“There’s a guy who is a complete asshole,” James Gray says during a revealing moment in our conversation. He’s not outing a difficult actor or, thankfully, pointing at me, but reflecting on his own 24-year-old self, the brash young filmmaker who arrived in 1994 with a textured Brooklyn crime saga, Little Odessa, that made him a standout newcomer even amidst a bumper crop of backlot rebels. “Arrogant and obnoxious” is Gray’s dismissive assessment of that kid today, offering a window into his oft-noted tendency toward excessive self-criticism, a quality that may be both undeserved and necessary for one so committed to a unique artistic trajectory. Gray’s films, which aspire to what he terms “authentic emotionality,” are at once openly shaped by far-flung influences (cultural, literary, and cinematic) while at the same time so blinkered to modern fashions that his dense, character-driven cop dramas The Yards and We Own the Night seem beamed in directly from the 1970s.
A theme that appears regularly in the margins of Gray’s work, the elusiveness of joy (think We Own the Night’s club manager Bobby Green jealously protecting his existence in a self-built party paradise) moves to center stage in the director’s latest, and most mature work, Two Lovers. The story follows Leonard Kraditor (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix) a depressive whose suicide attempts confine him to his parents’ suffocating Brighton Beach apartment. As they go about trying to arrange for him a makeshift life, with a family-connected job and girlfriend, Leonard’s spirit and expectations for the future continue to sink, until the arrival of a gobsmackingly beautiful new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose own problems make her seem attainable and whose vulnerability and sexiness make her worth one last-ditch attempt at true happiness. My interview with James Gray, conducted at the offices of Magnolia Pictures, touches on the complexities of Two Lovers and the nature of criticism.
Still not reading reviews of your own work?
I stopped reading reviews six or seven years ago. It’s too painful. They’re not for me, you know? They’re for people who go to the movies. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong; the worst thing in the world is when you read a bad review and the person is right. Is it instructive [for me to read them]? No. Each time you make a film you’re essentially reinventing the wheel. Problems that will present themselves on Movie X will not exist on Movie Y and so many times the problems that people write about are entirely out of your control, which doesn’t mean it’s not your fault in some way or another, but if an actor doesn’t show up on time and then you have to make the scene too quickly or if an act of God happens and you have to change locations and then the energy isn’t right…it’s very tricky. That’s why, when you say that so-and-so is a great director, if they made two or three terrific movies out of 20—yeah, they’re great. You know this as well as I do, it’s a very difficult thing to do. Let’s say that you have four friends and you call them and say, “Let’s go to dinner,” and then you have to decide where to eat—sometimes that’s a huge undertaking, right? Some people want to eat here, some want to eat there, and finally two guys say, “Fuck you, I’m not eating there at all!” Well, imagine getting 150 people together for two years and having to keep them on the same page, with the same creative idea, and make sure it has some sense of unity. Tough stuff.
Sounds like a man who’s about to deny the auteur theory.
Well, I believe in the auteur theory to some degree. Most terrific pictures are the vision of one person from beginning to end, but the auteur theory is nonsense in one respect, which is that it is a very, very collaborative process. I think the way I would put it is that the director’s job is essentially to understand and realize that some of the people the director has surrounded himself with—the actors, the cinematographer, the editor—are better at their jobs than the director and he should let them do things that expand the scope of the original idea and try to get rid of the ones that destroy it. So, in that sense the auteur theory is nonsense, but in another sense it’s not. If you write the movies too, they do tend to have a similar feel and that’s an idea behind the auteur theory that makes some sense.
In reading the article you wrote for the latest issue of MovieMaker, I was struck by how nostalgic you seemed for the old days of working out a process with Joaquin Phoenix on set, when it was more arguing and drama. Was it more fun then?
In some respects, it was. In that thing you’re talking about, I wrote that he had moved past me, which is true in a way. I don’t know what he’s going to do now or whatever, but if he really has left films forever, then that’s very sad, but I think it would be entirely because he just doesn’t get a charge out of it anymore. You know, I would come to the set some days and try to talk to him about a scene and he’d go “I know, I know, I had that idea.” Or another thing he likes to say is “Eight.” The first time he said it I said, “What do you mean?” And he says “Eight!” [Exasperated] “I don’t understand, Joaquin…” And he says, “I’ve been doing this since I was eight, okay? I understand. You don’t need to tell me that.” He’s tough. But he’s brilliant, so you live with it, you know? He’s engaged and creative and inventive, so that’s a wonderful thing.
