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.”

 

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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.

Who’s gonna win, whether I like it or not.

So, the Oscars are on Sunday. And for a reason I still find tough to define, I’m going to watch them. I expect hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway to do a passable job – Franco does have some comedic chops, evidenced by his SNL and 30 Rock guest spots. But after the way Ricky Gervais made celebrities squirm, gasp and complain at the Golden Globes, any attempt at humor is going to seem like a Dave Barry column. Guaranteed, neither host will make Robert Downey Jr. get up and call the event “hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones.” Which is too bad.

Anyhoo, here are my picks for who’s gonna win this silly thing that I care about:

Best Supporting Actor

Who Will Win: John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone. The safe money’s on Christian Bale, whose “I luv my bruddah!!!” histrionics are a hardware magnet. But while WB might be an underdog on Sunday, but it’s also the kind of underdog story that wins Oscars. And Hawkes’ performance as the bad-ass-with-a-heart-of-gold Teardrop is both beautifully fashioned and easy to adore.

Who I’m Rooting For: Hawkes. Though if Geoffrey Rush wins, I’ll be content – his crisp comedic performance got me through The King’s Speech.

Best Supporting Actress

Who Will Win: Melissa Leo, The Fighter. If Bale loses, this is the only other category in which the Academy can reward all the melodrama. Plus, Leo’s a hard-working, somewhat unsung character actor, which always makes for a good story.

Who I’m Rooting For: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom. Her performance as a sickly sweet matriarch was a high point of this well-crafted tale of an Australian crime family. Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as the bull-headed heroine Mattie Ross is also very much deserving.

Best Actor

Who Will Win: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech. While Firth approached this role with the respect and restraint it deserved, the end result just wasn’t all that compelling. Even Bridget Jones’s Diary made better use of his oozing good-naturedness. But, it’s a role that requires altering your vocal patterns (read: ACTING!), so he’ll win.

Who I’m Rooting For: Jeff Bridges, True Grit. It would be awesome if he could pull a Hanks. I’d also applaud if they honored Jesse Eisenberg’s cold, obnoxious turn in The Social Network.

Best Actress

Who Will Win: Natalie Portman, Black Swan. Did you hear that she trained to be a ballerina for this? (read: ACTING!)

Who I’m Rooting For: Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right. While this family dramedy was just all right, Bening’s performance was spot-on as usual, refusing to get all Oscar winner-y when her character gets cheated on, preferring to weather most of the storm on the inside – you know, like real people do.

Best Screenplay (Adapted)

Who Will Win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network. Probably the only no-brainer of the night.

Who I’m Rooting For: Sorkin, but the Coens adaptive work is certainly worthy as well.

Best Screenplay (Original)

Who Will Win: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg, The Kids are All Right. The Academy’s gonna want to throw a bone to this movie in some way, to show they support old-fashioned family-centered stories.

Who I’m Rooting For: Mike Leigh, Another Year. Haven’t seen this yet, but the guy’s in a league of his own.

Best Director

Who Will Win: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech. It’s between Hooper, whose feel-good period piece is certainly well-crafted, and David Fincher, whose steady hand made a cynical, dialogue-driven character study go down easy.

Who I’m Rooting For: Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit. If they hadn’t won a few years back, perhaps they’d be in the running, a la Scorsese’s compensatory win for The Departed. They did, though, which is too bad, because their vision of this simple American story is as stark, troubled and inspiring as the country itself.

Best Picture

Who Will Win: The Social Network. The Academy will let us know that they still adore light, drab, “important” fare like The King’s Speech, but by giving the big prize to the “Facebook movie,” they’ll also let us know that they’re “with it.”

Who I’m Rooting For: True Grit. My favorite of the bunch, by a lot. TSN’s backs-and-forths are electric, but stacked side by side with the Coens’ simple tale of redemption, it’s all too obvious that, at least in 2010, less was more.

The Oscars have arrived.

Just watched the announcement of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture:

Black Swan – Haven’t seen it, not sure if I can take another two hours of Darren Aronofsky treating me like an idiot (and Natalie Portman crying).
The Fighter – Also haven’t seen it. Pretty much know what this has to offer, and I like my triumphs of the human spirit without screamy man speeches.
Inception – Mindblowing visuals. Headache-inducing story.
The Kids are All Right – A charming enough family drama that benefits greatly from the existence of Annette Bening.
The King’s Speech – A charming enough British period piece that benefits greatly from the existence of Geoffrey Rush.
127 Hours – My indifference to this one has resulted in me not having seen it. Crazy, huh?
The Social Network – A look at what megalomania looks like in the 21st century, propelled by fabulously constructed, rapid-fire dialogue.
Toy Story 3 – Missed the first and second parts of the series, and have heard from many folks that this installment will make me miserably sad. Maybe I’ll wait until summer to take in the trilogy.
True Grit – Jeff Bridges’ blustery performance is a treat, but the way the Coens make room for him in this simple adventure story is equally enthralling.
Winter’s Bone – Where Deliverance was gratuitous, these backwoods are stark, quietly frightening, and ultimately hopeful.

Franz List: Worst Pictures

How can you tell I’m not a real movie critic, beyond my lack of knowledge and questionable writing ability? I care about the Oscars. In 1992, when Silence of the Lambs cleaned house, I was watching the event for the first time. And considering that Silence of the Lambs was pretty much the greatest movie I’d ever seen, I thought this award show was pretty cool (despite Billy Crystal’s insufferable bullshit). Since then, however, I’ve felt like Clarice Starling – horrified and fumbling in the darkness.

With Oscar season upon us – nominations will be announced on January 25, with the ceremony set for February 27  – I figured why not relive some of those horrible moments? Here’s my list of the five worst movies to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in my lifetime.

5. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
What if Romeo & Juliet was autobiographical? This is the concept behind Shakespeare in Love, a movie that would be inane enough if it didn’t poison a grade A cast with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. If whimsy’s what you’re after, there’s more than enough here to choke an ox.

What I was rooting for: The Thin Red Line. While I’m not one for war movies, and found Terence Malick’s meditative style a bit tedious, at least the thing was beautiful.

4. Crash (2005)
Do the Trite Thing.

What I was rooting for: Brokeback Mountain. Thought I’d actually be happy this time, as a movie I adored was the odds-on favorite. I hadn’t learned my lesson.

3. Titanic (1997)
There’s usually something moving about characters who carry flames for a lost lover, deep into old age. But when James Cameron tried to find a common thread between this type of romance and one of history’s most epic tragedies, the result was as unfeeling as the iciest of Arctic waters.

What I was rooting for: L.A. Confidential. Even though Russell Crowe is a walking cliché, it’s film noir done right.

2. American Beauty (1999)
In the real world, when a middle-aged man gets his mid-life crisis Corvette, it’s embarrassing. In American Beauty, when he does this times 100, he’s a hero. And beyond telling us to worship at the altar of the male ego, the movie teaches us a valuable lesson about closeted homosexuals: They will murder you!

What I was rooting for: The Sixth Sense. One of the most imaginative ghost stories I’ve ever seen; the best of a very weak field.

1. Forrest Gump (1994)
A man does whatever he’s told – including going to war – without once questioning if it’s in his best interests, and lives an impossibly exciting life. A woman fights for what she believes in, and dies of AIDS. I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney wrote this.

What I was rooting for: Pulp Fiction. Like, duh.