Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)

So up until now, “Art Vs Commerce” has been more of a friendly rivalry. The Golden Age/Studio Era didn’t have the same hard line between “art movie” and “popcorn movie,” or in other words “award movie” and “movie that makes money,” like we have today.

Up until this point, the Best Pictures and Box Office Champs have been somewhat aligned. The Box Office Champ has been nominated for if not won Best Picture 35 out of 52 times*. Even more significant? The Best Picture winner was in the box office top ten for the year 44 times.

Well that’s changing. Eight Best Picture winners didn’t make the top ten box office for the years between 1928 and 1979**. Eight out of fifty-two. In the 80s, it’s five out of ten. That’s a pretty dramatic shift. And come the 2000s that’s only gonna get worse.

It’s as though Art and Commerce are like Clark Kent and Lex Luthor in the first few seasons of Smallville let me finish. [Ahem] In the first few seasons (20s-60s), they’re good friends, admittedly they have some drastically different goals, but their interests do tend to overlap. Then comes season five (the 70s/80s), and suddenly their interests are at odds, and they begin to go from friends to enemies. One starts to get bigger and more ambitious, one tries to prove they’re smarter and grows to hate anything with a cape and a secret identity.

(Am I the only one to use Smallville to describe the growing rift between Oscar movies and popcorn movies? Because I’m not sorry. Honestly I’d have used Gotham but it’s impossible to describe the relationship between any two characters on that show without a corkboard and a lot of yarn.)

And the reason why? Blockbusters. Audiences were turning out in bigger numbers for popcorn flicks, which allowed studios to spend more money on them, leading to bigger hits. And more importantly, they had no set genre. Big hits in past decades tended to focus on a genre: the 40s liked war movies, the 50s acted righteous with biblical epics, the 60s got big into musicals, and the early 70s enjoyed a disaster movie. But the thing about genres is they hit a saturation point, often because studios flood the market trying to get a piece of the new hotness, then average quality drops while quantity shoots up, a bunch fail, and the bubble bursts. The one exception seems to be the current King Genre that one studio in particular is keeping afloat, I’m sure I needn’t name either.

But blockbusters weren’t a genre, they were just a scale of movie. They could be anything. A space opera, a superhero, an archaeologist punching Nazis, a kid travelling back in time to get his father some action. Anything. They were immune to genre fatigue or changing tastes. The only thing that could kill blockbusters would be, I don’t know, a deadly global pandemic that forced all public forms of entertainment to shut down indefinitely, but the 80s had a different kind of deadly global pandemic. So there were more and more blockbusters that got bigger and bigger, and there was less and less room at the box office for the simpler, human stories the Oscars were embracing.

So this decade we have a new game: no matter how far apart in tone and content they get, what thematic link joins them? And what would the mash-up movie look like? That could be fun. ‘Cause the distances get wide.

*The 17 box office champs that didn’t get nominated include a couple of classics, but are mostly things the Academy skips: comedies, a cartoon, a superhero flick. And also, thankfully, Cinerama Holiday, This is the Army, and the entire oeuvre of Eddie goddamn Cantor.

**The eight Best Pictures audiences didn’t turn out for are Cavalcade, The Life of Emile Zola, Gentleman’s Agreement, Hamlet, All the King’s Men, On the Waterfront, Marty, and In the Heat of the Night. So… real mixed bag there.

Before we move on, I just need a moment… based on what I intend to include, I have crossed the halfway point of my watch list!

I am now in the back nine oh no I reminded myself of mortality quick more space wizards

Not counting any optional viewings I might throw in down the road. Like, say, if two movies from a particular trilogy make the list in one way or another, but the objectively best one doesn’t, I might just go ahead and rewatch the other one anyway. But what are the odds of that happening. Three times. In one decade.

Oof. Might need to move this along if I’m going to wrap this project up before the Oscars improbably happen this spring, and I have to compare/contrast Nomadland or Mank with 2020’s default box office champ… let’s see here… Bad Boys For Life? Huh.

Congrats, Hollywood, you’ve concocted a scenario where I’d be disappointed to not be watching Sonic the Hedgehog.

Anyway let’s get tubular with the 1980s!

Next Page: Ordinary Vs Extraordinary

Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

Into decade three of our deep-dive into Oscar history! And where are we spending most of the 50s, Patton Oswalt?

Big name producers started spending a lot of time on Bible stories. A lot.

A lot.

Biblical epics are all over this decade, and when they won the box office, it often wasn’t by a narrow margin. Audiences seemed to love these things so much they’d flock to one even if it wasn’t, you know… good. At all. And they tended to be so long. On the other hand, they’re the first movies I’ve seen in this project to say “You know, slavery is pretty bad,” even if they’re so laser focussed on Roman or Egyptian slavery that even I can’t tell if American audiences were supposed to think “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have done that either.”

I’m gonna warn you right up front. Audiences in the 1950s made some dumb, dumb choices at the box office. There were a lot of classic, iconic films being made in the 50s, but they kept getting passed over for trash. Hot trash, to be fair, but trash all the same. We start to see some proper musicals much more often this decade, so I may slip in some musical flair here and there, but successful or not, they ain’t all great.

Between the runtimes and the constant reminders that Jesus Was Pretty Good Actually, if any decade of this project were gonna break me… this would be it.

Meanwhile, the Academy drifted into… very bland waters. There’s weird variety in subject and tone, leading to serious tonal whiplash if you watch them all in a row, but still often bland. Yes, we often accuse the Oscars of picking movies that speak to their oddly specific preferences rather than movies of lasting influence or impact, but this decade… honestly I’m not sure what possibly could have drawn Oscar buzz to a lot of these. Sure there are three or four bangers from film history, but some of these winners…

I have a friend, or possibly a nemesis, depends on mood, who would pretend that he was finally going to watch the first season of Pennyworth, and then out of, I can only assume purest spite, instead watch the dumbest trash reality show available and text our group chat all about it*. (Flirty Dancing? Really? Come on, you are only hurting yourself, man.) In this case it’s like sometimes the Oscars said “We are not giving one of your Jesus epics a Best Picture Oscar, we will give it to literally anything else.” Why were they so set against big religious pics? Well, my main theory is they’re not very good, but most of them still managed Best Picture nominations, including the two worst/most aggressively Christian so… I don’t… I’m definitely not out to say “Jews control the film industry ” but–

Next Page: Hey there Delilah

(*In fairness we now get antsy waiting for him to share his terrible, terrible guesses about The Masked Singer.)

Art Vs Commerce: Beginnings (20s/30s)

Welcome, welcome, patrons and party people. I know it’s been a minute since I’ve done much here… well, done much that got published. I had 4000 words and change on fixing the DC movies, but I was only five movies in and hadn’t even gotten to “The Worst Reasons People Defend Zack Snyder” yet and sure we all have a surplus of time this year but come on, man, get there.

So instead… starting a big and ambitious new project.

As I’ve said at least once a year since starting this blog, the Oscars are my Superbowl, my World Cup, my Wrestlemania. I’ve watched the show nearly every year since 1987. For a decade and change, I’ve watched every best picture nominee. So I know, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they screw up all the time. They’re nervous about diversity, reward safe movies that claim to have a message, and hand out acting trophies based on who’s due rather than deserving. They have made some epic, clown-shoes, disastrously bad choices in the past 93 years… and the time has come to dig into them.

