Chump Scares: Horror Movies to Avoid

There are a few movie genres that I will obsessively support, despite their poor batting averages. #1 on the list is horror – I watch at least one terrible haunted house/slasher/zombie/demonic doll picture per week, as part of a perpetual quest for that transcendently good scare. So why not put that wasted time to good use? Why not warn you, loyal reader, to not go down into that dark, musty basement … and watch The Prodigy?

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Chump Scare #1: Ma (2019)

A promising premise – a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spencer, too good for this shit) opens up her basement so a bunch of privileged white teens can get their drink on – is ruined by the warped priorities of its filmmakers. Writer/director Tate Taylor rushes through every disturbing revelation about “Ma,” despite the fact that a) her motivation is the engine of the whole story; b) every other character here is Saltine-bland; and c) the struggles of a woman of color do not exactly lend themselves to the 30 Rock smash-cut treatment. Taylor spends significantly more time outlining the mother-daughter dynamic between Boring Teen #1 (Diana Silvers, sleepwalking) and her single mom (hey, it’s Juliette Lewis!). It would be offensive if it wasn’t so bafflingly stupid. This is where I mention that Taylor directed The Help, and admit it’s my fault for expecting more.

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Chump Scare #2: The Prodigy (2019)

Where to start with The Prodigy? How about the description from the Netflix DVD slipcase: “In her much-anticipated foray into the horror-thriller genre, Taylor Schilling stars…” Like you, I’ve been on pins and needles for years, waiting for the perfectly okay actor Taylor Schilling to leave prison dramedy behind and FINALLY make a goddamn horror movie. And, dear reader, our thoughts and prayers have paid off. Schilling stars in The Prodigy – a done-to-death possessed-kid story full of borrowed ideas from classics like The Omen and The Babadook, and crappier forebears like Audrey Rose. The more her son starts to act like the Hungarian serial killer who has taken up residence in his body (He asks for paprika at dinner! Spooooooky!), the more Schilling … doesn’t change. Maybe I missed a scene that showed her character popping opioids, but she is inexplicably chill for what felt like an interminable 92 minutes. I’d rather listen to Prodigy than see this one again.

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Chump Scare #3: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

As someone who grew up watching the charmingly cheap, straight-to-VHS Puppet Master movies, as marathoned on TNT’s MonstervisionI was initially excited at the prospect of a self-aware reboot. Something that retained the campy flair of the originals and added some winking, fan-service humor. But even though it has the dependably hilarious Thomas Lennon in its lead role, The Littlest Reich doesn’t offer much in the way of either. Lennon’s mopey comic book store employee is there as a stand-in for the aging nerds of the film’s target audience, so he gets a half-baked, sure-to-be-murdered love interest and whisks her off to a Comic-Con-style event for collectors of dolls designed by a Nazi puppeteer. These Nazi demon puppets then start killing minorities, because they’re Nazis. This feels wrong for obvious reasons. But even more so in the context of this universe. The puppeteer from the original films, André Toulon, was an enemy of the Third Reich who infused his puppets with the souls of friends who died in the struggle. Which made it feel pretty good to root for those bloodthirsty marionettes back in the day. I have no clue what made these filmmakers think we’d want to cheer on some Nazis this time instead. There are most definitely not good puppets on both sides.

My Best Pictures

Here we are again, dear reader. Another Oscars is upon us. And you know what that means – I’m gonna nominate my own best pictures. Even though I’m a music critic. And even though I own the expanded editions of the Hobbit trilogy on Blu-Ray (there are two really good movies hidden in there!). Why? Because these eight films got to me in 2018, and I would like to share those feelings. What, you’re against SHARING now?

The envelope, please…

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers had been off their game this decade, mythologizing subjects that had already been beaten to death on film – e.g. white guys with guitars; the golden age of Hollywood. So the first time somebody is literally beaten to death in their existential Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s like welcoming home a nihilistic, hilarious old friend. 22 years after Fargo, these brothers are still unbelievably good at wringing poignancy from the casual depravity of human beings. Staring into the void like a grizzled old prospector, searching for gold.

