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The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

Four years doesn’t sound like a long enough time to justify updating a list, but video games move in bounding strides.

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The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
Photo: Sony Computer Entertainment

The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

80. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium (1993)

Phantasy Star has its fans, a great many of whom jumped on when the series went MMO, but it’s never been a franchise uttered in the same breath as Square Enix’s best and Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium releasing hot on the heels of Final Fantasy VI didn’t help. The irony is that Sega’s magnum RPG opus does pretty much everything Final Fantasy would offer in the years that followed way ahead of the curve: combo spells, manga-inspired cutscenes, space travel, multiple vehicles to play around in, and the best, delightfully earnest storytelling the genre has to offer. This is the system’s quietly ignored masterpiece. Clark


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

79. Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001)

Considering the reason so many of us play video games, it’s odd how often most titles follow a very specific set of unspoken rules. Not so with Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a recklessly unfiltered, untapped, superego-filled romp through a parody of inanely inoffensive titles like Banjo-Kazooie. Conker cursed and solved puzzles by getting drunk enough to extinguish flame demons with his piss, blithely sent up pop culture as diverse as A Clockwork Orange, Saving Private Ryan, Alien, and The Matrix, and still had time to lob rolls of toilet paper down the gullet of a giant operatic poo monster. For sheer balls, lunatic ingenuity, and crass charm, there’s never been anything like it. Riccio


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

78. Hotline Miami (2012)

Amid the arms race of next-gen graphical evolution and the seemingly endless deluge of triple-A blockbuster shooters arrived a veritable thunderbolt of weird, Hotline Miami, and the landscape of modern gaming would never again be the same. A hallucinatory top-down action game that plays like River City Ransom as imagined by David Lynch, Hotline Miami is a fever dream of violence and retro gaming, pulling together the tropes of the medium’s innocent infancy and turning them into something altogether darker. Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin didn’t simply make a classic game; they burrowed their way into the deepest recesses of gaming’s unconscious, and the result feels like a nightmare you just had but only half-remember. Calum Marsh


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

77. Viewtiful Joe (2003)

A dazzling homage to movie magic, superheroes, and the 2D side-scroller that was warmly praised when released on the then-floundering GameCube, Viewtiful Joe employed a battlefield blueprint inspired by cinematic visual effects. Its VFX powers (Slow, Mach Speed, and Zoom In) put players in the director’s chair (or, perhaps, that of the editor), giving them the opportunity to control and cut their own stylish fight sequences while dispatching foes and solving puzzles. And with its charming art design (a nod to both Japanese tokusatsu and American B movies) and cel-shaded graphics done oh-so-right, it remains a reminder of what enchantment might result from the marriage of film and video games. LeChevallier


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

76. Ninja Gaiden (1988)

Though tough and not infrequently cheap with its hits and enemy respawning, Ninja Gaiden rewarded perseverance with spectacle and power. It’s a game of foreboding, arcane temples and ancient demons with creepy little details as opposed to the amorphous blobs of most games of the time. Using comparatively little horsepower—especially compared to the flashier but slower Shinobi titles—the game lets players feel like a ninja, a fast, powerful warrior with both speed and power, able to manipulate the physics to do impossible things. The catch is that those impossible things aren’t just for flash and flair, but a requirement for victory. The most vital and important part of that spectacle, however, was the game’s cutscenes, the first time such a thing had been implemented in a console game, and still some of the best implemented until the Playstation era. Again, with so little in terms of resources, the cinematic cutscenes managed to replicate the language of cinema, telling a simple, fantastical story, and yet an effective one, full of twists, unexpected plot turns, tension, and stakes. Ninja Gaiden marked the moment where your primary motivation to complete a stage wasn’t a high score, but to see what happened next, and what happened next was actually interesting enough to be worth the effort. Clark


