It’s hard to pinpoint the exact source, but the music landscape of 2009 is perhaps best characterized by its slipperiness. Without any new, broad trends casting a sweeping influence on style and sound (‘80s-era inspiration and Auto-Tune can’t be pinned only to the past year), with no major changes of tone or direction in the conversation about the ways people consume and interact with music, and with so much of the year’s best music keeping its emotional center carefully guarded, there simply isn’t much on which to grab hold. Indicative of this elusiveness is that so many of the year’s iconic musical moments had precious little to do with music itself: the death of Michael Jackson; the compelling, runaway success of Susan Boyle; Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna; the Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift “I’ma let you finish” meme; each of Lady GaGa’s ludicrous fashion choices; a slew of NSFW music videos from the likes of Massive Attack, Girls, Patrick Wolf, and the Flaming Lips; Whitney Houston’s failed comeback; Adam Lambert’s minstrel show of an AMA performance. On balance, it isn’t like people were talking about the music of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Cazwell, Little Boots, and Raekwon—outside of increasingly insular Internet circles, anyway. And that’s a shame, really, since the best music of 2009 (or any year) is deserving of some thoughtful dialogue or, at the very least, a well-turned one-liner. Jonathan Keefe
It’s rare that the consensus pick for the definitive album of the year arrives all of two weeks into the year, but Animal Collective’s superlative Merriweather Post Pavilion is an exceedingly rare type of album. Not only did it capture a gifted band finally striking the perfect balance between their pop classicist and experimental instincts, but it also captured a broader cultural moment with its tone of guarded, tempered optimism. Robust enough to withstand the predictable backlash, the record simply feels so vital—alive, even—that its longevity is never in doubt. Jonathan Keefe
More of an arsenal than an album, It’s Blitz! finds the Yeah Yeah Yeahs whipping, grinding, and mashing their usual post-punk bluster with unabashed ‘80s glam-pop. The final concoction is wet, glamorous, and brazenly championed by Karen O and her partners in crime. Even when being gentle, such as on the wonderfully buzzing, stuttering “Soft Shock,” the band struts and preens like wannabe tween-rock stars dancing in front of their bedroom mirrors. As “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Dragon Queen” demonstrate, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are at their best when they saturate their infectious rock with insolence. Kevin Liedel
The Bachelor is, perhaps, Patrick Wolf’s biggest, grandest, and most theatrical effort to date—if that’s possible. Copious choirs, and glitchy, impatient electronic programming are all in service of generating self-motivation. This time around, Tilda Swinton replaces Marianne Faithfull as chaperone, urgently prodding him with flashes of the ferocity she displayed in Julia on the standout “Oblivion” and nudging him more gently on “Thickets.” The album is darker than 2007’s uncharacteristically buoyant The Magic Position, but it’s no less inspiring. Sal Cinquemani
Bat for Lashes (a.k.a. Natasha Khan) is unabashedly melodramatic and her music is at turns spacey and cavernous, but you never get the sense that you’re dealing with a flake. The Pakistan-born beauty’s sensuality tethers her sophomore effort, Two Suns, to something earthly and tangible. It helps that both the album is slightly more grounded than 2006’s Fur and Gold and that pop music is inching closer to the fringe (the tribal “Two Planets” would make Kanye a fan if he isn’t already). PJ Harvey and Kate Bush are obvious points of reference, but Khan has etched out a heady, haunting spot in the pantheon of female singer-songwriters that’s truly all her own. SC
It opens on a typically coy indie-pop number, but St. Vincent’s Actor turns out to be one hellish debut, an unflinching depiction of a woman’s mind as it comes unhinged. It just so happens that said woman has an impeccable ear for unpredictable songcraft, spiking her quietly desperate pop tunes with jagged feedback and squalling electronic samples. When best realized, as on “The Neighbors” and “Marrow,” the unresolved tension between immaculately arranged melodies and savage noise provides the perfect sonic analogue to Actor’s underlying lyrical motif: the struggle to maintain outward composure while falling apart inside. Matthew Cole
Calling Bitte Orca strange or ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. Dirty Projectors works through art-punk interpretations of popular music’s entire history, with strangled chamber pop forced into an uneasy truce with jittery acoustic ballads and off-kilter funk. The album amounts to more than a curio or a sound collage, every song benefiting from the nervy energy of the group’s two vocalists and the efficacy of their melodic hooks—see the sublime beauty of “Two Doves” or the stormy build-and-release of “Useful Chamber.” Frequently difficult, but also undeniably transcendent. MC
On “Time to Pretend,” one of 2008’s finest singles, MGMT sang, “This is our decision/To live fast and die young/We’ve got the vision/Now let’s have some fun.” On Post-Nothing, Canadian duo Japandroids explodes that couplet into a full-fledged I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead manifesto. While extolling the virtues of wet hair, french kissing French girls, and NSA hookups, the duo demonstrates real pop smarts by reflecting their hedonistic, go-for-broke attitude in arrangements that layer some ‘90s-era fuzz and distortion over hooks that are reckless and uninhibited. JK
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II could have been hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy, but Raekwon delivered a virtuoso sequel. RZA’s impeccable production hits that classic Wu sweet spot between eerie and soulful, while ample guest spots from the likes of Ghostface and Inspectah Deck give this bleak, lyrical crime saga the feel of an epic. Raekwon himself turns in some career-best performances: “Sonny’s Missing” is a masterful exercise in tension, the ODB tribute “Ason Jones” is indelibly moving, and the remorseless confessional of “About Me” reminds us how the Chef earned his rep as Wu-Tang’s most riveting storyteller. MC
In between the surging strings and ebullient horns of “French Navy” and the brightly redemptive closer “Honey in the Sun,” Camera Obscura manages to pack a lot of heartbreak into My Maudlin Career. Life would probably be easier for singer Tracyanne Campbell if she didn’t fall in love so easily, but that would be our loss, since a woman luckier in love would have no cause to write gorgeous tearjerkers like “The Sweetest Thing” or “You Told a Lie.” Besides, its hard to pity anyone as talented as Campbell, particularly when she’s moping and swooning over some of the cleanest, brightest sounding arrangements in indie-pop. MC
Grizzly Bear makes a clever bid for peculiarity by filling Veckatimest with purposefully broken organs, degraded guitars, and all manner of simulated antiquation. Yet the Brooklyn quartet’s third album never threatens listeners with cloyingness. Instead, leadman Daniel Rossen’s warm, melancholy voice adds an intimate candor to all the clunky parts. Indeed, would tracks such as the haunting “Fine for Now” or the balletic “Cheerleader” be half as effective without Grizzly Bear’s judicious vocal arrangements? In the end, Veckatimest is triumphant not just for its idiosyncrasies, but also for being intricate, careworn, and heartfelt. KL
xx is like a favorite old coat that’s been shredded and re-sewn into something new but not entirely unrecognizable. Here, The xx rip apart reliable indie threads (a choppy drum machine, clean guitar syncopation, unassuming synth bursts, laconic vocals) and lovingly piece them back together to produce a sparse, elegant patchwork. Nowhere is xx more triumphant than in tracks like “Heart Skipped a Beat,” where deceptively simple accompaniments slide in, pause, gracefully rejoin their melodies, and then hauntingly fade as lead vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whisper to each other from their stereo refuges. KL
Some might describe El Perro del Mar’s sound as loungy, even dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. Love Is Not Pop is pop with a light touch and a tremendously heavy heart; it only qualifies as easy listening if you can distance yourself from Sarah Assbring’s expressive singing, if that aching voice breaking over those austere arrangements exerts no pull on your heartstrings. And if that’s the case, you may be too cold-hearted to be listening to pop music in the first place. MC
There are more than 10 or 12 things A.C. Newman teaches us with his second solo offering, Get Guilty. The album’s soaring, melodic tracks—the most pristine collection of power-pop songcraft since the Magentic Fields’s Distortion—confirm that the singer-songwriter has always been the heart and spirit of the New Pornographers. Newman picks at his guitar as if he were dissecting his own wounded heart, and with the same teasing urgency as his lyrics, which draw all sorts of stunning correlations between the ways of love and the ways of nature and music-making. Make of that what you will. Ed Gonzalez
Ex-Smogger Bill Callahan soared into his 20th year of recording with one of his strongest efforts yet, the lushly orchestrated Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Grappling with long-favored themes (birds, faith, love), Callahan attaches his moody baritone to twinkling keyboards, moaning french horns, and lilting strings, and the mesmerizing package unveils a whole new way to appreciate this unique artistic vision that is getting better the more it wrinkles. Wilson McBee