Over the next nine posts, I’m going to be discussing every best picture winner in Oscar history, from moderate-Jeopardy-question Wings to reigning champ Parasite… and if it takes too long to do this, whichever of the seven movies that made it into theatres in 2020 that wins next year. Tenet? Invisible Man? Or will they throw an Oscar at Apple+ if it means not nominating Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot for Best Picture? Who knows. Life is chaos right now, chaos and stress and tragedy, so for a minute let’s talk about movies instead.

With each post, I’ll be looking at a decade of Oscar history*, and examining each year’s Best Picture according to the Academy, and the year’s box office champion. What did the Academy choose to crown, and what did the crowds flock to, and how different were they?

Art Vs Commerce, Oscars Vs Box Office! It should be an interesting journey through film history, or a window looking into my descent into utter insanity.

Yeah, fair

I’m gonna try to watch as many of them as possible, because there are a lot of movies on the list I’ve never seen and several I feel I should… but I likely won’t get to all of them. Maybe because they’re hard to find, because streaming services aren’t here to be a history lesson, and they sell more subscriptions with Hubie Halloween than The Life of Emile Zola. Or maybe they’re hard to find because no matter how much audiences in the 20s loved them, some movies have aged even worse than Gone With The Wind. Or maybe because I’ve seen them enough times to be able to discuss them at length. I mean I’ll watch The Lord of the Rings again, I’m cool with that, but I’m unlikely to learn something new about it.

And if anyone was wondering whether this was going to descend into “Damn kids don’t appreciate the classics, they’d rather TikTok than watch a true classic art film,” old-man-yells-at-cloud territory, two days in I swiftly abandoned my viewings for this project to watch Sarah Z’s 90-minute YouTube exploration of the dark side of Sherlock fandom and have no regrets. I am… not fancy.

So. Let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine, and see what sort of movie scored an Oscar in the Great Depression. My general impression? In these, the first years of handing out Oscars, they seemed to be experimenting with what an award-worthy movie even was. Choices range from war epics (both grim and congratulatory) to historical pieces to quiet character pieces to screwball comedy. And audiences… audiences liked a laugh, they liked spectacle, and as we’ll see, they liked some things 2020 says they really shouldn’t have, while also undervaluing a true king.

Allow me to explain as we examine… whoof… twenty movies.

Geronimo.

*I considered one post per year but that seemed like madness. That’s 93 posts, at which point I’d definitely need a 94th for Best Picture Winner Bill and Ted Face The Music and box office champion Sonic the Hedgehog.

Next Page: Pilots vs Talkies

Tales From the Nerd Farm

Gonna be real with you, readers, I had a different post, a single-page short story I hammered out to exorcise the lingering emotions of an affecting dream, but… maybe that’s just for me? I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s anything there worth y’all reading. Instead, I present Tales From the Nerd Farm.

So there came a time after my last marketing gig when the EI had run out and I needed some form of income, and as we may recall the post office wasn’t a good fit. A friend owned an internet cafe, one I’d long patronized for Thursday night gaming sessions, and they needed someone to work weekends. A few months later, I was the new manager. Time passed, and this job I took to keep busy while trying to get a career going became the longest I’d ever worked anywhere.

And then COVID happened, and five weeks of no revenue and no rent relief meant the city’s last standing internet cafe, home to gamers, people with no home computer who need to do an online training course, and people who need documents scanned, closed for good.

I’ve never talked about it here, because I tend not to discuss current employers on the internet. But now that it’s gone, I may as well share some stories of some of the oddities, the times good and bad, the weird things you get used to working at an internet/gaming cafe… a profession that might be going the same way as my old gig, projectionist.

(Digital projection basically killed that as a specialized skill. Ushers can download a movie and press a button.)

And I’m going to start each section with “Something I Always Wanted to Say to a Customer but Never Did.”

But I never did, Brianna, I am a professional.

Next page: The Frequent Flyers

My Complicated Relationship With Musicals

So, I write plays. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about it much, having, it would appear, so much to say about media and whatnot and no apparent drive to just start a podcast about it my friends can pretend to have heard, but I write plays. Sure I had a dalliance with Sweet Lady Film, but the stage still has that certain magic… and lower start-up capital. Turns out modernizations of Robin Hood aren’t free.

(And also once you’ve had that idea four movie studios might greenlight Robin Hood projects that fail or go nowhere and now you’ll never get yours into Slamdance.)

(Turns out that writing plays is no defense from someone else having an annoyingly similar idea and being first to print, as it were, but that’s another topic.)

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve ever considered writing a musical. They’re fun and popular and I do like them. Musicals are super lucrative. Why wouldn’t I want to write one? Well… it’s actually a simple answer.

I cannot write songs.

No, really, I can’t do it.

It’s not for lack of interest in music as a storytelling tool. I love a subtle manipulation of leitmotifs to use the score to enhance a story. Blake Neely, the composer for the Arrowverse, excels at this. Look at how he scores this fight between the Arrowverse Superman and Brandon Routh’s Superman, blending his own Superman theme with John Williams’. And that doesn’t even include the violins of “Can You Read My Mind,” the love song from Richard Donner’s Superman, playing when Routh’s Superman sees the Arrowverse Lois Lane.

Look this is going to be a topic where I get distracted a lot, and I’m sorry, but oh better example! This scene, where the Twelfth Doctor is about to wipe Bill Potts’ memory. She asks how he’d feel if it happened to him (it did, in the previous series finale), and composer Murray Gold tells us everything we need to know about the Doctor’s inner struggle by reminding us which exact memories he lost, through a sad, quiet, and slightly out-of-tune reprise of Clara’s Theme.

The point is… I really love music as a storytelling tool, buuuut… I can’t write it. I cannot create melodies. Nothing in my brain knows how to do that, certainly not with anything resembling reliability. We can all hum an ad-libbed tune, sure, but coming up with a precise melody that says “They love each other but life won’t let them be together,” and definitely isn’t accidentally from A Nightmare Before Christmas, that’s a whole other thing, and it’s not a thing I can do.

Not that I’m much better at lyrics. A recent show of mine had two musical numbers, one of which was directly modelled off of a specific song. (With stage directions reading “Similar to but legally distinct from [title].”) That one wasn’t so hard, I’m occasionally a B-grade parody lyricist, because if I have a specific meter and rhyme scheme to work from, I do okay. But without that, you probably just get a couple of stanzas of iambic tetrameter, because I don’t know, Willy Shakespeare, sometimes pentameter feels just a hint too long. So when it came time to write the other one, sure I came up with lyrics, but writing a tune for them took five years off the composer’s life.

Which… okay, that was mostly about me saying “I need an Elizabethan love duet, a song that is in no way suitable for a rap breakdown so that when it does have a rap breakdown, it’s hilarious.” That’s probably what did it. More than there being a disconnect in meter between the verses and the chorus.

It was funny, though.

So I can’t write songs. I can, at best, come up with a framework for a song that has in no way considered what a composer might have to do to make it work. That said… like Dinosaur Comics proved that you can make a popular, long-running comic despite no ability to draw, there is a genre of musical that requires no songwriting ability whatsoever.