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

75. Half-Life 2 (2004)

The original Half-Life redefined the way players experienced first-person shooters with heavily scripted sequences and a well-written narrative. Half-Life 2 took this to the next level, as silent protagonist Gordon Freeman is removed from cryostasis and plunged into a future dystopia—a formerly human-populated city now turned zombie nightmare—reminiscent of Nazi Germany where the last remaining humans reside, enslaved by an unstoppable alien threat. Without ever relying on cutscenes, the game makes you a first-person participant in its storyline, one that turns the tide from oppression to rebellion fighting for the future of humanity. It’s a classic whose thrills best those of most action movies and demonstrates the remarkable innovation the medium is capable of. Aston


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

74. Halo 3 (2007)

The alien vessel you’re trapped in is less a ship than a living thing. The rooms are bordered with bloated, swollen pustules stretched from wall to wall, while sacs of throbbing “organs” hang from the ceiling, from which disgusting monsters emerge to attack—a stark contrast to the large endless fields that comprised most of Halo: Combat Evolved. Beginning on Earth with a bloody firefight in the jungles of Africa, then teleporting to an ancient structure beyond the edges of the Milky Way where multiple alien races feud, leading to the rescue mission in the disgusting living alien ship, before concluding with a recreation of the original Halo, Halo 3 remains notable for its diversity of setting and how it complements its variety of action. Aston


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

73. Three Fourths Home (2015)

Through a family’s yearning for solidarity and economic security, Three Fourths Home finds a spiritual connection between seemingly disparate generations. You make dialogue choices as twentysomething Kelly, whose disappointment about her lack of self-sufficiency could have made for a pandering tale of millennial angst. Developer Zach Sanford avoids this mistake by also emphasizing the vicissitudes of her family’s life, whether it’s her father being out of work due to injury, her younger autistic brother’s trouble at school, or her sometimes-overbearing mother trying to hold the whole unit together. This approach gives Three Fourths Home a mature social consciousness, allowing the characters to illustrate common American anxieties that transcend the party politics of our time. Pressgrove


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

72. Mass Effect 3 (2012)

Everything is on the line in the final chapter of the Mass Effect trilogy, which profoundly views sacrifice as an imperative. Having long ignored Commander Shepard’s warnings, every being in the universe now faces destruction as the genocidal Reapers bring ruin to every world. The theme of this series has always been inclusivity, and it’s with this in mind that the player must travel the game’s large and multifaceted universe to end wars, unite races, and build a resistance to an absolutely devastating threat. All the way toward the largely misunderstood climax that brings the game’s themes together in an intelligent and metaphysical way, one is forced to make difficult and heady choices, including sacrificing beloved characters and sometimes entire species toward a common good. Aston


The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

71. The Binding of Isaac (2011)

Two titles are more responsible than any other for turning these last few years of gaming into the era of roguelikes. If Derek Yu’s Spelunky is the indisputable prodigy, the preppy Ivy League candidate parents love to show off to neighbors, then Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is the problem child, the surly metalhead most likely to snub the guests and stay in the garage smoking pot and listening to Slayer. It’s a game sprinkled with visual references to terminal illness, substance abuse, abortion, religious fanaticism, and matricide—one where digging into sunflower-colored turds can net you some cool treasure and passing gas is a viable mode of offense. Yet the core mechanics operating behind this repulsive and fascinating façade are no less impeccably engineered than Spelunky’s. Alexander Chatziioannou

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Awards

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 his 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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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

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

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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.

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The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
Photo: Public Theater

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.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. © The Public

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.”

Not I

A scene from Not I. © James Lyndsay

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.

Grey Rock

A scene from Grey Rock. © Carlos Cardona

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.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

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

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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.

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The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

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.


