circumstances surrounding its making, including the well-being of the child actors pulled from the slums, are troubling. But director Danny Boyle gives the voices of the story to the Indian actors, telling the story through their eyes rather than a white man’s or woman’s. It’s fantastical, but never nonsensical, and it still works on me, even though I’m ten years more jaded than I was when I first saw it.

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5. Tell No OneGreat mystery movies are few and far between, because it is too easy to see plot points coming, or the plot is too convoluted or contrived to continue caring. Tell No One is a perfect puzzle of a mystery movie, and it comes out of France from director Guillaume Canet, who has directed nothing else of note. That may be appropriate, because it’s hard to imagine that all the ideas packed into Tell No One left anything in Canet’s brain. The plot of the movie plays like a film noir, but one set in a lush, colorful dream world. You may see the ending coming, but I did not, and the story was rich enough that it did not matter either way.

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4. Milk: Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will HuntingDrugstore Cowboys) has directed 17 movies to date, but it seems that he reserves one movie per decade to be the movie that he pours his heart into. The ’80s had My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix, the ’90s had Good Will Hunting, and the ’00s got Milk. Much of Milk, which is a biopic about Harvey Milk’s political rise and assassination, stays true to the biopic formula. But there are several scenes in which Van Sant’s own staging and cinematic eye elevate what could have been just a hagiography into art, including a campaign party montage that gets sexual and the assassination scene itself. Sean Penn’s performance as the first openly gay man in public office in America grounds the movie in its themes: freedom needs to be fought for, and the fight isn’t over.

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3. The Dark Knight: The best superhero movie of all time is still The Dark Knight and, up until this year, it wasn’t close. The Nolan Batman movies all did something a little bit more with the concept of the superhero than any other attempt has. All three movies, but especially The Dark Knight, subsist on more than just plot and action: they feast on the very idea of heroism itself. It would be easy to dismiss The Dark Knight as only a showcase for Heath Ledger’s brilliance. But the movie itself is meticulously constructed to turn heroism and our expectations of our heroes upside-down.

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2. Chop Shop: With the advent of unlimited special effects possibilities and the potential for sequels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that big-budget movies should be bastions for imagination and creativity. You can truly tell any story when money is no object, you might say. But history has taught us that the more dollars involved, the more reasons to say no. For this reason, even with all its budgetary limitations, independent film is the unlimited industry. When making money isn’t the goal, people’s stories get told that you would have never looked twice at before.

Chop Shop, by Iranian-American indie auteur Ramin Bahrani, is what happens when you believe any story is possible. Two Latino children, Ale and Isamar (played by Alejandro Polanco and a luminous Isamar Gonzales), struggling to survive on the streets of New York, would never be the stars of a studio tentpole. Their story of the American dream, saving up to buy a taco truck, would never be the plot of a blockbuster. The imagery Bahrani’s cinematography uses, especially in the last shot of pigeons soaring into the sky from the ground, could never be matched by the highest-tech computer effects. Chop Shop isn’t just indie cinema at its best; it’s cinema at its best.

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1. WALL-E: Once in 2011 when I told a friend that Rango was my favorite movie of the year, he gave me an incredulous look and said, “An animated movie?” I’m not sure if the stigma is that animated movies are for kids or just that they don’t tell the same kinds of stories as live-action movies, but I’m here to tell you that animated movies are often far more imaginative. There’s a sense with animation that anything is possible, and there are no limits.

This has never been truer than with WALL-E. It’s not hyperbole to say that WALL-E changed the industry and expanded the boundaries for the kinds of stories animation could tell. There is a rich history in 2-D animation of using the full expanse of the wide-screen, but CGI had barely scratched the surface up to this point. Attempts with the form were clunky (Treasure Planet) or under-realized (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). I guess when this is the perception of CGI movies going for something big, then I should expect surprise when I rate them highly.

Usually you either have to skimp on the visuals or sacrifice the story, but WALL-E is beautiful in its story and its images. Normally, a movie that deals with robot loneliness in its first act and environmentalism in its second would not be appealing, but director Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoFinding Dory) and his Pixar animators find the pathos in the titular character’s cogs and gears, and we feel both his loneliness at the beginning and his hope when he meets the newer robot, EVE. A marriage of classic cinematic influences with a forward-looking story helps elevate the second act into more than just a screed against toxic wastefulness. It’s a vision for a way forward; you almost forget it comes from a computer.

 Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

2008movies11Ballast: A beautiful indie about the violence of poverty and broken homes.

 

2008movies12Bolt: I was skeptical of this non-Pixar Disney offering, but it’s surprisingly strong.

 

2008movies13Cloverfield: Somehow this turned into a franchise, when it feels more like a great, stand-alone one-off.

 

2008movies14The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Overwrought and overlong, yes, but that’s kind of the point?

 

2008movies15The Edge of Heaven: Turkish-German director Fatih Akin returned to acclaim last year with the Golden Globe-winning In the Fade, so it’s worth going back to watch this little gem, about how happenstance becomes significant in one’s life story.

 

Film Title: Forgetting Sarah MarshallForgetting Sarah Marshall: It will forever be known as the movie in which Jason Segel goes full-frontal for laughs in the opening scene, but this is a smart, soulful comedy that deserves more attention.

 

2008movies17Gomorrah: It’s been adapted into a relatively acclaimed TV show on SundanceTV, but the movie is an evocative exploration of the Italian mafia’s impact on ordinary people in Naples.

 

2008movies18Happy-Go-Lucky: A wonderful showcase for one of The Shape of Water‘s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins, as a grade-school teacher who is…well, you know.

 

2008movies19Iron Man: Where the franchise began, and where the franchise was less focused on being a franchise and more focused on telling a contained story well.

 

2008movies20Revolutionary Road: If you don’t like being emotionally drained, steer clear of this drama, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as a self-destructive 1950s married couple.

 

2008movies21Shotgun Stories: Director Jeff Nichols’s debut, and as insightful a look at life in rural Arkansas as the Jennifer Lawrence-starring Winter’s Bone two years later.

 

2008movies22Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller has been able to do pretty much anything he wants to do in his career up to this point, so I’m glad he decided to make a war-movie parody that actually works.

 

2008movies23Trouble the WaterNew Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts filmed Katrina from within the Ninth Ward, and it became this extraordinary document of how the devastation was set up to happen before the storm ever arrived.

 

2008movies24The Visitor: A little white-saviory, but star Richard Jenkins is too empathetic an audience proxy to dismiss the movie outright.

 

2008movies25The Wrestler: Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swanmother!) is usually more adventurous than this simple story of a pro-wrestler (Mickey Rourke) down on his luck, but it’s very effective thanks to its great cast, which also includes Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter and Marisa Tomei as a stripper that loves him and all his scars.

Future Top Tens

2010

The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Inception
127 Hours
Tangled
Winter’s Bone
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Secret in Their Eyes
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2013

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips
The World’s End
Short Term 12
American Hustle
The Past

2014

Selma
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Whiplash
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Boyhood
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ida
Snowpiercer
Blue Ruin

The Complexities of BLACKKKLANSMAN

The Complexities of BLACKKKLANSMAN

Walking down the hallway a few weeks back in an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, my friend and I were flanked by a hall-length row of posters featuring a man in a white hood with his fist raised. At first glance, this was an eerie image, especially duplicated again and again the full distance of the hallway. Looking at the posters again, you can see an afro pick in his hand and the black skin on the fingers of the fist. Less threatening to race traitors like us, but no less provocative: a reminder that we were about to see a Spike Lee movie.

If you peruse Spike Lee’s filmography, you’ll be taken aback by how long it has been since he made a truly relevant work of fiction. Chi-Raq came close, but it was a thematic mess, and audiences, critics, and awards alike ignored it. 2006’s Inside Man was relatively popular, but that’s light fare for Lee. He Got Game, 20 years ago, is the last time that his stories held any weight in the culture, and that was largely only because Jesus Shuttlesworth is a genius name to call a fictional basketball player. Lee certainly hasn’t been in any awards conversations since six years before that with Malcolm X. It’s been 26 years since anything he has made has resonated into Oscar season.

But he’s a respected filmmaker who always has something to say, and BlacKkKlansman is his biggest hit since Inside Man, so it’s worth paying attention. The movie tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American cop who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs in the 1970s by code-switching to a “white” voice on the phone with the chapter’s leaders. He uses his real name, which is nuts, and a white man on the force with him (Adam Driver) goes undercover as a part of the investigation, leading to some tense scenes of distrust, since they suspect Driver’s character, Flip, of being Jewish.

