Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2017

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2017

For some reason this took me forever this year. I’ve had the list made for months, I just got to writing other things. Oh well.

Top Ten

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10. Lady Bird: Around Oscar time earlier this year, some of my friends commented that they didn’t quite understand why Lady Bird was in the Best Picture race; they liked the movie a lot, but something about it didn’t strike them as a Best Picture kind of movie. I’m inclined to agree with them, but I think this kind of coming-of-age movie, when done right, really appeals to artists. Lady Bird sees herself as wholly unique from everyone around here, and what artist doesn’t feel the same? The screenplay and performances are directed into such a perfect imitation of life that her experience of being humbled as she starts her life is all too relatable.

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9. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Yorgos Lanthimos (this year’s contender The Favourite) made one of my favorite movies from 2016, The Lobster, but where The Lobster is unsettling in its weirdness, Sacred Deer is unsettling in its terror. Colin Farrell stars as Steven, a surgeon who is faced with an impossible decision given to him by a strangely powered young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan): he must kill one of his family members or all of them will die. Lanthimos never explains how Martin is able to inflict the debilitating, paralyzing disease on Anna (Nicole Kidman), Steven’s wife, and their kids, or how he might be able to cure them if Steven follows through with Martin’s demands, but that’s the beauty of Sacred Deer. Nothing is explained, so the unsettling nature of the stark filmmaking is allowed to take on a life of its own.

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8. Star Wars: The Last JediLost among the Neanderthal frustrations some people had with the more diverse cast and some misinterpretations of Luke as a character were genuine critiques that made a lot of sense: the jokes didn’t feel like they fit organically with the tone of the other Star Wars films, there are some storylines that feel unnecessary, and, oh yeah, Leia can fly through space without dying now? I heard those criticisms many times over the last year, and I do think they’re good, valid points of contention. I just don’t care. I loved The Last Jedi so much for its balance of theme and action, for the way it turns the entire franchise on its head, for the almost balletic action sequences – it’s not perfect, but to me, it’s damn close.

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7. The Shape of Water: I’ve already written extensively about Sally Hawkins’s performance in this wonderful little fable of a movie, and how her mute performance speaks for all those people who cannot speak for themselves, so I’ll try not to rehash that entry here. Instead, I want to take a moment to appreciate how unlikely this movie is. Somehow, a fantasy movie that couldn’t be more in-your-face with its own weirdness, a movie that became known as the “fish sex” movie, ended up winning Best Picture. It’s a testament to how well the film works on multiple levels: as a fairy tale, as subtext, and as a big-picture allegory.

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6. After the Storm: My enjoyment of After the Storm, a small Japanese movie made by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, also brilliant), is probably reflective of why The Last Jedi works so well for me: it doesn’t bother me when a plot doesn’t have a definite purpose. If it troubles you when a plot meanders, then After the Storm won’t be for you. But if you think it sounds constructive to sit through a movie that is basically a mostly uneventful day in the life of a failed writer and his family, a snapshot of his life, then find this movie however you can. I found it at my library, and I’m better for it.

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5. A Ghost Story: If you think The Shape of Water is weird, A Ghost Story may be a bit too much for you. I’m having a hard time coming up with comparisons for the story that A Ghost Story tells, which focuses on a ghost (played by Casey Affleck, with a sheet over his head) watching the life of his wife (Rooney Mara) play out without him until she moves out of their house, and then things get weird. The closest analogs I can come up with are Malick’s The Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey, movies with an epic scope and epic themes. Director David Lowery went from making the great, family-friendly Pete’s Dragon with Disney to making this oddity, and I hope he keeps balancing out his more straightforward movies with bold ones like this.

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4. DunkirkI had friends last year who were left cold by Dunkirk, saying the movie never quite lets you get to know its characters enough to involve you in the story. It’s a fair criticism, to be sure, and Dunkirk may be the most your-mileage-will-vary movie of last year. But for me, Dunkirk eschews a lot of the clichés that run rampant through war movies by pulling back from the soldiers and looking at the big picture. The story of Dunkirk isn’t one that could be told by isolating your focus onto a single group of soldiers with different personality traits; there were too many moving parts, which makes it the perfect story for the master of storytelling-via-editing, Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk is a story about heroism and the way men either fail to live into it or rise to the occasion. Obviously it’s the selflessness of the English citizens that gives this movie its soul, but Tom Hardy’s pilot, knowing there is no way he comes out of this without being killed or captured and choosing to spare the soldiers a little more time anyway, is the movie’s heart.

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3. The Florida ProjectIndie filmmaking at its best, the kind of filmmaking that isn’t hampered by obligations to studio interests, is the most exciting kind of filmmaking. While you may be acutely aware of the effects a lower budget has on a movie (fewer locations, amateur actors), you can still get lost in a well-presented story. And the upside is, literally anything could happen. Which is exactly what happens in The Florida Project, the second release from director Sean Baker to receive major attention after 2015’s Tangerine. You think you’re following a pretty straight-forward (if exceptionally acted by Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and breakout Brooklynn Prince, seen above mischievously licking her ice cream) story about a down-on-her-luck mom and her daughter at a motel in Orlando. But in the very last scene, Baker takes the camera down a rabbit hole I never expected, leaving me both broken-hearted and full of joy.

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2. Get Out: I thought I had put Get Out a little lower on my tentative Top Ten list at the end of last year, but it’s actually at the same spot. What changed is that Dunkirk dropped a little bit past Get Out while Get Out remained as close to the top as you can get without actually being at the top. But the fact that Get Out is still at No. 2 doesn’t reflect how my estimation of the movie’s quality has changed. I’ve seen more movies since I made that list; there are six movies on that one that dropped out of the Top Ten and into the honorable mentions below, replaced by movies I hadn’t seen yet, but Get Out remained at the top, because my appreciation for it increased after seeing it for a second time. After seeing it in theaters, I was unsure if it was a sharp, smart horror movie or a transcendent, historically great movie. Seeing it again around Christmas last year, I became convinced: it’s both.