25. “Feedback”

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


21. “Lonely”

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

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2020 Oscar Nomination Predictions

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really, but the endless parade of stupid decisions to improve a show that no one who watches thinks ought to be anything other than the silly, dated, gaudy thing it’s always been gave us no confidence in its future. Nor, for that matter, did the Academy’s utter acquiescence to the Golden Globes’s selection process, rubber-stamping the latter ceremony’s much-derided choices of Bohemian Rhapsody for best drama (!) and Green Book for best comedy (!!) by allowing those films to become the two biggest winners of Oscar night. As it turns out, only one of the many lame suggestions proffered by the AMPAS’s board of directors actually came to pass, if only temporarily. It’s the accelerated calendar that shortened this year’s Oscar season and forced everyone (including us) to scramble to get ahead of the much-tightened deadline. So, like Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers, we’ll get right to the heart of the matter.


Best Picture

Ford v. Ferrari

If there was ever a year where we’d feel comfortable going with fewer than eight nominees here, something the Oscars haven’t done since the expansion beyond five a decade ago, this would be that year. From festivals to critics’ awards to the ongoing guild nominations, such has been the uninterrupted love streak for four specific films—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—that it’s easy to imagine the quartet hoovering away enough of those necessary first-place votes to leave almost no room for the remaining candidates.

Did we say four? Maybe make that six, since the last few days have proven to us that both 1917, which upset for the best drama and best director Golden Globes, and, arguably, Joker, which earned the most BAFTA nominations, are firing on all necessary cylinders. We’re still not entirely sure that the love for Joker’s incel overtures isn’t more of a European thing (beyond the BAFTAs, its strongest endorsement came from its surprising Golden Lion triumph at the Venice Film Festival) and that the majority of American’s cultural gatekeepers aren’t repulsed.

But a hit is a hit is a hit, which is why we’re also predicting a surprise nod for this year’s foremost Dad Movie™, James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, and would be likely to predict the same for an even bigger hit, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, if only its devilish depiction of the underlying racism residing within even the most well-meaning moneyed white people didn’t hit so close to home. And, of course, were it not for the alternative chance for voters to instead shoot broadly satirical, and safely historical, Nazis in a barrel.

Will Be Nominated: Ford v. Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Bombshell, Little Women, and Knives Out


Best Director

Pedro Almodóvar

No nomination gave us more reason to believe that AMPAS’s cleaning up of its voting roster may have actually changed things than Paweł Pawlikowski’s for best director last year, over the likes of Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly. Sure, the directors branch has always been among the most likely to nominate foreign-language candidates, once the seal was broken in the ‘60s during Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. But last year everyone knew their due diligence would be taken care of by Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón, and yet they still nominated a second foreign prospect, marking only the second time that’s ever happened, after Lina Wertmuller and Bergman earned nods for 1976’s Seven Beauties and Face to Face, respectively.

That, after Wertmuller, only four other female directors have been nominated isn’t of itself the kiss of death for Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, Mati Diop, Chinonye Chukwu, Olivia Wilde, Alma Har’el, Claire Denis, Kasi Lemmons, Melina Matsoukas, or Joanna Hogg. But the fact that BAFTA and the DGA could both assess a year with not just one top-drawer distaff candidate but legitimately more than a dozen, and still come up with nothing but penis sure feels like it.

The AMPAS branch of directors, though, still feels one or two steps hipper than the room. Maybe not hip enough to give the Safdie brothers their due, but we at least expect them to hold their noses about giving their slot to the director of The Hangover movies, and to stand another foreign director alongside the given Bong Joon-ho. Of the many options, we feel pretty bullish about longtime Academy favorite Pedro Almodóvar, whose Pain and Glory is as much a valedictory lap for elder artists as Tarantino and Scorsese’s offerings.