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Remarkably, Lee stayed pretty true to Stallworth’s memoir. The character of Patrice (Laura Harrier, quietly stealing all of her scenes with Washington), the president of the local Black Student Union, is a mostly fabricated character who functions as a romantic interest for Stallworth, but is also the driving force of the protest-minded black community in the town. Indeed, most of the movie’s interesting ideas come from Ron’s and Patrice’s mini-debates on a range of topics including the offensiveness of Blaxploitation films to if a black cop can help the cause from the inside.

Similarly, Adam Driver’s character, Flip Zimmerman, is an amalgam of a couple of different cops that went undercover in the KKK as part of Stallworth’s team. In the movie, he’s of Jewish ancestry, though he isn’t practicing and always thought of himself as white. This part is not in the memoir, yet Lee milks this idea for some of the movie’s most interesting conversations, with Stallworth accusing him of passing as white to motivate him to care more about their undercover case. Driver gives an understated performance, and his relationship with Washington’s Stallworth is the fulcrum of the movie.

Recently, Boots Riley, director of indie hit Sorry to Bother You, spoke out against BlacKkKlansman, claiming that Stallworth, as a cop and someone who has gone undercover in Black Power organizations, is the enemy. Riley also called out Lee specifically for making a movie about a black cop that portrays the police as part of the fight against racism, rather than a part of the system that sustains racism. His note is more nuanced than what I’m able to convey in a paragraph, but he is upset at what he sees as the political motivations to portray a cop as a hero against racial violence.

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Another criticism I’ve seen of BlacKkKlansman is that it lets white people off the hook. Sure, the villains are the Ku Klux Klan and as stereotypically white trash as you could imagine. My favorite critic, Alissa Wilkinson, argues that the movie puts too much of its villainy in characters that feel like caricatures of racism rather than anything resembling real life, so that no one in the audience can identify the racism they see on screen with the racism in their own minds. The movie ends with a montage of Donald Trump’s racist commentary with footage from the protests and counterprotests from Charlottesville last year. Wilkinson argues that the inclusion of this footage isn’t supported by the movie itself, because the story itself invites us to laugh at the KKK instead of challenging us to look at ourselves.

Both of these arguments are compelling, and I really wrestled with both of them, because I loved BlacKkKlansman. Upon first viewing it, I found it exhilarating, as well as masterfully directed and edited. After reading these arguments, I wondered if I wasn’t coming at the movie from my white liberal perspective, and if that’s why I liked it. Self-awareness is always a good thing, and it’s very possible that I lacked it while watching BlacKkKlansman. I’d hate to have liked the movie mostly because I felt good about not being one of those white people.

But I don’t think that’s what happened. Watching the scenes featuring the Klan and its members directly, I didn’t feel pride at not being one of them, I felt disgust to be a part of a world that allows this. I agree with Wilkinson that Lee’s broad strokes in painting them could lead to some white liberal self-righteousness, but I’m not sure it’s Lee’s job to craft his movie around this possibility. He clearly wanted to paint the Klan as cartoonishly evil, which would be appropriate if your goal was to draw some clear lines around what evil is.

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Those clear lines help Lee to introduce nuance elsewhere. Sure, as Riley points out, white cops get to join Stallworth in being heroes against racism, and that’s decidedly not the story we see playing out day after day in the news. I could get behind Riley’s argument if it was merely claiming that now is not the time for a movie about racism with cops as the heroes. That makes sense to me. But I found more nuance in the cop scenes. Driver’s Jewish cop, while among the white cops who we are likely supposed to identify with, doesn’t have as much skin in the game as Stallworth, and there is an effective scene in which Zimmerman has to come to terms with the fact that he has passed as white (really, non-Jewish) his whole life.

And there are too many amazing scenes lifting up Black Power and black beauty or lamenting black oppression by the establishment to assume that Lee means for the cops to be the heroes. Lee has been uncharacteristically quiet in response to Riley’s criticism, only saying that “black people are not a monolith.” I wonder if this is because he wants the film to speak for itself. Some scenes he could submit in response: when Kwame Ture (f.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) speaks at a Black Student Union rally, Lee superimposes black faces over the screen while Ture extols the virtues of black beauty; when Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte as an elder activist, fittingly) tells the story of Jesse Washington’s lynching, Lee juxtaposes it with the Klan’s initiation and a screening of the worst movie of all time, The Birth of a Nation; when Stallworth is about to apprehend the Klan member planting a bomb, two cops interrupt him and handcuff him on the ground, setting up the potential for disaster.