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Blindspotting

Within the boundaries of a small narrative window – the last three days of an Oakland man’s probation – Carlos López Estrada’s debut feature tackles issues of racism, police brutality, gentrification, corporate branding, gun control, and cultural appropriation. And it does so with a mixture of humor and high theater that underlines how little things have changed since the 1989 release of one of its clear inspirations, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Daveed Diggs plays the mild-mannered Collin, a black man who works for a moving company with his white, hot-headed friend Miles (Rafael Casal). Their interplay, written by Diggs and Casal themselves, undulates between tension and release, hard-won bonds and deep-seated divisions. In other words, it’s American.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In the most prominent antihero narratives of this century, we were given permission to cheer on the acts of violent men, thanks to contrived character devices – they need therapy; they have a disease; they only hurt bad people. Marielle Heller’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me? lets us root for a rule-breaker too, but this time it’s a real person, with nuanced motives, who isn’t hurting anyone but themselves. Melissa McCarthy gives a brilliantly layered performance as Lee Israel, the down-on-her-luck biographer who got busted for selling forged letters from literary greats in the early 1990s. As Heller shows how much the cards were stacked against a middle-aged lesbian writing about what interested her, McCarthy lets us feel the depth of Lee’s frustration, as much through humor as anything – her wit is so sharp, it hurts.

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The Endless

With The Endless, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead prove it’s possible to make a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi original that’s way better than a SyFy Original. And they do so by turning their limitations into assets. Because it was cheaper, they cast themselves as the leads – two brothers who decide to go back and visit the bizarre sky-worshipping cult where they were raised. They’re convincing as people trapped in an impossible situation, probably because they really felt that way. They successfully build a compelling, creepy atmosphere, using little more than intimations and clues –getting more scares from a scene with a rope than 1,000 CGI zombies. And the unexpectedly moving moral they lay on us, about the value of communicating with the ones you love? Priceless.

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The Favourite

Films about British monarchs are always Oscar favorites. But Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest makes The King’s Speech look like a box of stale crisps. It’s 1708, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who should win everything) is in ill health, relying more and more on her friend, political advisor and lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, not fucking around). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, convincingly conniving) arrives at court looking for work, the film becomes a no-holds-barred power struggle between the three women. Full of blood and dirt and shit-talk and hilarious parodies of cotillion dances, The Favourite almost feels like a spoof of prestige palace intrigue dramas. But the acting is too damn good for that. When we see the ache in Colman’s eyes as she explains why she owns 17 rabbits, we see human need. And the understanding that there will always be people lining up outside her chambers, waiting for their chance to exploit it.

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Hereditary

When I reviewed The Shining as part of my ongoing series about Stephen King, I was struck by something the novel did better than the movie – explore how horrifying the idea of heredity can be. In 2018, first-time director Ari Aster came along and picked up those threads that Stanley Kubrick ignored. Hereditary is an intense, visionary horror story about a family with inescapable darkness in its DNA. Anchored by a riveting performance from Toni Collette, who plays a mother torn apart by grief and haunted by ancestral evil, Aster is free to absolutely drench his movie in dread. Small things like candy bars, doormats and clucking noises become unforgettably corrupted. Even scenes that happen in broad daylight are not reprieves. And why would they be, when the call is coming from inside your genes?

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Mandy

As a fan of Clive Barker, Ash Williams, and the most committed actor on the planet – Nicolas Cage – I probably would have enjoyed Mandy even if it was directed by some hack. But filmmaker Panos Cosmatos has made a psychedelic horror revenge spectacle, alive with mesmerizing, satanic-Lisa-Frank energy. In just one early scene where Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are lying in bed, talking about their favorite planets, Cosmatos wholeheartedly establishes their deep, quiet love. So when disaster strikes at the hands of a druggy, demon-summoning cult, the stakes are real. The ensuing long take of Cage crying in his underwear is probably what Mandy is most famous for – but it’s not a moment to rubberneck at weird ol’ Nic. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. As Red sets out for revenge on humans and hellspawn alike, we get a full hour of the best kind of B-movie thrills, elevated by A+ artistry.