Will Be Nominated: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman; Sam Mendes, 1917; Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory; and Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit; Todd Phillips, Joker; and Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story


Best Actress

Cynthia Erivo

It’s hard to dispute what Mark Harris months ago saw happening in this category, namely that four slots were thought to be all but locked in for white actresses, despite wide acknowledgement that this was a weak year for the category except when it comes to actresses of color. Well, we’re going to dispute it anyway. In particular, we’re nowhere near as convinced as Gold Derby that Charlize Theron is a slam dunk. (Their collective has assigned her even more “predict nomination” points, whatever those are, than winner-elect Renée Zellweger.) Theron’s turn may be more physically transformative than co-star Nicole Kidman’s, but she’s still playing Megyn Kelly, no matter how much Bombshell opts to highlight her lawyerly “objectivity” behind the scenes and only pays momentary lip service to the sort of “Jesus was white, and so is Santa Claus” rhetoric that made her a star at Fox News in the first place.

The film’s underperformance in theaters and with precursors also doesn’t bode well, but it’s hard to imagine even the same voters who handed Green Book the top award siding with Kelly over Saoirse Ronan’s Jo pointedly throwing a passive-aggressive wedding at the end of her book to please an editor in Little Women. Lupita Nyong’o’s precursor run for starring in elevated horror gave us flashbacks, but she has one thing Toni Collette didn’t: that SAG nod. So, we think she emerges from the underworld to stand alongside Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo.

Will Be Nominated: Cynthia Erivo, Harriet; Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Saoirse Ronan, Little Women; and Renée Zellweger, Judy

Closest Runners-Up: Awkwafina, The Farewell; Charlize Theron, Bombshell; and Alfre Woodard, Clemency


Best Actor

Taron Egerton

On the flip side, we’re unable to shake the specter of Ethan Hawke failing to land an Oscar nod despite winning approximately four times as many critics’ awards as any other single performer last year. There will likely be plenty of time to unpack what AMPAS has to say about masculinity in the midst of the #MeToo backlash, but suffice it for now to say that the alchemy straight actor Antonio Banderas brings to Almodóvar’s queer universe, not just now but for literally a generation, feels particularly out of line with the zeitgeist held up against not just the likes of Joaquin Phoenix’s sociopathic Joker, but arguably almost everyone else we see breezing by Banderas for the nod in the year’s most competitive acting category.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s existential crisis as fading B-list actor Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is also, often explicitly, a crisis of professional virility. The initial post-feminist-friendly reluctance of Adam Driver’s character to do battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife in Marriage Story eventually shatters into what Film Twitter (yes, shallowly) categorized as the wrath of someone who’s never had to deal with being called on their privilege. And, of course, Ford v. Ferrari’s last word on Oscar darling Christian Bale’s Ken Miles comes in the form of one of his tools, predicating his entire existence on “the work.”

And speaking of work, if Rocketman’s Taron Egerton looks increasingly likely to take the most up-for-grabs slot, it’s as much due to his willingness to put in the hours on the glad-handing highway as it is Oscar’s increasingly grudging fondness for male ingénues (Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne). In the context of all this, we won’t be terribly surprised to see Robert De Niro’s central performance in The Irishman, as a man’s man who way too late in the game realizes the cost of his brand of masculinity, reduced to an also-ran.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale, Ford v. Ferrari; Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Adam Driver, Marriage Story; Taron Egerton, Rocketman; and Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Closest Runners-Up: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory; Robert De Niro, The Irishman; and Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes


Best Supporting Actress

Margot Robbie

Academy rules prevent Margo Robbie from getting nominated twice here. But the fact that the BAFTAs reserved not one but two slots for her on their ballot, despite all headwinds indicating that the consultants and publicists pulling the strings on the campaign trail had fully installed Bombshell as “the one” for Robbie’s Oscar chances this year, feels an awful lot like Kate Winslet in 2008 to us. As you recall, everyone fell into line with the narrative that she was to be nominated for lead actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting actress for The Reader. And as you recall, the Academy didn’t like the former film and found the latter downright irresistible, and so they went their own way. That’s the benefit of being the Oscars. (Everything else is called a “precursor” because they’re not the Oscars.)