There are some scenes you could quibble with Lee on if he’s assigning too much credit to the police, such as one at the end in which they entrap a racist cop in a bar. This scene played as cathartic, and I could see why Riley or other critics would be frustrated by the laughter of the cops in this scene, as if they just beat racism. Another near the end, in which Stallworth finally reveals his race over the phone to David Duke, who is left speechless, is also played for laughs.

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But Lee then ends his movie with two scenes that negate the catharsis you’ve just felt, and there’s no way this wasn’t intentional. The final scene is a montage of the scenes from Charlottesville last year cut with Donald Trump’s racist remarks. It’s as chilling as it is angering to see the movie’s clear evil so prevalent in the news of today. The montage is effective, but it’s the scene right before it that contains the movie’s core.

Patrice and Ron are sitting in her house, and Patrice is telling Ron that she can’t see him anymore, because she can’t be with a cop. There’s a knock at the door along with some suspicious noises. Lee cuts to an image (the one at the top of this post, natch) of both Patrice and Ron standing side by side, guns pointed at the door. Lee slides the hall backward around them while they stand still, then cuts to the door opening to a cross burning in the distance. Then he begins the Charlottesville montage.

This scene is the clearest rebuke to the movie’s criticism. It implies that whatever the cops did that appeared to have worked was ineffective. After the two scenes of catharsis, the message here is clear: nothing was solved, nothing was ended, nothing is over. I didn’t feel good about myself as a “good” white person after BlacKkKlansman, nor did I come out of it feeling as if the white cops were heroes. My friend who I saw it with turned to me and said, “Everyone needs to see this movie.” I was till processing, so I didn’t respond. But my thought as I walked back past the hooded figures on those posters in the Alamo Drafthouse: “There is so much work left to do.”

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Looking back over my picks for the best albums of 2008, I’m struck by the lack of wild-card picks. If you look back over my top tens after 2008, there’s usually one or two albums from artists that most people aren’t paying attention to (i.e. The Olive Tree in 2012 or Liz Vice in 2014). But in 2008, these albums line up pretty well with either the best-selling albums or the most critically acclaimed. I’m not sure what the root of that is- whether it’s because those albums are usually the ones that grow in stature over the years or if it’s just a coincidence or if I was brainwashed as a 19-year-old to like what everyone else liked. Who knows?

There are several high-profile albums that I didn’t make the list though. I’ve never enjoyed I Am…Sasha Fierce that much. There are a bunch of great singles on that album that don’t coalesce into much when collected together, a problem that Beyoncé has not had since. 808s & Heartbreak is a sleeper favorite for Kanye fans, but it’s always left me cold, save a few songs. And I’ve never really understood trip-hop, so Portishead’s Third has never made much of an impression on me.

Anyway, here are my contenders:

Top Ten

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10. Coldplay, Viva la Vida: In 2008, I was becoming acutely aware of the areas in which my taste was lacking, due to not paying attention to music for almost all of my childhood. Coldplay was one of the first bands that I liked when I first downloaded Limewire and was pure of heart. Then I started to read more about music and saw that Coldplay was respected by critics, but only to a certain extent. So I was skeptical that year of Viva la Vida‘s quality, especially the lyrics, though I really enjoyed the album. I don’t care so much now; this album remains one of my favorite listens, respectability be damned.

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9. The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound: If ever there were a band engineered to fit my tastes exactly, The Gaslight Anthem is it. They play nostalgia and that Springsteen shout-singing to a perfect pitch, with a little punk-rock flavor thrown in. Over the years, they’ve leaned more heavily on pop hooks and a studio-produced sound. But on this breakthrough album, they still sound like the Platonic ideal of a bar band struggling to make it. And while I’m glad they’re successful now and have made a ton of money, I’ll always go back to the simplicity of “Great Expectations,” or the older-than-their-years yearning of “The Backseat.”

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8. Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight: It’s impossible to know what Frightened Rabbit’s legacy would be if front man Scott Hutchison hadn’t committed suicide this May. It’s barely important, of course, but this band meant a great deal to me in 2008. Back then, I was struggling with self-image a great deal, and the mangled vision of self on The Midnight Organ Fight was comforting. A line like “And vital parts fall from his system / And dissolve in the Scottish rain / But vitally, he doesn’t miss them / He’s too fucked up to care” told me it wasn’t just me that wasn’t okay. The legacy of an album could never match up to the value of a man’s life, but this album matters to me.