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1. Call Me by Your NameComing-of-age movies can be hard to resist. If any part of you sees any part of your childhood on screen, the nostalgia factor can lock that movie into a certain status in your brain and throw away the key. I had this experience with 2009’s Adventureland– not that I worked at an amusement park, but that I had a crappy summer job before college, and I remembered the aimless restlessness of that few months before leaving. Adventureland may not have been as good as I remember; I may have been drawn in because I saw enough of my own story in its story.

There’s a danger of that happening with Call Me by Your Name as well. Not that I spent much of my life in Italy (I’ve been once though! It’s as beautiful as it looks in this movie.) or that I had a fling with my father’s older graduate assistant. But I see myself in Elio’s insecurity, his shame, and his desire to be special. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think all of that is up there on the screen. I wrote a little about this when I put Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio as No. 2 in the Top Performances from last year. He captures the in-between of your late teens so well, which is crucial to a coming-of-age story.

But Call Me by Your Name goes a little farther than most coming-of-age movies in its scope. The bare bones of the story fit into the genre, but its themes are more ambitious. Elio, 17, falls in a sort of love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24. Call Me by Your Name, in its luscious cinematography and languid screenplay, revels in the time that Elio and Oliver have together in which they just enjoy each other. But it also deals honestly with the decision any couple has to make: what does this relationship actually mean for my life?

I’ve had friends express concerns over pederasty and the power dynamic therein; while such concerns are valid on their surface, the movie doesn’t reveal any problematic abuses of Oliver’s power as an older man. Indeed, I think the situation in the movie is far more complex than such concerns credit it as. The movie isn’t so much “age ain’t nothing but a number;” rather, their ages do matter, but they’re both discovering who they are, and the conclusion they come to at the end of the movie says more about who they are than their ages.

I feel as though some of my Christian friends have let these concerns over pederasty (or even just homosexuality) keep them from seeing this movie. Everyone is entitled to well-considered convictions, so I would never say everyone should see any movie. I only hope that such concerns are truly well-considered and not simply the result of not wanting to be challenged. Call Me by Your Name is a technical marvel, beautiful by any standard. It’s also wonderfully empathetic and sees right through its characters. It could help you see right through yourself as well, if you let it.

Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

Baby DriverThe best music video of the year.

The Big SickThe best romantic comedy of the year.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2The best Marvel movie of the year not named Logan. In all seriousness, as clever as the first with nearly as much heart and a tad more nuance.

ItThe best horror movie of the year, because Get Out isn’t a horror movie.

John Wick: Chapter 2: The best action movie of 1999.

Logan: The best Marvel movie of the year not named Thor: Ragnarok. In all seriousness, a great example of how genre enhances themes.

The Lost City of ZThe best movie of 1949, and truly the most beautiful-looking movie of the year that wasn’t set in Italy.

mother!The most biblical movie of the year. I realize that’s not saying much. But really, mother! is an experience.

MudboundThe best Netflix movie of the year- as good as any released in cinemas, to be sure.

OkjaThe best Netflix movie of the- damn it, I used that one already, didn’t I? The best movie with a super pig in it, not including Casey Affleck.

Phantom ThreadThe Paul Thomas Anderson movie of the year that everyone praises, no one understands, and everyone will regret not putting higher on their list ten years later.

The PostThe best movie of the year that is in no ways prescient or relevant at this political moment in time, not at all, no sirree.

Thor: RagnarokThe best Marvel movie of the year not named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In all seriousness, this was the funniest movie of the year.

War for the Planet of the ApesThe best movie about our inevitable future of the year.

The WorkThe best documentary of the year. Seriously, this one’s a doozy.

Past Top Tens

2016

Moonlight
The Witch

American Honey
Arrival
Jackie
Green Room
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land
Everybody Wants Some!!
Hell or High Water

2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
The Look of Silence
It Follows
Creed
Ex Machina
Phoenix
The Big Short
Sicario
Spotlight

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

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

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

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December 2018’s Contenders

December 2018’s Contenders

We’ve looked at the contenders released in November, October, and before. I thought November was stacked. So much so that I said, “November is stacked.” I even italicized it! Well, December is stacked. Goodness, that one’s bold. I must mean it. At least it’s not underlined. I don’t think I could handle that.

Some interesting things have happened in the Oscar race since my last post. For one, the release date of one of November’s contenders was moved back to December (If Beale Street Could Talk) and one of December’s contenders was moved up to November (Roma). It may ultimately mean nothing. The conversation around Roma was always going to be about if Netflix could guide a movie to a Best Picture win. But If Beale Street Could Talk‘s release date change could ultimately rob it of the chance to build good word-of-mouth with audiences. We’ll see.

I left my posts as they were. I don’t bow to the whims of movie studios, and neither should you. Fight the power!

Production note: I’m only focusing on the big awards. Some of these movies and others will compete for craft awards, but there aren’t many odds out for those yet. I’ll also be covering Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and Foreign-Language Film in a future post.

01Cold War (will release on December 21st)

Long shot: Cinematography

Director Pawel Pawlikowski made one of my favorite movies of 2014 in Ida, and the cinematographer for that movie was nominated for the Oscar. While you may not have heard of Ida or Cold War, it’s important to remember that when it comes to the nominations, each individual guild is responsible. The cinematographers are far more likely to nominate something relatively obscure like this than any other branch. It’s still unlikely, but don’t be surprised if one of the simpler-looking movies (First Man or A Star Is Born) gets ousted in favor of Cold War‘s classic palette.

02Vox Lux (will release on December 7th)

Long shot: Supporting Actress

You might be asking, why is Natalie Portman on the poster for the movie if she’s a Supporting Actress. Great question. She has top billing for the movie, but she’s in less than half of it, since the first half of the movie is about her character at a younger age as she becomes a pop star. The second half is also apparently pretty dark and may be too much like Black Swan, for which she won Best Actress. I doubt this will find much traction.

03Ben Is Back (will release on December 7th)

Long shot: Actress

Apparently Julia Roberts is dynamite in this movie about the mother of an addict (Lucas Hedges) going home for Christmas Eve after a stint in rehab. The plot and themes may be too close to Beautiful Boy to generate enough attention. Julia Roberts has been making some interesting choices lately; she’ll be nominated for an Oscar again soon, just not for this.