There’s an argument to be made that country music completely lost the plot in 2009, but Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, on their self-titled debut, did their damnedest to ensure that the genre retained at least a handful of meaningful ties to its history of soulful, intelligent explorations of working-class life in the contemporary South. JK
It took a while for Hands to grow on me. I blame early comparisons to Madonna, which seemed completely unwarranted, and still do. Practically nothing on Little Boots’s debut recalls the Queen of Pop, but a slew of artists indebted to Madge—Kylie, Annie, etc.—come to mind. In fact, like Kylie, Little Boots (a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh) expertly struts, shimmies, and prances across three decades’ worth of dance music, at turns paying homage to Donna Summer (“Stuck on Repeat”), empty-calorie ‘80s pop (“Earthquake”), and 21st-century electro-pop (“Click”) all within the span of an hour. The difference is that Hands is a better album than any Kylie has released this decade. SC
Only A.C. Newman and El Perro del Mar rival the sincerity of feeling with which Rose City’s poignant, haunting lilts subsume the listener. Indeed, the catchy electro-rock-psychedelic pomp with which Viva Voce strums, coupled with the hushed vivacity of their vocals, may be described as a dream, but the mind-melting exuberance with which husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson’s musical approaches delicately intertwine can only be explained as an expression of profound love. EG
Just about the only thing that doesn’t work about Revolution, the third straight knockout from Miranda Lambert, is its title. The album’s quality is hardly a surprise, given that Lambert has been mainstream country’s most compelling artist for five years running, and the record doesn’t revolutionize either her style or her fascinating, heady artistic persona so much as refine them. JK
On their self-titled debut, the New Jersey beach bums in Real Estate make effortless lo-fi rock adequate to all manners of driftwood bonfires or secret sand-dune couplings. The guys in the band may buddy around with Vivian Girls and Titus Andronicus, but their sound evidences none of the shambolic fuzz those affiliations may connote, tending instead toward gentleness, open space, and hummable melodies. As translucent and unassumingly gorgeous as sea glass, Real Estate is one of 2009’s best new gems. WM
After the proggish overdose of last year’s Arm’s Way, Islands’s head-man Nick Thorburn deep-sixed the entirety of his band and veered in a whole new direction for follow-up Vapours. The result was a stripped-down, synthy album that was no less tuneful or thought-provoking than its predecessor, but one that was oodles more fun. From the jaunty glam of the title track to the Auto-Tuned, tongue-in-cheek “Heartbeat,” Vapours proves that Thorburn remains an expert manipulator of pop-music structures. WM
More than three years in the making, Cazwell finally dropped his first long player in 2009, and—comprised of most of the tracks from his 2006 EP Get Into It plus 14 new tracks and remixes—it’s magnum-sized. Putting a twist on hip-hop’s decades-long marriage to misogyny, Caz comes off like the gay answer to Eminem. Then again, the flow on “I Seen Beyoncé…” is more like the Fresh Prince. Indeed, the sound and spirit of the ‘80s are a primary touchstone here, and aside from a few references to “rubbers,” Watch My Mouth manages to recapture the uninhibited sexuality and blissful ignorance of the era without being depressing.SC
There is perhaps no other female artist than Neko Case who could cast herself as natural disasters, killer whales, glaciers, and other fierce phenomena and still produce an album as remarkably subtle as Middle Cyclone. Alternately cruel and gentle, Case runs through her nameless lovers with equal doses of frustration, spite, and grace, from the strangely sweet assault of “This Tornado Loves You” to the amble of “I’m an Animal” and the smoky, slithering “Prison Girls.” Through it all, the flame-haired, self-proclaimed terror maintains a beautifully violent poise, bragging about orphaning her victims, biting men in half, and finally, bowing to her audience in eloquent appreciation of their “gunpowder eyes.” KL
It’s taken Mos Def more than 10 years to confirm that Black on Both Sides wasn’t a fluke. Though not without its missteps (the embarrassing Latin slumming of “No Hay Nada Mas”), The Ecstatic is almost as uncompromising as the singer’s debut in terms of thematic scope, bitterness and bittersweetness, and verbal brinkmanship. Mos Def delivers on the promise of the album’s title with one silken track after another (standouts include “Twilite Speedball” and “History” with Talib Kweli) devoted to making your head bop while also raising your consciousness. EG