Next Page: Jukebox “Heroes,” Question Mark?

Ranking the "Best Pictures" of the 2010s

I’ve been ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars each year for about as long as I’ve been doing this blog. Sure, they’re a flawed process… their tastes are out of date; they lean way too white, male, and heteronormative; they prefer films that tick their specific boxes to films of lasting merit and influence; acting awards are often given out based on who’s “due” rather than merit. With time and perspective, some of their picks for “best picture of the year” seem like terrible misfires, and that goes at the least as far back as the time they let William Randolph Hearst turn them against Citizen Kane. But they’re still my Super Bowl, my Stanley Cup, my [insert thing you, the reader, cares about], so I keep tuning in and keep watching all the nominees.

So as the decade has come to a close*, and the first Oscars of the 20s (well, the second first Oscars of the 20s) is on the horizon I thought now was a good time to rank all the nominees from the past ten years.

Because I clearly like writing more than I like myself.

We’re talking close to 100 movies here so don’t expect a lot of chit-chat about why this is ranked over that, we have too much ground to cover for even medium-lengthed reviews. Also I am not rewatching them all before I do this (or in many cases, ever ever again), so… gonna be some gut calls.

But it’s my blog and I do what I want. Warning… I am kind of a snob about narrative. Sure I care about cinematography and performance and all of that, but mostly I really want to be told a story.

Let’s go, worst to best. Allons-y.

(*One word about “Actually the next decade starts in 2021” and I will scorn you to the ends of the Earth. If you’re going to pedantic, at least be right.)

The Bad

88. American Sniper (2015). Not just bad, it’s actively evil. Releasing a movie connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror, celebrating a man who kills brown people while calling them “savages,” while the man who killed said lead character was still on trial for that killing, was criminally irresponsible. Also it’s not good.

87. Fences (2017). A quick list of characters I find more sympathetic and less purely loathable than Troy Maxon of Fences… Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Raoul Silva in Skyfall, Killmonger in Black Panther, Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Captain Klenzendorf the literal Nazi from Jojo Rabbit, the racist cop from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kylo Ren, Ultron, Thanos, General Huxx, basically everyone from Wolf of Wall Street, and Arthur Fleck in Joker. Spending two hours watching Denzel Washington chew scenery while spewing Troy’s endless stream of toxic hatred, disdain, abuse, and entitlement was excruciating. To Hell with this movie and to Hell with whoever gave the play it’s based on a Tony.

86. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012). Do I have to explain why “Young boy who misses his dead father but gives zero fucks about his living mother uses his magical autism powers to heal 9/11” wasn’t very good? Is it obvious? This nonsense is not what they told us they expanded the category from five to “up to ten” for.

85. The Theory of Everything (2015). There is an entire genre of movie, biopics mostly if not exclusively, that exists for the sole purpose of getting its (typically white and male) star an Oscar nomination for acting. They present no message, no larger point, no challenge to the subject’s legacy, just a showcase for acting. This is one of the worst examples. This movie has no reason to exist outside of getting Eddie Redmayne an Oscar.

84. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019). See above but Rami Malek. Bohemian Rhapsody is almost beat-for-beat the musical biopic parody movie Walk Hard, only with no jokes and terrible editing. It’s a demonstrable whitewash and glamourization of the still-living members of Queen, and its only purpose is to make Rocketman look that much better in comparison.

83. The Imitation Game (2015). See above but Benedict Cumberbatch. There was a legitimately important story to tell about Alan Turing, specifically about how he played a huge role in defeating the Nazis then his government destroyed his life for being gay, but they only made that a footnote to a story about Turing overcoming (fictional) resistance to develop an early computer to break the German codes, because that one’s more heartwarming.

82. The Darkest Hour (2018). See above but Gary Oldman. “Winston Churchill was just as good as you’ve always thought! Look at him defying those weak-willed ninnies in Parliament to stand up to Hitler! Can Gary Oldman have an Oscar now?” Pointless. This genre needs to end.

81. The Blind Side (2010). Another white saviour tale that skates by for at least three-quarters of its run time with no discernable conflict then invents the dumbest possible conflict to give the last act stakes.

80. Zero Dark Thirty (2013). Dull, dull, dull, oh God it was dull. In the third act, the protagonist gets increasingly frustrated at the CIA’s lack of action on her intel regarding Bin Laden, and I was like “Sister, I’m right there with you.”

The “Meh”

79. The Tree of Life (2012). Bet you thought I’d rank this one lower, didn’tcha? Well, a wise critic showed me what people like about Terrence Malik, so I now admit that his tone-poem, cinematic-ballet style isn’t necessarily without merit… just isn’t my thing. I prefer movies where I don’t have to check Wikipedia to figure out what the plot was. And what the flipping heck was up with the Big Bang and the damned dinosaur? What was that?

78. Green Book (2019). How the actual fuck did this thoroughly mediocre Hallmark movie about a white man learning to be less racist make the shortlist, let alone actually win? Who got paid to vote for this nothing-burger of a feel-good whitewashed biopic? I want names.

77. War Horse (2012). Spielberg doesn’t make bad movies, typically, but… Who is War Horse for? Who is the story of a horse suffering its way through World War One possibly for?

76. Precious (2010). Maybe I’m getting my white privilege all over this, but acting aside, I just don’t see what the big deal was, I really don’t.

75. Hugo (2012). A story about a child trying to connect with his late father via a robot gets completely thrown out at the halfway point so that Martin Scorcese can give a handjob to one of the pioneers of cinema. What a weird bait-and-switch this movie was.

74. Call Me by Your Name (2018). One of those old school picturesque coming-of-age-in-Europe romance movies, only this time it’s male-male romance. A sluggish, low-stakes male-male romance with a slightly questionable age gap, and a poor peach loses its innocence.

73. The King’s Speech (2011). The King’s Speech is a perfect case study in how to tick the boxes of an Oscar-bait picture. A biopic (ding) about a friendship between upper and lower class men (ding) one of whom overcomes a disability (ding) to defeat the Nazis (ding ding ding). It’s little remembered, save for a few increasingly obscure references in the seventh season of The Office.

72. A Serious Man (2010). If a subtle, slow-paced statement on how life is ultimately unknowable, and God or the universe don’t owe us and won’t provide us definitive answers about it is your jam, hey this is the movie for you. If it’s not… the way I put it when a friend I was watching it with fell asleep for a while, then asked what happened when he was out, is “This isn’t really a movie where things happen.”

71. 127 Hours (2011). A great performance from James Franco but it does drag a bit, especially given we know exactly where it’s going.

70. Boyhood (2015). How do you spend 12 years making one movie and forget to give it any sort of story, or manage to make it about something? How do you not at least check the footage and make sure you haven’t already done “mother’s boyfriend can’t handle his booze, becomes abusive?” I guess it’s an impressive thing to attempt, filming one movie over 12 years, but as it ended on the central character spouting white-boy wank philosophy on his first day at college, I couldn’t help but think “What was the goddamn point of that?” Still don’t know.