04Destroyer (will release on December 25th)

Long shot: Actress

The poster and promotional images for this indie thriller annoy me, because they show the most disheveled Nicole Kidman, and it feels very much like the cliché of the actress “uglying” herself up to play a normal human being and get lauded for it. I have nothing against Kidman, who, like Julia Roberts, has been making very interesting career choices about who she works with, and will be nominated again. But did they have to go so overboard with what she looks like? We can still tell it’s Nicole Kidman, guys.

Anyway, the movie looks awesome, she won’t get nominated, the field is too crowded, A for effort.

05Mary Queen of Scots (will release on December 7th)

Long shots: Actress, Supporting Actress

When the trailer for this was released in July, this looked like a shoo-in for nominations for its two stars. Now it’s screened at the last major festival of the season (AFI Fest at the beginning of November) and the performance everyone is raving about is neither of theirs. A period piece like this with two actresses playing royalty? If they’re not getting nominated, it’s probably because the movie isn’t good enough to get them the required buzz.

06Mary Poppins Returns (will release on December 19th)

Long shots: Picture, Actress

Emily Blunt’s was the performance everyone was raving about after AFI Fest. In some ways, it’s not surprising; Julie Andrews won her only Oscar in 1965 for playing the title role in the original. But Disney’s recent live-action forays into its classic catalog haven’t garnered a ton of Oscar love yet, and sequels historically don’t do well with the Academy. She’s still a long shot, as is the movie in general, but don’t be surprised if love for her and the character gets her in.

08Vice (will release on December 25th)

Likely nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay

Long shot: Director

Adam McKay’s last movie was The Big Short, but the three movies he directed before that were Anchorman 2The Other Guys, and Step Brothers. McKay shouldn’t be here, but here he is. The directing field is too full, though it wouldn’t be crazy to see him sneak in over Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk).

As for the movie, this was the other film besides Mary Poppins Returns making waves at AFI Fest, albeit the more expected one. Christian Bale looks and sounds so much like Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell’s Dubya impression is spot on, and Amy Adams is nominated for everything she does (except for Arrival, which may have been her best work, so of course). This seems like the kind of movie that is destined to garner a lot of nominations and win nothing. It’s best best is Bale. It will be him versus Bradley Cooper, and one of them doesn’t have an Oscar yet. My money would be on Cooper, but I’ll wait till I see the movie before placing my bet.*

07Roma (will release on Netflix December 14th)

Likely nominations: Picture, Actress, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography

Long shot: Supporting Actress

The buzz for Roma is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. By all measures, this movie should fall flat on its face: it’s Spanish-language, its story has no hook, it’s in black and white. But it’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who you’ll remember won Best Director for Gravity in 2014. He also directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so you’ll be forgiven if this seems like a left turn out of nowhere for him. But he’s also famous for the Mexican indie Y Tu Mamá También and for the lovely, small children’s film A Little Princess, which J.K. Rowling has called one of her favorite movies and is likely why he got the job on Azkaban.

Anyway, it would be easy to dismiss all the hype surrounding Roma as part of the Academy’s inexplicable fascination with the Three Amigos, the group of friends from Mexico who have all won Directing Oscars, including Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Guillermo Del Toro. I say inexplicable not because I don’t like them (I do), but because three Mexican directors dominating the Academy Awards over the last decade is one of the least predictable phenomena in film history. But for some reason, the Oscars have decided their movies reflect the Academy’s tastes. I, for one, am here for it.

But I don’t think it’s the Three Amigos effect garnering all the praise for Roma. People are in love with this movie, calling it unlike anything they’ve ever seen. This is from usually even-keeled, level-headed critics that I follow who are convinced this movie is going to win Best Picture, which is such an outlandish prediction that I have to take it seriously. Something about Roma must be irresistible. I’m skeptical that enough voters will see it; too many voters will be turned off by the subtitles and the black-and-white. It’ll win for Foreign Language Film without a doubt, but I don’t know about anything else.

However, as I wrote this post, it jumped up in the odds on Gold Derby in all categories. This included Yalitza Aparicio, whom no one has ever heard of before, supplanting Viola Davis in the last spot for Best Actress. The buzz is for real, so doubt Roma at your own peril.

*I won’t actually be placing any bets. I don’t know where I would place a bet. How does one bet? What is betting?

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Albums of 2017

Top Ten

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10. Lorde, Melodrama: There used to be a tendency among critics not to take pop music seriously, dismissing it as frivolous and trivial. The norm now is to equate pop music with the seriousness of any other genre, though sometimes publications go a little too far, anointing any catchy song as a pop “gem,” or any high-profile pop album as “good.” Lorde’s Melodrama deserves its own special designation. Written and recorded at the end of Lorde’s teen years, this is an album for adults, danceable but daring, dramatic but universally so. If it’s a “gem,” it’s a hard-edged one; if it’s “good,” it’s because it sets the bar for pop music.

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9. Joan Shelley, Joan ShelleyShelley’s brand of folk music has always been minimalist. She herself said of this self-titled album that it was “an exercise in understatement,” which feels like an understatement. If that sounds boring, let me assure you that Shelley has an ear for the kinds of melodies that seep into the crevasses of your brain and remain their forever. She enlisted the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for this album, but he keeps things spare- just the way Shelley likes it. Indeed, the only thing to distinguish this album from the rest of her sterling catalog is that literally every song feels essential.

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8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Consistency can be a boring thing to write about, and there’s no one who has been so consistent over the course of his career as Jason Isbell. From his elevation of an already great band in the Drive-By Truckers to his solo career starting in 2013 after he found sobriety, everything Isbell has touched has turned to gold. The Nashville Sound finds him rejoining his post-DBT band for a more robust record. Southeastern and Something More Than Free were intimate, personal. The Nashville Sound gives its full-bodied sound more panoramic subject matter, tackling racism, tribalism, and mental health.

