When it rains, it pours. Rihanna’s third album in just over two years spawned her biggest hit to date, the ubiquitous “Umbrella,” a track that eschews the typically materialistic tone of so many of today’s popular hits and which was our indisputable pick for Single of the Year in a very strong year—so strong, in fact, that we’ve included 50. The year may not have been quite the hip-hop wasteland that 2006 was, but the genre’s biggest commercial successes were still, by and large, artistic dead-ends; a handful of late-year releases, including albums from Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah, partly made up for the likes of “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” and “Ayo Technology,” but it’s Aesop Rock’s much lower profile None Shall Pass that stands as the year’s most compelling hip-hop record. Over in the country world, we think Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is simply the finest album that Music Row has produced so far this decade, both a triumph of genre form and an example of how awareness of self and craft can be used to earn the label of “artist.” It’s Patrick Wolf, however, who earns our pick for Album of the Year for following two impressive records with one that’s even more extraordinary. Of all this year’s revelations, though, the biggest was that Hilary Duff is capable of recording a halfway decent album—but no, it didn’t make our list. Nor did Taylor Swift, Lily Allen, or Colbie Caillat, three artists who owe their success almost entirely to that little pedophile playland Tom calls MySpace, which has officially joined iTunes in becoming a bona fide hit-maker. Sal Cinquemani
1. Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position
As David Bowie, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos taught us, genius often comes wrapped up in a little indulgent kook. Those and other artists also taught us that evolving is essential to personal, professional, and creative survival, and The Magic Position is a decisive move away from both the avant-garde indie-rock of Patrick Wolf’s debut and the slightly more accessible but still dour Wind in the Wires. The first words on the album, “It’s wonderful what a smile can hide,” might sound cynical, but Wolf goes on to ask “Don’t you think it’s time?” with all the wide-eyed optimism of someone ready to embark on life for the very first time. Right down to its cover art and title, The Magic Position is a blistering, unabashedly gay pop record. Sal Cinquemani
2. Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
From the economy of her language and her willingness to toy with rhyme and meter to emphasize a point to her use of first-person details in spinning fictions that blur the line between private life and public persona, Miranda Lambert just gets it. And it’s in that regard that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend positions her as an ascendant genre legend. The depth at which her carefully, purposefully constructed package are inseparable from the content of her songs draws legitimate parallels to the likes of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, even when the album suggests that Lambert has yet to hit her peak. Jonathan Keefe
3. The Pierces, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge
The mythology concocted for the Pierces—a tale of kidnappings, gypsy dance troupes, narrow escapes, business suit-clad villains, and a knight in shining armor—would make for a fancy Tim Burton movie. Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge is the sound of a pair of sisters who have been exposed to a wide spectrum of musical styles and cultures—gypsy music, if you will. From pulsing new wave/disco to subtle country twang, it’s a sound that fits perfectly within the booming indie template of 2007. Cinquemani
4. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
She looks like Polly Jean Harvey and sounds like Shirley Bassey, and her repertoire is comprised of songs like “Fuck Me Pumps” and “Rehab.” So it’s only fitting that Amy Winehouse’s rowdy public behavior would cause about as much of a stir in the tabloids as her music has among tastemakers. Back to Black evokes Stax artists like Carla Thomas, but Wino isn’t just a crafty revisionist; her edgy language and double entendres give her retro shtick a modern twist. Cinquemani
5. St. Vincent, Marry Me
St. Vincent’s Marry Me includes songs influenced by an Extraordinary Machine-like array of traditional genres, but it’s Annie Clark’s timely lyrical ideas—about war and revolution, love, fear, and faith—that linger long after the disc has ended, and her understanding of philosophy is just as well-versed as her musical prowess. Clark takes the bibilical and literary parables that have been long engrained in our culture and regards them through her unique and distinctly modern perspective. Marry Me isn’t quite a religious experience, but it’s unequivocally divine. Cinquemani
