In times of divisiveness, itâs nice to see one cultural front actually willing to disregard its self-defined borders. With Rolling Stone recently handing their album of the decade honors to a non-rock artist, Kanye West, and Pitchfork dedicating a whole week to (mostly positive) reviews of Taylor Swiftâs discography, change seems to be afoot. And as a publication thatâs always prized a broader definition of popular music than mostâand viewed the divide between âpopularâ and âindieâ as overblownâSlant sees this as a welcome development.
So, in the spirit of âOld Town Roadâ and its year-defining horse/Porsche similitudeâand of the growing embrace of a democratized music criticismâour best albums of the year hail from all over the map. Veterans Bruce Springsteen and Madonna tether our list to popular musicâs past, even as both artists challenge their established sounds, and sitting comfortably alongside those legends are many of their younger counterparts (Alex Cameron, Carly Rae Jepsen), hewing perhaps even closer to forms their forebears helped popularize.
There are also artists on our list who crash together their disparate influences with the guide of a less discernible compass (FKA twigs, Holly Herndon, even Tyler, the Creator) in pursuit of arriving at a music thatâs genuinely new. And, pointedly, a love and appreciation for those mavericks doesnât have to preclude us from falling for the rock-guitar pyrotechnics of bands like Big Thief or the Regrettes, nor for the blockbusting hip-hop beats of Freddie Gibs and Madlib. The more borders you cross, the more potential for discovery and surpriseâand 2019, as eclectic a year as any, has demonstrated that. Sam C. Mac
25. Bonnie âPrinceâ Billy, I Made a Place
The word âapocalypticâ is frequently applied to Will Oldhamâs work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed here more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilizationâs collapse, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddities, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting. Seth Wilson
24. Brittany Howard, Jaime
Brittany Howardâs Jaime is a true solo album in every senseânot just musically intrepid and distinct from her work with Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch, but also intensely personal in a way that the album would only make sense coming from her alone. Howard bravely confronts the memories at the very core of her being, from her family being victims of a racist hate crime (âGoat Headâ) to her first crush on a girl (âGeorgiaâ) to the liberation of religious epiphany (âHe Loves Meâ). Befitting of an album that deals with the multitudes of Howardâs racial, sexual, and religious identity, Jaime is musically fluid and eclectic as hell. Disparate styles crash into each other and become something new; funk melds into power pop on âStay Highâ and then hip-hop on âBaby.â âShort and Sweet,â a sparse Billie Holliday-like ballad, is followed immediately by â13th Century Metal,â which pretty much sounds like its title. This is prime musical postmodernism. Jeremy Winograd
23. Tyler, the Creator, Igor
Just when we thought we had Tyler, the Creator figured out as a shock-rapper, he zigs and zags in wilder and more fulfilling directions. The Odd Future leader followed up his soulful Flower Boy, which also happened to out him as queer, with an even deeper, more confident dive into his R&B influences and lovesick feelings. âEarfquake,â originally written for Justin Bieber and Rihanna, is a credible step into pure pop. The more windy âA Boy Is a Gunâ and âAre We Still Friends?â reveal layers of the searching, complicated desire that once seemed impossible from hip-hopâs favorite cockroach eater. Paul Schrodt
22. Chromatics, Closer to Grey
The Chromatics have always looked to the cinematic past through an apocalyptic lens. De facto frontman Johnny Jewel is deeply influenced by classic horror film scores by composers such as John Carpenter, Tim Krog, Charles Bernstein, and Angelo Badalamenti. The groupâs nostalgia trips continue on Closer to Grey, but the album also finds Jewel stretching beyond these familiar touchstones. âMove a Mountainâ is run through with elements of elegiac folk, and âTouch Redâ and âThrough the Looking Glassâ are two of the groupâs most chilling and sparse tracks to date. Jewel and company are more unabashed in their approach this time out, even right down to the albumâs indiscriminating track sequencing, a welcome change for the typically fastidious band. Closer to Grey is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends the nostalgia of the Chromaticsâs prior work. Kyle Lemmon
21. Holly Herndon, Proto
Rejecting the trend of using algorithms to recreate the work of past composers, electronic musician Holly Herndon, artist and technologist May Dryhurst, and developer Jules LaPlace instead set about to create a different kind of collaborator to make something new. Together they birthed Spawn, an âAI babyâ who interprets sound to create her own music. Like any child, first she had to learn language, and throughout Proto Herndon documents that learning process: a choir sings a line for Spawn to sing back on âEvening Shades (Live Training), while on âBirthâ Spawnâs attempts at mimicry recall the gurglings of a baby. For all the new technology used to create Proto, and despite its moments of ecstatic electronic maximalism, the album is in many ways Herndonâs most deeply human: Voices cry out in unison, ritualistic and primal, and on songs like âCrawlerâ we hear the crunch of leaves underfoot, the soft patter of rain. Perspective shifts throughout, but itâs the songs that seem to be sung from the point of view of a machine striving to feel more alive that are the most deeply affecting. At one point, a robotic voice laments her loneliness on âFear, Uncertainty, Doubt,â expressing her desire to belong in processed arpeggios that shimmer with feeling. Anna Richmond
Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare
Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.