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7. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: At first glance, The War on Drugs may appear to have the same consistency as Isbell. They certainly have been consistently good, but A Deeper Understanding is something profoundly different for them. 2014’s Lost in the Dream was anthemic, engineered to give you catharsis or release at each song’s climax. It was one of my favorite albums of the year, and in that respect, A Deeper Understanding is no different. But its effect on me has been unique, sweeping me up in its epic scope and its measured introspection, which is a wholly different experience, but no less great.

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6. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: The album that came after 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was bound to be disappointing, because that record was one of a kind, a generational masterpiece of its genre, or any genre for that matter. And while I liked DAMN when I first heard it, I couldn’t quite give it the same devotion I gave TPAB, but time has told a different story about Kendrick’s deeply intimate diary of dread, dreams, and desire. If I first listened to it in TPAB‘s shadow, DAMN casts its own shadow now, firmly establishing Kendrick in his own damn tier as a musician. Don’t let the fact that there are five albums ahead of his on this list; the margins are small, and it’s only personal preference. Kendrick is king, top ten lists be damned.

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5. Father John Misty, Pure ComedyAt one point during 2017, I would have Pure Comedy at the top of this list, and it wouldn’t have been close. Josh Tillman sings the way that I think, which is definitely not pretentious on my part and may in fact be an insult to Tillman. Indeed, Tillman is pretentious, cynical, and self-righteous, but also intuitive, empathetic, and insightful, which describes me on my worst days and my best days to a T. I associated with this album to such a high degree that I think it eventually wore me down to where I appreciated its artfulness less. I still think it’s a masterpiece (I put it at No. 5 for a reason!), but it’s not my favorite masterpiece on the list anymore.

If there’s one quality I don’t share with Tillman, it’s hopefulness, and this is not a hopeful record. That said, it is a truthful one, especially on album standouts “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which dissect worldviews until there’s nothing left. Pure Comedy is intense, so steel yourself before you give it a listen.

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4. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The NavigatorI was a theater kid through middle school and high school, appearing in plays as varied as Fiddler on the Roof and Grease at school and in a junior company in Dallas. I loved acting and performing, and I still miss it. The Navigator moved the theater kid in me.

While Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous album, Small Town Heroes, was a folk album that leaned hard into Creole and swamp influences, The Navigator plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical. Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, split the album into two acts, making it into a loose concept album. In the first act, the Puerto Rican main character survives on the streets (“Living in the City”) and discovers a toughness within herself (“Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”). In the second act, she awakens to find everything stripped away from her people (“Rican Beach”) and calls them to action in response to oppression (“Pa’lante”), completing a work of art that empowers the downtrodden, the used- indeed, the riff raff.

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3. Propaganda, CrookedNo artist has made music that challenges my perspective as deeply as Propaganda. His first solo album with his current label, Humble Beast, included a song called “Precious Puritans,” which called out evangelicals who deify American Calvinist forefathers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, without ever confronting the fact that they owned slaves. I had to wrestle with this, and that was good for my soul.

Prop has always been unafraid to address social ills in his music, and Crooked takes this to a new level. There are songs called “Gentrify” and “Darkie,” and they’re as unabashed as they sound. For most of its recent popularity, Christian rap has largely kept its lyrical content to biblical truths that are easy to swallow for most evangelicals regardless of race. That’s beginning to change, thanks to Prop and other artists like Sho Baraka, and Crooked is the most recent record that serves as an example for rebuke, and the best.

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2. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom HighwayOver the last few years, purely by coincidence, I’ve read a lot of books that deal directly with the wounds left on the African-American psyche by America’s history of slavery and racism. It started with Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was still in college, but then more recently I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. In all of these stories, slavery is presented in its unvarnished brutality, forcing a reckoning in my soul on the soil American is rooted in.

Freedom Highway feels like a continuation of the story those books tell of America’s scars and their wicked origins. Giddens, who has long been a leader in the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, released her first solo album in 2015 with producer T Bone Burnett. They were well matched to fill out the album, which was mostly covers, with a rootsy vibe. Freedom Highway is more attuned to Giddens’s personal perspective; nine of the twelve songs are co-written by her, and they traverse the history of Southern America. Opener “At the Purchaser’s Option” contemplates that the singer, a slave, has no autonomy over her children, her sexuality, or her work. This helplessness is translated into a quiet anger on “Julie,” in which a slave confronts her owner, who claims to love her, for selling her children to another owner. And the heaviest and most hopeful song, “Birmingham Sunday,” a Joan Baez cover, details the 1963 bombing of a black church by the Ku Klux Klan and its aftermath.

Growing up white and privileged, my understanding of America’s foundation was unknowingly colored by my color. America’s principles of liberty, independence, and unity seemed natural and sewn into the fabric of our culture, when the reality is that they’re fragile and tenuous and far from pure. On Freedom Highway, Giddens joins a long history of uncovering this truth and inspiring hope for a better future.

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1. Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness: There are more important things than relevance in pop art, but it undeniably matters. If an album moves me, but no one else I know has ever even heard of it, how much import can that album really hold? Does a movie matter if no one saw it but one person who loved it?

Gang of Youths forces me to ask this question, because there was no place I could put their second album on this list other than the very top. This album is the one that has stayed on repeat more than any other, the one that shot up to the top of my to-buy list as soon as I heard it, the one that I found myself thinking about long after I had turned it off to head to bed. If Father John Misty sings the way I think, Gang of Youths sings the way I feel. It’s bombastic, dramatic, and emotional from front to back; frontman Dave Le’aupepe doesn’t take breaks.

But the intensity isn’t for its own sake; Le’aupepe and his band, whom he met at Hillsong Church in Sydney, are processing real questions of mortality and purpose. Opener “Fear and Trembling” advocates for celebration and worship in the face of aging and death. The ballad “Persevere” is about the death of his best friend’s baby. Le’aupepe sings, quoting his friend, “‘But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast / There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan / Not some vindictive motherfucker, not is he shitty at his job;” it’s a powerful examination of faith in light of grief. And my personal favorite, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows,” contemplates what it takes to “bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being.”