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Support the Girls

Support the Girls may be officially categorized as a workplace comedy, but make no mistake – this is a superhero movie. Over the course of one workday as the manager of Double Whammies, a locally owned “breastaurant” mired in a thicket of Texas highways, we follow the unflinchingly optimistic Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall, nominated for Best Actress in an alternate dimension more just than our own), as she deals with one shitty situation after another – an attempted robbery, a cable outage, a racist boss, an alienated husband, a staff under constant threat of harassment. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski establishes a heartbreaking pattern: Lisa puts love out into the world, then the world throws it back in her face with onion-ring-slurping indifference. Each time, Hall’s smile slips just a little bit more. Until eventually, it’s Lisa’s turn to be supported. In the final scene, women that Lisa loved and protected help her process her outrage. Standing side by side, on a roof, as forces for good.

Honorable Mentions: Apostle, Black Panther, Breaking In, Chappaquiddick, Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, Ghost Stories, Halloween, Minding the Gap, Mom and Dad, Proud Mary, A Quiet Place, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother You, Suspiria, Unsane

What I Learned from “A Star Is Born”

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As a part of my yearly compulsion to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible, my Januaries and Februaries are jam-packed with biopics, melodramas, and movies about how magical movies are. As part of this year’s neurotic box-checking, I held my breath and pressed play on A Star Is Born, a straightforward story about a woman getting famous and dealing with a jealous-ass dude. If it sounds familiar, that’s probably because this version is the third reboot of the 1937 original. Why did director and star Bradley Cooper feel compelled to revisit this well-tread ground? Because Oscar voters adore well-tread ground. (And because he’s into Eddie Vedder cosplay.) Here’s what else this perfectly mediocre prestige picture has taught me:

1. Women can’t succeed until a man tells them they look pretty.

Our movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s booze-soaked rock star character, Jackson Maine (ugh), telling his driver to drop him off at the nearest bar, which happens to be a drag club. The drag queens give some precious stage time to their friend Ally (Gaga), who does a spirited sendup of “La Vie En Rose” that showcases her obvious talent. Maine invites Ally out for a drink after. And over the course of their rambling first date, she reveals that she’s never believed in herself because of insecurities about her looks. She’s resigned to a life working as a caterer with her Gay Best Friend™ and living with her dad. But then, Maine tells her she’s pretty. A few months later, she’s a star.

2. Male mumbling = Oscar gold

It seems weird at first when we hear Maine speak – Cooper gives him a deep, mushmouthed drawl, whether he’s drunk or sober. But Oscar voters love men who can’t enunciate! Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for playing a muttering country singer in the forgettable Crazy Heart. Billy Bob Thornton (deservedly) won Best Adapted Screenplay for his iconic caption-needer Sling Blade. Matthew McConaughey’s entire existence is one long mumble, and he won Best Actor for the pretty damn offensive Dallas Buyers Club. If Cooper wins this year, expect even more serious actors to start delivering lines like a sleepy hobo.

3. “If you don’t dig deep into your soul, you won’t have legs.”

I don’t know if I can claim to have learned this, because I have no idea what it means.

4. Southern rock is “real music.”

One of the most fantastical parts of this sweeping Hollywood romance is that a passable Southern rock performer would be not only a massive, universally recognized star, but a star-maker to boot, in 2018. I can suspend disbelief on this – he’s got great hair, and Blake Shelton does exist. But I can’t abide the movie’s weird obsession with romanticizing Maine’s musty genre. When Ally starts making pop music, it’s portrayed as a betrayal of Jackson’s gritty artistic ethos. As if music with guitars is somehow more meaningful. As if the actor playing Ally isn’t living proof that dance music inspires millions. Jackson Maine is an old crank muttering “disco sucks,” and the movie doesn’t have the decency to mock him for it.