You’ve also identified yourself as process-oriented like him, which struck me as a little strange. You’re known to spend lots of energy on set pieces like the car chase in We Own the Night. Isn’t that stuff audience-oriented?
That’s a great question. I would say that by process-oriented, what I meant is finding pleasure in the doing and trying to please yourself. The audience—what does that mean? There are 300 million people in this country, and that’s just domestic. To try and even say “the typical American” just makes no sense. The population is so huge and so diverse, and our diversity is fantastic, that there’s no way to predict what people will like or not like. The only thing you can do is make something you might like to go see. And also by process-oriented I meant that you can’t worry about what others say. If you were to talk to Francis Ford Coppola about his filmography, I think he’d tell you that almost all of his films were received poorly, or in mixed fashion, upon initial release, even including The Godfather, Part II. He would say that it takes time. Movies that are made today can only be judged 10 or 20 years down the road. Raging Bull was panned. That’s one of the great shames. Pauline Kael’s review of that is one of the most ignorant…for all the lionization of Kael, and some of it was deserved, she was an important critic, she really missed the boat on some movies and that was one of them. So, if you think about that then you can’t be result-oriented. It’s too painful when they hate it and it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. Finding pleasure in the doing is part of what being a creative person means. I must tell you though, I don’t sit in a room and try to make myself laugh. It’s not some kind of narcissistic or solipsistic exercise.
I wonder if you thought to bring back Joaquin Baca-Asay to shoot Two Lovers because of this uncanny skill he has for shooting women. People still talk about how he lit Eva in We Own the Night.
That’s a wonderful observation, but no, I brought him back because I liked the way that film looked in general. He doesn’t suffer fools and he’s willing to tell you that you’re an idiot, which I quite like. I like someone who’ll tell me when he thinks I’m wrong, and I’ll tell him when he’s wrong. I like a contentious relationship. I feel that there’s something good that comes from that kind of free flow of ideas. He and I had established a kind of shorthand, and I knew it would be a quick shoot—the picture was shot in 29 days—and we had to work fast. Having said that, now that you talk about it, I do love the way the opening of that film looks. Joaquin starts making out with Eva and it looks fantastic. We had laid down some visual ground rules for that film and he followed them the way I hoped he would and the same thing was true with this one. I got to work with him, may I say, totally by accident. I was going to work with Harris Savides, who did The Yards and Harris was on Zodiac and that went quite a bit over-schedule and he became unavailable. I was already in prep, so I asked him and he suggested Joaquin and I had seen Roger Dodger and quite liked the way that looked. Then Harris was going to do this one too, but he had knee-replacement surgery which he didn’t even end up getting!
Having watched Two Lovers twice now, I feel like asking you if you think obsessive romantic love is a healthy, rejuvenative thing. Leonard seems completely lifted out of his black depression by it.
It’s interesting, you know the last line of Visconti’s White Nights, which was loose source material for this—I’m paraphrasing—he talks about how wonderful it was to have loved a person even though he didn’t get her. What I intended was for it to be ambiguous, frankly. The facts of the story would be clear—you wouldn’t be watching and not comprehending—but the point would be ambiguous. You could watch and see it as a happy ending or think that it’s quite sad and have a bittersweet quality. I wanted both readings to be possible, so to the extent that you feel that way, that’s great.
Have you noticed that the marketing people seem to be selling the film as if it’s about a guy who is “torn between two women?” Weird.