If this sounds melodramatic, that’s because Le’aupepe gets it: life is a melodrama, and you have to embrace it.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetical)

Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Drake, More Life
Future, HNDRXX
HAIM, Something to Tell You
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
JAY-Z, 4:44
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Kesha, Rainbow
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Margo Price, All American Made
The Porter’s Gate, Work Songs: The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, Vol. 1
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
Taylor Swift, reputation

Past Top Tens

2016

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Beyoncé, Lemonade
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Sho Baraka, The Narrative
Bon Iver, 22, a Million
Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.

2015

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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

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

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

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2017

Every year is a good year for music, because there is so much of it being released all the time. There are people decrying streaming and how it is flattening the playing field and making everything sound the same. These people haven’t listened to the novelty band filler in the Top 40 in the ’60s and ’70s; most music is bad, and a flattened playing field is just this generation’s thorn in its side.

But there’s so much good music out there too, music that begs to be bought and owned rather than just streamed. People haven’t forgotten how to make art, even as the masses forget how to work for it. Capitalism has never really been able to quench the youth culture. So onward, rebellious youths!

Anyway, there’s a lot of women on my list this year. I had some friends tell me recently that they prefer male artists to female artists, which I don’t understand. There’s probably no discernible reason why anyone prefers one voice to another, and I can’t discern one for why those preferences would break along gender lines among reasonable people. I can discern that I don’t suffer from that malady; women and men move me in generally equal numbers.

Anyway, here are the contenders and winners for best songs of the year:

Top Twenty

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20. Kesha, “Woman (feat. The Dap-King Horns)”: There are probably a lot of conventional reasons why this song shouldn’t be in my Top Twenty. But being conventional is boring. Empowerment has never been this fun or, as Kesha says, “loosey as a goosey.”

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19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Last of My Kind”Isbell has been on a tear since 2013’s Southeastern, and The Nashville Sound is the first time Isbell’s peak songwriting powers have been applied to the full band sound of the 400 Unit. But “Last of My Kind,” the album’s opener, eschews that sound for a more acoustic atmosphere. As light as a single guitar sounds, the song weighs heavy on your heart as Isbell considers a small-town boy’s disappearing world in the big city.

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18. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”: It’s impossible to remove the visuals from the music video from mind when listening to this song, but that doesn’t diminish its effect in the slightest. If there was any song from DAMN. that hit as hard as anything from To Pimp a Butterfly, it was “HUMBLE.” You can speculate about if he’s talking to himself or not, but regardless, this is a brutal takedown that should make other rappers give up diss tracks altogether (paging Drake and Push).

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17. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: Most of reputation is filled with great hooks, some of it feels like posturing, and a select few songs feel transcendent. For better or worse, we’ve watched Taylor Swift grow up in public. “Delicate,” which takes a welcome turn into dream-pop, is Taylor Swift exploring what it means not to be growing up anymore.

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16. St. Vincent, “New York”: I learned today that St. Vincent began her career with the Polyphonic Spree. Her brand of avant-garde pop-rock was already as far from that band’s twee-ness as music can get. And yet, if it’s possible, “New York” gets even farther, with its earnest lament over a lost relationship.

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15. Gang of Youths, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”: I wasn’t sure any Gang of Youths songs would make it onto this list, since they all tend to push the same buttons in my heart when I hear them. But “The Deepest Sighs” is perhaps the golden mean of Gang of Youths songs.  It has the most earnest lyrics and the most soaring melody, and it’s the most mostest by far on an album of most.

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14. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”: And I thought this song would make it much higher on the list, given how completely it took over my brain last summer. Before she released her album this spring, I was worried that Cardi’s appeal existed only because she enunciates more than other rappers, much like Eminem is only still popular because he’s louder than other rappers. That turned out not to be the case- Cardi is a boss, not a worker bitch- but “Bodak Yellow” is the best-enunciated rap song since Eminem was last good, so 16 years ago.

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13. The War on Drugs, “In Chains”: The War on Drugs are another band like Gang of Youths whose entire catalogs could make a Top Songs list for me. But “In Chains” in particular stood out to me from A Deeper Understanding last year. Whereas frontman Adam Granduciel usually revels in the abstract nature of his lyrics, “In Chains” boasts some of the most direct exclamations we’ve gotten from him yet, leading to the band’s most purpose-filled song.

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12. Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”: If reputation felt like a misstep at the time, it became one of my most-listened-to albums of the year because of songs like this one. Even while Swift overreached for bad-girl credibility, she didn’t lose her ability to write lyrics with eminent relatability. In “New Year’s Day,” about loving through celebrations and let-downs alike, “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” is such a lyric.

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11. Propaganda, “Darkie”: Propaganda is the most interesting Christian artist working today. He isn’t the only one to attempt to reckon with social truths (look to Lecrae and Sho Baraka too, and if you’re starting to see a theme, I’d also point you to Gungor and The Brilliance), but he’s been the most consistent at elevating the conversation with excellent production and presentation of his themes. Here, he wrestles with the concept of black beauty being refracted through the lens of a white-dominated culture.

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10. Julien Baker, “Appointments”: I’m an emotional wreck when I listen to this song. Baker, who is queer and Christian and unafraid of the expectations associated with either of those identifications, reveals some truths that we are usually afraid to talk about, like “Maybe it’s all going to turn out all right / And I know that’s it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.” Faith means holding both hope and fatalism in the same hand with an eternal perspective, and “Appointments” captures that dichotomy perfectly.

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9. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”: I’ve gotten lost in this song more than once over the last year and a half. 11-minute songs are a hard sell, but The War on Drugs are so good at what they do right now that it almost seems like it was the logical next step in their careers to make an epic on this level. As I said above, Granduciel almost wallows in abstraction, but there’s specificity in these lyrics that doesn’t sacrifice relatability.

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8. Propaganda, “Gentrify”: One of the top ten songs of 2017 was about- *checks notes*- housing policy? Maybe this song is boring to other people, but I hear those horns and Prop yelling “Whole Foooods!” and I get excited. There are probably myriad academic papers on the subject of gentrification, but I find it hard to believe anyone has summed up the issue better than Prop in this searing indictment of white paternalism.