6. John Vanderslice, Emerald City
It’s the way John Vanderslice subsumes narrative voice into a structural framework characterized by its neuroses and self-isolation that puts his work somewhat at odds with so many singer-songwriters who mine well-worn confessional tropes and gives his songwriting a kind of critical fecundity that’s exceedingly rare and fascinating. But it’s the fact that he’s scaled back his ever-meticulous production and transferred his narrators’ twitchy, nervous energy into arrangements that actually rock out a little that makes Emerald City perhaps his most accessible work, even as his songs demand and reward heavier lifting. Keefe
7. PJ Harvey, White Chalk
And I quote: “In the context of PJ Harvey’s older material, the new songs [don’t] seem monotonous or academic at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: They’re meditative and precise, like something from an antique music box, but also primal and instinctive.” I think we can all agree that context is crucial with Harvey, but it’s no real surprise that White Chalk’s stark minimalist arrangements make for divisive work, even if it fits comfortably within her aesthetic of blues formalism. Keefe
8. Kristin Hersh, Learn to Sing Like a Star
Kristin Hersh has always been public about her struggle with mental illness, and her music—her starkly personal solo work, in particular—captures the often mad angst of adolescence. As a full-fledged adult, Hersh continues to forage her “fundamentally off” brain for poetic content on her seventh album, Learn to Sing Like a Star, which falls somewhere in between her typically spare acoustic solo outings and her harder-edged work with Throwing Muses. It’s her most coherent, consistently listenable record since Hips and Makers. Cinquemani
9. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
There’s just something about Animal Collective that’s off-putting at album length even when they’re making their most ingratiating indie-pop. But Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox), everyone’s favorite endangered species and Animal Collectivist, masters problems of scope on the sprawling Person Pitch, his second solo effort. The album’s de facto mission statement comes early, when Lennox sings, “Try to remember always/Always to have a good time” on standout single “Comfy in Nautica,” and the rest of Person Pitch goes out of its way to make sure everyone does just that. Keefe
10. Bat for Lashes, Fur and Gold
For decades, male singer-songwriters have hidden behind ominous names and seemingly for-hire collectives. Now it seems the ladies, such as former nursery school teacher Natasha Khan (a.k.a. Bat for Lashes), are starting to follow suit. Fur and Gold brings to mind a litany of female artists who needn’t all be listed here because, despite the myriad similarities, there’s a sense of novelty to Khan’s voice and songs. In other words, the matter of who came first in our silly linear world seems trivial once you get swept away into the Pakistan-born singer’s fairy-tale milieu. Cinquemani
11. Aesop Rock, None Shall Pass
On None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock seems to regard the long-standing criticisms of his impenetrable lyrics as some kind of dare. He foregrounds his remarkable gifts for twisting language into lines that impress far more for their sophisticated composition than for their content, which includes an especially memorable plea to reinstate Pluto’s status as a planet. There’s actual substance to unpack in the album, but Aesop’s indomitable presence on record and his knotty co-production with Blockhead and El-P make what he says incidental to how he says it. Keefe
12. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
Following up what is considered in some circles to be the best album of the decade with an album that is considered in perhaps one or two fewer circles to be the best album of the decade is a rare accomplishment. Conventional wisdom dictates that the bottom has to fall out sometime, but conventional wisdom usually doesn’t have to contend with bands like Arcade Fire or albums like Neon Bible, for which, really, the most serious concern is that it lacks the grand thematic coherence and self-mythology of a debut that’s damn near structurally perfect. But the perfect is the enemy of the good. Keefe
13. Patty Griffin, Children Running Through