We don’t need to tell you of the sizable overlap between BAFTA’s membership and AMPAS’s for you to take a wild guess as to which of Robbie’s two contending films is better liked. Also, the backlash against those who would dare point out Robbie’s Sharon Tate, aside from her feet, has a lot less to do in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood than in Bombshell is very much in the air. I mean, we’re that close to including Anna Paquin among our list of closest runners-up, specifically because of the volume among those decrying her lack of dialogue in The Irishman.

Will Be Nominated: Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit; Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers; Florence Pugh, Little Women; and Margot Robbie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; and Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell


Best Supporting Actor

Alan Alda

About this category, we have roughly as much to say as Anna Paquin, or maybe Joe Pesci, whose uncharacteristically verbose acceptance speech took everyone by surprise at the New York Film Critics Circle gala this week. Five slots, and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho aside, Oscar’s elder statesmen look to fill them all. The dual nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira last year would seem to portend good things for Song—to say nothing of SAG’s perception-altering (and still mind-blowing) nomination of Bong Joon-ho’s film for best ensemble cast over the likes of Marriage Story, Little Women, and Knives Out, but neither of Roma’s actresses faced as much competition in their fields for others’ valedictory victory laps.

Even more so than in best actress, this category simply has four slots all but reserved already. For the fifth, BAFTA and the Golden Globes went for Anthony Hopkins as Bad Pope, and SAG opted for Jamie Foxx as Good Incarnate. We’re expecting Oscar voters to go somewhere in the middle: Alan Alda, a welcome breath of fresh air playing the one lawyer in Marriage Story who recognizes how the whole system is rigged, unfair, and predatory, and who yet still possesses enough humanity to regale his client with a long-winded joke (on the clock, naturally).

Will Be Nominated: Alan Alda, Marriage Story; Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Al Pacino, The Irishman; Joe Pesci, The Irishman; and Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy; Song Kang-ho, Parasite; and Sam Rockwell, Jojo Rabbit


Best Adapted Screenplay

Little Women

You may have noticed that we’re not yet convinced that Little Women is going to pull a Phantom Thread as the late-breaker that gets ignored by most precursors only to finally arrive at the station when it comes time for Oscar nominations. But Greta Gerwig’s updating of Louisa Mae Alcott’s universe for modern sensibilities feels like the frontrunner here, alongside Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which at approximately 4,680 pages of script earns the spot on ream-girth alone.

While it’s all iffy territory beyond those two, we actually feel pretty good about the WGA’s nominees enough to quell our reservations about leaving off the crowd-pleasing, feminist antics of Hustlers and the, we guess, Catholic-pleasing antics of The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit and Joker were both written or co-written by the films’ directors, which never hurts, and this is one of the few categories where we could see the subtleties of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s treatise on masculinity trumping the revving of Ford v. Ferrari’s.

Will Be Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Little Women

Closest Runners-Up: Ford v. Ferrari, Hustlers, and The Two Popes


Best Original Screenplay

Knives Out

We can’t go five-for-five with WGA on this side of the script categories, as Quentin Tarantino remains ineligible for guild consideration. Also, you know, Booksmart, as we’d be more shocked to see that one included on the Oscar roster than we would be to see Tarantino left off. Because, beyond Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Parasite, there are already way too many candidates that fit the classic template for original screenplays that earn their movies its only Oscar nod out there, among them Rian Johnson’s riotous Knives Out, the Safdie brothers and Ronald Bronstein’s unrelenting Uncut Gems, and Lulu Wang’s nuanced The Farewell. Johnson’s political whodunit hybrid is in with a bullet syringe filled with morphine, but the other two look vulnerable to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, filled as it is with copious speechifying, and (again) Pedro Almodóvar’s don’t-call-it-a-swan song Pain and Glory.

Will Be Nominated: Knives Out, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Pain and Glory, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Us

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Interview: Ladj Ly on Sounding an Alarm Bell with Les Misérables

The filmmaker discusses the public reaction of the film, bringing it to Emmanuel Macron, and more.

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Ladj Ly
Photo: Amazon Studios

Titling any feature, much less one’s feature-length directorial debut, after one of your country’s most beloved shared texts might initially smack of hubris. And yet, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables defies expectations of imposing grandiosity from its name alone. His tale of escalating tensions between the ethnic and religious minorities living in one of the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris and the police force designated to keep them in check offers a portrait of his country from the most grounded, bottom-up level.

Ly has long been a filmmaker of the people. Primarily through web documentaries and more recently through docu-fictions and short films, his work elevates the voices of his native Montfermeil. Les Misérables feels at once like what Ly has been waiting to say his entire life and a righteously indignant encapsulation of what he’s been expressing about his community for decades. Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots but rooted in a visceral now, the film follows the complications that arise when an anti-crime squad attempts to make an arrest among the local gangs. With an impressive even-handedness, Ly charts the frenetic, verité action as it spirals outward. The film doesn’t seek out to expose one side so much as it looks to illustrate how each faction conditions itself to only recognize the humanity of those within their own group.

I caught up with Ly in New York shortly after Les Misérables opened for French audiences in November 2019. Our discussion covered how both the public and the government received his film, why the titular text didn’t serve as much direct inspiration, and how he pulled off the high-stakes opening sequence in the midst of France celebrating its World Cup victory.

At what point did you decide to title the film Les Misérables? Were you looking to draw parallels to Victor Hugo from the beginning, or was it only in development that you realized the film could enter into conversation with the text?

It’s a title that I’ve had in my head for a really long time. I’ve always told myself that my first film would be called Les Misérables. It’s a title I’ve had for over 12 years.

You’ve mentioned that the neighborhood in the film is the same one in which Gavroche is from in the novel. Were there any other characters or archetypes from the original Les Misérables from which you drew? I thought I saw a bit of Valjean and Javert, people on both sides of the law convinced of their own righteousness.

Not really. There are certain parallels you could find. For instance, Javert, you could compare him with BAC, the anti-drug brigade. But really, I concentrated on Gavroche. I guess I accept this Javert/anti-drug parallel, but those are the only two that come from Hugo.

Especially in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo conveyed how systems of law and order could dehumanize people and often leads them back into the very acts these institutions are designed to stop. Was that on your mind at all?

My film is first and foremost an alarm bell calling out politicians: those who are responsible for the system put in place and that they have allowed to rot. They just allow this system to stay in place, and they know full well it doesn’t work.

You don’t get on a soapbox and directly point a finger at the institutions that create the conditions influencing the characters’ behavior, but that feels like the villain of Les Misérables. How do you get that message across without being didactic?

It was important for me not to show things in too heavy a manner. We understand things if you see the film. For instance, by reading the sentence at the end of the film [a postscript taken from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”]. What was important for me was to describe situations in an accurate way and not cast judgment, including on the characters.

How do you not take sides without being completely morally ambivalent? For instances, it’s clearly wrong to use excessive force.

I just try to be as accurate as possible. This is a territory I really know. I grew up there and have been there for 30 years. These are people that I know. I know the high schools, everything. I’m just trying to describe the reality in an accurate way and inspire myself from what I’ve seen.

What has made you gravitate toward fiction? What does it offer you that pure documentary doesn’t?

I always wanted to make fiction, but I took my time. I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to film school, so I really did things one step at a time. Initially, I started out with documentary because I was filming my neighborhood. With time, I had a lot of material and was able to make that into films. Then I came to docu-fiction and really tried to avoid hurrying. At the same time, there was this pressure because my colleagues in the collective [Kourtrajmé, which he began with Romain Gavras and Toumani Sangaré in 1995] had become feature directors. I didn’t want to show up with something that wouldn’t be really strong. I had to take my time on a fiction film that everyone would agree [on] and would be really good.

