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You, the Horror: Rob Zombie’s Halloween II

As Zombie closes the second Halloween, he leaves the door ajar to underwrite, of course, another sequel.

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Halloween II
Photo: Dimension Films

Seeing it during a holiday-themed re-release on October 30th, 2009 (as opposed to the day itself), I encountered Rob Zombie’s Halloween II> with the intention of burying the director, whose Devil’s Rejects remains one of the few films out of which I didn’t just walk but stormed. (I endured most of it, almost out of a kind of “can’t let the terrorists win” spite, but left just prior to the Skynyrd-scored finale, which my date at the time told me was “awesome.”) As remakes go—and I’m not confident that a shoestring-budgeted sequel to an estranged and equally bargain-basement “reboot” can properly qualify to be called “a remake”—I can’t say that Halloween II> tried any harder than Rejects to charm its way into my heart. Sure, it lacks the “let’s hire some kick-ass film school grad to run this popsicle stand” braggadocio that earmarks certain of its kin; neither is it underpinned by J.J. Abrams’s “Always Be Closing” school of event filmmaking.

Zombie is (or would have you take him for) a blue-collar, steak-and-potatoes-and-Heineken kinda guy, and he doesn’t subscribe to Penthouse Letters but rather some garage-pressed Bible-belt titty rag of ill repute. He is (or would have you take him for) the trucker with the Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) caricature peeing into the distance emblazoned on his mudflaps. He is (or would have you take him for) the real Red State nightmare. He loves him some carnage and seems to view everything else either as a pause between meals or as a necessary appendage. Yet within Halloween II>, among its cornerstones and arches, there exists compelling, even hypnotic imagery and cutting that suggest a film artist of formidable ability, either trapped or validated (who can say?) by his own leering, butcher-shop hedonism. This is not a new story, since it is practically one of the basic tenets of auteurism that the seeds of artistry often flourish in grounds that are ostensibly the least fertile.

Judging by Zombie’s output since he turned to filmmaking in 1999 (the year he began production on House of 1000 Corpses) the 44-year-old musician-producer-director is a shrewd businessman, but, like a handful of his colleagues, he is also a film student. Movie references abound, casual and explicit. The Devil’s Rejects stops dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity while a Gene Shalit lookalike jabbers poetic on the subject of Otto Preminger’s underappreciated ‘60s output, including Skidoo and Exodus. In Halloween II>, Malcolm McDowell’s Professor Loomis quotes Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge verbatim. The filmmaker himself has hosted a special series on Turner Classic Movies called “TCM Underground,” in its inauguration serving up two battered and bruised classics by Ed Wood, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster.

All that aside, he also appears to expend considerable effort making his films look like he couldn’t care less. About anything. Giving John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s source material a wide, wide berth, Halloween II> shares nothing with the original’s sequel except a revelation about the heroine’s family tree and a significant amount of screen time devoted to a post-traumatic stay at the hospital. Essentially a film about a monster who wanders around making work for the city morgue, it looks and feels fast and crude, as if shot for pocket change over the course of a busy weekend. (It may have actually helped that I saw it at New York’s dingy City Cinemas Village East, with its wallet-sized projection, ever so delicately out of focus, instead of waiting—as is my preference—for tack-sharp, you-are-there, commodified Blu-ray.) While Zombie’s budgets are modest, his revenue stream is always wider. He spends a nickel and earns a dime, like clockwork. (According to the publicly-maintained Internet Movie Database, the budget for his Halloween sequel was actually smaller than the 2007 original.)

Such is the age of the cinema of fast, cheap and out of control. Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project and, most recently, Paranormal Activity, headline the age when feature-length narratives of YouTube pedigree (by stylistic choice or by necessity) compete against multi-million dollar corporate franchises. Compete and, often as not, prevail. Halloween II> is not a work of hi-def or standard-def video. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition, already a destabilizing move that resembles decomposition, but its overall aesthetic proves to be that of the YouTube era. It looks to have been shot on butcher paper, the dialogue is abysmal, and it is practically avant-garde in its slack efforts towards erecting character arcs with which to span the lengths between one elaborate setpiece and the next. (It has this in common with John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, but this is not an exclusive set by any means.) And given the treatment of the mustachioed film buff in Rejects—wasn’t he pistol-whipped?—one is not merely reluctant to read anything artistically worthy in Zombie’s calculatedly crude horror-sideshows, one is downright terrified. Begone, critics, you have no power here!