Though he only applied it to the gorgeous, soaring lead single, “Heavenly Day,” AllMusic critic Thom Jurek has provided the most apt description of Patty Griffin’s Children Running Through in the phrase “secular gospel,” which captures the soulfulness that has always come through in Griffin’s work even when she struggled against more conventional genre styles and reflects the fact that she has finally settled into a unique sound that’s perfectly attuned to what’s most striking about both her songwriting and her singing. Keefe
14. Alicia Keys, As I Am
Yes, Alicia Keys’s songwriting talent is a bit overstated and her piano playing is often used as a gratuitous crutch, but the goodwill and enthusiasm that has propped Keys up since the day Clive Davis unveiled her in front of an audience of tastemakers like a new monument has inspired and sustained a self-confidence that Simon Cowell might interpret as “the X Factor.” With As I Am, Keys has been able to harness all of those early endorsements (and the continued acclaim) and push herself to continued excellence rather than crumble under the weight of expectation. Cinquemani
15. Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
It hardly seems like an accident that Josh Ritter affects a slurred cadence reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s distinctive warble on two of the standout tracks on The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. In many ways, the album plays out as a far more effective and far less deliberately post-modern survey of the multiple phases of Dylan’s career than does Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There or its accompanying soundtrack. Moreover, the album’s use of to-the-minute trends in rock production and arrangements on what would otherwise be an album of exceptionally well-written folk songs brings Dylan’s trademark style and sound into a modern context. In doing so, Ritter has made what is arguably a better record than any that Dylan has released this decade. Keefe
16. Tracey Thorn, Out of the Woods
For a woman who released her first album a whole quarter of a century ago, Tracey Thorn sure sounds attuned to teen angst on Out of the Woods. Fans hoping for a reprisal of the popular house remix of Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” may be disappointed, but just as Thorn authentically portrays the voice of more than one generation, Out of the Woods likewise manages to seamlessly transition between understated chamber-pop and more hip, club-friendly fare. Cinquemani
17. Dale Watson, From the Cradle to the Grave
Prior to the release of From the Cradle to the Grave, Dale Watson sparked a minor controversy by saying that he no longer wanted to be classified as “country” because of the way the label has been bastardized by the pop singers in cowboy hats who currently make up the mainstream, and listening to the album, there’s no way that anyone could hear it and believe that it’s in any way, shape, or form removed from the sound and the content that truly define country music. Plenty of B-list hacks in Nashville invoke the name of Johnny Cash, but Watson’s record invokes the spirit of his music. Keefe
18. Madeline, The Blow Bang
It’s a testament to both the intimacy of The Slow Bang and Madeline’s dedication to her work and fans that when a good friend of Slant jokingly asked the Athens, Georgia native if she would grace him and his friends with a private performance on his back porch, she replied by requesting only that a tip jar be passed around. Cinquemani
19. Kate Havnevik, Melankton
If Kate Havnevik’s Melankton sounds like music by Imogen Heap, Björk, Múm, or any number of Euro electronic-pop acts like Rökysopp, Frou Frou, and Mandalay, there’s a reason. For one, the Norwegian singer-songwriter is credited with vocals and “creative input” on Rökysopp’s last album. And Melankton was co-produced by Guy Sigsworth, who has not only worked with Björk and Mandalay, but is, along with Imogen Heap, one-half of Frou Frou. If that isn’t enough sloppy seconds for ya, one song was co-written by Valgeir Sigurosson, who engineered Múm’s Finally We Are No More. Havnevik threw in everything but the kitchen sink, but the results are surprisingly singular and seamless. Cinquemani
20. Jay-Z, American Gangster
Infinitely better on both an escapist and a substantive level than the film that inspired it, Jay-Z’s American Gangster is, like so many of 2007’s best albums, one that trades in self-mythologizing and the way the most compelling artists manipulate their public persona to the benefit of their work. The album finds H.O.V.A. reverting to what made him famous in the first place: rapping about the glory and the destruction that accompany the drug trade. But the twist that makes the album so slippery and subversive is that it brings in a post-modern remove, never making it clear when Jay-Z is drawing from first-person experience, inventing an entirely new fiction, or playing the role of the film’s Frank Lucas. Keefe