When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywoodâs âgoldenâ era playing a mother superior. âThereâs actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and Iâve been very lucky the way things have worked out,â says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, âlike an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.â Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.
How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?
Itâs a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creativeâthe so-called Pre-Code cinemaâbefore the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of moviesâall variations of the same plotâabout a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.
Whoâs Lily Dare?
A survivor. Iâve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways itâs a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What Iâm doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.
This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?
Iâve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year weâthatâs me and Carl Andress, the director Iâve worked with for 25 yearsâmake a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, âCan you give us a space?â Itâs a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when thereâs a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stagesâa theater Iâve had a relationship with, going back to 1994âsaid it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.
Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?
Iâve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and itâs a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone whoâs lost a parent. Itâs something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether itâs personal relationships or, if youâre a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.
Youâve said before that your plays come about because thereâs a role youâd like to play.
Yes, Iâd get an idea like âOh, wouldnât it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,â or âwouldnât it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.â In this case, it was âWouldnât it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?â Iâve just been very fortunate that Iâm in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.
The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that Iâd like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. Iâm so fortunate that Iâve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think sheâs the only actress whoâs ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctorâs wife and a mysterious baroness.
Whatâs it like writing roles for yourself?
It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, Iâve aged into my roles. In the late â80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, letâs say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as sheâs approaching her late 50s. Itâs always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character Iâm playing. Perhaps what Iâm seeing in the mirror isnât what the audience is seeing. I hope thatâs not true! I may be deluding myself, but Iâve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audienceâs conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywoodâs golden age. In this play, Iâm taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. Iâm getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!
Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?
I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. Iâve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I havenât seen, that I know are in the same genre. But Iâve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. Itâs not for me to do the spoof of film noir; thatâs really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, thatâs kind of good because I donât really approve of something where an audienceâs enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet orâthey all have similar titlesâThe Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesnât matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Googleâto be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if Iâm going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.
What about the plays that didnât feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergistâs Wife?
Iâve written a number of them and, honestly, itâs frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And itâs not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didnât really care for it. I donât know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of âDid I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?â And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that Iâve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.
Is the movie version of Allergistâs Wife still happening?
Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I canât say it is not going to happen, but thereâs certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that Iâd like to write in different stylesâalways a million notions for film parodies. Thereâs an Irish parody that Iâve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that Iâve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. Itâs a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!
Is it true youâre writing your memoirs?
Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because Iâm not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think sheâs very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyerâs Aunt Polly to David Copperfieldâs Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that Iâve been a part ofâthe East Village of the â80sâand thereâs this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that thereâs no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think Iâm rather fearless as a dramatistâI just keep going and nothing seems to stop meâbut Iâm much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, itâs dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.
Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlumâs Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?
I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this playâCarl was just saying the other nightâit was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thingâit doesnât happen too often it seemsâthat we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.
Is there a confession of Charles Busch?
Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and Iâm often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song
Pundits and show producers didnât quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.
Pundits and show producers didnât quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and BeyoncĂ© failed to score nominations, though the formerâs omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose âGlasgow (No Place Like Home)â in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the yearâs best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by whatâs absent than whatâs present.
Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegelâs contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installmentâs âWe Belong Together.â Cynthia Erivoâs all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldnât be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academyâs drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen IIâs âLet It Go II.â
However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion Kingâs âCan You Feel the Love Tonight,â his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disneyâs top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketmanâs peppy closing number â(Iâm Gonna) Love Me Again.â In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.
Will Win: â(Iâm Gonna) Love Me Again,â Rocketman
Could Win: âInto the Unknown,â Frozen II
Should Win: â(Iâm Gonna) Love Me Again,â Rocketman
Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole
Balagovâs cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.
The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The filmâs vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of warâs destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Mashaâs psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his filmâs New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though thereâs nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope Iâm in the film. I try to watch the world with my characterâs point of view, their eyes. Iâm [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. Thatâs kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, theyâre real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Mashaâs love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, itâs about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. Theyâre all beanpoles in some way.