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7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: I remember being repulsed by this album in 2008, and lines like “I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed” or the ever-present misogyny confirm my 19-year-old instincts. But in the decade since, my threshold for repulsion has raised considerably. Whether that’s for good or ill (not sick), you’re free to judge, though I think it’s allowed me to recognize artistry even when my values aren’t in line with the content of the art. Regardless, this album is one sick piece of shit, with little care for anything but our basest desires- but it’s the most well-sculpted piece of shit of the last decade. Nothing has challenged my capacity to handle the ratio of artistry to baseness like Tha Carter III, but it’s on this list, so it clearly passed the test.

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6. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: I had already listened to much of DBT’s catalog by the time they released this magnum opus, and I was fully in love with them. Jason Isbell had already been kicked out of the band, and Shonna Tucker had yet to leave. The band would go on to miss Isbell’s songwriting, but Brighter didn’t show any signs of their songwriting declining just yet. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley contributed some of their best work, and Tucker made her first songwriting contributions to any of the band’s albums, and the three of them, with visiting keyboardist Spooner Oldham, crafted their most stripped-down album to date. There’s a purity in the backwoods country on Brighter that DBT has yet to match, but at least we got 19 songs and 75 minutes of it.

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5. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago: I’ve already extolled the virtues of “Skinny Love” on this blog, so I’ll try to rehash what I wrote about that song. Nothing else on For Emma really compares to the searing power of “Skinny Love,” but as a debut album, it’s incredible how fully formed Bon Iver’s sound was from the start. Justin Vernon’s recording story is almost more legendary than the album at this point. His band had just broken up, so he retreated to a cabin, and For Emma was the album that resulted. Of course, the next record sounded very little like this one, a habit that Vernon has continued indulging with each album since, but we’ll always have this perfect slice of melancholy.

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4. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend2008 was a simpler time, and look no further than Vampire Weekend for your proof. If their debut had been released in 2018, cries of cultural appropriation and colonialism would have been far louder, and they may have drowned out the beautiful simplicity of this record. Please don’t hear me dismissing those cries as illegitimate- they are not, and Vampire Weekend should be held accountable for their often cavalier approach to naming and sharing their influences. But while their messaging has often been poor, their borrowing from Congolese soukous resulted in music both elegant and joyous. They leaned less on Afro-pop on their last two albums, but their celebration of the style on their debut remains one of the best preservations of its delights to make it big in America.

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3. TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Now here is a band with a white producer (Dave Sitek) that used Afrobeat stylings to great effect without controversy, perhaps because a white-dominated music media didn’t know what to do with African-American front men named Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The members of TV on the Radio are still mysteries, having eschewed the spotlight for artistic independence, even as their star has faded since 2008. But few stars were brighter that year; Dear Science had TV on the Radio’s best hooks and most accessible themes, confronting hope and the possibilities of freedom head-on in less of a minor-key fashion than their previous albums. To date, it is their most critically acclaimed album, and at the time was their highest-charting album by far. This was TV on the Radio’s peak, and since they were the most forward-looking band of the 2000s, maybe it was our peak as well.

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2. Taylor Swift, FearlessThere was a stretch of time in which I couldn’t listen to anything from this album. I associated it with a girlfriend, and when we broke up in 2010, it hurt too much to hear these songs. I remember getting depressed while friends were listening to it in a park in Italy while we were studying abroad for a few weeks that summer- I mean, you really shouldn’t get depressed in a park in Italy. (I understand this is pretty pathetic, but it’s also true, and I’m into sharing true things.) I tried listening to Speak Now and Red when they came out and just couldn’t do it. That break-up soured me on Taylor Swift for a long time, well after I had moved on and met my future wife.

I listen to songs from this album all the time now. I have a patient at my job who lights up when I pull up the “You Belong with Me” or “Fifteen” videos on an iPad, so I’m listening to pre-1989 T-Swift quite a bit. It’s impossible for me to see this patient smile or to think of how much these songs affected me eight years ago without deep appreciation and respect for Swift’s ability to evoke those feelings. This is why I can’t fully buy into any backlash against her: she articulates something so true about youthful dreams and desires and pain. I can understand other people being turned off by who she has become and the career she has made for herself, but I can’t shake how Fearless made me feel.

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1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: When I first heard Fleet Foxes ten years ago, I was home for the summer following my first year at college. That’s obviously a formative time of any person’s life, so it’s only natural that the music I liked felt important to who I was becoming. But hearing Fleet Foxes’ debut album was a unique experience for me, like hearing a sound I had always wanted to hear without knowing what it was before. This has happened to me two other times: once, in high school, when I heard the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for the first time, and most recently a few years ago when I heard Leon Bridges’s “Lisa Sawyer.”