5. Plot holes? Paper-thin characters? La-la-la I can’t hear you!!!

Way too much of A Star Is Born’s running time is devoted to Jackson & Ally performing. And that’s by design – much like fellow Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, this glut of concert/studio/rehearsal footage works to distract us from the underdeveloped main characters. Jackson & Ally’s relationship is pretty much a tire fire from the beginning, her love being no match for his alcoholism, unresolved anger toward his father, and out-of-control jealousy. But we only get an occasional glance at this dynamic, in between extended music videos of the film’s sturdy-enough original songs. So when the movie (82-year-old spoilers ahead) takes a dark final turn, it feels completely unearned. Not that I’m complaining – I needed those musical distractions to get me through. In fact, let’s insert Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury performances into every misguided modern drama! Just imagine if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri spent less time trying to get us to empathize with a racist cop, and cut to a vintage performance of “Somebody to Love” instead.

 

 

 

 

 

My Best Pictures

Hello, Oscar junkies! We’re only two days away from that global TV event that’s just like the Super Bowl, except you watch what’s in between the commercials instead! Usually this is the place where I bemoan the bland/whitewashed/Hollywood-worshipping nature of the odds-on favorite. But I have some reasons to be hopeful this year, and goddammit I’m gonna make the most of it.

Reason #1: Upsets are a thing now

For two years running, the expected winner has lost. Spotlight beat out The Revenant in 2016, and last year, Moonlight upset La La Land.

Reason #2: Celebrating diversity in Hollywood is kinda sorta starting to become a thing now

It would be ignorant to expect Academy voters to be seriously swayed by the #TimesUp, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. One Moonlight nod does not erase 89 years of American Beautys. But notions of equal representation in film have never been so prominent. An optimist could assume that in this revolutionary new context, one might think twice about voting for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, the movie version of every think piece that told us we need to empathize with blue-collar Trump voters.

Reason #3: Reasons to have Oscar optimism don’t come along every day.

I’m still smarting from Crash beating Brokeback Mountain over here. So let me have my moment and predict a win for Get Out, the most relevant, intensely entertaining movie I saw in 2017. I really think it will happen! What the hell is wrong with me?

While I’m surfing this newfound wave of Oscars optimism (a.k.a. “riding the golden man”), why not talk about the movies that I’d nominate for Best Picture? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name looks like how falling in love feels. Luca Guadagino’s sumptuous coming-of-age story wrenches every drop of chlorophyll out of its Italian countryside setting. As our main character Elio finds strength, encouragement, and exhilarating joy in his budding relationship with his father’s assistant Oliver, Guadagino fills our eyes with lush vegetation, fresh water and bountiful fruit. Their happiness is palpable, and Elio’s father notices. And what he eventually tells his son is a lesson in how all such love should be treated – as a precious resource, given all the freedom in the world to grow.

A Dark Song

This slow-burn Irish horror film is like its protagonist Sophia – determined, patient, and in search of something extraordinary. Writer/director Liam Gavin spends a majority of his first feature letting us wonder about the schlubby occultist hired by Sophia to summon her guardian angel, using a real-life ritual called the Abramelin Operation. Is it all for real? Or is he just some creep? When we finally get our answer, so does Sophia, who rises like a phoenix from her grief, surrounded by a level of visual splendor that must’ve taken a lot of willpower to save for the end.

Get Out

Every horror fan has found themselves urging a character to leave the dark basement/ancient burial ground/abandoned mental hospital they’re bravely wandering around in. In Jordan Peele’s prescient “social thriller” Get Out, that dangerous, haunted place is America. It’s the story of Chris, a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. What happens on this family’s finely manicured home turf is a terrifying, crystal clear allegory for our country’s twisted obsession with the cultural and physical appropriation of an entire race. In this idyllic little hamlet, there are most definitely not very good people on both sides.

Happy Death Day

“What if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie?” sounds like one lazy-ass pitch. But that perfectly describes Happy Death Day, which turned out to be a clever rumination on the weight of social pressure on young people. As our main character Tree finds herself in a time loop that always ends in murder, she gains more self-confidence with each repeated day. She’s more true to herself in public; she takes time to process her grief; she investigates, and successfully unmasks, her murderer. Refreshingly unpredictable, empathetic and self-aware, this is something I’d happily experience again. And again.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Gone are the days of Commando, where the relationship between John Matrix and his daughter is established by the end of the opening credits, leaving as much time as possible for quippy, campy carnage. But the second installment of the John Wick series contains some echoes of that 1980s no-nonsense muscle. Keanu Reeves returns as the titular grieving husband and dog lover, and it only takes a few minutes for him to be on the run from hundreds of highly trained, heavily armed vigilantes. It’s one extended action sequence after another, blocked with the style and precision of ballet – bodies undulating through space, armories akimbo.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes this list for the second year running, with this deeply disturbing tale of a troubled teen leveraging a doctor’s warped priorities to wreak havoc on his family. Lanthimos’s characters all talk in stilted, disinterested monotones, resulting in a funhouse mirror abstraction of suburban life that shifts from awkwardly hilarious to intensely chilling as the film unfolds. Barry Keoghan gives an unforgettable performance as the vengeful, blackmailing, child-poisoning Martin. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman relish their chance to play Martin’s socially stunted victims. By the end, the story gets as dark as anything I saw in 2017, without ever striking a tone that wasn’t completely its own.

Phantom Thread

The main character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s intoxicating eighth feature is Reynolds Woodcock, the head of a couture fashion house in 1950s London. Or at least, that’s how most people see him. Until he meets a waitress in a country pub named Alma, who sees him entirely. There’s a reason why a central crisis in Phantom Thread involves a wedding dress. It’s a story about marriage, and the very specific kinds of human synergy that make the the most successful ones work. Anderson gives Alma and Reynolds a push-pull narrative that reaches a level of intensity others could see as grounds for divorce. But for this particular husband and wife, there couldn’t be anything more nourishing.

My Best Pictures

La La Land, a movie about a loveless couple that argues about jazz, garnered 14 Oscar nominations this year, tied for the most ever. Which isn’t all that surprising, because Damien Chazelle’s meta-retro-musical checks many of the boxes of recent overrated Oscar winners: It’s an homage to a classic genre like The Artist. Like Birdman, its lead male character finds solace in a more “legitimate” art form. Like Argo, it celebrates people who turn to Hollywood during a crisis. But La La Land falls even flatter than those flawed examples, not to mention the last movie to rack up 14 nominations, Titanic. Because Chazelle doesn’t spend any creative energy establishing a rapport between his romantic leads. He doesn’t give us one semblance of a reason why they’re falling in love. Instead, we’re just supposed to be swept away by scenes of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally floating in space. These aren’t people. They’re just stars.

“But Sweensryche, what if it was up to you? What would you nominate for Best Picture instead of La La Land?” asked nobody. Well, nobody, here’s your answer. I’m truly flattered by your interest!

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13th

Ava Duvernay’s documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans is remarkable not only for the institutionalized racism and lobbyist corruption it unveils, but the way it untangles it all into a crisp and linear narrative that people of all ages can understand.

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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

It is downright amazing, sweetie darling, what Jennifer Saunders has pulled off – the ideal film version of her fashion-industry-slapstick BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, which debuted in 1992. Eddie and Patsy are on the lam for potentially drowning Kate Moss, and they’re as selfish and preposterous and there for each other as ever before.

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Christine

This quiet, considerate biopic of Sarasota TV journalist Christine Chubbuck – who committed suicide during a live broadcast in 1974 – succeeds by valuing human interest over violence. Rebecca Hall portrays Chubbuck as a driven professional in a field that prefers sensationalism and men with “fatherly presences.” It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, where determination is as visible as depression.

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The Fits

This stunning debut from director Anna Rose Holmer tells the story of Toni, a girl who joins a dance troupe right before it’s hit with an outbreak of mysterious seizures. What begins as a chilling tale of adolescent dread becomes an uplifting allegory about the experience of growing up female. By the end, Holmer is tapping into the spiritual plane.

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The Lobster

A delightfully dark and absurdist send-up of algorithm-based matchmaking, The Lobster imagines a hotel for singles in which they have 45 days to find a suitable mate or be transformed into an animal of their choice. Eventually the focus shifts from the hotel to a group of rebels in the woods, where true love blossoms – stubbornly, organically, and unforgettably.

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Moonlight

In Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we see three different stages in the life of Chiron, a boy trying to retain his sense of self while growing up gay in the Miami projects with an emotionally abusive mother. He finds tenderness in this minefield, and love that burns across decades.

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Lonely Island’s take on the millennial pop star documentary was an underrated addition to the spoof comedy genre. Popstar uses the rise and kitchen-appliance-related-fall of Connor Friel (aka Connor4Real) to extract some grade-A silliness from the bones of the pop industrial complex.

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The Wailing

This South Korean tale of demonic possession is a 156-minute downward spiral. Kwak Do-wan gives an unbelievable performance as the bumbling policeman Jong-goo, who we meet as a B-movie goofball and say goodbye to as a pale husk. Director Na Hong-jin stuffs this story with shamans and reanimated corpses, devil caves and mysterious cabins. But he never loses sight of what it’s all about – a family under siege.

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The Witch

This is a movie about witches set in 17th century New England. But this ain’t Salem, and the only trials  involve what our main character Thomasin has to deal with. Her useless father got the family kicked out of town over a Biblical argument. Her mother blames her for everything. Her siblings keep getting killed by an entity in the woods. By the end, she has a choice to make. And continuing life as a woman during the height of American Puritanism is easily the scarier option.

My Best Pictures

So here we are, a week before we get to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give a bunch of awards to Alejandro’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Camping Trip. Per the usual, it’s gonna be a long, depressingly whitewashed event, drunk on its own twisted definition of “prestige picture.” Movie about a man beating insurmountable odds so he can exact revenge? Prestige Picture. Movie about a woman beating insurmountable odds so she can exact revenge? Genre Picture. Look, I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins Best Picture. But ever since February 2006, when I assumed Brokeback Mountain was a lock – especially with insulting dreck like Crash as its competition – I’ve learned to expect the worst.

But enough negativity. It’s the Oscars. I’m going to watch the shit out of them. And I’m going to picture what the Best Picture field would look like if it was up to me, just like every year:

 

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Best of Enemies

At a time when “watching the news” means a screen full of red-assed pundits yelling themselves hoarse, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us back to the beginning of it all – the televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Their film is as compulsively watchable as those ideological showdowns were, framing them as the moment when TV editorializing went from “Point/Counterpoint” to “Point/Shut Up I’m Still Talking.”

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

The Hateful Eight

When the script for his eighth film leaked, I can see why Quentin Tarantino initially freaked out and announced he would never shoot it. Because while it has the look and feel and language of a period Western, at its heart, it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, set in a cabin in a snowstorm. No-spoiler rules most definitely apply. So I’ll only say that The Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino – three hours of some of his best, most crackling dialogue, along with expertly deployed flashbacks and perspective shifts that hearken all the way back to Pulp Fiction.

 

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller’s fourth installment of his Mad Max series continues the trajectory of its namesake – a post-apocalyptic loner forever scarred by the murder of his family. But Max (a quiet and weary Tom Hardy) is not the protagonist here. Fury Road is the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, never better), a steely-eyed, one-armed soldier running on dual engines of outrage and hope. She rescues the sex slaves of the tyrant Immortan Joe, hiding them in her armored rig. What follows is an exhilarating, non-stop chase sequence and overwhelmingly satisfying revenge tale. By the end, a semi full of traumatized people are driving full speed at their oppressors. And we learn that power is one thing. And strength is another.

 

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Spotlight

After watching Best of Enemies, and ruminating on how cable news became the Limp Bizkit to Gore Vidal’s Rage Against the Machine, Spotlight might just be comfort food you need. This engrossing procedural drama projects a deep love for newspaper journalism, while still keeping one eye on realism. Director Tom McCarthy – who so convincingly played a reporter with spotty ethics on The Wire – depicts the true story of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team uncovered a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the rampant pedophilia in its ranks. McCarthy does for journalists what the best episodes of Law & Order did for cops. They work hard. They expose lies. They achieve some level of justice. Then we shut off the tube, and sleep better.