Youâre working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect youâre looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
Theyâre actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I donât need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadnât been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didnât play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, youâve gravitated toward telling womenâs stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
Itâs impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and greenâas well as yellow, to a lesser extentâin Beanpole. Whatâs the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their realityâto uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didnât want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so thatâs why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
Itâs such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and Iâm a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, thereâs some rhythm of the colors. Itâs easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line âheroes werenât only on the front linesâ feels like such a summation of Beanpoleâs missionârevising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didnât intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and itâs important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected todayâs events.
The press notes point out thereâs no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind thatâto make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people donât deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but itâs not quite so bound to specifics of the time. Itâs applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didnât want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
Whatâs the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragileâone touch and itâs going to break.
Youâve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that youâve made two films of your own, are there any areas where youâve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, youâve said that you feel like youâre still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
Itâs hard to describe. Itâs you who will decide.
Donât put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying whatâs the difference between stagnation and an authorâs signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I donât have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all donât think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
Thatâs why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. Iâm afraid of that. Iâm afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. Iâm really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. Iâd like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. Iâm open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.
Weâre sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that weâd at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasnât only increasingly solidified 1917âs frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so weâre doing some course correcting.
Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasnât even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guildâs inception in 1994.)
But weâre going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latterâs lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so weâre giving the edge here to Sam Mendesâs war horse, which will be lapping James Mangoldâs racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Should Win: Ad Astra
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, heâs not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
Weâve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say weâre already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (weâve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And itâs a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting RenĂ©e Zellweger at the beginning of this yearâs marathon: âThereâs nothing more unwavering than Hollywoodâs support for actors playing real-life individuals.â
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, whoâs going to win the Oscar, heâs not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, heâs up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro AlmodĂłvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. Heâd have the award even if he wasnât playing Jokerâs real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but weâre on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this categoryâs history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Childrenâs March and A Note of Triumph.
There isnât a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khanâs St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brotherâs deathâand, simply, living while blackâhas come to shape Franksâs politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelsonâs gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflixâs muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesnât offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kamâs In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and itâs much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesnât lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Koreaâs former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, itâs over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politicoâs downfall.
Now, for those who couldnât read between the lines of this postâs first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didnât rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedtâs touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreichevaâs Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. âI donât want to grow up so I can skate forever,â one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you donât walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girlâs face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If Youâre a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though theyâre just liberal enough.
If last yearâs slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the âfetish du jourâ for the academyâs shorts committee, the trend certainly didnât carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, itâs characteristic of this particular categoryâs history in that itâs among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasnât Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckleyâs Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it canât be fully counted out. But itâd be a lot easier to get in the filmmakersâ corner if it didnât so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters havenât been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girardâs A Sister gave us major dĂ©jĂ vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piatâs Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curryâs The Neighborâs Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug muleâan actual mule, that isâwandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (LyĂšs Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adeleâs âSomeone Like You,â which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the muleâs stash for what it is, but the other one presumes itâs laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighborâs Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the shortâs milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favorsâthe womanâs voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhoodâthe film remains almost doggedly like a âwe all want what we cannot haveâ teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the worldâs haves, itâs very much in play.
But weâre tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeurâs Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed GrayaĂą) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqÄb all but confirms the fatherâs suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. Itâs a minor miracle that the film doesnât come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole âworld is going to hell in a handbasketâ angle by highlighting mankindâs universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesnât resonate as a hectoring âgotcha,â but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main characterâs failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhoodâs doomed father, theyâre just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighborâs Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, weâve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outrĂ© productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why weâre given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesnât have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as âDisney-adjacent.â
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliverâs charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this yearâs Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughterâs hair in the absence of the girlâs mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Mustoâs recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isnât the average academy memberâs chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-âem-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the shortâs bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outrĂ© nominees. Siqi Songâs beautifully textured Sister doesnât lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sisterâs outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on Chinaâs one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhangâs One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academyâs more liberal members would take more than just the âI had fingerprints four weeks after conceptionâ bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheevaâs expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesnât always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-FranĂ§ois Le Correâs confluence of styles (there are shades here of the âpsychorealismâ that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. Weâre no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so weâre betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
Itâs not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasnât yet been ratified, and thus wonât spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly donât.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singerâs violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, thatâs not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, itâs not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years weâve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les MisĂ©rables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thingâs fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this yearâs top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, weâre pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didnât show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laikaâs latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that wonât appeal to the academy at large, this categoryâs short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body