69. Avatar (2010). The special effects were a next-level achievement, sure. You could see every cent of the $200 million they spent on the effects… and the $10 they spent on the script. It’s 45 minutes too long, its white saviour-ism hasn’t aged well, and if you play it on a high-def TV it looks like a dated video game. It made record amounts of money but left no cultural impact, and that second thing’s for a reason.

68. Les Miserables (2013). A better musical than Cats on the stage, somehow worse in the theatre? All those damned extreme close-ups. Tom Hooper’s direction is bad and he should feel bad.

67. The Phantom Thread (2018). I feel like if this weren’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ theoretical retirement movie, the Academy would have given it a miss. It’s a somewhat interesting look at a deeply dysfunctional relationship but that’s about it.

66. A Star is Born (2019). The performances are great, including several Alias vets their old castmate Bradley Cooper snuck in, but once Lady Gaga’s career takes off, it’s a long, gradual wait for her rising star and his spiral into self-destruction to hit a breaking point. There’s not a lot of gas left in this tank. Thankfully civilization should be reduced to embers before we get another remake starring Zac Efron and Billie Eilish.

The Good

65. Philomena (2014). A perfectly adequate and charming movie that regardless has no place in a “Best Picture” race. The World’s End deserved a nod more than this one, you jags.

64. Nebraska (2014). I think this one got nominated for “Best Comedy/Musical” at the Golden Globes because they saw Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in the credits and made an assumption. I kid, it’s because they didn’t want to compete with 12 Years a Slave. It’s got charm. Their dismissal of Mount Rushmore was amusing.

63. Manchester by the Sea (2017). Great performances, and I’ve come to have greater respect for its central thesis of “pain and grief don’t stop the world and all of its petty inconveniences, no matter how much it feels like they should.” But it’s also quite slow and just drifts to a close rather than coming to a point. And Zeus in a swan suit is it ever a downer…

62. Moneyball (2012). I mean it works overall, there’s a lot of good moments, but it’s really slow-paced, especially for a Sorkin script.

61. The Revenant (2016). Incredibly well shot and acted (save for the fact that if Leonardo DiCaprio authentically threw up after eating raw bison liver, and you filmed it, that isn’t acting), just a little… hollow.

60. Life of Pi (2013). …It’s fine. It’s visually impressive but aside from that, I’m hard-pressed to recall something remarkable about it.

59. Hacksaw Ridge (2017). The first act was really charming, the third act thrilling, but the second act, where the army tries to beat pacifist Desmond Doss into either quitting boot camp or agreeing to use a gun, drags it down.

58. Selma (2015) At least one 2015 biopic managed to say something.

57. The Kids Are Alright (2011). I remember very little about this story of a family tossed into chaos when a lesbian couple’s kids meet their biological father, but I do remember it being pretty darn good.

56. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013). I remember it being very well made… when I remember that it exists. Which is… not often.

55. District 9 (2010). A better look at apartheid than the movie about Nelson Mandella that came out the same year. A solid sci-fi adventure.

54. The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Quite well made, but I feel it was a little too flattering to a real-life piece of filth, who definitely made money off this film existing.

53. The Help (2010). Kinda white saviour-y, but a decent exploration of America’s ongoing struggles to be cool about the legacy of slavery. Oh, the South. You so racist.

52. An Education (2010). A sweet if weird coming-of-age romance anchored by an excellent performance from Carey Mulligan.

51. Amour (2013). Aging sucks and mortality is some bullshit. This is a very well acted movie I would not want to watch a second time.

50. The Hurt Locker (2010). A better examination of how a person can get hooked on combat than American Sniper could ever have been. With some excellently staged suspense sequences.

49. The Fighter (2011). A very well done biopic from David O. Russell, filled with great performances, especially Christian Bale and the majestic Amy Adams.

48. Dallas Buyers Club (2014). Probably should have found a trans actress to play the trans character but overall it was decent. 2014 was really the year Matthew McConaughey reminded us he’s got game.

47. The Post (2018). Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, and an all-star supporting cast (what a weird place for a Mr. Show reunion) reminding us of when journalism used to accomplish things, like proving that the Vietnam war was fought on false pretense.

46. True Grit (2011). What a great debut for Hailee Steinfeld. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin all came to play, and she still stole the movie from them.

45. Captain Phillips (2014). A solid suspense flick that doesn’t have a great deal to say. An excellent depiction of shock in the denouement, though.

44. Lion (2017). A very moving story about a lost child trying to find his way home as an adult, but each story beat lasts about five to ten minutes too long, given there is no suspense about where this might go.

43. Gravity (2014). Don’t think too hard about the science or how the premise means that Earth is kind of screwed for years if not decades, and you’ve got an exciting adventure about a desperate bid for survival in the least hospitable circumstances possible.

42. Up (2010). Man, that first 10 minutes is a burst of heartbreak. Then some pretty solid Pixar fun.

41. The Descendants (2012). George Clooney and a really impressive Shailene Woodley anchor this story of complicated grief and family struggles. And it led to this amazing tweet…

40. Midnight in Paris (2012). Look, maybe it’s the writer in me being vulnerable to stories about writers, but I found this one incredibly charming. Even if liking Woody Allen movies has become problematic.

39. Roma (2019). The unique direction style really helps elevate this slice-of-life story of an indigenous Mexican maid and the collapsing middle-class family she works for, set against the backdrop of early-70s Mexico. It’s shot to feel like a memory, which is fitting, being inspired by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood.

38. Room (2016). An incredible performance by Brie Larson, and the latter two acts tell a great story of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, following the most uncomfortable first act this side of 12 Years a Slave.

37. Vice (2019). Knockout, unrecognizable performance by Christian Bale aside, I appreciate this look into Dick Cheney’s rise to an extremely troubling amount and type of power for how it revealed the core value of the Republican party… they want to win. That’s all. They have no moral centre, they just like being in power, and will do whatever they need to do to keep it.

36. Her (2014). This improbable romance between a man and the AI that runs his phone and computer is surprisingly sweet and moving. And a crackerjack cast doing great work. I don’t know, it got to me.

35. Moonlight (2017). The struggles of a gay youth in the ghetto make for compelling if occasionally sluggish viewing. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris have star turns, and the arc of the central character’s life is interesting. Then it just sort of… stops. Look, I warned you I was gonna be a stickler for quality of the narrative, and that includes “having an ending.”

34. La La Land (2017). Okay, yes, preferring La La Land to Moonlight is an embarrassingly white thing to do, as Big Mouth hilariously pointed out last season. But the visuals are incredible, the way they use colour is impressive, the songs are mostly good, and it has a lot to say about relationships. And maybe Ryan Gosling arguing with John Legend about how jazz works is a little offputting (if you assume Gosling is right, anyway) but still. It’s a hot pile of white person problems but an enjoyable one. (“City of Stars” should not have won Best Song that year, it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land. But they almost always get that category wrong.)

33. Black Panther (2019). The first comic book movie to make the best picture list (after The Dark Knight getting snubbed in favour of the thoroughly mediocre The Reader caused the Academy to change the rules to allow more nominees), and yeah, a good choice. Attacks colonialism and isolationism, asks what the best route forward is, and presents one of the few truly great Marvel hero/villain pairings. Sure the villain is just a less benevolent Black Panther but there’s something to it this time, something more compelling than the series of evil arms dealers that take on Iron Man. And then it collapses into B grade CG for the climax but up until then, pretty damn good superhero action.