The film opens with a striking sequence during the 2018 World Cup victory celebrations in Paris. At what point did you realize this would be a good way to start the film?

I’ve always had this film in my head, but the sequence you’re describing came along much later. Maybe it was around the beginning of that year when we realized that the World Cup might be a possibility. We told ourselves, “Well, if France gets to the semi-finals, we’ll have a crew ready.” As we have it, France won, and we were able to get those images. We took advantage of what was happening that year.

How did you pull the shoot together? How did you make sure you didn’t lose sight of the characters in the high stakes production?

I come from documentary, [so] I’m used to these things. It was more or less simple to shoot that one. It wasn’t specifically hard. Of course, it’s not easy to deal with crowds and especially a triumphant, celebratory crowd. That’s not the simplest thing, but we managed.

Is the team at all a metaphor for the France you portray in the film? The country rallies behind a group of mostly non-white Frenchmen on the world stage but then turns a blind eye to the plight of immigrant communities around the corner from them.

That’s what that means, yeah. Unfortunately, it’s only soccer today that makes us all French, that makes us all equal. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” only works during the soccer game. Afterward, everyone goes back to their own social condition. That’s it.

“I appeal to your team spirit,” the police chief says at the beginning of the film, which feels like such an ironic introduction into a world where these events fracture people so distinctly. Is Les Misérables at all a commentary on the limitations of solidarity?

Yes, it’s especially solidarity within groups—the slogan you hear in the film, that spirit of solidarity no matter what. You see that with the cops. Even when they do something wrong, they’re going to protect each other. That’s the golden rule. When we were writing the film, we met some cops and they told us that. We might get into disagreements among ourselves, but if someone breaks with this solidarity, that person is going to disappear.

In the U.S., there’s been a lot of progress in holding police accountable through having video cameras on cellphones. Here, you have a drone capturing a really crucial moment of tension, which can fly away and be separated from the body of the person. At what point did you decide to use this technology in the story?

I had written a short earlier in which there were several drones. Ultimately, I didn’t shoot that film, but I decided I wanted to use the drone in the feature. But I didn’t want to use it like everyone else because, nowadays, everybody is using them all the time just to make pretty pictures. I wanted the drone in my film to be a full-fledged character. It’s a kid [Al-Hassan Ly’s Buzz] who’s using the drone and, in a way, that’s my story because I’ve been filming this area for so long. The drone allows us to get some elevation, so it also allows us to know the territory. And it does allow us to have some beautiful images!

I also think of a drone as more of a tool of government surveillance, so it felt a bit ironic to see it in the hands of the people used against the police.

Yeah, cops use drones a lot. But Buzz is the eye of the neighborhood. I’m not going to get into the end of the film—people should see it for themselves—but we do see that he remains the eye of the neighborhood. To flip the drone around against the cops, that really makes sense.

You’ve said that you wrote to Emmanuel Macron asking him to screen the film. Has there been any progress there now that the film is the French submission to the Oscars?

Yes, he heard the message! He invited us to come to the president’s residence to show the film, and eventually I declined that invitation and invited him to come to my film school in Montfermeil to see the film. I didn’t get any answer to that invitation, so we sent him a DVD. Last week, I heard he saw the film and heard he was tremendously moved by it. Right now, his government is working on coming up with measures to help these kinds of neighborhoods. So that’s the latest news from Emmanuel Macron.

How has the reception been since opening? What are you hoping the French do in response to the film?

So far, it’s been great. I made this film to get people talking and start debates. We can see on social media, for instance, that people are really responding. I made the film so people could understand how people really live in these neighborhoods, and that’s working.

Is the role of the fiction film just to start the debate, not incite action?

It’s a little bit of all of that. Already, to describe these situations and really deal with these issues is a really good thing. But I think in France today, there are fewer and fewer politically committed films, so it’s really good to have this kind of film.

Translation by Nicholas Elliott

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