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7. Lorde, “Green Light”: Remember that time the Grammys didn’t ask Lorde to perform at the ceremony even though she was nominated for Album of the Year? Man, good times in the patriarchy. Anyway, I’d like to think that appearing on this list is a nice consolation prize for Lorde, given that “Green Light” is one of the best pop songs of the last five years, and probably the only one to reference The Great Gatsby so directly without feeling like a high school book report.

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6. Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday”: Giddens, most famous for her role in the bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a stellar songwriter in her own right; for reference, look up “At the Purchaser’s Option” from last year’s Freedom Highway, or listen to the whole album while you’re at it. But her take on this Joan Baez classic blows the original out of the water. Originally written by folk songwriter Richard Fariña about the four little girls who died in a bombing at a Birmingham church in 1963, Giddens’s version captures the tragedy in the story, but she also better harnesses the hope in the line, “And the choirs keep singing of freedom.”

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5. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”: When Trump was elected, there were weirdos whose reaction was to look forward to the good art that would result from an administration that was likely to enact oppressive policies. In the two years since, maybe music by white artists has been inordinately influenced by the election, but by and large, artists of color were already diving into music that tells the stories of the voiceless rather than the privileged, including Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, who is an American of Puerto Rican heritage. In this epic song, she expertly hoists the Puerto Rican battle cry of “Pa’lante!” to rally those considered sub-human to move onward and forward in the face of ignorant oppression.

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4. Kesha, “Praying”: Speaking of oppression, it’s hard to imagine someone following Kesha’s story over the the last few years and not being moved by “Praying.” I know some critics dismissed it as overly sentimental, or maybe allegations of rape that don’t result in felony rape convictions don’t move you to anger of any kind (which means you believe women 0.7% of the time, I suppose), but I can’t separate what I know Kesha has accused Dr. Luke of and how desperate she sounds in this song. This song is inextricably linked to the story of how Dr. Luke allegedly raped Kesha in 2008, and Kesha sued to escape her contract with his record label six years later in 2014. We will never know exactly what happened between Dr. Luke and Kesha, so we have to choose who to believe. Kesha’s accusations are neither surprising nor incredible, so I believe Kesha.

Their terrible saga began well before #MeToo reached its height and before I even knew what “blaming the victim” meant, but “Praying” dropped in July of 2017, right in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and it became an anthem of the movement, culminating in an emotional performance of the song at the Grammys. What’s amazing about “Praying” is that it’s not vindictive but redemptive, combining the need to be heard with a desire for Dr. Luke to see the truth of what he did and to beg God for forgiveness on his knees. I can’t imagine the strength it took to write it, and I’m endlessly glad that I’ve heard it.

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3. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”: This was my favorite song of 2017 for the majority of 2017 and 2018, until the top song on this list overtook it and I realized the second song on this list came out in 2017 and not 2018. It was stuck in my head for most of the last year, finding its way into my whistling or humming more than any other song. This song is infectious, contagious, an epidemic strain of perfect pop melody and earworm magic.

I’m not special for liking this song, but I like to think a lot of myself when a pop song rises to the top of one of my lists, as if liking a pop song is revolutionary. No, critics ate this song up, a first in Gomez’s career. I’m contrarian, so that made me look for reasons not to like it. But the truth is, “Bad Liar” displays a confidence and effortlessness that Gomez hadn’t shown us yet, and that confidence is inescapable once you’re exposed to it.

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2. Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”: I try to avoid hyperbole, but it’s almost impossible in these end-of-the-year superlatives. Well, here’s me trying to avoid hyperbole as much as possible: Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” might be the greatest folk song of the last 40 years. Oh man, I stepped right into hyperbole, didn’t I? Not by much though, I promise.

It’s not complicated; “The Joke” is about the marginalized, the underrepresented, and the least of these. One of my coworkers and friends said the other day to explain a decision she made, “I have a bleeding heart.” I had forgotten this phrase, but I suppose it’s the phrase you would use to describe me, because I often tear up during “The Joke.” But I guess we need a phrase like “bleeding heart” to describe people who care about other people?

I find “The Joke” not only moving but galvanizing. The verses are directed at boys and girls who are beaten down by people in power. In interviews, Carlile has specified that she’s singing to people in the queer community, undocumented immigrants, and disempowered women. Carlile shows in the verses that she sees those people and their pain. And then in the chorus, as her voice reaches its full power (and her voice has power), she gives them hope. “Let ’em laugh while they can, / Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind. / I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, / And the joke’s on them.” Carlile knows how this ends; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

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1. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not think of the movie in which it appears, Call Me by Your Name. Stay tuned for more on the movie when I post the Best Movies of 2017. It’s up there.

While we were watching the Oscars this year at our friend’s annual Oscar party, one of my friends (who is also my pastor) asked the room why, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, was Hollywood so okay with a movie in which a man in his 20s has a relationship with a 17-year-old. Now, he hadn’t seen the movie, but he wasn’t pretending he had. I also have to add, before anyone assumes anything about my friend because of his vocation, that he is a good, thoughtful pastor who engages with culture on its terms, but with a critical eye. This was not a question about the culture wars (nor a veiled attempt to discredit the movie’s focus on a relationship between two men), but an honest attempt to understand.

It’s a fair question. Anyone who has not seen the movie should be skeptical of the power dynamic involved. But I told him, and I’m telling you, that there is no such power dynamic in Call Me by Your Name. You never feel as if the older man (or the younger, for that matter) is taking advantage of the other young man or that he has any social or official authority over him in any way. There is a mutual attraction that they act upon, and it’s almost as simple as that.

But I think Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” gets underneath the idea of attraction at something deeper involved. It’s not just that they’re attracted to one another; they’re connected in some way, and there’s no way to explain it. In the movie, they don’t even try to explain it, only to process how their lives will be different now that it’s there.

Call Me by Your Name does a very good job of telling a very specific story, while “Mystery of Love” universalizes it. The wonder and misery at play in Sufjan Stevens’s lyrics are an expression of the complexity of love. Any time someone tries to give a simple explanation for what love is, it’s never enough. Sufjan combines the antithetical sentiments of “woe is me” and “will wonders ever cease” into the chorus. He sings “to see without my eyes” and “drowned in living waters,” leaning into the paradoxical nature of an unexplainable phenomenon.

Call Me by Your Name never even says the words “homosexual” or “gay,” maybe because such labels limit the nature of the love involved, constricting the experience to science or sociology. It’s our choices that are binary and categorical, not love. What “Mystery of Love” does is revel in the unknowable truth of it all, the wonder and the woe alike. Love would make a terrible god, but there’s a divine mystery there nevertheless.

Another Thirty Contenders (alphabetical)

Big Thief, “Mythological Beauty”
Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
The Brilliance, “Turning Over Tables”
Calvin Harris, “Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)”
Charli XCX, “3AM (Pull Up) (feat. MØ)”
Charli XCX, “Boys”
Chris Stapleton, “Either Way”
Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Father John Misty, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
HAIM, “Little of Your Love”
HAIM, “Want You Back”
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Living in the City”
J Balvin & Willy William, “Mi Gente (feat. Beyoncé)”
Japandroids, “In a Body Like a Grave”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “White Man’s World”
Johnnyswim, “Say Goodnight Instead”
Kehlani, “Hold Me by the Heart”
Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito [Remix] (feat. Justin Bieber)”
Margo Price, “All American Made”
Migos, “Stir Fry”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Smoke Signals”
The Porter’s Gate, “Establish the Work of Our Hands (feat. Aaron Keys & Urban Doxology)”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Highway”
Sam Outlaw, “All My Life”
Syd, “Insecurities”
Taylor Swift, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

Past Top Tens

2016

Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”
Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”
Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”
Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”
Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”
Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”
Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

2015

Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

November 2018’s Contenders

November 2018’s Contenders

We’ve already looked at the contenders released in October and before, so now it’s time for November. November is stacked. We only had four total movies in October’s post, and there are seven this month. I’ll start with the long shots and end with the most likely nominees.

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.

01At Eternity’s Gate (will release on November 16th)

Long shot: Actor

Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh in a movie by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), whose directing style doesn’t lend itself to coherent performances. However, Dafoe is a respected veteran actor, much like Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun. If anyone crashes the nomination party, it’s one of those two. And after the terrible reviews of a certain rock star biopic, it’s looking like there might be some room…

02Boy Erased (will release on November 2nd)

Long shots: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay

A movie starring Academy Award-nominated Lucas Hedges with support from the Academy Award-winning duo Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe about a conversion therapy camp seems like an obvious contender, but when it premiered at Telluride in September, it was met with a muted reception. Directed by Joel Edgerton (you may have seen the well-received The Gift…I haven’t), this was apparently being edited until right before the premiere, suggesting Edgerton just didn’t really have the footage he needed to make an emotionally complete film. If anyone gets nominated, it will be Kidman, who is just churning out great performances at an unparalleled pace.

03Bohemian Rhapsody (will release on November 2nd)

Likely nomination: Actor

Long shot: Picture

Whoooooee. The reviews for this one are…well, they’re not good. Like really not good. Like so, so not good. Freddie Mercury’s story is so rich and full of life that it seems like you’d have to give only the bare minimum of effort to make an interesting and fun movie about him. This one did have some drama though, with director Bryan Singer being fired near the end of the shoot, so maybe it was unfair to expect a great movie. If there’s any silver lining though, Rami Malek is by all accounts a must-see. In the end, it comes down to this: Mamma Mia was a huge hit on Broadway, because jukebox musicals work. The average person wants to hear these Queen songs, and I doubt they want to think that hard about who Freddie Mercury was. This will still make money and get attention, and while it probably lost any shot at a Best Picture nomination, Malek is getting in.

04Widows (will release on November 16th)

Likely nominations: Picture, Actress

Long shots: Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay

I’m so excited for this movie. Director Steve McQueen hasn’t made any movies since 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture in 2014. I was skeptical that McQueen’s spare, uncompromising style would fit a studio heist movie, but it was a crowd favorite at Toronto in September. The word is that Widows is exciting, yet still socially relevant- basically a prestige heist movie, which sounds like my jam. It would help its Best Picture chances if it was a sizable hit. And even Viola Davis isn’t a lock for Best Actress; if Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is popular enough, star Yalitza Aparicio could sneak in ahead of her. But I’m optimistic.

05Green Book (will release on November 21st)

Likely nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor

Long shot: Director

I don’t know what to make of Green Book. The trailer is inscrutable. The Driving Miss Daisy comparisons are all too easy, and usually unfavorable. Viggo Mortensen’s voice is distracting. I can’t tell if it’s trying to be funny or not. And what is Peter Farrelly (director of Dumb and Dumber, as well as the acclaimed follow-up Dumb and Dumber To) doing directing a contender? But Green Book was the winner of the People’s Choice Award in Toronto in September, and the winner of that award has gone on to be nominated for Best Picture nine out of the last ten years. So congratulations to the director of Osmosis Jones and Shallow Hal.

06If Beale Street Could Talk (will release on November 30th)

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

Long shot: Actress

This is another movie that I couldn’t be more excited about. I kind of liked Moonlight, so I was looking forward to the next thing director Barry Jenkins made. When I heard it would be based on a novel by James Baldwin, I was skeptical anyone could translate his ideas to the screen. But the trailer looks like vintage Jenkins, poetry in motion. And word out of Toronto is that it’s every bit Moonlight‘s equal. I have my doubts that it will connect with audiences. The story is relevant, speaking to the failings of the prison system, but Jenkins’s style is off-putting enough to alienate a mainstream audiences. In the end, I think Jenkins has built enough goodwill with the newly diverse Academy membership. If Beale Street may not win anything in the end (except Regina King for Supporting Actress), it’ll at least score a bunch of nominations.

