How many times can one woman be emancipated? That’s the hyperbolic question posed by Mariah Carey’s blockbuster comeback The Emancipation of Mimi, the year’s second-biggest-selling album. In case you’re wondering, the answer is at least three, but Mariah wasn’t the only one making a comeback in 2005. It was a year of return-to-forms, from Garbage’s gloriously hard-edged Bleed Like Me to Ani DiFranco’s understated Knuckle Down (the folk icon’s most focused, pure, and emotional work in years) to the Dave Matthews Band’s Stand Up (the quintet’s most ambitious, fluid set since 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets) to Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (which, in its first three weeks, has already outsold the singer’s last album). Fiona Apple also made a comeback of sorts: After a six-year hiatus, the infamously volatile singer-songwriter’s latest made its debut on the web, not record store shelves, and it’s this version, not the largely-rerecorded release, that tops our list.
1. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
It figures that Fiona Apple would finally record an album I could get behind 100% and then decide she’s unhappy with it. “I’m a frightened, fickle person,” Apple sings on “Better Version of Me”—it’s an unfortunate truth, but you can’t hate her for it, and I don’t. “My method is uncertain,” she continues a few songs later, “It’s a mess but it’s working.” And, thankfully, the songs are so damn good it didn’t really matter how or when the album saw the light of day. Still, the ghosts of Jon Brion’s original masterpiece haunt—or, more accurately, taunt—the officially released Extraordinary Machine. For every song that’s been improved there’s one that’s been unnecessarily tooled with. Dr. Dre associate Mike Elizondo’s drum programming and slick production values restrict what was once free and spirited. Brion’s version of the album (and make no mistake, it’s as much his baby as it is Apple’s) is more classically arranged, layered with Sgt. Pepper’s-esque strings, horns, bells, and whistles. There’s magic in the original leaked recordings, a feeling of daring and wonder, a sense of two people locked in a room (or, in this case, L.A.’s Paramour Ballroom with a full orchestra) beyond the reach of radio airwaves and outside context. Brion managed to give the recordings a warmth and intimacy that leveraged the bombast of his Vaudeville-esque arrangements. It also helps that this is Apple’s most mature collection of songs to date. In a word: extraordinary.
2. Patrick Wolf, Wind in the Wires
Armed with a penchant for the melodramatic and a bevy of musical toys, Patrick Wolf, a lanky 21-year-old singer-songwriter from South London who stands 6’4” with dyed black hair and elfin, pasty-white features, can at times come off as a little too precocious for his own good. Luckily for him (and us), he’s a damn good composer, no doubt due to his one-year stint at Trinity College music conservatory following the release of his solo debut Lycanthropy, after which he retreated to a harbor town in Cornwall, England, to record the follow-up Wind in the Wires. Almost entirely surrounded by water and secluded from the rest of England, the Cornwall peninsula was the perfect place for Wolf to sink into his songs. In fact, the environment seems to have informed most of the lyrics. The album bristles with life, furtive and gothic, like the Cornish cottages and castles around him—you can almost smell the salt in the air, you almost can feel the damp granite, you can almost hear the creaking doors and the solitary caws of gulls “lost at sea.”
3. Madonna, Confessions on a Dance Floor
Madonna’s American Life was a bona fide folk album, a record filled with literal protest songs by an artist who’d evidently forgotten she’d been making candy-coated ones throughout her entire career (“Holiday,” “Express Yourself,” “Music,” et al.). >Confessions on a Dance Floor, her 10th non-soundtrack studio album, was purported to be a return to her club roots. Sure, the album might be pure dance, without a trace of a live string arrangement (blame the death of Michel Colombier, Madge’s arranger of choice since 2000), but Madonna hasn’t written in such an orchestral manner since, well, maybe ever (credit producer Stuart Price, whose parents were classically-trained musicians). The bridges and ascending chord progressions of songs like “Jump” and “Sorry” are reminiscent of Madonna’s collaborations with Pat Leonard, who helped bring a musicality to some of her best work. The album’s 12 tracks work better as a whole, not as individual singles, and not just because one track segues into the next. It makes sense that songs like “Hung Up” and “How High” were sprung from the loins of what was originally intended to be a musical score; the album could easily be adapted into a musical—albeit one best kept to the tour stage, where Madonna has always aimed for a theatre experience anyway—and performed in sequence beginning with her arrival at a club and ending with blissful revelation the following morning. But with >Confessions on a Dance Floor, an album sparked by the singer’s desire to invoke “ABBA on ecstasy,” Madonna doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, she simply rolls with it.