It’s not true. It’s completely untrue, and you know, it’s funny because with We Own the Night I always felt that just by the copy on the ad, I felt poorly served. It said something like “Two brothers on opposite sides of the law,” which is not correct, factually. Joaquin Phoenix is not a criminal. There’s a criminal element, but the whole point is that he’s a civilian caught between both worlds. It’s not that he’s the criminal and his brother’s the cop. They take the law into their own hands, marketing people. You’re quite right, Leonard doesn’t choose at all. In fact, I really hope it doesn’t lead to people saying, “How does he get these two hot babes when he’s such a putz?” That’s not the story. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have a sexual interest in him, really. Over and over she says, “I just want you to be my friend,” and she winds up having sex with him in a moment of obvious emotional vulnerability, when she just broke up with this other guy. It’s not quite a rape, but let’s face it—he goes for it. It’s dark. So you’re right, it’s quite misleading, because this isn’t “I have two hotties, what do I do?” Gwyneth doesn’t have an interest, Vinessa [Shaw] does, but his interest in her is muted because she doesn’t fulfill his fetish. It’s scary how people could perceive it because of the copy on the ad. On the poster, I think it said, “Sometimes we have to make choices in life” or some horrible thing like that, and I literally said to them, “You cannot put this on the poster, because people will read that!” I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “Two brothers on opposite sides of the law? I’ve seen that before.” And then I’m like “Dude, that’s not the fucking movie! The guy is not a criminal!” You try to make the point and then you sound like a jerk because you’re arguing about the thing. But they did listen to me about that poster [and] it doesn’t say that anymore. Instead, it just has some quote from somebody.
Leonard grows to be a very selfish character, as I see it, or at least has a real single-mindedness in his mission, which culminates in that powerful scene on the stairwell. Is that something you were conscious of?
Absolutely. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to find any American films that deal with the issues of love in a way that’s not a joke. We do romantic comedies very well, we always did. In the ‘30s, they were amazing, right? But at the same time we do films that are serious about love very poorly. We watched two American movies and the rest were European. We watched Vertigo and we watched The Graduate. Vertigo’s a fantastic movie about obsession and desire, but the reason we watched The Graduate was because even though it’s a very funny movie, it has a real melancholy about it that I remembered. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and we watched it and I was right about that. It’s a very melancholy movie and Dustin Hoffman’s character does many unpleasant things in the second half. He’s also not trustworthy. “You wanna take me away and get married? Okay, well, not until we get the blood tests!” I found that very authentic, about the nature of love and desire. Love is inherently an exaggerated form of human behavior and we do and say preposterous things. We act in ways that are almost infantile. Remember that judge, about 10 years ago? He was a Republican judge, extremely respected, and he basically became obsessed with some woman and went off the deep end. This was, like, a 50-year-old guy! This is why it lends itself to comedy, because our behavior is ridiculous. It’s hard not to laugh, when we’re standing outside of some window, watching. It’s asinine. So, yeah, I wanted Leonard’s behavior to be, in some respects, uncomfortably selfish.
Tell me about an important conversation you had with Gwyneth, or one you thought was key.
I remember one, early on. We had a phone conversation a couple of nights before we started shooting and we just talked. She talked about how there were no more walls between herself and the characters she was playing, and that she wanted to be herself in the film. And that would mean being vulnerable at times. And that she wanted to do something raw. I kind of got a sense at that point that she would be great. Joaquin and I worried about working with her. She was the new player at the table and I’d heard that she didn’t like to improvise a lot and that she could be difficult. I did not see her being difficult at all and Joaquin and I loved her. She warmed up completely to the idea of experimentation, but at the same time brought a great discipline to Joaquin’s acting. It was a very happy set, as you know. They both understood what I was trying to get at, which was a lack of irony. A lack of distance. Authentic emotionality. How do I put this in no uncertain terms? If someone says “I love you” in this film, they mean it. It’s not held up as a fucking joke. It’s not like one person is a jerk to the other person and then the movie is talking down to the characters, like “Look at them, aren’t they both idiots? Let’s laugh at them.” There are pictures made in that tradition which are extraordinary. It would be difficult to watch Dr. Strangelove and not come away with the notion that everyone in that movie is an idiot, but everyone is equally skewered and you almost feel like it’s a sad lament for the human condition, which is a genius thing about that film. What I was trying to do was more like a ‘50s Italian movie, in spirit. I even ripped off the ending of La Strada, with Anthony Quinn crying on the beach. I stole that for the end of this. Also, him looking into the camera is from Nights of Cabiria. I wanted to get at the idea that the more ethical position for a work of art—I use the term loosely—is one with a certain compassion or empathy. I felt that would somehow convey the emotional complexity I was going for. The actors understood that, embraced it, and wanted to pursue something like that.