 

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Spy

Don’t worry, survivors of Austin Powers In Goldmember. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third movie together isn’t a spy spoof. It’s a legitimately great spy movie – action-packed, intricately plotted, and very, very funny. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent stuck as the personal assistant of special agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Then disaster strikes, Cooper gets promoted, and the film ingeniously flips the script on your typical McCarthy comedy. We learn quickly that Cooper is more than just a lovable goof. She’s a brilliant agent, a highly trained fighter and marksman – far better than Fine or Rick Ford (Jason Statham, mocking himself with aplomb). Yet the CIA keeps giving her dowdy and sexless secret identities, a sly metaphor for Hollywood’s expectations of McCarthy. Her frustrated reactions to these moments are what make them funny. She’s acknowledging what she’s up against, before proceeding to gleefully kick its ass.

 

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Tangerine

Shot on iPhones and starring untrained actors, Tangerine is a refreshingly unpolished snapshot of friendship, following two transgender prostitutes as they navigate the streets, buses and donut shops of Los Angeles. Its plot is thin: When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison, she finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend has been cheating. Sin-Dee goes out looking for him. By keeping the story this simple, director Sean S. Baker can let the scenes play out in an Altman-esque way, with conversations starting, stopping, and overlapping in a way that believably mimics real life. It’s spiked with a joyful energy, but the darker moments feel just as organic. Like the final scene in a laundromat, which has the power of 1,000 “Lean On Mes.”

 

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When Marnie Was There

The final film to be produced before Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and Studio Ghibli’s ensuing hiatus (god it hurts to write that), When Marnie Was There makes masterful use of the “magical summer in the country” trope to tell the story of a child who worries that no one loves her unconditionally. When Anna discovers that her foster parents receive government payments for raising her, she becomes depressed. After a serious asthma attack, she is sent to stay with relatives in a gorgeous country home. Across the water, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all. Written and directed with tenderness and wonder by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret Life of Arriety), When Marnie Was There shimmers with natural light, and sparkles with the thrill of discovery. “You are more loved than you realize,” it says to us. What an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye.

My Best Picture Nominees

I can’t claim to understand why the Oscars are taken so seriously. How could a voting body honor the likes of Crash, and still be given control over the conversation of what movies were great in a given year? The Oscars lionize as much tepid, whitewashed pablum as the Grammys, but the former remains an Event, and the latter is a punchline. It makes no sense, but I have to admit, I love that unearned cred. I love that my wife and I are planning an entire weekend around the Oscar broadcast, that I’m going to try and make fancy appetizers, that we actually watched The Imitation Game so we could marvel at its foolproof Oscar formula (British accents + misunderstood genius plastering pieces of paper to a wall + moment where a bunch of people say “if you fire him, then you’ll have to fire me” = nominations galore). I love that Birdman could win Best Picture on Sunday, and that some small, illogical part of me will actually be upset. On a certain level, I will care that a stylized PSA about the plight of famous American actors (who sometimes get bad reviews and aren’t taken seriously, poor dears) will go down in history as declaratively better than SelmaI don’t care about sports, but maybe this is why people love them – to have a pony or two in the race, and to be emotionally invested in how they do, regardless of how little sense that makes.

Anyhoo, I’ve put together a list of what I would nominate for the Best Picture of 2014. And goddammit, it’s because I care.

The Babadook

The Babadook

First-time director Jennifer Kent enters a realm of psychological horror in which Stephen King would feel downright cozy. The titular meanie is a horrifying Edward Gorey character gone mad, and as it jumps off its pop-up pages to infiltrate the lives of Amelia and her son Samuel, the frayed nerve endings of their shared family tragedy are painfully exposed. An allegory for the grieving process, and an exploration of how goddamn hard parenting can be, Kent’s film isn’t afraid to show its soul, and is all the more terrifying for it.