07The Favourite (will release on November 23rd)

Likely nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress (2), Original Screenplay, Cinematography

It’s just as likely that you’re totally surprised that The Favourite is a favorite as that you’re not surprised in the slightest. On one hand, this is a period piece starring two Oscar-winning actresses (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) about the English monarchy, which the Academy loves: 18 actors have been nominated for playing British royals, and four of them have won. On the other hand, this is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed two of the weirder movies to get awards attention in recent memory, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

But those movies did receive awards attention, and The Lobster even garnered an Original Screenplay nomination in 2017. Apparently The Favourite tones down Lanthimos’s more stilted screenplay tendencies for a story that’s more accessible and more obviously comedic. Expect The Favourite to rack up nominations, but if it still doesn’t feel like a mainstream movie, I doubt it will win any.

A STAR IS BORN and FIRST MAN: Oldies but Goodies

A STAR IS BORN and FIRST MAN: Oldies but Goodies

One of the standout songs from the A Star Is Born was co-written by one of my favorite artists, Americana star Jason Isbell. The main line you remember from the movie is, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” The rest of the song expands on that idea of reckoning with one’s own past and with tradition itself in the name of change. Ironically, the concept of A Star Is Born is the antithesis of this idea, since it’s a remake.

The idea of “letting the old ways die” sounds good, but is ultimately empty. We see so many of the terrible effects of clinging to tradition for no reason, that we then want to throw out tradition wholesale. There has to be a better way, one that acknowledges the good in “the old ways,” but does seek better outcomes. And as far as movies go, that’s exactly what A Star Is Born does, along with its fellow Oscar contender, First Man.

A Star Is Born is a remake of a story that has already been made not one, not two, but three times by Hollywood. This is a lot, even for this age of reboots, but it makes sense when you consider the story. In every iteration, we start with a male star (in the first two movies, released in 1937 and 1954, he’s a movie star; in this version and the 1976 one, he’s a rock star) who meets a down-on-her-luck female ingénue. They fall in love, and as her star rises, his star falls, mirroring his descent into alcoholism.

A tried and true story of fame and the trials surrounding it does seem like the perfect Hollywood story, to the point where I’m surprised there aren’t more than four versions. But, sight unseen, you have to wonder if this new version would have anything new to say. Luckily, Bradley Cooper mines the history of this story for new gems.

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A remake like this has to start by aiming for quality at the very least, and everything about this movie is dripping with the care it took to craft. The music is memorable, from Isbell’s “Maybe It’s Time” to the sure Best Song contender “Shallow,” and the cinematography fills the screen with intimate close-ups. But the performances are what you come out of the movie raving about. Cooper is unsurprisingly great, though he does give us depths here that we haven’t seen from him before. Lady Gaga, however, is a revelation. I knew she was a natural pop star, but I was unsure how her talent would translate to a serious movie. Well, she runs away with the movie.

By all accounts, though, theirs was a true partnership. Cooper the director was inspired by Gaga the performer, and with their powers combined… Cooper’s direction is just as much a revelation as Gaga’s performance. If you’re looking for seams, you’ll find them; several scenes last too long, giving way to dialogue that feels improvised and not as tight as the rest of the movie. But mostly, I was left with the impression that A Star Is Born is Cooper’s singular stamp on this story. His version isn’t about jealousy the way the three before were. Instead, he has something true to say about authenticity, and about how the struggle to remain authentic when the world wants you to be false can drive a celebrity to dark places.

The director of Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino, gave an interview with Indiewire recently in which he spoke about the concept of making movies from source material:

…I don’t believe in originality in filmmaking. I think filmmaking is really a question of point of view. Cinema became all about if you wanted to become an auteur [it meant] someone writing a story. So, if you had your name written on the script, that made you an auteur, but I grew up with Hitchcock being an auteur and I think he’s never written one single script his whole entire life. Stanley Kubrick never made an original movie. He always made a movie from source, and in doing that he made some of the most strikingly personal and unique films of his generation.

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I could quibble with Guadagnino on if there is such a thing as originality in movies, but I think he’s right that making a movie from somebody else’s source material is an effective way to communicate your own perspective on a theme. This reminded me of Cooper, whose meta-desire for authenticity in his work drove him to make the fourth version of an old Hollywood story. But it also reminded me of Damien Chazelle and his new movie, First Man.

Chazelle is not the first director you think of when it comes to remakes or adaptations. Before First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong based on his biography by James R. Hansen, Chazelle wrote and directed three very original movies: La La Land, Whiplash, and the little-seen Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. First Man is his first foray into adapted screenplays. But this is without a doubt still a Damien Chazelle production. The technical wizardry we’ve come to expect from his direction is still there, but going in different directions.

Surprisingly intimate, First Man follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his rise within NASA to the moon following the death of his daughter from a brain tumor. I expected a sweeping epic along the lines of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. Indeed, I was telling people before I saw this movie that I was skeptical, because the trailer looked like every other astronaut movie we’ve already seen. But the trailers and marketing wildly mischaracterized the kind of movie I was in for.

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Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I even liked the movie immediately after it was over. First Man, for as breathtaking as some of the launch and space sequences are, is a slow-burning biopic, not a space epic. There is little flashy about the effects or the direction; rather, Chazelle goes the opposite direction with his camera spending much of its time almost inside Armstrong’s helmet or up close on shuttle parts rattling. The intent seems to be to show us the tenuous reality of sending mankind into space, especially as we see several of Armstrong’s friends and coworkers die in the process.

But mulling over the movie later, I realized how much I admired it and how much the final shot moved me. It’s difficult to make a movie about history that tries to be true to history (yes, the American flag is in the movie) while also communicating a personal theme. A clear line can be drawn through the heroes in Chazelle’s movies to Gosling’s Armstrong, and that’s obsessive commitment to a goal. Some have characterized Gosling’s performance as too muted, but I found in the perfect marriage with Chazelle’s direction. It’s their version of a space movie, one that’s clear-eyed about the costs and the heights in equal measure.

I don’t expect many people to feel the way I do about First Man. It’s far more likely that people will feel the way I do about A Star Is Born. First Man is insular, and A Star Is Born plays to the cheap seats. But they are both exemplary variations on their themes. Both are singular perspectives on an old story. Letting the old ways die helps no one; let’s instead do as Cooper and Chazelle have done, and give the old ways new life.

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.