32. Bridge of Spies (2016). A very solid entry from Steven Spielberg, as Tom Hanks’ James B. Donovan must negotiate Cold War politics to save the life of one air force pilot and one innocent, while facing resentment at home for representing a Soviet spy.

The Great

31. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Revenge, remorse, redemption, all in a tight script from the writer of In Bruges and knockout performances from the cast. It raises some questions about who deserves redemption and how it can be found. Not everyone cares for the answers they present, since it’s the second most hatable character in the whole movie who finds his way to a better path, and not all viewers are on board with that. But is redemption not better than punishment? Or, like the angry, grieving mother at the centre of the story, does our need to see the bad people punished overrule everything?

30. Dunkirk (2018). A tense thrill ride as the British army attempts to escape the advancing German forces. The three perspectives mash up well: the solider just trying to get out, the civilian boat sailing to the rescue, and Tom Hardy trying to provide air support to the very end. Quite the high-wire act.

29. Arrival (2017). Two of my favourite actors headline a gripping and fascinating story of alien first contact, taken from a little-explored linguistic standpoint. How do you communicate with a species whose concept of language evolved completely differently? And then there’s a great twist I never saw coming. That doesn’t happen often.

28. Inglourious Basterds (2010). Once you get past the fact that this is not the Brad Pitt-led action-comedy the marketing sold us, but a tense and nuanced sequence of desperate games of cat-and-mouse , it’s one of Tarantino’s better efforts.

27. Up in the Air (2010). A great look into the economic downturn and a fantastic character study into what happens when your career requires a lack of empathy or connection. The first time I became aware of the amazing talent that is Anna Kendrick, and a subtle, knockout turn from George Clooney.

26. The Big Short (2016). A brilliant way to use comedic devices to trick audiences into learning why the 2008 financial crash happened, and how it could again. The best example of “Art must entertain in order to instruct” I can think of. Shame nobody told Christian Bale what the rest of the movie was like. They could have at least stopped cutting to him once his plotline ran out of things to do.

25. Birdman (2015). An excellent high-wire act about a man’s attempts to stay relevant, centred around amazing performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (as every theatre nightmare anyone’s ever had), and Emma Stone.

24. Silver Linings Playbook (2013). Really funny, sweet, charming, and incredibly acted, and I’d probably find it even more so on a rewatch, when I didn’t spend half the movie unbearably tense that something bad was going to happen to the protagonist. Confirmed what Winter’s Bone had told us: Jennifer Lawrence is an incredible talent.

23. Lincoln (2013). Spielberg does “great man biopic” right, by focusing on one very specific moment… the rush to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery ratified by all states before the Confederacy’s inevitable surrender. Great flick in a genre that tends to half-ass it.

22. Brooklyn (2016). Okay, I’m going to be real with you, there is a definite chance I’m overvaluing this one due to my deep and profound awe of Saoirse Ronan’s acting skills/inherent adorability, but she is magnificent and that made this movie spellbinding. I probably wasn’t supposed to view the second half, where Eilis (perfect storm of unintuitive Irish names right here) must choose between the comforts of home and her new life in New York, as a horror movie, but the choice felt very obvious to me and I kept wanting to scream “Run, Eilis, it’s a trap!” Still. Heckuva movie.

21. BlacKkKlansman (2019). Spike Lee brought us one of his best movies in years with the true(ish) story of black and Jewish detectives working together to infiltrate the KKK, who are portrayed as both a menace and buffoonish clowns. Sadly you don’t need to be smart to be dangerous. This one was a home run, and Green Book beating it for best picture might be the worst blown call since Citizen goddamn Kane lost to cinematic history footnote How Green Was My Valley.

20. The Favourite (2019). An excellent and hilarious power struggle between two cousins vying for position in the court of Queen Anne: one who wields the power of the throne, and tolerates no threat to her position; one whose family fell from grace and will do anything to escape poverty and get back into high society. And between them, an incredible performance by Olivia Colman as the ailing and temperamental queen.

19. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015). Wes Anderson’s best and most Wes Anderson movie. If you like his style even a little, you’ll love this one. Endlessly entertaining, even if it definitely has too many framing devices.

18. Django Unchained (2013). I said Inglourious Basterds was one of Tarantino’s better efforts. As Historical Revenge Porn goes, Django winning a blood-soaked victory over slavery is even better than Shoshanna Dreyfus blowing up a theatre full of Nazis while Eli Roth machine guns Hitler’s face into pulp. And filled with amazing performances.

17. The Social Network (2011). Great script, amazing direction (programming a website plays like a heist sequence) terrific performances, and the idea of the creator of Facebook being lured to the dark side by the creator of Napster is so perfect I don’t even care if it actually happened. It might… in retrospect, it might be too sympathetic towards Mark Zuckerberg.

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). It was damn good to finally see something less Oscar baity on the shortlist, and man this was a thrill ride. For a two hour car chase, this movie was incredible. I still occasionally shout “WITNESS ME!” before doing something daring. Plus Charlize Theron killed it as Furiosa, the real lead of the movie.

15. Inception (2011). Man I love this movie. Works on multiple levels, if you can keep up with how dream layers work. Some people say its a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but you can ignore that. Also, one of the better vague endings in recent memory. (The top wobbled, he’s awake, fight me.)

14. Black Swan (2011). One of the most purely tense film experiences I’ve ever had, with each moment summoning new dreads, thanks to an intense and haunting performance from Natalie Portman.

13. American Hustle (2014). The year “Faux Scorcese” was better than “Actual Scorcese.” Probably David O. Russell’s best, and he has his greatest ensemble acting in it.

12. Argo (2013). Ben Affleck wrote and directed an incredibly effective thriller, even if he did undervalue the contribution of Canadians a little. Despite the ending being public record, the climax had me on the edge of my seat.

11. The Shape of Water (2018). Not only does the fantasy romance really work, but I love how the heroes are a supergroup of marginalized people: a mute, a black woman, an elderly gay man, a communist, and a, well, fish monster, all working together against Michael Shannon’s embodiment of white patriarchy. A delightful adult fairy tale.

10. Lady Bird (2018). I already knew from Brooklyn that Saoirse Ronan was an incredible talent, but Lady Bird is where I learned that Greta Gerwig is an equally incredible writer/director. Lady Bird is a sheer delight.

9. Get Out (2018). Jordan Peele’s excellent debut as a horror auteur is clever, creative, and creepy as Hell. Plus it has a lot to say about race relations, and how racial issues go far beyond simple “Me Klansman, black people bad” racism.

8. The Martian (2016). Sure it’s the textbook example for category fraud at the Golden Globes because I wouldn’t call it a “comedy” yet it was entered as one, but it’s still a delightful movie with an unbeatable cast of familiar faces. And you know what, when it tries to be funny, it nails it.

7. Whiplash (2015). At what price artistic excellence? Is abuse ever justified? An incredible ride that’s probably the only good Miles Teller movie.

6. Winter’s Bone (2011). Jennifer Lawrence burst onto the scene with an incredible performance as a girl with few options in life who must confront her entire backwater, regressive, small-town-if-even-a-“town” “society” in a desperate bid to save her family home.