21. Britney Spears, Blackout
Britney Spears’s Blackout is so expertly constructed, you might forget what Chris Crocker was publicly weeping about. It’s impossible to listen to the album and think anything could possibly be wrong in Britney’s starry world. “No wonder there’s panic in the industry. I mean, please,” she sneers on the single “Piece of Me.” Is that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Either way, here’s hoping Britney won’t completely outsource her social commentary next time…assuming there is a next time. Cinquemani
22. Sally Shapiro, Disco Romance
I admit that my initial reaction to Sally Shapiro’s Disco Romance was largely influenced by the early gushing reception it received from the indie elite; it was a virtual coming out party complete with streamers, balloons, and ice cream cake, and it all gave me one big stomachache. I also admit that the sheer volume of plays I’ve given Disco Romance runs completely counter to my criticism of it. There’s a simple innocence to the songs and a bona fide period quality to the production that supercedes Shapiro’s anonymous personality and flat delivery. The garish cover art of the import, which added to the album’s retro authenticity, has been replaced on the U.S. edition with a spectacularly evocative one in which the frost on Shapiro’s brow is made of tiny stars. The new version also adds three lackluster tracks, including the ABBA-esque “Jackie Jackie (Spend This Winter with Me),” but I remain repentant and fond nonetheless. Cinquemani
23. Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime
It’s a testament to her otherworldly gifts that Bettye LaVette manages to wholly overshadow Drive-By Truckers, a group that has been hailed as America’s best current rock n’ roll band, on her album The Scene of the Crime. LaVette gives a master class in true interpretive singing, taking full ownership of songs by the likes of Willie Nelson and Elton John and making it clear that she richly deserves her late-career renaissance and that she’s waited a lifetime to make her remarkable voice heard. Keefe
24. Carina Round, Slow Motion Addict
The key word for Carina Round’s long-delayed Slow Motion Addict is BIG: big reverb-y guitars, big bellowing vocals, big production values, big everything. Big isn’t always better, but in the end, it works for Round. She achieves a kernel of accessibility that’s necessary to survive on a label like Interscope without surrendering the tics that make her tick. It’s unclear whether or not the album succeeds in spite of pop producer Glen Ballard’s presence, but it’s unlikely that even the late Arif Mardin could have dulled Round’s edges. Cinquemani
25. Junior Senior, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo
It would’ve made my Top 10 back when I first heard it in 2005, but this year’s competition is tougher, so Junior Senior’s Hey Hey My My Yo Yo doesn’t rank quite as high. The album has lost none of its punch in the two years since its initial release, and any album that tells a sasquatch to get down and has the beats to make him actually want to while deftly avoiding camp affectations is doing something right. Keefe
1. Rihanna, “Umbrella”
Rihanna’s weirdly Alanis-esque four-syllabic take on the titular metaphor of “Umbrella” is the phonetic gift that keeps on giving. (Of course, the song isn’t bad either, considering how successfully it migrated over to the dippy acoustic rock-ballad idiom courtesy of Mandy Moore.) Someday, grammatical sea changes like this wet ear candy will render thesauri obsolete. Eric Henderson
2. Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”
Amy Winehouse’s brilliant, sassy ode to bad behavior, “Rehab,” is the best neo-soul track ever, with a Funk Brothers-esque arrangement that’s equal parts slither and bounce. That the lyrics are autobiographical is beside the point; Amy could sing out of the phonebook and make it sexy. Jimmy Newlin
3. Arcade Fire, “Keep the Car Running”
Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” is all about escape, but it allows the listener to fill in the “…from what?” Keefe
4. Au Revoir Simone, “Sad Song”
Three cute girls with synthesizers find the missing link between Bow Wow Wow and Stereolab. Au Revoir Simone’s “Sad Song” is an addictive, adorable piece of dream-pop that’s the perfect soundtrack for late-night Ben and Jerry’s binges. Newlin
5. Kerri Chandler & Monique Bingham, “In the Morning”
Kerri Chandler and Monique Bingham’s “In the Morning” is Chandler’s—and, hence, house music’s—most expansive, expressive epic since “Rain.” If the sensual bass moans and solid piano anchor don’t set your panties aquiver, Kerri’s immortal hook, “I’m soooo fucking into you,” will unlock the floodgates. Henderson