Speaking of influences, there was a bit of Cavalleria Rusticana in there at one point—another tragic sort of outer-borough love story.
Do you know that you’re one of the few people who knows that? One guy, I think, at a screening asked me if I chose that on purpose and I was like, “Of course I chose it on purpose!” It didn’t just wind up in the movie by accident. I’m a huge opera fan and have been for a long time.
Do you ever worry that, in pulling in all these influences, your own vision might be subsumed by them?
Of course you worry about that. As a filmmaker, I’m worried about virtually everything. I’m worried about stinking! I’m worried about not communicating my ideas or seeming tired or boring or hackneyed, and I’m sure I’ve been all three. So, of course I’m concerned about it, but one must have almost a maniac’s confidence to make a film. If you assessed your likelihood of making something that lasted, the likelihood is so poor that you’d never even start making the film. You need an idiot’s confidence. Another realization that one must make is that greatness is incredibly close to horribleness. An inch to the left is horrible and an inch to the right is great. In order to try and do something terrific, you have to risk doing something terrible and that’s a huge fear. To some, I’ve made horrible films, so I suppose that I’ve failed, but you have to take the risk and try to do something interesting. Do I worry about it so much that it shuts me down? No.
I’ve also seen you make efforts to visualize very abstract ideas, like the concept of vertigo during the car chase we mentioned, in We Own the Night. Creating a sense of panic on all sides, resulting in a kind of psychic freeze, which I’m sure was very conscious on your part.
That’s definitely conscious. In the sequence to which you refer, I thought very consciously about all of that, including the weather conditions and weather’s involvement; I wanted the cosmos to kind of put its own imprint on the sequence. And certainly, the way it was shot, it’s a very subjectively shot sequence, almost entirely from inside the car, which I did to differentiate it from other car chases. I wanted to make it, frankly, traumatizing. You see car chases sometimes and there’s no psychological or emotional ramification to it, but if you’ve ever been in even the remotest car accident, anything north of a fender-bender, you know that you can leave the car shaking like a leaf. I wanted to make a car chase where the characters were really fucked up afterwards. I wanted it to be part chaos, part claustrophobia, part survival instinct. All of those things went into my thinking. What you find very quickly is that the amount of thinking you do on something always winds its way to the screen. Unconsciously or not, the audience knows whether you thought it through, you know? There have been times when I was probably rightfully criticized for not thinking something through. It’s such an incredibly demanding, interesting medium, cinema. It reveals you even when you don’t think it is.
Do you feel like Two Lovers has purged Brighton Beach from your system?
I think so. Maybe I’ll come back to it at a certain point, it’s got a wonderful mood to it, the neighborhood. I used to love having out there with my brother and going to Nathan’s and Coney Island, but Coney Island is going to be gone, you know? Astroland is going to close and they’re going to build condominiums or something—I don’t remember exactly what they’re doing—but it’s certainly going to be different than it was. It had this wonderful, decrepit sense of history, but I think that’s over now.
You don’t want to use the same place over and over again, anyway.
Yeah, you don’t want to make the same movie over and over again. You kind of do, thematically, but you want to use your thematic priorities in another way and you want to explore different genres and different worlds.
Are your first three films pieces of a thematic whole, you think?
Impossible for me to say. I haven’t watched my films since I made them. I was in France two months ago and they were showing a retrospective of my movies and they showed my first movie and they asked me if I’d like to stay for it because I had to do a question-and-answer afterwards, and I thought, well, maybe I should because I haven’t seen it in 15 years and I kind of don’t remember it all that well. So, I stayed for about four minutes and I thought it was so horrible that I had to leave and I left. To a certain degree, once you make them they are no longer a part of you. They’re the world’s and the world can do whatever it wishes. To me, the scariest idea is a director who sits there and watches his own movies two years after he made them. It’s insane. I guess some do, but for me it would be too painful. I would remember all these things that went wrong. I only see the mistakes. Write a letter. Don’t mail it, by accident. Then find it three weeks later and read it and see how you feel about it. You’ll be like “Was that me? I’m an idiot.” You know, I saw a clip of myself which they showed as a joke at the Two Lovers wrap party. I saw this clip of me at age 24, talking about movies for a Sundance documentary and I watched it and I thought about it and I said, “You know what? There’s a guy who is a complete asshole. Just pretentious and obnoxious.” I was so embarrassed. So, I certainly couldn’t pass judgment on what my own movies are.
So much of cinema is caught up in expectations, especially when you go to Cannes. This is my third movie at Cannes and every time you play a movie there, there’s a whole set of expectations. People think they know what the movie is going to be before it plays. So, if they know that, or they think they know it, then the movie is bound to disappoint or anger them. You know, the movies that get the best response out of Cannes are the ones from filmmakers that nobody knows yet. All of a sudden, they explode onto the screen because there are no expectations. When they have expectations, it can either help you or hurt you, but I try to ignore all that as much as I can. Of course I read certain things, which you can’t avoid.
Let’s talk a little about the future, the script you’re working on about the explorer. What about the story of Percy Fawcett is appealing to you?
Someone asked Stanley Kubrick why he chose the stories he chose and he said, “That’s like saying why did you marry your wife? Yes, she’s lovely and she has a nice figure, but there are lots of lovely women with nice figures.” You don’t fully know what attracts you to a story, but I do know that that’s a fantastic story, which deals with social class and history and the nature of obsession. These are things I think are very interesting. Fawcett was a guy who was sent to mediate a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil in 1905, and what people don’t realize is that the mapping of the world, as complete as it is now, has only been this complete for 50 or 60 years. It’s a very recent thing in world history and in 1905 they hadn’t accurately mapped any of the areas around the Amazon and its tributaries, and he was sent there to mediate this dispute because the rubber trade was so big that they didn’t want a war between Bolivia and Brazil. Once in the jungle, he quickly found himself obsessed with finding a lost civilization and he became quite mad. It’s not just that though. He was sent back to Europe to fight in the Battle of the Somme, where he was injured with chemical weapons and he began to think of European civilization as not necessarily being more advanced than the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He was, in a way, a forward thinker on that front and people laughed at him and said he was an idiot. He went back to the jungle in the end—brought his 18-year-old son with him—and disappeared. It’s a powerful story that has a lot to say about, what is the true nature of civilization? What does it mean to be a civilized person? What does the acquisition of language mean and the trappings of social class? It’s silliness, social class. It’s insane. It’s just a lucky condition of birth. All these things are fascinating to me. Whether or not they are there in the other films, that’s for you to say.
It does sound like quite a departure from anything we’ve seen from you up until now.
You know, I was really struck once by reading this quote by Duke Ellington. Someone asked him what kind of music he listened to and he said, “Well, there’s the good kind and then there’s the other kind,” meaning of course that there wasn’t really one type of music that he would say yes or no to, it’s about whether the music had the convictions of its own emotions, whether it was true to itself, unfashionably even, sometimes. I feel like that’s what one strives for, to just make a movie that is unfashionably true to itself. A work of art, if I may use that dirty word, which is either fashionably or unfashionably true to itself. It doesn’t care about anything except having an internal and inherent integrity. I think that comes from trying to make an honest film. It doesn’t mean I pulled it off this time; I’m not sitting here saying, “I’ve arrived, I’m the man,” but I’m saying that this is what you strive for. I wanted to make a film that did not adhere to either the clichés of popular cinema or the clichés of art cinema. You know, take the camera off the tripod, give me something that looks very verite, let’s have multiple stories, or the end comes in the middle—nothing that was tricky or of the moment. Something that existed entirely in its own universe because it was what it wanted to be. Something that was emotionally direct. The only thing I care about is that my films are emotionally direct and emotionally honest. That’s all you can ask from a movie.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s 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 hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t 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 don’t.
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 Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s 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 we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables 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 thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re 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 didn’t 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 Laika’s 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 won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s 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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.
Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.
No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.
On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.
Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy
Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs
We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.
Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.
Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani
24. “All for You”
Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson
23. “Funky Big Band”
Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson
22. “Velvet Rope”
A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani
Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson