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A Talk with Battlestar Galactica Director Michael Nankin

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A Talk with Battlestar Galactica Director Michael Nankin

Most of Battlestar Galactica director Michael Nankin’s previous experience in television directing came on domestic or workplace dramas like Life Goes On and Picket Fences. So perhaps he wasn’t the most obvious choice to make the leap to the sweeping space battles of the gritty sci-fi show (airing the first of its final batch of episodes tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sci-Fi). But he insists the series don’t have that little in common in the end.

“You know, it was kismet,” Nankin said of working on the show. “It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around.”

I sat down with Nankin a few days ago to talk for almost an hour about TV direction in general, directing Battlestar specifically, and some of the other shows on TV he admires.

First, I wanna ask a little about your background. I did see you started out as a writer and then sort of transitioned to being a director.

That’s inaccurate because IMDb doesn’t go back far enough. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done that it doesn’t list, and there’s actually things I haven’t done that it does list, which is strange.

I was one of those kids who was making movies when he was ten. My grandfather gave me a standard eight reel camera, which is the kind that takes 16mm film and you’d run 25 feet and then flip it over and run the other way. So that’s how I started and then I just never stopped. Although it didn’t occur to me that I could make a career making films until college. I grew up in … there were no artists in my family, so I was going to grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer and make movies on the side. I drew a lot and painted a lot. They were very worried about me.

What was the point where you sort of said, “OK, I could do this for a living?”

It was interesting. I made friends with a guy in high school, at the end of high school, and I went to his house one day, and his dad was a musician. And so we go to his house, it’s this big house, so clearly someone’s making enough money. And he says, “We have to be quiet, my dad’s working.” So we walk by this room, and I peek in, and there’s his dad sitting at the piano, with a blank piece of paper, noodling on the keys and writing down a lyric, and it hit me like a two-by-four. And I thought, “My God, you can, like, do it. You can do that kind of stuff and make a living.” That moment changed everything for me.

To answer your question, I went to film school at UCLA. I wanted to be a director. That’s all I cared about. I’d always written my stuff, but I’d never had an ambition to be a writer because writing just always felt like part of the filmmaking process. OK, I’ve got a movie in my head, and I have to communicate it to people in some way, so I have to write it down. And then I make the movie. But it was never a desire to be the next Steinbeck. Although I wouldn’t mind being the next Steinbeck, but it may be too late.

So how did you get involved in television?

I had a career in features, and I directed one movie and it didn’t do well and things fell apart and no one was hiring me to direct. So I thought, “I’ve gotta sit down and write scripts. No one’s hiring me to direct their projects, so I’ve gotta create my own projects.” I started writing scripts, and I started selling them. Suddenly, I was a movie writer. So I was cooking along, writing scripts and optioning them, and doing rewrites, but I wasn’t any closer back to directing at all because none of them were hits. I was just chugging along.

That was going on for years. I was really frustrated because I was in an enviable position, but I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t on the set. And I’d just gotten married so I couldn’t really quit. And a guy named Rick Rosenthal who directed a movie I wrote called Russkies directed the pilot for a TV show called Life Goes On about 20 years ago. And he called me up and said, “Come see the pilot at the screening. Meet the other writers, and you can come and pitch stories and write some episodes.” My initial reaction was an arrogant one. “Please Rick. I’m a feature guy. How could I possibly do that? Work on a television show! I wouldn’t understand it.” And I went and saw this thing, and it was beautiful, and I read some of the scripts, and I realized this writing is better than the writing I’m doing. It’s better than 95% of the features I’m seeing. It totally turned my head around.

So I wrote one on spec, and then they made me a staff writer. So then I was in, and I was on a TV show. It was all new to me. And then, of course, the first day I showed up and every day after that, I kept pushing, “I want to direct.” I kept saying and kept saying it, and they kept patting me on the head and sending me away. But after a year, they really liked my work, Rick and the other executive producer Michael Braverman fought for me, and I got my first episodic directing job. And I was ready. I was so ready for it.

How common was it for writers to cross over into directing then? I know it’s a little more common now.

It’s hard. It’s hard.

Even in TV?

It’s a different skill set. It’s a leap of faith, on behalf of the studio mostly because they’re writing the checks, and they have to be convinced. Or forced.