6. M.I.A., “Jimmy”
The swirling Bollywood strings and the insistent disco backbeat cast “Jimmy” as a fever dream of a love song, so delirious that M.I.A. makes “Take me on a genocide tour/Take me on a trip to Darfur” sound positively romantic. Keefe
7. Ciara, “Like a Boy”
With synthesized strings lifted from Vivaldi and a chorus that glides as slickly as a boy sneaking under his girlfriend’s bedcovers at dawn, Ciara’s role-reversing “Like a Boy” might be the sexiest revenge fantasy ever. Cinquemani
8. !!!, “Heart of Hearts”
While James Murphy hides his hips safely behind at least three layers of irony, !!! may as well be standing naked with their collective cock out. “Heart of Hearts,” to be quick about it, will have your own heart beating in your ass. Henderson
9. Bright Eyes, “Four Winds”
Bright Eyes’s “Four Winds” belongs to violinist Anton Patzner, whose fiddling literally beats the band. No small feat, considering this jam rocks out like an apocalyptic hoe down. Newlin
10. Justin Timberlake, “What Goes Around Comes Around”
“What Goes Around…Comes Around” is as polyphonically complex as anything that’s ever been played on pop radio. With both Tims reaching critical mass in terms of exposure (right around the time of Timbaland’s first gratuitous vocal interjection and Justin Timberlake’s “cheated/bleeded” couplet), it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have the license for this kind of excess again. Keefe
11. Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black”
“Kept his dick wet with his same old safe bet,” sings Amy Winehouse of her spoken-for lover, though a later verse hints that his commitment might be to cocaine, not another woman. “Back to Black” is not only the singer’s finest moment but producer Mark Ronson’s as well. Cinquemani
12. Randy Newman, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”
“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is Randy Newman’s first satirical song in years, and it’s as full of piss and vinegar as the Bush administration is full of shit. Newlin
13. Amp Fiddler, “Ridin’”
The bass-heavy groove of Amp Fiddler’s “Ridin’” is velvety smooth, but the refrain “I said your ex shouldn’t be your best friend. She said that he could, I was trippin’” seeps fermenting paranoia. Henderson
14. Robyn, “With Every Heartbeat”
When the beat of “With Every Heartbeat” drops out, the lush strings flourish and Robyn sings, “And it hurts with ev-ery heart-beat,” and you can feel your chest tighten as the thump is brought back to life. Cinquemani
15. Kelly Willis, “Teddy Boys”
It never made much sense to call Kelly Willis the queen of “alternative” country. That is, until she busted out the moog synth over some killer rockabilly electric guitar riffs on “Teddy Boys,” a cover of a song written by a man who once asked, “Who’s got the crack?” Keefe
16. Alicia Keys, “No One”
Alicia Keys embellishes “No One” with a Jupiter synth a la Stevie Wonder, an everything-is-gonna-be-all-right vibe lifted from “No Woman, No Cry,” and an intentionally strained vocal that possesses the timbre of a harder-edged Sade. Plagiarism never sounded so good. Cinquemani
17. Franz Ferdinand, “All My Friends”
Franz Ferdinand’s take on one of the best-written songs in recent memory exposes the ghost in the shell. There’s a sense of resignation running throughout LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” but the archdukes sound like they’re still in the fight until they’re left to face the same outcome: middle age claims the stylish and the hip too. Keefe
18. Restless, “Soul And I Know It”
Unforced and pleasantly anonymous, Restless Soul’s spangled “And I Know It” is built from a tried and true recipe with few but significant deviations that reveal themselves almost by accident. Henderson
19. Superchunk, “Misfits and Mistakes”
Superchunk’s “Misfits and Mistakes” was released in conjunction with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie and the b-side even features Meatwad on vocals. Who knew the Adult Swim crowd could inject so much life into a once-great-but-presumed-kaput band? Newlin
20. Alanis Morissette, “My Humps”
First, Alanis Morissette’s “My Humps” asks whether or not someone with a shaky understanding of the word “ironic” should even consider attempting a novelty cover, and then it answers that question with a resounding yes. Keefe
21. Rilo Kiley, “The Moneymaker”
The outrage of the year, according to roughly 94 percent of Rilo Kiley’s fan base, and I loved every smart-stupid moment of it. “The Moneymaker” takes the cash, it cashes the check, it shows us what we want to see. Henderson
22. Britney Spears, “Gimme More”
Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” is the modern equivalent of this.
23. Beyoncé, “Get Me Bodied”
“Get Me Bodied” is a nice change of pace in that it drops the “romance as joint property litigation” theme that has characterized Beyoncé’s career. If only she’d instructed her legion of backup dancers to “throw a phone at the maid like Naomi Campbell.” Keefe
24. Modest Mouse, “Dashboard”
“Float On” was mighty catchy, but Modest Mouse’s weird, energetic, and harrowing “Dashboard” might be catchier—and it’s got lyrics about cutting off your eyelids. Can’t wait for the Kidz Bop version! Newlin
25. Patrick Wolf, “The Magic Position”
Patrick Wolf’s “The Magic Position” is a giddy, foot-stomping, hand-clapping pop nugget that falls in line with the ‘60s pop revisionism that seems to be all the rage over on the other side of the puddle these days. Cinquemani
26. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Upgrade U”
The ostensibly unintentional piss take of six years of Destiny’s Child songs about bills, bills, bills, Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” was nearly downgraded off this list after a ninth-hour HD commercial featuring the song that threatens to derail irony’s supposed comeback. Cinquemani
27. Ryan Adams, “Two”
A ballad that boasts Ryan Adams’s most beautiful vocals since Whiskeytown, “Two” is a slick weeper of the 1970s AM radio variety. The sad-sack, loner anthem of 2007. Newlin
28. Kathy Diamond, “Over”
The undulating midnight-hour opus “Over” confirms Kathy Diamond as the real deal. Sultry, old school moog fills dance around a “Love Hangover” chug until you have to assume Mr. Goodbar is looking for her. Henderson
29. Kelly Clarkson, “Sober”
Had Kelly Clarkson gone whole-hog and released the garage-pop “Hole” as the lead single from her much-maligned My December, she could have earned the continued respect of indie-rock critics. Instead, we got the lovely, tortured, and understated “Sober,” which, sans promotion from a label that—perhaps vindictively—opted to cut its losses, flopped like a drunk falling off the wagon. Cinquemani
30. Grinderman, “No Pussy Blues”
Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” is a truly unsettling song, with enough erratic percussion, shrieking feedback, and growled invective to make even the stronger willed of listeners want to hide under the covers. Newlin
31. Matthew Dear, “Don and Sherri”
The only thing that makes the atonal baritone of electronica sex symbol Matthew Dear even more menacing is when he swoops up for notes that sound like Falsetto of the Living Dead. Let’s call “Don and Sherri,” his fecund, albeit vaguely disquieting, take on glitch tech “haunted house.” EH
32. Jason Isbell, “Dress Blues”
Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” is a gut-check and a damning portrait of the human cost “somebody’s Hollywood war” has taken on the working class. Keefe
33. Kelly Rowland featuring Eve, “Like This”
“Ya’ll didn’t think that I could bump like this,” Kelly Rowland quips with a ghetto-Southern drawl on “Like This,” and until now, the former Destiny’s Child member gave us no reason to think she could deliver a track as hot and fresh as this. Cinquemani
34. Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, “Thou Shalt Always Kill”
Judging by the DIY video for Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip’s “Thou Shalt Always Kill” that is currently sitting at over one million hits on YouTube, apparently I’m not alone in celebrating the song’s expulsive if unfair rant against an endless litany of overrated rock groups. EH
35. Jennifer Lopez, “Hold It Don’t Drop It”
Jennifer Lopez’s “Hold It Don’t Drop It” soared to the top of the club charts thanks to a big, bottom-y bass sample from Tavares’s 1975 hit “It Only Takes a Minute” and a surprisingly agile vocal performance from La Lopez, making it the singer’s best single in years. Cinquemani
36. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Weapon of Choice”
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the band who once famously asked, “Whatever happened to rock n’ roll,” answer their own question with “Weapon of Choice.” Keefe
37. Dragonette, “I Get Around”
Dragonette’s “I Get Around” is the song that “Promiscuous” could’ve been if it were less preoccupied with foreplay and was actually about, y’know, fucking. Keefe
38. Against Me!, “Thrash Unreal”
Punk rock has become the new classic rock, but Against Me! ’s “Thrash Unreal,” a hybrid of Crass-style vitriol and Seger-esque boogie, proves you can’t keep a good rock n’ roll sub-genre down. Newlin