5. Toy Story 3 (2011). The fourth instalment was better than it deserved to be since this played as a perfect conclusion to the Toy Story saga. Tense, moving, Pixar at its best.

4. Hell or High Water (2017). The least grim movie from the writer of Sicario, which is akin to being the most uplifting season of The Wire or most competent boss from The Office or least autotuned episode of Glee. Hell or High Water is an excellently crafted cops-and-robbers story, a modern-day western in which two brothers try to save their ranch while an aging Texas Ranger hunts for them. I can watch this one over and over. Which is harder to do with the author’s other big films, Sicario or Wind River.

3. Spotlight (2016). An astounding cast takes on the sex scandals of the Catholic church. A reminder of what journalism can accomplish when commerce gets out of its way.

2. Hidden Figures (2017). Sure Kevin Costner de-segregating NASA, at one point literally with a crowbar, and the saintly John Glenn each wandered into White Saviour territory, but overall this true(ish) story of the women of colour who helped get America into space was the whole package.

1. 12 Years a Slave (2014). An amazing achievement in film that digs deep into the horrors of slavery that I never ever want to see again ever. Astounding performances from the cast, even if Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Saviour character was just a little over-the-top righteous.

And there we have it. A ranking of movies that even I didn’t know going into this.

Soon enough, it’ll be time to rank a new crop of best picture nominees, and if there is any justice in this dying ember of a world, expect Jojo Rabbit and Little Women to be up near the top.

Otherwise expect a lot of complaining.

My own personal Back to School remake

Or, How I learned to stop worrying* and embrace student life.

*Worry less.
Worry a little less.
Worry about the same amount but not spiral into despair over my inability to affect positive change in my life.

So here I am, at the age of… over-26… back in post-secondary for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. A lot of people ask me, why? What brought me to my current studies? Certainly my classmates ask that, with just a soupçon of “We’re fresh out of high school, what’s your excuse” in their voice.

Well, here’s the story. With headings. And maybe the occasional tension-breaking corgi photo.

Escaping Underemployment

My first real proper jobs, once I’d escaped being a projectionist for poverty wages, were in communications and marketing. Running communications for a nonprofit think tank then online marketing for an online payment system… that was primarily used for online gambling… That one paid well but could have been more fulfilling. It ended when the company I worked for bought a company in Montreal to access new markets through a different brand name, then somehow the company we bought ended up in charge and fired half of our office.

I always assumed that eventually, I’d find a new copy writing job, or something similar in my prior field. I had lots of experience, my former supervisor liked me plenty, it should have been only a matter of time. I just had to find something else to keep the wolves at bay in the meantime.

One attempt of which, as my most popular posts of all time explained, went very badly. After some time doing freelance tech writing (which ended thanks to oil prices dropping) I found a job in an internet cafe, and when an opening appeared made manager. It was fine. It was a perfectly fine thing to do while I found a proper career.

Then it was five years later. And I was no longer the primary manager, having traded that position for a three-month leave of absence to do a Fringe tour of Eastern Canada that was a complete and unmitigated disaster. And my last two successful job interviews had been spectacular disappointments.

Clearly something had to change. But first… let’s dig into those “successful” “job” “interviews.”

Next Page: How to spot a bad gig

New TV Review

I’ve been absent for a while on this blog. Scriptwriting combined with going back to school will do that.

Yes, back to school. That’s a thing. I was also going to make a post about that, and I’ll get to it, but in the meantime there are some new TV shows I’m checking out, and you’re going to hear about them, because blogging is like exercise: you gotta warm up before you get into the big stuff, like life changes and crooked Napolese taxi drivers.

Andiamo.

Prodigal Son

Image: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

Call it “Daddy Issues Hannibal.”

What’s it about? Malcolm Bright is a promising but slightly unhinged profiler who gets fired from the FBI for a) punching out a sheriff while catching a serial killer; and b) secretly being the son of Dr. Martin Whitley, aka The Surgeon, America’s most notorious serial killer (apparently). Dr. Whitley has been locked up for twentyish years, ever since Malcolm dropped a dime on him to the NYPD as a kid, and Malcolm stopped visiting when he decided to become a profiler of serial killers. But when the NYPD hires him to investigate a copycat of the Surgeon, he finds himself needing to consult with his father, who’s all too eager to help out. (Malcolm is hired by the policeman who came to investigate Malcolm’s 911 call back in the day, and thanks to young Malcolm telling him “You should take out your gun, my father is planning to kill you,” has lived long enough to make Captain.)

What works? I mean at this point you either like procedurals with serial aspects or you don’t, right? And as a killer-of-the-week procedural with serial elements, it basically works. It does, however, boast one major advantage: Michael Sheen as Dr. Whitley. I’ve loved Michael Sheen in basically everything I’ve ever seen him in, and while the sinisterly charming serial killer he plays here is about as far away from Good Omens’ skittish angel Aziraphale as you can get, Sheen’s still riveting.

What doesn’t? I’m not… I’m not 100% sold on Malcolm as a lead yet. His mania and twitchiness and recklessness haven’t endeared me to him yet. Given how easy it is to compare this show to the late, great Hannibal, it seems fair to say that Malcolm is, thus far, no Will Graham.

Also, the main central mystery at this point is Malcolm beginning to recover a buried memory of finding a girl stuffed in a box in his father’s study, which no doubt would have played a role in his childhood decision to turn in his father to the police. And while both of his parents insist that there was no girl in a box, he’s determined to figure out the truth, and it just, it just… his father has already been put away for the rest of his life (or until he inevitably escapes, probably later this season) for the dozens of murders they do know about, trying to figure out if there’s one more victim they don’t know about just feels extremely low stakes. “Wait, what did my mother know” was a good layer to explore, but we seem to be moving back from that to “Who was that one girl?” and I just really need a better reason to care.

Who do you know in the cast? (Let’s be real, this usually plays a role in whether I watch something)

  • I mentioned Michael Sheen, but it bears repeating.
  • Halston Sage, who had been my favourite crew member of The Orville until she decided to leave early in season two, is Malcolm’s sister, a TV reporter who is also starting to get sucked back into her father’s orbit.
  • Lou Diamond Phillips is the police captain who keeps Malcolm on the payroll.
  • Keiko Agena, Lane from Gilmore Girls, is the team’s token quirky CSI. She’s no Ella Lopez but she’s fun.
  • I guess the guy playing Malcolm was on Walking Dead, if you care.

Next Page: Good, bad, I’m the show with Michael Emerson

Back in Europe: Boat Life

Hello sweetie.

Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.

And the Jellicle Ball of the seas.

On a Boat

The centrepiece of this group trip to Europe was a week-long cruise through the western Mediterranean, hitting spots in Italy, Spain, and a bit of France. This was not my first cruise of the Mediterranean. It was my third, following two back during high school. (Yes, my high school had a Travel Club; yes, I was in it all three years; yes I got course credit for this; no, I’m not sorry.)

It was, however, my first cruise in [coughcoughcough] years, during which they made some advancements to cruise life, such as being able to take a shower while in port and not get tossed about the stall. It was also my first time aboard a cruise line not selected to fit the budget of a couple of dozen high school students. My last two cruises boasted amenities as lush as two or even three bars, and a movie theatre that might even have English languages movies more than once! Or maybe the only English language choice was Grease and you already didn’t like Grease very much and wow do you ever hate Grease now.