As half of the acclaimed duo the Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson challenges the conventions of dance music with her distorted vocals and macabre imagery. For her debut as Fever Ray, Andersson jettisons any concerns with rhythm and focuses instead on tension and tone. As her dense songs subsume both narrative voice and even her own physical voice, Fever Ray emerges as an unsettling, impossible-to-shake record that suggests the aftermath of when “pop” truly bursts. JK
Still flying her freak flag, PJ Harvey sounds particularly liberated whenever paired with John Parish. Dance Hall at Louse Point, an underrated triumph in a near-perfect musical career, was a shriekingly subversive American gothic. A Woman a Man Walked By isn’t nearly as focused a vision, but whenever untethered from her instruments, PJ’s voice has a way of soaring in canny, spine-tingling directions (most memorably on “April”) you’d think no human voice could go. If Parish’s lyrics are pale imitations of PJ’s, her alternately chilling and amusing one-of-a-kind interpretations trick you into thinking otherwise. EG
Next to the Radiohead we know today, Animal Collective is the most overpraised indie act of the decade, but Merriweather Post Pavilion, whose existence would have been impossible without Panda Bear’s great Person Pitch, is something very close to a masterpiece, and “My Girls” is the jewel in its exquisite crown. The catchy production suggests a psychedelic skinny dip in a great beyond, but the lyrics are grounded in something recognizably real: a father and husband’s need—no, struggle—to simply provide (lyric of the year, blessedly sung by Mr. Bear: “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls”). With “My Girls,” these hipsters start thinking outside their typically blinkered aesthetic and thematic sphere, getting universal and keeping their groove but also finding their soul. Ed Gonzalez
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”: I wanna roll with him, a hard pair we will be. I don’t give a crap about whales so go hug a tree! Eric Cartman
Already the preferred soundtrack of steel-tinted car commercials everywhere, Phoenix’s “1901” features the perfect mixed dose of hyperactive pop and careless rock sensibility. The French quartet fills their punchy ditty with enough buzz-saw synths to carve right through headphone wires, and then adds to the bite by layering them with a thick coat of Thomas Mars’s plaintive vocals. The result is a highly marketable slice of post-punk heaven. KL
Compared to previous Yeah Yeah Yeahs tracks like “Tick” and “Rich,” “Zero” sounds fangless. But any wistful remembrances of ragged past singles should be short lived: The explosive sure-shot of a middle eight here is better and more anthemic than any of 2009’s proper hooks. As for hooks, “What’s your name/No one’s going to ask you” proves that Karen O can still spit venom even when pulling off a Donna Summer disco strut. Jonathan Keefe
Karen O is near-orgasmic as she screams the queenly refrain of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Heads Will Roll,” a blistering anthem of canned strings, unrelenting, clipped percussion pads, and plenty of milkshake-thick distortion. “Glitter on the wet streets/Silver over everything,” she sings against a flurry of convulsing melodies, intertwining her icy grace with a thumping drumfire and perfectly encapsulating the New York trio’s carefree glam posture. KL
It certainly wasn’t the year’s only hip-hop single to view the repetitive, looped vocal hook of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” as some sort of perverse dare, but Major Lazer featuring Mr. Lexx and Santigold’s “Hold the Line” was the only such single to rise to Weezy’s challenge. But this isn’t just a matter of imitation, with Diplo and Switch filtering their trademark dancehall styles through the lens of Jamaican riddim and making an incendiary track that, as Santi suggests, vibrates like a Nokia. JK
It was a banner year for mediocre, teetering-on-the-edge-of-blasé records—by Camera Obscura, the xx, Japandroids, Islands—with one or two great tracks on them, all over-praised by hungry tastemakers understandably wanting for something, anything, as rich as, say, Vampire Weekend. Like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s “Young Adult Fiction,” Grizzy Bear’s “Two Weeks” is a sterling odd-track-out in a sea of meticulously crafted saminess. It sours with a sly soulfulness of spirit—the band has an unmistakable gift for lending the simplest of romantic sentiments the weight of something almost holy—that suggests Grizzly Bear has a bright future if they choose to always, not just some of time, raise their hands to the heavens. EG