39. Klaxons, “Golden Skans”
The numlaut-rave label Klaxons came up with for themselves has led to quite a bit of nitpicking among critics and club kids alike, and anyone hearing “Golden Skans” as their first exposure to the duo would, quite rightly, bet against it looking good on the dance floor alongside Arctic Monkeys or Hard-Fi, let alone Daft Punk or Justice. Taking “Golden Skans” just as an example of soaring Super Furry Animals-style pop, though, works far better: Its wordless hook doesn’t need the pressure of leading a poorly thought-out movement. Keefe
40. LCD Soundsystem, “Someone Great”
All the raging against the maturing of the light conveyed in LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” is easily trumped by the ice-warm “Someone Great,” which acts surprised and relieved to feel fine. Henderson
41. Jay-Z, “Roc Boys”
Spiked with ‘70s soul, “Roc Boys (And the Winner is)…” is Jay-Z at his best, brashly saluting himself with a series of stunning rhymes that verify every single ridiculous, hyperbolic claim. Newlin
42. Gwen Stefani, “The Sweet Escape”
It took me a combination of 70-degree night air, two pitchers of sangria, and well-deserved sleep deprivation to discover just how relaxing it is to drone along with the “woo-hoo, wee-hoo” hook of Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.” Henderson
43. Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Carrie Underwood displays more personality on “Before He Cheats” than she did in 12 weeks on American Idol, and with a name like Carrie, it’s fitting that the video would pay homage to Stephen King, turning the seemingly innocuous blonde into some kind of firestarter. If only that bright red pickup had pulled a Christine at the end. Cinquemani
44. The Go! Team, “Grip Like a Vice”
The Go! Team’s “Grip Like a Vice” calls to mind an unspeakably cool linking segment from Sesame Street’s golden age. Female empowerment was brought to you by the letter G. EH
45. Silverchair, “If You Keep Losing Sleep”
The falsetto vocals, militaristic drum line, multiple tempo shifts, and references to playing Twister render the “You’re gonna be bored” hook of Silverchair’s “If You Keep Losing Sleep,” which lacks any trace of the Nirvana-for-tweens Frogstomp, an empty threat. Keefe
46. The Fratellis, “Flathead”
“Flathead” is more infectious than a bed full of crabs at a pink hotel. And that’s a very good thing because it’s no use figuring out what the hell the (faux) brothers of Scottish trio The Fratellis are singing about. Steve Jobs oughta start a record label, because his iPod ads are doing it better than the majors these days. Cinquemani
47. The National, “Mistaken For Strangers”
Taken from The National’s excellent Boxer, the moody “Mistaken For Strangers” is driven by Bryan Devendorf’s relentless snare-work and vocalist Matt Berninger’s Nebraska-aping. If you like your Mellencamp spiked with a little Bauhaus, “Strangers” is your man. Newlin
48. Eve, “Tambourine”
Eve’s “Tambourine” is an inventive blend of retro and modern, mixing the Andrews Sisters vibe of Christina Aguilera’s not-quite-right “Candyman” with the hip beats of the ubiquitous Swizzy and a brainy (albeit de-politicized) sample of the Soul Searcher’s “Blow Your Whistle.” Cinquemani
49. Lil Mama, “Lip Gloss”
Teen social status defined by the cosmetics counter: “Lip Gloss” is no Heathers, but it’ll do for three-and-a-half minutes. If anything, the lack of subtext works in its favor, since Lil Mama sounds downright furious—she barks “What you know about me?” like she’s warming up for one of Maury Povich’s “My daughter is out of control” episodes—and it’s not like teenagers get so worked up over anything more substantive than this. Keefe
50. Kanye West, “Stronger”
Blond dykes aside, the most disappointing thing about Kanye West’s “Stronger,” which features a thumping dance beat and cribs heavily from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” is that it falsely forecasted an evolution in the rapper-producer’s sampling style from vintage soul to full-on robo-hip-hop electro. Cinquemani
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.
There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.
Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, 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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women