This time was… a little fancier than that. The moment I stepped onto the ship, I was in mild disbelief… this was an order of magnitude fancier than my high school experiences. The first thing I saw was not anything that belonged on a boat, it was a full entertainment district, a street with bars and restaurants and shops. This was like an all-inclusive resort that, if you went to the upper decks, you would learn was somehow on a boat.

Well… not exactly like an all-inclusive. It was a most-inclusive. There were several restaurants that were not included in the cost, even with our fancy drink packages*. There were wines that cost more than $13 for a glass, even more than $100 at the fancy wine bar. But staying clear of these places wasn’t hard. Hell, the pizza joint was included, and I barely ever made it there. The buffet for breakfast, the fancy formal restaurant for dinner, lunch on shore, a drink package to cover beers, non-premium wines, and basically any and every cocktail they had, and I had everything I could ask for**.

*Drink packages are, yes, one of the ways they try to drag some more money out of you, but I knew how much I was going to be drinking, so… I went with the one where every drink up to $13 was included, no regrets.

**Some of our party did tend to hit the buffet for a “pre-dinner snack.” One could have made jokes about eating two dinners, maybe something hobbit-related, but I was likely several cocktails in by then so shaming other people’s vacationing didn’t seem the way to go.

The only time the drink package let me down? The website said it would also cover unlimited milkshakes at Johnny Rockets. After several days, I decided it was finally time to get my milkshake… and found out that milkshakes were only included with a purchase of food.

BETRAYED. Betrayed, so I felt.

But still… this place had an entertainment district, multiple theatres, an actual park on our deck with yet more bars and restaurants, one of which we even went to, a casino that was hidden enough we never had to enter it… surely this place was so bursting with entertainment options I wouldn’t end up rewatching some musical I’d already seen twice and didn’t love either time, right? Right?

…right?

Next: Jellicle Ball for Jellicle Cats, and an Open Bar For Me

Oscars 2019!

Okay, so, we should all know the drill by now, yeah? The Oscars are about to happen, and even though they’re a deeply flawed ceremony that tends to play to the sensibilities of an out-of-touch voting block rather than award films that will truly stand the test of time (see The King’s Speech, which is aging into a hard Jeopardy question and an obscure Office reference), and hand out acting trophies to people seen as “due” rather than deserving (Al Pacino losing for The Godfather Part 2 to Art Carney for a film nobody remembers, so Pacino had to win for Scent of a Woman over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and so on and so forth), they remain my little film-based obsession.

So here are the nominees for Best Picture of 2018, in the order I prefer them, this time with Hot Takes and, borrowing a page from this Twitter genius, out of context John Mulaney quotes, why not!

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

Yes, I know, he was bi, and bisexual erasure is a thing in the movie, but still.

Premise: The rise to fame of Freddy Mercury, and to a lesser extent the other members of Queen.

Hot take: So we’re still doing these, huh?

The camera zooms in on Mike Myers while he makes a Wayne’s World reference. That’s not a joke. That is a thing that happens in this Golden Globe-winning movie that somehow isn’t a parody. The future is not what any of us hoped it would be.

Rami Malek does give a great performance as Freddie Mercury, he really does, but then that’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a biopic about someone generally loved designed to say “Look at how great he was” and win someone a Best Actor Oscar. I can’t say I learned anything about Freddie the person, I just watched Freddie the persona walk through all of the key moments* from him joining the band that would become Queen, to the moment of inspiration for some of their better known songs, to their entire Live Aid set.

Much like The Darkest Hour had nothing to say about Winston Churchill’s more controversial post-war political career, there’s also nothing about Live Aid’s famine relief money being spent on guns from the Soviets, because we’re just here to watch Freddie Mercury be great, not, like, interrogate the man and his life and his choices or anything.

Maybe if we start doing that, these endless biopics might serve a purpose, but for now… well, at least it was more fun than The Imitation Game. I almost said The Theory of Everything but actually that one was also okay.

*Save for signing on to write the soundtrack to Highlander. Who Wants To Live Forever is snuck into the soundtrack but that whole album is skipped over.

7. Green Book

Premise: Named after a guide book to help black people travel through segregation-states without Incident. Based on a true story which has been angrily refuted by family members of one of the characters, a famous jazz musician hires an Italian-American bouncer to be his driver and assistant on a tour of the segregation-era South, showing us how institutional racism affected this black musician…’s white driver.

Hot take: Two movies with black protagonists, the word “black” right in the title, and the frontrunner is a movie about a white man learning to be less racist because he has a black friend? Oh, Oscars, why you gotta be so white about everything…

So the main strength of this one has to be in the performance of the two leads: a wonderfully stoic take from Mahershala Ali as jazz musician Dr. Don Shirley, attempting to tour Segregation South while both black and gay, playing for people that will act like he’s a star but refuse to let him use the same washroom as them; and a nigh-unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen as the gluttonous, unpolished Tony Lip. Segregation South is played as cartoonishly evil, but is there really another way to portray it? Aside from that… we watch a man who tried to throw out two drinking glasses because black people drank from them witness how aggressively evil that sort of racism actually is, and become basically better, while Dr. Shirley learns that maybe he should lean into the stereotype and try fried chicken? Is that his character arc? I don’t know why I’m asking you, I’m the one who watched it…

Anyway, it’s… fine. It’s okay. I remember laughing a few times, if not at what, specifically. I was disappointed that Tony Lip didn’t go upside the heads of more racists, but I get it. You watch it, you enjoy it more than you’re bored by it, and then it’s over and you basically move on, largely unaffected, because either you know racism is bad, or you probably didn’t watch this one. I just remember a time when “It’s okay” wasn’t enough for an Oscar nomin– no, wait, turns out I don’t remember that time, I just wish it would hurry up and get here.

6. A Star is Born

Premise: Jack, a fading country singer, meets Ally, a songwriter who doesn’t think she has a chance. Their relationship launches Ally’s career, and delays Jack’s descent into self-destruction from alcoholism and pill addiction by, oh, several months, at least.

Hot Take: Any conversation about Hollywood being out of new ideas surely needs to include this one, right? This is our fourth time on the Star is Born roller coaster.

So once again our main strength here is in performances. Lady Gaga gives a stellar performance, especially in the key scene where Jack lures her on stage at one of his concerts to sing a song she wrote. The emotions that play over her face as she makes the choice to join him onstage, through to the elation at singing her song in front of a crowd of thousands. That scene is killer. From there, it’s just waiting for Ally’s push into actual music instead of country and Jack’s substance abuse issues to drive them apart, and wondering how bad it will be when everything hits a breaking point. Not… not the happiest ending, no it is not.

So… can’t say that the second half lives up to the first. Also the first half was a little troubling, because Jack’s pursuit of Ally was the sort of thing Me Too stories are made of, but I guess we were supposed to find it charming? I was busy trying to figure out if Ally was actually attracted to Jack or if she was too scared to walk away from a really uncomfortable flirtation.

It wasn’t as unhealthy as, say, that freak relationship from The Phantom Thread last year, or even Rocky Balboa’s first date with Adrian, but… Bradley Cooper’s my third or at least fourth favourite Alias veteran*, so I’d really like him to not be a creep, but he wrote that creepy-ass first date, and now I’m worried.

*He’s competitive with Kevin Weisman, but nobody can outrank Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber. Also it warmed by geek heart that he slipped two other Alias castmates into small but key roles.

5. Roma

Premise: An indigenous maid in early 70s Mexico works for a richer, whiter family. The family is falling apart, and her dirtbag boyfriend gets her pregnant and then vanishes faster than that Live Aid money disappeared into some Russian arms dealer’s bank account (callback joke! I am nailing this!), and then she gets to deal with all of that.

Hot take: I know Hollywood was just arguing that cinematography is a more essential part of film making than screenplay, but I don’t know, maybe tell a story?

That’s a harsh hot take, to be sure, but that is what hot takes are for, if I understand the term correctly.

This is certainly the most artistic of the nominees, so if it were to win, I could live with that. More than I could if it went to Green Book, I tell you what. The film, if I understand the discourse I’ve read since properly, is meant to be like memories. Most shots are from a single perspective: fixed but rotating cameras, inserting the viewer into the moment more fully than a lot of cuts and coverage would. And this is a very interesting shooting technique, more so, possibly, than Birdman’s faux-single take approach. So it’s well-shot, well-acted… it just feels a little narratively thin to me, and I am nothing if not a slut for narrative.

Probably worth watching, but if you watch it, don’t be on your phone. The visuals are as important as anything, even the dude doing martial arts with his dick flapping around.

I’m not kidding, that’s a thing that happens.

4. Black Panther

“Black Panther keeps his kingdom from trying to conquer the world,” and you’re like “Yeah.”

Premise: In the wake of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa returns to the secretly super-advanced kingdom of Wakanda to replace his recently departed father as king, only to face an unexpected challenge for both the throne and the role of Wakandan champion the Black Panther from the American cousin he didn’t know he had.

Hot take: Let’s not pretend that Disney didn’t throw their immense money and influence into finally breaking the “Super hero movies don’t get Oscar nominations” stigma.

Look. I’m not here to dis Black Panther, or complain how CG the third act is, or claim that it’s nomination is entirely based on Disney money, or any of the things that, I have to assume, primarily white comic nerds are doing in the wake of Marvel’s first black hero also being the first to land a Best Picture nomination. And it was never going to be Infinity War, because Infinity War broke a very simple rule… never show a man half a job. For all of its strengths, Infinity War is half a story.

Black Panther, however, is a complete tale, with an exploration of what a great nation’s responsibilities to the world might be, with a top-tier villain turn from Michael B. Jordan. If I were to name one Marvel Studios picture that deserved to make the Best Picture shortlist, yeah, I’d pick this one. In terms of superhero movies as a whole I would have backed Wonder Woman last year but that third act had some flaws, and not just in terms of CG. Logan certainly deserved more love than it got, but we’re here now.

Just remember, Marvel Zombies (a preferred term for hardcore Marvel fans)… this wouldn’t have happened if the Oscars hadn’t expanded the Best Picture category to “Up to ten” in the wake of the massive public uproar over The Dark Knight getting snubbed for that waste of time movie The Reader. So a Marvel movie was first to the podium, but DC changed the system.

3. The Favourite

Premise: Queen Anne (a delightfully batty Olivia Colman) rules England, but the worst kept secret in the palace is that her best friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is essentially running the country, and pushing it towards an expensive war with France. All of this is threatened when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the palace seeking employment, her family having been ruined by her father’s gambling. Abigail’s attempts to secure a place back in high society and Sarah’s ambitions for the country find themselves at loggerheads, as they compete to be, well, the Favourite. Right there in the name.

Hot take: Flip some genders and glamorize the rulers a bit more, and this would run for six seasons on Starz.

Well this one was a lot of fun. Abigail’s attempts to climb the ladder without getting whipped too much, Lady Sarah’s push for war, Nicholas Hoult as Harley, the Leader of the Opposition, trying to foil Lady Sarah, and an oddly engaging refusal to make any of these people 100% worth rooting for. Sure Lady Sarah’s harshness and Abigail’s sympathetic circumstances push you in a direction at first, but things don’t stay that simple for long. And yes, Harley wants peace and lower taxes and those are pretty good, but man can he be a dick about it.

And at the center of it all, a wonderfully deranged take on the Queen from the splendid Olivia Colman. Even if the other women weren’t on her level, she’d be worth it. Thankfully, they are, and while the movie loses a bit of steam in the last half hour, the whole trio make for an impressive battle of passive-aggression.

Bonus Mulaney!

2. Vice

Premise: From the director of The Big Short, another fourth-wall-breaking comedy/drama attempting to help you understand a way in which American society broke recently: this time, the rise to power and the attempt to seize absolute power by Dick Cheney.

Hot take: The current president is a wannabe dictator with no leadership abilities and his vice-president wants to take money out of AIDS research and use it to torture gay teens, but sure, let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine…

The makeup effects to turn Christian Bale into old, crotchety Dick Cheney were certainly impressive, and Bale had Cheney’s character down pat, but young Cheney was less impressive. Bale never looked younger than 42.

My favourite moment in this movie comes as a young(?) Cheney asked his new mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we believe?” and Rumsfeld just laughs, and laughs, and laughs. This, to me, was the most important message of the movie, even more so than Cheney’s attempts to seize as much unchecked power as he could. It’s why I don’t trust conservative political parties. The modern Republican party, and more and more right-wing parties like them, have no values. No beliefs. They just want power, as much of it as they can grab, and to use that power to make themselves and their rich friends even richer.

Sure there’s entertainment in how they depict Cheney’s rise through the ranks, and they have a few fun Big Short-style “To explain subprime mortgages, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” moments. Also the narration works, provided by Jesse Plemons as a character with an unexpected connection to Cheney.

I also liked the mid-credit scene where they poke fun at how Republican voters are probably just going to dismiss the whole film as liberal bias and the country will remain divided. But if we’re talking biopics about the deep flaws in America that are more of a problem than ever…

1. BlackKklansman

Premise: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), first black police detective in Colorado Springs, decides to launch an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a white man over the phone, and enlisting Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take over the role for in-person meetings.

Hot take: And the only acting trophy goes to the white sidekick? Why you gotta be so white all the time, Oscars?

Hoo doggy. If we thought Green Book was unflinching in portraying racists as terrible people, check out what Spike Lee does. But while the dangers of the Klan are never understated, he also does enjoy making them look the fools. Something aided by a cameo from Alec Baldwin as… you’d just have to see it… Topher Grace as a seemingly-genial, easily-duped David Duke, and the inclusion of I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser, who has a gift for playing bad guys who are no less dangerous for being comically stupid.

Sure, Stallworth’s investigation didn’t exactly bring down the Klan, as the montage at the end of the movie of news footage from that long-ago year of 2017 reminds us that they remain a resurgent problem, but it is a tense and satisfying story just the same.

Even if it might not even be the best movie about a black guy pretending to be white on the phone.

Anyway that’s all of them. There have been worse years, there have been better years… and yeah, there’s something uninspiring about being this middle-of-the-road, but I’ll be watching the show just the same.