More often than not, Camera Obscura songs are about falling out of love, but “French Navy” is a crush song in the proud tradition of sighing, scrawled-in-notebook infatuation. Its lyrics detail a chance meeting “by a silvery lake,” an awkward courtship, and that moment when, despite all her best efforts to stay grounded, singer Tracyanne Campbell falls head-over-heels in love. When that climax is reached, every horn and string in the Camera Obscura ensemble earns its keep, the tune’s jangly guitar lead giving way to an utterly splendid wall-of-sound finale. Matthew Cole
Behold the rare instance of a wet-dream collaboration actually living up to its potential. Brooklyn art-rockers Dirty Projectors bring in David Byrne, the éminence grise of the New York scene, for “Knotty Pine,” a cut originally included on the for-charity Dark Was the Night compilation and so catchy it only needs one verse and a little over two minutes to make its point. Byrne and Amber Coffman trade licks at a typically convoluted DP melody made extra-delicious by a Talking Heads-ish guitar riff, minimalist drum kick, and one-handed piano flourish. Even if it’s not quite the indie-rock equivalent of the Britney-Madonna kiss, “Knotty Pine” is nevertheless a hell of a torch-passing. WM
The doe-eyed infatuation that comes with any good “first love story,” the perfectly minimalist and precision-tuned hooks stacked back-to-back-to-back, the youthful exuberance that makes for indelible teen-pop: It’s these time-tested conventions that made Taylor Swift the pop star of 2009. But on “Gee,” battalion-sized K-Pop group Girls Generation takes Swift’s formula and raises it literally to the ninth power, making for one of the year’s purest and most maddeningly addictive pop singles. JK
Bat for Lashes’s love-torn “Daniel” features all of the singer-songwriter’s dramatic charm to which we’ve grown accustomed, but it’s delivered in a decidedly sleeker, more accessible, and simultaneously modern and retro new-new wave package that would be as equally at home blasting from a boombox in the mid-‘80s as it would playing over the “marble movie skies” of some late 21st-century film’s ending credits. Sal Cinquemani
You can add Little Boots’s defiant, Kylie-esque “Remedy” to the long list of great dance floor-filling odes to the universal languages of movement and sound. Music might be the balm that heals all wounds, but here dancing is the tonic that keeps a toxic lover at bay. SC
Righteous noise-rock riffing, stampeding drum fills, and only the best off-key caterwauls to grace any recent punk release are the simple ingredients that Japandroids turn into anthemic lo-fi glory on “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” Sure, there’s little surprise in hearing scruffy young dudes transmute their adolescent yearning into sing-along form. What is surprising is how long the hooks stay with you, how five minutes feel like two, how quickly your finger moves to the “repeat” button. MC
Thanks to the ferocious and playful wit of Middle Cyclone as a whole, listeners probably won’t be able to tell if Neko Case is being figurative or literal when she bellows, “I’m a man eater/But still you’re surprised when I eat ya.” Amid a half-dozen animal metaphors and Case’s own sardonic sense of satisfaction, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” succeeds most of all because of its breezy, sing-along style, counterbalancing the morbid narrative with loose acoustic guitars and a bicycle-riding beat. That contrast lends lyrics such as “It will end again in bullets, friend”—and, ultimately, the song itself—a blithe charm. Kevin Liedel
The show itself may have struggled to find the proper balance between of-the-moment sincerity and Election-inspired snark, but the Glee cast recording of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” carried by Broadway vet Lea Michele’s air-raid siren of a voice, hits its mark with precision. It demonstrates both an ironic pop-culture awareness, reclaiming the evergreen Journey hit from The Sopranos’s stunt performance sendoff, and a wide-eyed earnestness, casting its Show Choir geek squad as the year’s most compelling underdogs. JK
Jazmine Sullivan has a refreshing, albeit near-pathological, allegiance to truth. Her debut, Fearless, is filled with songs like “Lions, Tigers & Bears,” on which she admits that loving someone is more frightening than performing to a sold-out crowd. Said like a superstar. And there’s no excuse for why she isn’t one yet. SC
Reflections on the soul-crush of celebrity are a particularly risible strain of pop music, but Patrick Wolf brings a deliriously virtuostic sense of camp to his music that tempers the inherent whininess of his gripes. Throughout “Vulture,” Wolf is tired, dead tired, blurring the line between performer and consumer with evocative lyrical imagery and thrilling electronic flourishes that suggest a nosedive into an abyss. This drama queen has a massive ego (for proof, see—or, rather, don’t see—the embarrassing Brüno-meets-Conan the Barbarian music video), but with “Vulture,” he not only tells you as much, he shows you his bleeding guts in the process. EG
