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Best of the Aughts: A Single Take, #80 – #71

Textbook blog-hype band: first album praised beyond (but only a little beyond) its merits by the blog cognoscenti, automatically slammed by same for their follow-up.

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Best of the Aughts: A Single Take, #80 - #71

80. Tapes ’N Tapes, “Hang Them All” (Walk It Off, 2008)

Textbook blog-hype band: first album praised beyond (but only a little beyond) its merits by the blog cognoscenti, automatically slammed by same for their follow-up. I don’t wish to hate upon the undeniably enthusiastic voluntary sifters of new music or accuse anyone I don’t know of insincerity, but to a certain extent it seems like it didn’t matter at all what the quality of Tapes ’N Tapes’s follow-up would be. Like the British music press but faster and more aggressive, the blogosphere frowns upon bands who have the nerve to stick around after they’ve been sufficiently praised. Walk It Off’s back half is pretty weak, but the first half-hour is as good as (or better) than The Loon; it must’ve been the heavy-gloss Dave Fridmann production that annoyed some knee-jerk types. This is simply one of the smartest indie-rock songs of 2008, with every possible harmonic and rhythmic crack filled in; the main riff is two super-aggressive leaps (a 10th and an octave, one nestled inside the other), the guitars work in near-schematic rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint, and it never lets up. The chorus is as disciplinedly fierce as possible. That said, did hearing this at Urban Outfitters kill me a little and/or make me question whether my standards for aughts rockin’ are aggro enough? Yes. Even I’m not immune.


79. Of Montreal, “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games” (The Sunlandic Twins, 2005)

One of 14 million bands proving the notion of “selling out” has become completely irrelevant, Of Montreal sold the melody to this song to Outback Steakhouse, which turned “Let’s pretend we don’t exist” to “Let’s go Outback tonight.” I can’t fathom who could possibly get angry over this. It’s not like there were millions upon millions of potential Of Montreal fans out there whose nascent enthusiasm was wrecked by hearing a hacky Outback commercial; frankly, it’s not like millions of Americans were ever going to give two shits about the band in the first place, even to the extent of trying to Google who was behind this jingle brilliance. On the other side of the equation, Of Montreal’s fans certainly should’ve known better than to gripe about a band with limited commercial prospects trying to make money as a band by exploiting commercial avenues other than limited-edition posters and 7″s. The Outback money, as Kevin Barnes has noted, fuels their costume-tastic shows, and certainly no one complains about those.

Of Montreal almost certainly has better songs (I’m partial to “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” where Barnes has the honesty to admit most artsy white guys would cheerfully sleep with the first girl they met that was into Georges Bataille, since that’s a good signifier of horniness), but this is their most ubiquitous one. My sophomore year roommate—who I think actually got hospitalized for half-a-day for being such a dedicated work-/career- oriented freak, and who alternated protein shakes with chicken and rice every day with muscle-building discipline, and who is probably doing quite well right now—somehow had this as his ringtone, so it must’ve permeated somewhere down the line to the real world. It’s also the rare song I’ve heard probably as many times as most bar-goers have heard “Don’t Stop Believing,” yet still am not sick of. There’s a lot of things wrong with Of Montreal at different points in their career (overt feyness and/or a sexuality so pointlessly blunt it’s 9th-grade-level is their latter-day bugaboo), but they’re one of the few groups to figure out a satisfactory midway point between loving Prince and the “fey ain’t gay” preference a friend described as my metier, so God bless ’em. This song is actually every bit as wistful and transporting as it wants to be, and probably would be for most people if not for over-familiarity. It still works for me.


78. Bright Eyes, “The First Day of My Life” (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, 2005)

For a long time I dated a girl who was really into Bright Eyes, whose endless quaver drives me off the wall, so we compromised: she wouldn’t play any of him when I was around, and I’d refrain from playing any rap. This worked pretty well, since we were 70% musically compatible otherwise (and super compatible on last.fm!). It’s not that Conor Oberst is untalented, only that lyrically he slipped straight from endlessly self-lacerating teen angst to boring political hectoring without hitting any kind of productive middle-ground along the way; perspective has perpetually eluded him. Sometimes the teen angst works, though, and this simple, lovestruck acoustic ballad succeeds in conveying both dazed wonder that someone’s walked into your life and a barely sublimated interest in getting them to take their pants off by purposefully foregrounding said feeling. In other words, it’s a con by a consciously self-deluding guy, but it’s effective. “Yours was the first face that I saw / I think I was blind before I met you.” Awwwwwwwww. Also an effectively restrained arrangement—little more than guitar and stand-up bass—contributes to momentarily triggering my tears-effectively-jerked reflex.


77. The Decemberists, “Sixteen Military Wives” (Picaresque, 2005)

As with Bright Eyes, The Decemberists are mostly annoying (I know this is a minority position, don’t bother chiding me), but they had near-objective peaks worth sifting for before becoming some kind of prog tribute band and I lost all patience. “Sixteen Military Wives” ditches the Archetypes 101 freshman Brit Lit survey crap Colin Meloy falls back on to convince the under-read he’s “literary” (all it takes is references to mariners and barrow-boys and people think you really know something, huh?) in favor of straight anti-Bush protest, which makes this song an excellent time capsule (and the video an even better one, since it’s a handy tribute to Wes Anderson’s freakishly influential style). It’s also crisp, rousing and succinct (literally by-the-numbers), which is more than I can say for most of their catalogue. For best results, play back-to-back with Margo Guryan’s B-side protest, “16 Words”. 16 is the magic anti-Iraq number?


76. Young Buck ft. Bun B, 8 Ball & MJG, “Say It To My Face” (Buck The World, 2007)

I will never understand why America embraced G-Unit; I can only attribute it to excellent marketing and branding on Eminem’s part, pushing 50 Cent out into the marketplace at the height of his popularity, transferring more than enough momentum for 50 to bring up whoever with him. The G-Unit rappers were parodically shitty (step up, all you Lloyd Banks apologists!), which would’ve been fine if their beats weren’t so monolithically boring. They learned all the wrong lessons from Eminem, combining the crudity of his blowing-off-steam roots with the dullest beats he ever thought made him a good producer. Listening to a track like “Piano Man” makes you wonder if they’re actively fucking with you or really think this is worthwhile. For the most part, G-Unit seem to exist solely for the purpose of making D12 look good; at least those guys enjoy their enthusiastic crudity.

As a human being outside the posse, Young Buck has some entertainment value, provided you’re a good 500 yards away from him. It was, after all, Buck who stabbed a guy at the Vibe awards in 2004 in full view of everyone, beat the charge, and then did a mixtape song about it (he seems to think it’s funny). I can’t claim to be overly familiar with him as a rapper—aside from being repeatedly exposed to much of the Aftermath/G-Unit crew’s work by a friend who thinks it’s funny to watch me endure apopleptic fits—but his guest verse on T.I.’s “Undertaker” is impeccably violent. (“Let’s all bow our heads and say a prayer for this nigga / It seems the undertaker’s coming any day for this nigga.”) “Say It To My Face” is essence of Buck as I understand it, enhanced by a surprisingly spry beat (by one Jiggolo; no clue) that bounces back and forth between its hackneyed Beethoven’s 5th opening, a UGK-esque organ, vulgarly aggressive horns and a wah-wah guitar line. It’s all quite clever at synthesizing disparate parts, though some might find it too gaudy.

Buck’s main function here is to intone the chorus (“Say it to my face, ho, say it to my face, they talk behind my back but they won’t say it to my face”) while sounding like he’s credibly issuing a death threat (his specialty). Bun B’s verse is full of decisive authority, and this song’s here at least in part to acknowledge the lack of UGK on this list. Like much of Bun’s work, the lines don’t scan as remarkable on paper, but his delivery makes them sound as final as scripture. The real highlight, though, is 8 Ball. To be honest, I don’t really know who he is, but he has one of the most fascinatingly, needlessly contentious lines I’ve ever heard. A few lines in, he suddenly announces “For the last time, I don’t smoke regular weed.” One struggles to fathom the circumstances in which he has to keep saying this. I guess no matter where 8 Ball goes, people are like “Hey 8 Ball, do you smoke regular weed or something better?” And he has to respond, “No, I don’t smoke regular weed.” Finally he has reached a tipping point and needs to clarify the record once and for all. Add up Buck’s naked belligerence, a better-than-average beat, Bun B’s reliable gravitas and 8 Ball’s amusing sense of priorities, and what we have is arguably the sole redeemable part of the G-Unit legacy.


75. Sex In Dallas, “Everybody Deserves To Be Fucked” (Around The War, 2004)

I found this through a randomly-clicked Pitchfork review of a Snow Patrol mixtape (huh), and the title just seemed too ridiculous not to follow up on. As with “Boobies” (#93), this is a fantastic song to annoy people with, and also an adroit parody of Eurotrash, combining an unplaceable accent with an untenable premise for the transparent goal of getting laid. The speaker’s idea is that “everybody deserves to be fucked,” though by “everybody” the anonymous man seems to mean, specifically, “me.” He wastes a lot of time asking girls their names, as if that’ll help him put over this fundamentally ludicrous premise and make it seem like he’s not just a self-centered fucking machine. Too bad the synths seem counter-productively set to “annoy.” As with “Boobies,” this amuses me probably more than it should, but it really does sum up my feelings about every guy who self-consciously used his accent to get laid while rambling drunkenly. It’s an unnatural evolutionary advantage. (NB: I’m channeling my college grudges now.)


74. Rhymefest, “Devil’s Pie” (Blue Collar, 2006)

I can’t really improve on Noel Murray’s praise/skepticism about this song: “I have a hard time resisting any hip-hop song that samples The Strokes, even though I realize that to some extent this song is sampling The Strokes because that makes it more immediately appealing to a pasty white hipster type like me.” “Devil’s Pie” isn’t the best song on Rhymefest’s official debut by a long shot, but it’s the one I’ve listened to most, for two reasons. 1) It samples The Strokes. I love The Strokes. We’ll talk about this more later. 2) Mark Ronson is annoying as a media personality but undeniably talented; playing the first few seconds of “Last Nite,” slowing them into analogue dysfunction—an all-digital file artificially approximating the sound made by a record-player when you cut the power as it’s playing—then chopping the supremely stiff song into ‘70s soul rhythm guitar is kind of brilliant, even if he has to shift it down from A to G major to make it work. The point is in the bravado; there are approximately 17,000 rhythm guitars from actual soul that would’ve served just as well. That Ronson likes the Strokes enough to transform them into something he loves equally—something they definitely aren’t—is the point. When I got my hands on this album, I listened to the Kanye-produced track first (because Kanye is amazing), and this second, solely for the unlikely sample. It’s pretty exciting to see something decidedly non-hip-hop transformed into a plausible beat, especially something I love. The only other example I can think of is RJD2’s “Ghostwriter,” which almost made the list solely for RJD2’s brilliant, beyond-unexpected Elliott Smith sample, which freaked me out as surely the least likely sample source in hip-hop history.

Oh yeah, Rhymefest. Good rapper, regrettable homophobe. So it goes most of the time. Not his greatest song, but my favorite thus far for reasons beyond his control.


73. Weezer, “Pork And Beans” (Weezer (The Red Album), 2008)

For people my age (anyone from, say, 18-24), Weezer might as well be the Rolling Stones. I’m not sure I ever heard a Weezer song ’til high school (raised by classically-oriented parents, I didn’t hear radio for ages), but in retrospect I understand perfectly why pretty much my entire demographic knows “Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So” et al. word for word. Weezer was very, very good at putting the loudness of ‘80s metal guitars at the service of ‘70s power-pop harmonies, the better to push forward universally-understandable emo sentiments. The final combination is practically gene-spliced for raucous late-night shout-alongs (even if it took many of us years to actually get around to Pinkerton, which works even better for that). Though The Green Album spawned “Island In The Sun,” one of their most ubiquitous songs, the ’00s have basically been Rivers Cuomo convinced he’s doing the best work of his career while a disbelieving public largely wonders what the hell happened. (A contrarian element insists this is his best work, notably and predictably Chuck Klosterman.) 2005’s Make Believe is unbelievably bad, at least based on the radio singles: It takes real cojones to make a sub-Dandy Warhols track (“We Are All On Drugs”), but “Beverly Hills” was even more unforgivable.

All of which made “Pork ’N Beans” a pleasant surprise from an otherwise (by most accounts) unexceptional album. As a song, “Pork And Beans” starts off sounding extremely annoying, its hook almost clumsily catchy; by the time it’s done, it’ll be in your head for the rest of the day. Only slightly less self-reflexive than LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” it’s the ultimate in low-emotional-stakes songwriting; gone are the days of Cuomo as intense confessional balladeer. The chorus is gleefully nonsensical, and for once Rivers seems acutely aware of his position in the market; that he’s wondering aloud about working with Timbaland isn’t really a joke, considering Timbaland really thought it was a good idea to collaborate with The Hives. Cuomo seems very clear on how remarkable it is that a meat-and-potatoes guitar band like Weezer survived commercially this long.

But it’s the video that pushes the song over the top. On paper, it’s a cynical gimmick: the stars of YouTube, c. ’08, joining in all over the place. I don’t know who most of these people are (aside from Tay Zonday and the moronic Miss Georgia), but it doesn’t matter. Cuomo’s the closest thing we have to the musical equivalent of Klosterman—a dude who’s listened to the Pixies and Sonic Youth and then decided that was elitist and stupid and that whatever’s the most popular thing is automatically the best as well. That viewpoint has very heavy limitations (and it can be intensely irritating in its self-righteousness), but the good thing about it is that when Rivers invites others to the party, he’s not condescending. In video form, “Pork And Beans” is collaborative egalitarianism at its best, joyous partying with people I wouldn’t normally like (or, like most YouTube phenoms, who actively irritate me).


72. Junior Boys, “The Animator” (Begone Dull Care, 2009)

It’s kind of a shame Junior Boys will almost certainly never be a huge arena band, because they have the performance chops to pull it off. I don’t know who’s just in the touring band and who’s in for real, but at Pitchfork 2007 the bassist marched a one-two in place like he was getting ready to launch into “The Swamp” while the drummer wore his finest New Wave, ironically business-casual regalia. I’m not crazy about the first and third Junior Boys albums as entities—too monolithically hushed/dancy, respectively—but So This Is Goodbye is freakishly near perfect. I’m guessing part of the reason Junior Boys are so unexpectedly rousing live is precisely because their most upbeat material still has hushed whispers for vocals and intricately worked-over glitches for beats. Live, they rock real drums and louder vocals, which automatically kicks things up a notch; they bring out the sexy in what’s just enjoyably pathetic whimpering on record.

No one needs me to tell them how great Goodbye is (although I understand Last Exit has die-hard fans, who understand something about spare beats I don’t). So—even if this isn’t as devastating as Goodbye’s album’s closing duo of “When No One Cares” and “FM”—I’ll go with “The Animator,” from the mostly puzzling Begone Dull Care. Poised between structural solidity and temperamental fragility, “The Animator” (allegedly inspired by Canadian animator Norman McLaren, which is basically irrelevant to everyone but the band) doesn’t say anything worth writing home about (“I can’t draw a line without it falling off the page”), but it sounds, indefinably, like someone giving thanks and forgiveness simultaneously. Or maybe, more honestly, I never got over the year The Notwist and The Postal Service broke the same year and I thought warm, overtly devastated hushed electronic pop (“lappop!” That never caught on) would become the de facto ballad mode of the ’00s. Well, no: Turns out not everyone prefers that 80% of their music sounds immensely, unnecessarily sad with electronic help. But “The Animator” does; it could also be totally muscular live. Here’s hoping it far outlives the uneven album it comes from and Junior Boys pander to me like this a few more times.


71. Ms. John Soda, “Solid Ground” (No P. or D., 2002)

Ms. John Soda is a side project of The Notwist; I have the album this comes from, but I’m afraid to listen to the rest of it in case it’s something I don’t care for or tarnishes this. I’ve read a few reviews, each of which makes a point of dissing this song; it’s too wussy or something. Even more crushed than “The Animator,” “Solid Ground” is actually the opposite of its title: “No solid ground beneath my feet,” the anonymously cooing woman sings, and the song reflects that instability, building itself around an unreliable stand-up bass and a tarnished piano that’s seen better days. I don’t even listen to what she’s singing after that. If this had become a generic genre, I wouldn’t have complained. It didn’t.


Editor’s Note: Click here to read the previous installment of this feature.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

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

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. 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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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