Preminger—with his supple, long pans and 3-D space—it ain’t. Nor is it methodical, screw-tightening Carpenter: You could easily claim that Zombie rebels against his professor (I hesitate to say “master”) whose fringe-to-rock star success with the 1978 Halloween easily ranks with Citizen Kane in the annals of “you can do it!” self-pep talks for indie filmmakers. Recall, however, that Carpenter’s The Thing was a gravestone rubbing of the Hawks original that the uninformed deemed disrespectful, bordering on nihilistic. Kind of the same thing occurs with Zombie; if you can get past his crumpled cum-sock aesthetic (which is tonal as well as visual), you are likely to see that the manner of his homage goes the route of pagan vandalism and cannibalism, rather than strictly Judeo-Christian exaltation. Where Carpenter juiced the setup to the max, and used the blood & guts as relief, Zombie’s film remains amped at all times, always occupying a space of severed bone, the screams of its owner, and the hands that got us there, if not always the mind. The same aesthetic dominates porn—any shots that aren’t money shots are bullshit.

As he employs his editors, Zombie doesn’t just fail to pay respect to narrative pacing, he obliterates the very concept of pacing. You get the sense that, if he had his druthers, everything in the movie would happen at once, rationalized by arguing: Let’s face it, all this in-between shit is boring, and we’re all here for the skull-stomping and the gut-spilling. In the cutting room, Zombie’s style is closer to a good friend’s characterization of John Cassavetes—that of a mad TV producer barking orders to switch to Camera B or C or whatnot during a live telecast. Yet even with an itchy trigger-finger, an aesthetic can bloom, sometimes counter to the brain’s stated intentions. He’s the only director I can think of, offhand, who so frequently cuts between swaths of coverage (i.e. scene-setting wide shots) without a hint of Soderberghian, temporal ellipses. The most striking cuts in the film are, in terms of serving a conventional narrative purpose, the most anonymous: My favorite example, early in the film, involves a basic, unadorned wide shot of the Brackett residence that cuts to an even wider shot (but not that wide) of the same subject. Zombie will also employ the same effect , giving practically no notice, in medium framing, eerily confident (and correct) that his audience will not be shaken out of the narrative by the risk of mismatched performances. These choices lack the busy-busy-busy affectation of Michael Bay and his progeny, nor do they lend themselves to the invisibility of “professional” editors. In his own way, Zombie finds a distinctive voice using devil-may-care editing and coverage that can otherwise blight the work of most self-taught writer-directors.

In fact, Zombie’s editing within a sequence seems to elongate the action, or inaction, suggesting stasis rather than forward narrative motion. His characters seem merely to inhabit one waiting room or another while Myers’s bearded, mountain man killer wanders from homicide to homicide, each one creatively different than the last. The poorest section of the film is the one where Zombie “tries” the hardest: an extended fantasy-hallucination sequence that requires the kind of Maddin-esque decision-making that doesn’t really come naturally to him. But the rest of the film, even with other, more casual depictions of Michael Myers’s white-horse visions (an image that is both Lynchian and Coulterian, i.e. the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos), is played at an insistent register of both dread and disgust. Even when it details the mundane, not-yet-bloody-again lives of Strode, Brackett, Loomis, et al, the Zombie aesthetic displays a consistently mildewy, liquor-store atmosphere. Faces typically fill the frame at oblique angles and show off a decay of their own. Myers eats a dog’s viscera and Zombie cuts it against Sheriff Brackett (a “straight” Brad Dourif) unknowingly mocking the same act with a slice of pizza. In an early, utterly mesmerizing shot, a crash victim pukes blood and utters “fuck” over and over and over and over again in what appears either to be the onset of brain damage, or a word of talismanic power, to protect him from the temptation to appraise the spilled brains of his partner.

If television changed our relationship with movies by making our attendance more casual, by encouraging a sense of “change the channel” in our social behavior, then the Internet continues to refine these instincts with the hypnotic pull of surfing. (Try watching an entire movie on your handheld device, front to back, without taking a break.) The movies, in general, responded to television by upping the “event” ante. CinemaScope, 3-D, stereophonic sound. One offshoot was the increased explicitness of horror, because you can’t argue against the logic that wherever there’s a horrible car accident, people stop and stare. You can’t take horror’s bloody, gooey book of business and expect to make it pay on television. Zombie understands that about as well as the next guy, and Halloween II> barely exists if not to survey the warpath of giant-ghost-thing Michael Myers. Sequences of shots that do not contain violence, i.e. the “in-between shit,” share the slaughter set pieces’ abandoned-parking-lot visual aesthetic: cold, stone-gray, industrial—bad things happened here. On a meta-, cultural level, he also seems to intuit that “You can’t stop what’s coming,” and that his audience may find it easy to look away from his images, elegant and inelegant alike, not necessarily out of disgust or boredom, but out of a ’net-derived inattentiveness. Disinterest rather than resistance. Or they’re texting to tell their friends whether or not the movie is awesome, or sucks.

Like the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who put the image of “gas station carnivals” into our minds, Zombie’s rot and degradation feels continuously, stubbornly vital—if “alive” isn’t quite the word we’re looking for here. Ligotti, a Michigan-born writer unknown even to most fans of horror fiction, doesn’t share much with Zombie in terms of agenda or style. His protagonists, luckless as they often are, are frequently the dregs of urban and/or academic spheres, educated but wearing second-hand coats, obsessing over myths or disreputable objects. (He would not feel at home valorizing a redneck band of outlaw cannibals.) The back-alley pharmacist’s assistant in “The Clown Puppet” cannot get over himself and his unique lot in an incessantly phantasmagorical life even when he intuits correctly that he’s just a bystander in someone else’s nightmare. Yet, connecting strands abound.

Zombie’s version of Loomis shares with Ligotti’s author character, Alice (“Alice’s Last Adventure”), a deep sense of entitled, bourgeois discontent, as they are both impatient with the scaffolding required to keep the gears of their financial liquidity in motion, drawn perhaps not unwillingly back into the abyss to which they truly owe the debt of their success. Most horror writers and aficionados are familiar with the concept that fear isn’t fear, and horror isn’t horror, unless the attraction is as strong as the repulsion. In terms of setting, physical and spiritual, the careworn shop at which Laurie Strode is employed is precisely the kind of “not quite a coffee shop, not quite a vintage bookstore” setting we might expect to find in Ligotti’s “Teatro Grottesco,” “Gas Station Carnivals,” or “The Bungalow House.” And there’s the small matter of her nightmares pursuing her into daytime.

Zombie’s elevation of the Myers killer into the supernatural is prime Ligotti. The vehicle of Laurie Myers-Strode’s fate appears in one Ligotti story after another, as device, conclusion, casual offing, or theme: not merely to be haunted by familial blood but to be subsumed utterly by it. That’s a horror that extends beyond its own genre—Douglas Sirk, for example, exploited the angle in his 1954 melodrama, Magnificent Obsession, in which a playboy’s ultimate act of contrition is to become a widow’s dead husband’s resurrection; Stanley Kubrick used “you are digesting me” horror in several films, including A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, as did Robert Aldrich, arguably, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. And one needs hardly mention Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Tod Browning’s Freaks—as it depicts the elusive “fate worse than death,” i.e. you are still you but you no longer belong to yourself.

As Zombie closes the second Halloween, he leaves the door ajar to underwrite, of course, another sequel, but also tips his hat to the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Psycho: at the end of way more horizontal space than any mental patient could ever hope to inhabit (which also cites Kubrick by way of a long dolly into an actor’s fixed glare), Strode-Myers still exists but she has merged with the phantom of the boy Michael, himself long since devoured by the mountain man. Will the thirtysomething Laurie sport an unkempt beard? That would be truly scary.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

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, we’ve 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 outré 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 we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s 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 year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s 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 Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-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 short’s 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 outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s 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 academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” 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 Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t 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-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re 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 we’re 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

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

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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.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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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.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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Awards

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.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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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.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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