4. M.I.A., Arular
M.I.A.’s long-delayed debut, Arular (the political name given to her father, co-founder of a Tamil militant group in Sri Lanka), opens with M.I.A. demanding, “Get yourself an education!” Despite her ticking-time-bomb collages of beats and infectious hooks (in and of themselves enough to pledge allegiance to the M.I.A. consortium), it would behoove even the casual hipster to educate themselves on the tumultuous history that informs much of the album. Born Maya Arulpragasam in London, M.I.A. bounced back and forth between the civil war-torn Sri Lanka and India before settling in the projects of South London and discovering—and learning English via—hip-hop music. While filming a tour documentary, Canadian electro-rapper Peaches introduced Maya to a Roland groovebox, with which Maya frantically wrote most of Arular, and the rest is, as they say, history. It’s easy to diagnose Maya’s outlandish tech-hip-pop as World Music, that ever blurry wasteland of a category bookended by The Tao of Pooh and any one of Deepak Chopra’s many self-help books, but Arular is a head-turning, head-bopping album that defies even that sweeping genre.
5. Annie, Anniemal
Nordic pop singer Annie has been making music since the late ’90s, when her very first single, “The Greatest Hit,” began sending minor sonic ripples across the globe. The track, co-written and produced by her late boyfriend Tore Korknes, samples the debut single by another, more famous blond pop singer, and it’s a testament to both Madonna and Annie that M’s recycled synth-loop and elastic bassline still sound as fresh as they did in 1999 and, yes, even 1982. “Greatest Hit” almost didn’t make the cut on Annie’s full-length debut, but we’re glad it did; it helps suss out the R&B-influenced dance sound of songs like the clever “Me Plus One” and the midtempo “No Easy Love.” Born Annie Lilia Berge-Strand, Annie the songwriter is breathless and unsure of herself, her voice barely registering above a church-wafer-thin whisper and the album ends on a mellow, melancholy note, but just take it as your cue to restart the disc and enjoy the pleasures of Anniemal all over again.
6. Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now
Antony’s voice is instantly inimitable; he makes the kind of music that compels you to stop talking and start listening. The mind tries to place the vibrato (like that of Nina Simone but more feminine), the swooning diva falsetto (similar to Jeff Buckley but more vulnerable), but his voice is truly unique and, despite the unfortunate aphorism of his band’s name and the implications of the album’s title, Antony the artist is ultimately sexless. In many ways, it’s the listener who provides the gender. Antony and the Johnsons’s I Am a Bird Now takes us on a morbid journey from confusion to comfort (Boy George’s guest vocal performance on the song “You Are My Sister” is like that of an old queen taking a new one under his wing), and from the beginning of death to its quiet, ephemeral end. It’s all surprisingly uplifting, almost in a giddy way, as Antony—or Candy Darling, as pictured on her deathbed on the album’s cover—goes flying like a “bird girl.” Call it a gay fantasia on sexual and spiritual themes.
7. Sigur Ró, Takk…
More gauzy serenity from the Icelandic quartet, only this time they’ve added more structure to their often-formless compositions, tiny explosions of electric guitar, and lyrics sung in an internationally recognized language! With Takk…, Sigur Rós are one English language album away from replacing Coldplay as the new Biggest Band in the World…and here’s hoping that never happens.
8. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart
Worlds Apart, the fourth album from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a seamless wartime concept album that attempts to paint a portrait of America halfway through the first decade of the 21st century. It succeeds, in part, by accurately capturing at least a segment of the country’s social unrest, but the album’s real strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t crumble into a massive heap beneath the weight of its creators’ grandiose ambition (think Smashing Pumpkins but less obviously beautiful or the Who with a little more grit). It’s no surprise the post-punk trio originally set up shop in Olympia, WA; this is the kind of music Courtney Love wishes she could make, and the violent and compassionate Worlds Apart is the record Celebrity Skin should have been. Trail of Dead might not sound like Nirvana but they’ve certainly captured that band’s angst-ridden, anti-establishment spirit.
9. Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi
9. Though she’s been “emancipated” before, Mariah Carey claims she titled her latest album The Emancipation of Mimi because she finally feels free to be who she really is, no apologies. And who is Mariah Carey exactly? Like her peers (you know, seventh graders), Mariah is someone who wants to be popular and Mimi expertly delivered the goods by appealing to an urban music-dominated marketplace while simultaneously pleasing old fans. Despite its 14 tracks, the album clocks in at a full 15 minutes less than 2002’s Charmbracelet, a testament to the unfussiness of the songs—few even contain bridges of any kind. But whatever the songs lack, they make up for in restraint; brevity keeps you wanting more (just as you start to hear the flaws in Mimi’s voice, the padded hook kicks in or the song fades), which is really Mimi’s virtue—at least until that glutinous reissue, complete with “We Belong Together” retread “Don’t Forget About Us.” The original release, however, reprises and builds on the old school Motown sound that was hinted at on her last album. Mimi is one of Mariah’s most soulful endeavors and her most consistently listenable album since her last emancipation proclamation, Butterfly.
10. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook
Each year I struggle to decide what to place at the bottom of my Top 10, and I always find myself coming back to Missy Elliott. Good ol’ reliable Miss Elliott. Two years ago, Missy’s This Is Not a Test! edged out Nelly Furtado’s surprisingly earthy Folklore for my bottom slot…but just barely. In 2002, Under Construction also rounded out my Top 10, while her junior effort Miss E…So Addictive placed one slot higher a year earlier. The fact is, Missy’s work is best appreciated over time and most of those albums would probably rank higher today, and the infallibly consistent The Cookbook will probably be no exception. In many ways, it’s stronger than its predecessors in that, having dispensed with Timbaland, Missy took full control of the kitchen, diversifying her already diverse sonic palette (with the likes of Slick Rick, Scott Storch, and the Neptunes) and proving that her beats and rhymes could continue to be just plain sick. She’s still got plenty of ground to cover (I’m convinced she could pull off a straight-up soul record), but there will always be a place at my table reserved for hip-hop’s reigning queen.
SINGLES AND MUSIC VIDEOS
1. Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”
Kelly Clarkson’s second album Breakaway may be formulaic but it’s not the formula anyone expected. She could have played it safe and recorded another collection of vanilla balladry in the Mariah vein; instead, she decided to let her hair down and rock out (at least a little) in a decided bid to “break away” from the American Idol mold. The album’s production credits are a who’s-who in the post-Avril pop world, the same names who have contributed to recent stinkers by Hilary, Ashlee, and Lindsay, only Clarkson puts the power in the power-hooks and the results are a far cry from the cookie-cutter glop of “A Moment Like This.” Almost every song on Breakaway sounds like a hit, and four of them have reached the Top 10 since the album’s release one year ago. The second single, the Max Martin-helmed “Since U Been Gone,” is all wristbands and fishnets, with the premier Idol doing a damn good impression of Pat Benetar and practically chewing the head off the microphone. Instantly memorable and unequivocally enduring, the future karaoke staple inspired hipster indie rocker Ted Leo to record his own version (a medley that also briefly covers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Maps”) and moved Entertainment Weekly to declare that Clarkson was no longer a guilty pleasure but, quite simply, a pleasure. Previous single “Breakaway” may have proven that Clarkson could successfully dodge the sophomore slump but “Since U Been Gone” helped her officially break free.
2. Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together”
“It’s Like That,” the first single from Mariah Carey’s comeback album set the stage for what would become the singer’s 16th #1 (and the second-longest chart-topper of her career). “We Belong Together” is at once understated and over the top, the wobbly diva keeping cool with breathy, rapid-fire verses until the final full-voiced climax that, though scratchy, proves that The Voice has indeed returned—at least on record. The song is as “innovative” as Mariah has been in years while at the same time making direct nods to Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” Babyface’s “Two Occasions,” and, more subtly, Janet Jackson’s “Come Back to Me.” The DJ Clue-produced remix added life to a song that already had (airbrushed) legs and further exaggerated the song’s fast-paced vocals. Smartly, Mariah’s voice is again the star: verses by Jadakiss and Styles P. are plenty but negligible. Like Whitney and Celine, Mariah’s finally got her own anthem.
3. The Killers, “Mr. Brightside”
It started out with a kiss (and a U.K. hit accompanied by a not-very-Vegas black-and-white video) and ended up a Top 10 smash in the U.S. “Somebody Told Me” might have been more immediate, but “Mr. Brightside,” with its sing-talk verses and newly shot Moulin Rouge-meets-Dangerous Liaisons video (directed by Sophie Muller and co-starring the omnipresent Eric Roberts as the owner of a bordello), turned The Killers into rock stars and elevated lead singer Brandon Flowers to a charcoal-eyed pin-up. Depending on whether or not you’ve been recently scorned, Flowers’s pained description of jealousy (“Now they’re going to bed/And my stomach is sick/And it’s all in my head/But she’s touching his chest now/He takes off her dress now/Let me go/I just can’t look/It’s killing me/And taking control”) can be either comical or harrowing when the song plays on the radio…or your iPod or CD player, which is exactly where this gem (along with Stuart Price’s Grammy-nominated remix) belongs.
4. Kelly Osbourne, “One Word”
Who would have thought that Ozzy and Sharon’s pink-haired, loudmouthed spawn-child would score a #1 dance song in America? Sudden celeb-reality fame earned Kelly Osbourne an insta-deal with her dad’s record label, but she was originally positioned to compete with the likes of teen rockers like Avril Lavigne, not Britney Spears. Accompanied by a striking black-and-white music video based on Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi drama Alphaville (reportedly one of Osbourne’s favorite films), “One Word” is an infectious slice of retro-futuristic post-New Wave dance-pop dressed with French dialogue and a charmingly uncomplicated lyric. The track, written and produced by Linda Perry, didn’t exactly do for Osbourne’s career what “Get the Party Started” did for Pink in ’01, but—in a musical landscape not overrun by hip-hop and rock-pop—“One Word” could have been a massive hit.
5. The Chemical Brothers, “Galvanize”
Krumping can be best described as a means of releasing social and cultural frustrations, blending breakdancing, the essence of voguing, and the rhythms of African dance (not to mention the use of face paint) into the kind of nonviolent expression that Martin Luther King could have endorsed. The music video for The Chemical Brothers’s “Galvanize,” a deep wedge of Moroccan-infused trip-hop featuring a rabble-rousing Q-Tip, wasn’t the first to incorporate the street dance style (krumping was featured in clips by both Missy Elliott and the Black Eyed Peas last year) and it wasn’t the last (see Madonna’s “Hung Up” below), but it’s certainly the best. Directed by newcomer Adam Smith, “Galvanize” follows three young boys as they paint their faces like Pagliacci clowns, sneak out of their homes, and make their way to a dance-off at an exclusive nightclub. After the trio slinks past the velvet rope, the black-and-white documentary-style clip goes techno-color, strobes flashing and camera shots stuttering with each of the dueling tribes’ manic, confrontational movements.
6. Madonna, “Hung Up”
“Hung Up” uses a ticking clock to represent fear of wasted time, but Madonna isn’t singing about careerism (or even bringing the people together), she’s talking about love. The track embodies the past with its pitched-upward vocals, infectious arpeggio sample from ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight),” and decidedly unironic, archetypical key change during the bridge. “Hung Up” is destined to become one of those songs where the video images are, in classic Madonna fashion, forever tied to the song. Directed by Johan Renck, the clip juxtaposes Saturday Night Fever-inspired garb and dance moves with the patently modern style of krumping (the video was originally slated to be helmed by David LaChapelle, director of the acclaimed krumping doc Rize), a fact that will likely become more fodder for cultural critics interested in the artist’s continued appropriation of black culture. But Madonna herself doesn’t crump in “Hung Up” the way she vogued in “Vogue” 15 years ago. Dressed in a hot pink Olivia Newton-John-style leotard, Madonna instead stretches impossibly and practices her disco moves in an empty studio, distancing herself from the young street dancers and providing further evidence of her precarious position as an outsider. But the same disco dance that seems awkward and dated (yet compulsively watchable) in that setting comes to vibrant life when performed en masse with the krumpers at a Japanese arcade. Maybe music does indeed bring the people together.
7. Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.”
For their second go-round, the animated collective known as Gorillaz shook things up by replacing producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura with Danger Mouse, the DJ responsible for last year’s renegade Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up The Grey Album. The first result: “Feel Good Inc.,” a bouncy, cerebral, hip-rock track featuring cackling laughter, chirping birds, speedy De La Soul passages, and cool, windswept hooks about flying windmills on grassy landmasses from main gorilla Damon Albarn. It’s a call to arms to the semi-moronic Epsilons to stand up to big pharmaceutical companies doling out the soma. A dystopian song about anti-depressants shouldn’t be this fun but it just is.
8. Kanye West, “Gold Digger”
Jamie Foxx’s name attached to anything these days is enough to induce an eye roll and a groan. But if you look past his incessant, faux-humble Ray Charles simulations (and instead look at Hype Williams’s multihued burlesque video), Foxx’s collaboration with Kanye West, “Gold Digger,” is one of the funkiest, freshest singles of the year. Credit Kanye for the wicked beat, flow, and synth lines and the late Charles for the hook.
9. Garbage, “Why Do You Love Me”
After rumors of professional and personal divorces (the band briefly broke up during recording and lead singer Shirley Manson split with her husband of seven years), Garbage picked up the pieces and recorded their fourth album Bleed Like Me. Lead single “Why Do You Love Me” is fast, filthy, and patently Garbage but failed to spark much interest with the general public or fans disappointed by the band’s pop-leaning 2001 release. Like No Doubt’s similarly-themed “Don’t Speak” (also directed by Sophie Muller), the video for “Why Do You Love Me” paints the band’s struggles as a film noir mystery and breaks from the murky black and white just long enough for an evocative, full-color long-shot of Manson in a bathtub pondering whether or not her lover is sleeping with her best friend.
10. Shakira, “La Tortura”
Just when you thought Shakira’s sandstorm gyrations from “Whenever, Wherever” represented the epitome of sexy-strange, along came “La Tortura,” which features the Colombian icon greased up and writhing to the tropical rhythms of her infectious, surprise crossover Spanish-language smash. Latin-pop star Alejandro Sanz watches Shakira erotically chop onions from across the courtyard of their apartment complex while his girlfriend sleeps soundly in bed a few feet away. Fantasy lovemaking ensues, with Shakira exhibiting her latest incarnation of booby-shaking and sexual combat moves in the parking garage downstairs and wiggling in ecstasy on her living room floor while Sanz eats Chinese food. It’s a Latin fetishist’s wet dream. And the song is pretty good too, handily topping anything off her English-language follow-up Oral Fixation Vol. 2.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani
20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”
There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani
19. Rosalía, “Malamente”
Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp
18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”
The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani
17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”
Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins
16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”
Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud
15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”
Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud
14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”
Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp
13. Flasher, “Material”
The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani
12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp
11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins
10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins
9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp
8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”
The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins
7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”
The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins
6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”
The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins
5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”
Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani
4. Jack White, “Corporation”
Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud
3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins
2. The Carters, “Apeshit”
The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins
The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.
This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
Sakura Ando, Shoplifters
As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray
Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In
For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole
Emily Browning, Golden Exits
Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen
Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built
It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson
Adam Driver, BlackKklansman
Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz
Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk
For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen
Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline
The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray
Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf
Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen
Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits
The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen
Jason Mitchell, Tyrel
Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard
Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?
Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund
Jesse Plemons, Game Night
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson
Steven Yeun, Burning
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen
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