The folk pop explosion that came after has reduced what Fleet Foxes was doing in 2008 to nothing more than part of a trend, even though none of the Americana or indie folk acts of the time sounded anything like them. Fleet Foxes used the tools of Americana, but not the twang, which is just a reminder that the idea of what defines “Americana” is tenuous. And indie folk bands that followed Fleet Foxes (or their contemporaries, like Band of Horses) lacked their earnest commitment to abstraction. A Fleet Foxes song doesn’t fit into a genre, nor does it make more logical sense the longer you listen to it, but it sure sticks with you.

So much of this album is tied up in my experience of 2008, which was a year in which I fell in love with a girl and found my footing at my university, but was also a year in which I felt like I was going to fall apart at any second. I hesitate to say that I was suffering from depression or anxiety, because I want to take those struggles seriously, but what do you call it when you’re constantly feeling like shit about yourself without reason?

Whatever was wrong with me, Fleet Foxes was both a comfort and a hope. Songs like “Oliver James” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” comforted me with familial love, and songs like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” gave me hope in their darkness. The darkness was hopeful for me, because, in a twisted way, I was beginning to understand that darkness was okay. Fleet Foxes was an affirmation of my need for it to be okay that I wasn’t okay. It was among the first in a large collection of art that has helped me process this world, and it may have been the most crucial.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

2008albums11Ben Rector, Songs That Duke Wrote: Rector seems like he’s getting big, so I can truly say I loved him with this album before he was popular.

 

2008albums12Blitzen Trapper, Furr: Blitzen Trapper were an enigma to me in 2008, mixing genres from track to track on a captivating album.

 

2008albums13Downhere, Ending Is Beginning: This Canadian four-piece took the best elements from CCM (Christian contemporary music, for the majority that didn’t grow up on the genre) to tackle the tension between doubt and conviction on album after album, and Ending Is Beginning may be their best.

 

2008albums14Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War): I listened to this in 2008 and didn’t enjoy it much, but with new ears, it sounds like the present and the future meeting, and I’m about it now.

 

2008albums15Girl Talk, Feed the Animals: Absolutely ridiculous mash-up album, and I love every second of it.

 

2008albums16The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Less epic than 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, but it has plenty of hooks and riffs to please your inner hoodrat.

 

2008albums17Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song: Before Chris Stapleton, there was Jamey Johnson, except without the CMAs or Justin Timberlake and with a knack for story songs, especially on That Lonesome Song, which sounds more and more timeless as time goes on.

 

2008albums18Jimmy Needham, Not Without Love: Needham was still finding his voice at this point, and he leaned more into extra production on this album than on his 2006 debut, Speak, but the level of the songwriting from front to back is still astounding.

 

2008albums19John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom: The “Jack and Diane” guy still sounds good after all these years, mastering the truth-telling of folk music the same way he mastered hooks in his ’80s heyday.

 

2008albums20Jon Foreman, Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer: Fronting Switchfoot for a decade could make one cynical, but this collection of EPs reveals a man who knows what’s important in life and only needs spare production to tell us about it.

 

2008albums21Josh Garrels, Jacaranda: Not sure what I was expecting when I went back to listen to Jacaranda, having only listened to everything since his 2011 breakout, Love & War & the Sea In Between, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a sound so fully formed and confident, or an album even more beautiful than his breakout.

 

2008albums22M83, Saturdays = YouthThis is what I wish every My Bloody Valentine album sounded like, with a firm grasp on hooks without sacrificing any of the dream-pop atmosphere.

 

2008albums23MGMT, Oracular Spectacular: Technically, this album came out in 2007, but its singles give it its entire weight, and those didn’t explode till 2008, so I’m putting it here, sue me.

 

2008albums24The Michael Gungor Band, Ancient Skies: Before Gungor was Gungor, they relied more heavily on worship songs, but they’re some of the best-written worship songs you’ll hear.

 

2008albums25Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: Famous for being the lead singer in Tony! Toni! Toné! and for being a prolific R&B producer (D’Angelo, TLC, Mary J. Blige), The Way I See It was the album where he made us sit up and pay attention to his skill as a solo act.

Future Top Tens

2010

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt

2011

Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele, 21
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé, 4
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything

2012

Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae, Gravity
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city

2013

Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2014

John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord