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Best of the Aughts: A Single Take, #90 – #81

Arguably, the aughts traveled through three or four distinct phases of journalistically notable indie rock trends



Best of the Aughts: A Single Take, #90 - #81

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

90. Department of Eagles, “Floating On The Lehigh” (In Ear Park, 2008)
Arguably, the aughts traveled through three or four distinct phases of journalistically notable indie rock trends (read: space-filling pseudo-movements rooted in some truth, but basically the creation of lazy critics). There was the ridiculously clustered-together “garage rock revival” post-millennial phase (something so poorly and simplistically defined that, for a while, people thought maybe The Fiery Furnaces ought to be grouped next to the White Stripes, since they were both [faux-]brother/sister duos). There was the ugly middle period defined by (depending on where your head was at) either DFA and its disco-punk ilk and/or the notion that large groups of people standing around on stage constituted an automatically laudable, Gen-X-cynicism-repudiating ethos of “community,” “togetherness” et al. (Douglas Coupland would be so proud we snapped out of it!). The endgame (now over, apparently) was in thrall to the idea that Sonic Youth should be everyone’s favorite band of all time. There will be much more to say about these dismal mini-zeitgeists on another occasion.

At this particular moment, though, it seems like Grizzly Bear have a chance of making really ornate, multi-harmony vocals that resist automatic Beach Boys sugar very popular and generally The Next Big Thing if anyone can figure out how to rip them off. They’re very sui generis, but I prefer side project Department of Eagles, which concedes just enough to the kind of stuff I already understand; Yellow House aside, Grizzly Bear often stretches beyond what I’m comfortable with in their longeurs. Like Rufus Wainwright at his most Romantic, “Floating On The Lehigh” meanders through six minutes of woodwinds, the occasional operatic swell and non-urgent detours without ever seeming too tenuous. There’s real excitement to be found in music that can sprawl for a long time without losing you when it stops to breathe, which is pretty much always in this case. Downright post-coital.

89. Franz Ferdinand, “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” (You Could Have It So Much Better, 2005)
Franz Ferdinand went really quickly from UK NME heroes—just another group to be hyped up and spat out the next week, the way bands like (three random examples from an infinite number) The Ordinary Boys, The Paddingtons or The Enemy came and went—to honest-to-goodness US chart stars, suggesting to the overexcitable that they were going to be the next Oasis. (Britpop’s got the weirdest criterion for success: You have to conquer America to be fully validated, which apparently either proves that British music isn’t just an insular circle jerk, or that British cultural imperialism can still linger on in some consolation-prize way, or something equally ineffable. It’s a peculiarly one-way phenomenon: You don’t see too many American bands worrying about whether they’re rocking Brighton.) It might be hard for kids twenty years on to hear what exactly was so exciting about Franz Ferdinand. Though they wrote two albums of excellent, impeccable pop, I’m having trouble these days finding something in their music suggesting they were actually so many magnitudes better than any number of other, contemporaneous bands who never got over Talking Heads, aside from their freakish consistency. (There’s basically no filler on their first two albums, which is impressive.)

Still, I enjoyed and enjoy both those two albums in their entirety and it would be dishonest to leave them off; they were a brief moment suggesting the Pitchfork-approved zeitgeist was going to take over the world on a stadium-filling scale (I have no qualms about things I like blowing up; I rather enjoy it). As far as an arbitary representative track, I’ll go with this uncharacteristic piano-based ballad, if only because a) it’s adorable b) Alex Kapranos dated the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (hence the title), a ridiculously disparate union of incompatible chart positions and also the kind of nerd indie rock trivia precisely no one but me seems to find interesting. Indie rock power couples! Not since the glory days of Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield etc, etc.

88. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma” (Vampire Weekend, 2008)
When Vampire Weekend played Pitchfork 2007, Nathan Rabin noted they were greeted with a sarcastic cry of “Keep on rocking! I love The Jonas Brothers!” VW probably objectively set some kind of record for least time elapsed from blog fame to the commercial success (they had a debut within a year-and-a-half of formation that went on to sell 900,000 copies worldwide). Reflexive disowning by the very people who first championed them came pretty much the day their album came out. They’re the poster child for both blog-rock’s upside (it can find good new bands way faster than the past noxious scouting process) and downside (if they’re famous too fast, no one who was an early adopter wants anything to do with them). Vampire Weekend’s biggest sin was being simultaneously poppy and preppy; it’s hard to tell which offended their detractors more. Edgeless? Sure. Bland? Probably. (Contra’s a whole other story though.) The fact that lead singer Ezra Koenig showed up at a 12-hour Fucked Up show and flawlessly screamed two punk chestnuts probably only made people uneasy, pointing out how short the connecting line is between formulaic pop and (by definition somewhat formulaic) purist punk. So I’ll go with one of their earwormiest and most unabashedly “elitist” songs (that title!) just for good measure; this is surely one of the slowest, least urgent songs ever to nonetheless be insanely catchy.

87. Killer Mike, “That’s Life” (single, 2006)
Pretty much one of the favorite 2006 songs of everyone who took hip-hop “seriously” (a designation which always sends up nearly as many warning flags as the recommendations of people who take TV “seriously”), this will probably stand better as a time capsule than the stinging declaration of intent it’s meant as, though it’s plenty vehement. In a little over five minutes, Mike denounces Oprah, “bourgeoisie niggers,” people whose “sick twisted faggot minds” lead them to theorize about why black people wear baggy jeans, and why Kanye was “damn near right” but how W. actually hates “all poor people, be they black or white.” An equal mixture of the mildly alarming and the pretty convincing, it’s about as honest and substantive as most ’00s rap got without being preachy. Mike shows you can be didactic but entertaining; in any case, the way he made his case was far more entrancing than said case. As of this writing, Killer Mike has changed to the name Mike Bigga, which is a damn shame.

86. Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, “Yahhh!” (, 2007)
Diametrically opposite across the hip-hop divide there’s Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, who’s always struck me as a reasonably amusing guy, far from the nadir of rap he was supposed to be. (This will be the only time I impersonate a self-righteous poptimist; there will be no appearances from the Jonas Brothers or, I dunno, Ke$ha further down this list, I swear.) With his first hit, “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” he came up with one of rap’s most annoyingly insistent, catchiest verbal hooks, inspiring many suburban kids to Urban Dictionary the readjusted meanings of “Superman” and “Robocop.” When Ice-T took the sentiments of many critics to the next level and recorded a diss claiming Soulja Boy “singlehandedly killed hip-hop” and telling him to “eat a dick,” Soulja Boy shockingly came out on top by pointing out a) the man who once recorded “Fuck Tha Police” is now on Law And Order b) Soulja Boy’s financial success enabled him to move his family out of the ghetto within a year of breaking (“You should be telling me ’Congratulations young brother, get your money’”) c) if Ice-T really feels hip-hop is dying, he should get back in the studio and try to save it. Soulja Boy understands precisely what his goals are and what rap music’s current commercial paradigm is: It’s to make a great deal of money by being as entertaining as he knows how, and he’s fairly good at it.

As a song, “Yaah” isn’t noticeably more advanced than “Crank That,” but it gave birth to my personal nominee for most entertaining rap video of the decade. Soulja Boy’s at home with his friend Arab playing video games, but his management team insists he make an appearance at school. So off he skulks down the sidewalk, accompanied by his little claymation buddy, the “Hater,” who’s popped out from a video game to act as Soulja Boy’s (only marginally more inappropriate) id. When someone gets in your face—be that someone Hilary Clinton or Britney Spears (to Soulja Boy, all white people look the same)—yell “Yaah trick! Yaah!” It’s cathartic. The whole thing ends with a rousing parody of Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s,” with Soulja Boy changing the chorus from a celebration of rims to a demand that his teacher upgrade his F’s to D’s, jovially celebrating his own ignorance. “I’m just playing,” he concludes, “listen to Soulja Boy, stay in school,” but he can’t stop himself from cracking up. I salute Soulja Boy’s absolute lack of hypocrisy if nothing else: He’s no one’s mouthpiece for a school system he dropped out of. He’s a terrible rapper, but a pretty good entertainer.

85. Josh Rouse, “Carolina” (Nashville, 2005)
At one point, Rouse’s website talked up “The soft rock sounds of Josh Rouse.” It takes some nerve to court a label most would try hard to avoid, a perversity I dig (Rouse is on the record as a die-hard Bread fan). This is one of Rouse’s sparklier numbers (and one of his least ‘70s fixated ones, for whatever that’s worth), but it’s sophisticatedly soaring. Rouse’s work is uneven as a whole, but when he’s on he can make awesome little ditties I listen to over and over again even though they’re obviously not necessarily anything more than well-crafted schlock. I think it’s about a hooker.

84. Ada, “Maps” (Blondie, 2004)
“Maps” was a reasonably popular song in its original incarnation—unexpected MTV spins and all—but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs never had their big commercial push to the next R.E.M.-tier level. (I certainly don’t think most normal, radio-listening, Godfearing Americans heard “Maps” until it was added to the Rock Band roster.) I like this synth-pop cover even better; with its glacial pace and calm, cheaply expansive synths, it ditches Karen O’s usual hysterics (effectively reined-in on “Maps,” but she’s really had some horrendously over-the-top moments) for epic detachment and serene resignation. If Karen O sings like someone who momentarily hopes she can actually stop her lover from leaving (“Maps” is the kind of song that demands the use of an overwrought word like “lover”), Ada’s tone transforms the whole thing into the greatest John Hughes prom scene that never was, a slow-dance frozen in time. That I prefer this approach obviously says more about my ingrained preferences than the actual merits of the respective versions, but I get chills from this; the original is just a very good song.

83. Los Campesinos!, “Frontwards” (Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP, 2007)
As of right now, Los Campesinos! are more interesting theoretically than viscerally, striving to combine a comical degree of reverence for Sarah Records and their American indie forefathers with shout-y punk. It’s probably an unrealizable project, but it’s interesting to watch them try to sum up the entire Indie Rock Ethos as they understand it in one band. This gleeful Pavement cover is as close as they’ve gotten thus far, transforming one of the Slanted And Enchanted era’s most haunted songs (only “Here” mopes better) into an unlikely punk-pop cut, complete with solo fiddle. Erudite, WE-LOVE-OBSCURITIES righteousness meets instant pleasure for a few minutes.

82. Girl Talk, “Smash Your Head” (Night Ripper, 2006)
Girl Talk is pretty awesome, but the problem is that I’ve talked to way too many people who feel like they can’t stand mainstream hip-hop in any other context except Gregg Gillis’—i.e., recontextualized against white radio-/indie- friendly hallmarks. When Gillis hijacks a rap vocal hook, it’s not hard to hear that it’s often the instrumentals, not the words, lifted by the juxtaposition, but listeners perceive it oppositely. It’s like, how much imagination does it take to hear the catchiness of the Ying Yang Twins anyway? But “Smash Your Head” admittedly works for everyone regardless of orientation, largely because the nearly minute-long juxtaposition of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (a ridiculously celebratory rap verse) and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (associated in the memory of nearly everyone Gillis’s age or younger with a whole tour bus in Almost Famous breaking out into reconciliatory sing-along) is just way too euphoric. Also, the X-Ray Spex song at the start is as erudite and obscure a reference as Girl Talk’s ever offered, so the best of the populist and elitist worlds in one song.

81. The Streets, “Don’t Mug Yourself” (Original Pirate Material, 2002)
For a brief moment I actually remember (but which probably would seem ridiculous to anyone even, say, three years younger), generally level-headed music critics and amateur over-enthusiasts really thought the commercial rap landscape of 2002—settling into one of its periodic torpors, where semi-novelty singles broke out but new artists with obvious staying power were missing—could possibly be taken over by a British guy whose sense of rhythm and meter was at best cheerfully indifferent and at worst actively incompetent. If anything, Mike Skinner’s odd first album sounds even better now than when it came out; I was dreading a follow-up phalanx of slacker Brits lazily offering aggressively lower-class vernacular as a goal in itself, but instead he was just the one guy (one who got a lot worse when he got too wealthy to remember what he was rapping about in the first place, though he’s had his moments ever since: We Survivors Of The Swine-Flu must all gather together one day to snicker over this).

Shortly thereafter, grime took over the UK rap scene and I never could get into it, no matter how gleefully eccentric and aggressive Dizzee Rascal’s pronunciations were; it just seemed like all the violence and pissed-off-ness of American rap, but with less fun (“progressive”) beats. Most of Original Pirate Material is gold; this unrepentantly male-centric song is as good as any. I’m hesitant to dutifully label it misogynistic, since it’s clearly presented as a bunch of dudes sitting around the-morning-after shooting the shit after a hard night of clubbing, halfway between stoned skit and vérité report. Among the cliched but quite possibly true advice—she’ll like you more if you don’t call her!—are terrific moments of dudes cockily saying things like “Stop me if I’m wrong! Stop me if I’m wrong!” and the sounds of friends cracking up over cheap silverware; British Apatow without the punchlines. But yeah, there was no way in the entire world this was ever going to take over American hip-hop. Are you kidding?

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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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.



Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

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.

How so?

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.



Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

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



Joaquin Phoenix
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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



Once Upon a 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.



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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