Easily Daniel Rossen’s finest turn on lead vocals for Grizzly Bear, “While You Wait for the Others” is a giant swooning volley of angst. With only an abrasive guitar figure, some subdued organ noodles, and an unobtrusive rhythm section beneath them, the voices of Grizzly Bear do all work here, and what work it is. If and when all the current Beach Boys adulation and re-imagining grows stale, I’m sure “While You Wait” will stand as one of the highlights of the movement. Wilson McBee
Though her previous and subsequent singles failed to crack the Top 10, Timbaland protégé Keri Hilson TKO’ed the competition with “Knock You Down.” Thanks to a sugarcoated hook, Kanye guest spot, and nod to Michael Jackson, even the song’s tacky domestic abuse metaphor couldn’t keep it down for long. SC
”Islands” is climb-up, climb-down pop, and perhaps xx’s sweetest and most demure piece. Bursting out the gate with the trickles of muted guitar and The xx’s unadorned drum programming, the track bounces along in a bittersweet gait, allowing Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim to elevate a disconnected duet and coo their lovers’ thoughts in a gentle, sleepy drawl. KL
Wavves’s “No Hope Kids” is further evidence that rock n’ roll will never tire of wasted-youth anthems. This particular ode to the gutter comes thundering out of Nathan Williams’s San Diego bedroom, a primitive squall of guitar feedback and bled-together vocals proclaiming, “Got no car, got no money/Got nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, not at all,” and, rather poignantly, that “no hope kids are bruised.” Bruised, hopeless, fearless: “No Hope Kids” thrives on the secret shard of youth that even the oldest among us still feels. WM
”Oh My God” belongs somewhere between the jilted ex-lover’s rock of Alanis Morissette and the full-on hellcat confessions of Courtney Love. Not only does Ida Maria nail the intersection of manic and tuneful, she does so with a sense of vulnerability that’s totally unaffected and refreshingly raw. Next to “I Love You,” “Oh My God” could be the three most heard words in pop music, but every time Ida Maria lets them slip they feel like a punch to the gut. MC
With its plodding 4/4 beat, catchy refrain, and just-strained-enough-to-be-beautiful vocal, the first single from Alicia Keys’s new album, the decidedly vanilla “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” followed the blueprint of her hit “No One,” but it received an appropriately tepid response. The follow-up, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” is a less literal attempt to repeat the style of “No One” and it succeeds wildly: Keys’s production choices (clunky hip-hop beat, ‘80s synths flourishes) are a focal point, but it’s her vocal performance (namely those breathy, Prince-esque verses) that, once again, makes the song. SC
Passion Pit’s big breakthrough, “Sleepyhead,” was an understated electro-pop gem, but there’s absolutely nothing subtle about “Little Secrets.” Michael Angelakos takes his vocals into the helium range, while synths, strings, and yes, a children’s choir, all jockey to have the song’s biggest hook. The band’s rhythm section wisely cuts the sweet stuff with some snarling bass and a pumping, clattering drum section—just enough swagger to balance out all of the major-key swooning. MC
The latest victim of Kanye’s on-fire feature barrage, Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal” keeps the Virginia coke-rappers relevant even if they have nothing really to do with the song’s success. Because even with the Thornton brothers comporting themselves with relative dignity, the real stars are West’s scene-stealing classclown routine (“Meet Ye’ alligator souffle, had it made/Special Ed got head from a girl in special ed”) and DJ Khalil’s squawking, rock-infused beat. WM
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.
Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”
However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.
Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II
Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole
Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.
The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.
You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.
The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.
You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.
Don’t put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.
We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.
Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)
But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Should Win: Ad Astra
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but 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