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Blue Ruin

On top of being a way to describe a feeling of utter desolation, “blue ruin” is also an archaic term for low-end gin. And in Jeremy Saulnier’s elegantly brutal, Kickstarter-funded thriller of the same name, his main character would’ve been better off medicating the former with the latter. Instead, Dwight Evans – played with quiet, schlubby intensity by Macon Blair – spends years planning revenge on the man who killed his parents. When his target is released from prison, this plan immediately goes to hell. From that point forward, the tension heightens in direct relation to the vacancy in Blair’s eyes. There’s no such thing as payback here. There’s just bankruptcy.

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Dear White People

Using a college campus as the setting for an exploration of 21st century black identity and white privilege – as well as the ways that social media, reality TV and family dynamics can promote the distortion of self – writer/director Justin Simien illustrates the frustrations of living in a deeply prejudiced society that really wants to believe racism isn’t a thing anymore. Weaving through the sharp Spike Lee callbacks and slobs vs. snobs satire are Sam White and Lionel Higgins (Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, both terrific). Both are hiding elements of themselves, whether it’s underneath some passionate rhetoric or an unruly afro. And both reach new levels of self-confidence at a gruesome, hip-hop-themed frat party (whose basis in reality makes it all the more sickening). These character arcs form the backbone of Simien’s film. Their sweet triumphs are also his.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, it looked like it was gonna be little more than an airy romp – a clever slapstick period piece set in a hotel that looks like a big pink layer cake. I feel for whoever had to cut that thing. Because this is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most ambitious story. He flexes his writing muscles more than ever, stacking flashbacks like nesting dolls until we’re back in 1932, watching wide-eyed lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and kinetic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a hilarious, tender, career-best performance) operate the titular hotel in its prime. What follows is epic and basic, funny and tragic, violent and sweet. But most of all, it’s romantic, in a way that transcends ornate set designs and vengeful Dafoes and vicious Nazi stand-ins. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big celebration of that moment when you know you’ve found your person. With plenty of cake to go with it.

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Selma

It’s crazy that until last year, nobody had made a major motion picture where the main character was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it just takes one look at the ongoing criticism of Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson to understand why. These people prefer their condemnations of racism to come from the mouths of white saviors, and Hollywood’s compliance to those expectations has resulted in big box office (The Help made $169 million domestic). Which just makes Selma feel all the more masterful. Director Ava Duvernay has made a movie that – god forbid – credits King for the civil rights victories of the 1960s, by focusing on one event in his life, in a clear, measured way that avoids typical biopic lionization. It’s what Spielberg couldn’t quite pull off with Lincoln – a film that humanizes an icon by jettisoning easy re-enactments in order to focus on how the historical sausage was made. Instead of the typical loaded flashbacks, or they-feel-this-way-and-so-should-you shots of awe-inspired followers, Duvernay shoots meetings between organizers, arguments between planners. She directly addresses King’s marital infidelities. She gives as much screen time to his moments of doubt as his inspirational speeches. She gets a brilliantly subdued performance out of David Oyelowo that never feels like an impression. She depicts the voting rights marches that give the movie its spine with brutal clarity, and haunting relevance. By tackling one of the most emotionally charged moments in our nation’s history with a cool, even hand, Duvernay has made an MLK movie with a distinctly MLK sensibility.

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Wild

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir takes the concept of a redemptive journey quite literally. Writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Valleé let the metaphors fall where they may as we follow Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in a rich performance that makes her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash feel like a cartoon) through a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The vastness of the landscapes speak for themselves. As do the moments of toenail sloughing pain, and the unspoken, ever-present threats from the men Strayed meets in the wilderness. Through artfully deployed flashbacks, we learn the driving forces behind Strayed’s journey, in bits and pieces. Her mother, and her emotional bedrock, dies, and Strayed spirals into self-destruction. This backstory is treated with the same restraint as the main trekking narrative, giving us just enough of a glimpse to make a connection. Throughout, Wild is content with showing, and moving on. “How wild it was, to let it be,” muses Strayed as she nears her journey’s end. Here’s a film that takes that line to heart.