So I was really ready. I just hit it out of the park, really, and I just fell in love with episodic television because I got a chance to do so much work. It was interesting. I think it was the first or second season of Life Goes On, and there was a show that was short, and it was about to air, and they just turned to me and said, “We need one more scene. Write this scene, and we’re gonna shoot it tomorrow. It airs in four days.” The theme of the episode was homelessness, so I took this character that was a cook in the restaurant that the father owned, and I gave him this speech about what it’s like to be homeless, and suddenly you discovered that in his youth, he was this homeless guy. He fell into that and brought himself out. And he gives this long speech about what it’s like to be on the street, and what happens after you’re on the street for two days, and you can’t walk into a store. Y’know, a very humanistic speech. It was very from my heart. And then actors were speaking the lines 18 hours later and 25 million people saw it five days later, and I was hooked.

Well, this is from IMDb again, so it might be wrong, but I’m seeing you worked on Life Goes On and then Picket Fences and Chicago Hope for a while. How did you move then from sort of domestic dramas to the science fiction of Battlestar?

Purely accidentally. It’s interesting because I had started out, I was interested in sci-fi early on in my career. I was mentored by Ray Bradbury, who may be the sweetest man on Earth and cured me of writers block forever. And I got together with him, and the first thing I told him was that it was his short stories that I read when I was 11 that made me think that maybe I could write. And I was lucky enough to meet up with him. I latched on to him.

So the movie scripts I’d written were comedies and thrillers. There was one horror movie that kind of got me on the map called The Gate, and then Life Goes On really pegged me as sort of a writer of character drama. Very heartfelt. Somewhat sentimental. And that’s what I was known as for years. I did Chicago Hope and Picket Fences and family and teen dramas as a director. You never really control your career, but that’s what I was known for. And then I directed a show called American Gothic.

Here’s how I got that job. I saw the pilot, and I didn’t know Shaun Cassidy at all, but I saw the pilot, and I just called him up, and I said, “I just wanted to thank you for creating a TV show that’s told visually rather than in the dialogue.” So he said, “Are you kidding? Come and have lunch with me.” So I went and had lunch with him, and pretty soon I was working on the show. A great way to move in the business is call people and compliment them, but only if you mean it.

So I was shooting this episode of American Gothic in North Carolina and the producer on the set was [BSG executive producer] David Eick. So we became pals. And we tried to develop several shows together, and it never panned out. And then I had this idea for a miniseries for Sci Fi. It was actually a movie idea I’d had, but I knew it could easily be a miniseries, and Eick and I pitched it to Sci Fi and they really liked it. So I spent months writing this—y’know, it’s a six hour miniseries, so the outline was, like, 40 pages. You had to work everything out before you write it. So all the heavy lifting’s in the outline, and none of the money’s in the outline. So I spent months writing this outline and making no money, and we finally submitted it to Sci Fi, and they said, “Nah, we don’t really wanna do it.”

And Eick had just started Battlestar, and I said, “David, I’m broke. I just spent three months and made nothing. You gotta give me an episode. I need some cash.” And now I’m the sci-fi guy.

You know, it was kismet. It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around. On the second day of Battlestar, I called Eick and said, “David, get me as many of these as you can. I’m not leaving. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

One of the things you briefly mentioned was calling up Cassidy about his show being done visually instead of through dialogue. That’s one of the things I notice is that even when I’m writing a review of a TV show, I tend to focus on the script, which is sort of the opposite of how it is in the movie world, where you focus on the director. What has been your role traditionally as a TV director insofar as servicing the scripts or working with them?

Well, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s different on every show. Working with David Kelley on Picket Fences, there’s actually a guy on set who says, “There’s a comma here. You didn’t pause long enough” on one end of the spectrum. And the other end of the spectrum is Battlestar Galactica where they hand me the script and they go away and they say, “Let us know when you’re done making your movie.” And I have lots of freedom. Lots of it.

My ideas about approaching an episode of television is that my job is to find the humanity in the story. That’s my starting point always. I’m about to go do a CSI, the most procedural show in the world, and my job is to make it a human experience rather than just people talking about the perp. The director in features or TV is the midwife of the performance, and so that’s what I concentrate on. That’s the fun of it. But dealing with the script, y’know, the script’s a treasure map in the best incarnation of the way this works. You wouldn’t take a treasure map and frame it and say it’s a finished piece of work. It’s gonna lead you to something. It’s full of clues and suggestions for where you should go and what you should do, but it doesn’t contain the treasure. You have to find the treasure. And the treasure is the moment, the moment between two people on the screen.

You mentioned being the midwife of the performance. How is that different on a show where you and the actors have both been working on it for a while, like on Battlestar? After four seasons, what do you say to an actor who maybe feels they really know their character at that point?

It kind of has nothing to do with knowing your character. You start a movie, and they know who their character is on the first day. It’s what’s happening to that character. And everyone’s interpretation of character changes as things go on. It gets deeper and deeper and deeper hopefully. So it’s really about, OK, so we know who this character is, so we don’t have to do that. Now, what does this man or this woman do now in this moment, in this situation. And the actors come with their ideas, all of which are valuable, and I just try to open doors for them that they haven’t thought of and try to create an environment in which they can play and experiment and not be frightened of doing the wrong thing. Fear is what hangs up actors the most. If they don’t trust the director, if they’re afraid someone’s not watching them correctly, then they’ll watch themselves. And you can’t be in the moment and watch yourself at the same time, and the performance is diminished. Fear also makes them afraid to do the wrong thing, and if you create an environment where it’s OK to do the wrong thing, then they’re free to find the unexpected in the scene.

Often, I’ll do a take where we intentionally do the wrong thing. Early on, I’ll say, “OK, what’s the stupidest way to do this scene? What’s the most embarrassing, idiotic way to do it? Let’s do a take that way.” And what happens is they do it, and the world doesn’t end, and everyone laughs, and we move on.

I’m really sad none of those have ended up on the DVD.

And what happens more often than not is we get to the end of the take, and we all look at each other, and we say, “Y’know, we set out to do exactly the wrong thing, but that one part that you did, that was fucking great. Let’s use that.”

Now, there aren’t a lot of TV shows that have a distinct visual style you have to use. Usually, it’s midshots and close-ups and so on. Battlestar has always had that docudrama feel, though. How much of that is mandated?

It’s involved, because there are a number of episodes of Battlestar that have very little of that in it. And I came in to Battlestar resisting it. My background was in visual arts. I was a painter, and so composition was always a really important storytelling tool for me. Suddenly, there’s two cameras going crazy all the time. I’m losing that tool. I can tell the story by where the guy is in the frame, and I was frightened at first. How can I do this? It’s just gonna be a mess.

But it ended up liberating me. I suddenly realized that I could do what I wanted to do without being so carefully controlling over that composition. I could still get it across. Battlestar, there’s two cameras going all the time. Two camera operators. I figured out pretty quickly that there was one camera operator who was just brilliant. He could take this fifty pound camera and whip it around like it was a handycam. Just get stuff I would never think of. And so what I did was I sort of struck a compromise. And so the A camera I could kind of control and make my compositions in, even though it was still handheld and had those nervous little zooms in it. It still had that feeling. But I would say, “Now, this is a wide shot and Adama’s on the left and keep him really small.” I’d still shoot in my sort of normal mode with A camera, but I had the B camera changing it up every take. Slowly, I was sort of able to let go of A camera even and sort of just concentrate on the performances and every once in a while sort of nudge things back to where I wanted them to be. But I started to really love the surprises that I would get. My resistance at first, I just ended up loving it. It became a new tool in my arsenal and got completely spoiled by the brilliance of these camera operators. You can do that with the wrong guys, and it’s a mess. That’s what I was afraid of. But these camera operators are filmmakers, and the important thing is they’re following the story. They’re not just making cool shots. They know the story, and they’re enhancing it. Once I knew that was going on, I was able to relax.

What are the major differences between starting out early in a show’s run like you did on Battlestar and then coming in later on in a show’s run like you’re doing on CSI?

I’ll tell you, I’ve been lucky. Most of the directing I’ve done in television has been early in the first season. As a matter of fact, I try to get my agents the two times I’ve had the option to choose, I always want to go to the show that’s just starting up because no one really knows anything, and I get the option to be more of a filmmaker. I feel like especially after this great experience on Battlestar, I feel, like, “Fine, what’s your style? I’ll do your style. I don’t have to come here and change your show.” It’s fantastic.

And I also find that showrunners all hang on to their vision to different degrees. I’ll find that I go onto a show, and people will say, “Well, here’s how we do it,” and I’ll say, “Great.” And in the course of prep, I’ll get ideas of my own, and I’ll sit down with them, and I’ll say, “Well, how about this? What if we did this?” I’ve found that almost everyone’s open to new ideas. Very few people say, “No no no. We can’t do that. We always put a closeup there.” Very few people are like that. Most people are excited with new ideas. And I’ve found that as long as everyone knows what they’re doing, as long as you sit down with them and talk about your ideas, people are open. A couple of times, I’ve surprised them. I’ve said, “OK, they’re gonna say no to this so I’ll just do it.” And that’s bad. People feel you’re working behind their back.

Or what I’ll do is I’ll do things two ways. Y’know, time permitting, I’ll do it their way, and then I’ll do my crazy shot. They have a choice in the editing room. If they like it, fine. If they don’t, fine.

Now, just by virtue of how little time there is to produce an episode of TV than a feature, the writer has always been more important in the TV production process generally. What are some ways that you think TV could maybe move over more to that visual directorial language while still saying on this tight production schedule?

Basically, you have to write to your budget. I just did Sarah Connor, and it was written bigger than their budget, so all the effort went into just getting it accomplished. Y’know, if you’ve got, like, In Treatment. In Treatment is a show about two people talking in a room. What’s beautiful about that is that the budget’s small, but the requirements are small, so within that small budget, it’s actually luxurious because you don’t have to move your set, you don’t have to bring in the trains, you don’t have to do any of that stuff. So you have time to work the performance. That’s what it’s all about. If shows are realistic about what they can accomplish so that you actually have time to deal with it, then you can be cinematic in any venue, directorially.

Although the more I work, the more I question what that really means. The best description of the job I’ve ever heard was that the director is the audience’s representative on the set. I can’t remember who said that. The guy who walks in and says, “This is my vision. This is my personal vision,” you don’t want that guy. Because he’s just asserting himself. You want someone to assert for the audience. Now the audience may want these incredible shots and sweeping camera and poetry and all that stuff, given the material. I was lucky coming up because I made all my student films in the 70s, and the only way to show it was to project it. There was no tape. There was no DVD. There was none of it. You could only show it by projecting it. So very early on, I had to gather groups of people in dark rooms and screen it. And, of course, I was a movie geek. I went to thousands and thousands of movies and talked about them with my friends. And then in film school, I was at UCLA where they screened everything in a theater. All of those hours and hours and hours in a dark room gives you a sense of audience. Showing your film and watching with an audience, thinking, “Man, that seems slow. It seemed great in the cutting room. Now it seems slow. They didn’t get that joke. Why didn’t they get that joke? They’re ahead of the story. How’d they get ahead of the story?” Over thousands of hours and hours, you develop a second sense. You know how they’re gonna react. So that’s how you make all your decisions on the set.

The audience is always trying to get ahead of the story, and so that’s a tool. Sometimes, you want them to get ahead and pull the rug out from under them. Sometimes, you want to make a left turn and leave them behind so they have to catch up. That’s part of the drama. I teach directing at the Art Institute in Santa Monica, and my big thing is always trying to get these kids to go sit in theaters among the audience. And it gets hard to do in TV because you just ship it. You don’t have to screen it.

Hasn’t Battlestar had several big screen screenings? Have you made it to one of those?

You bet!

How does it play?

It plays great. David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, a writing team for Battlestar who’ve written most of the episodes I’ve done, they have these frak parties because David lives out in Paradise Cove in Malibu, in this big upscale trailer park with this big rec room, and they take over the rec room the night the episode airs, and they have a big screening, and they invite all these fans and people from the show and stuff, and I’m always there. And I’m usually not watching the show. I’m usually standing near the screen watching the audience. Because I’ve seen the show. I know the show.

I’ve noticed that the show has gone to more of an epic feel. The miniseries was very epic, but the series started out kind of small. Was that a budgetary thing or was there a conscious choice to move in that direction?

I don’t think it was budgetary, although there’s always a battle. You have to start big to get the audience. And then I think it’s a combination of things. Part of it is, this is a really well-crafted 80-hour movie, and sometimes, you just have to slow down and lay the groundwork for what’s gonna happen. You have to sow the fields because you’re gonna reap them later. I think it’s part of a function of storytelling. I also think it’s part of a function of the fact that the writers didn’t know in season two really where it was going. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, trying to find what works. It takes a lot longer. I did an episode called “Faith,” which is just Roslin and this patient sitting over a bed for, like, 25 pages. It was like an episode of In Treatment.

Do you find that you tend to be drawn to episodes that are more like that? I’ve noticed that Rymer shoots a lot of the big space battle episodes.

That’s because he gets to pick and choose. I’m drawn to anything I haven’t done before. Anything new. I’m still waiting to make that Western. I wanna do a movie about jazz players. All these movies I’d love that I haven’t gotten to do. And quality. Writing that has subtext. Something that means something. Whether it’s big or small. When I’m out there with the cranes and the cars, and the sun’s going down, I say, “Just give me two people in a room. I wanna put two people in a room. Let me get out of this stage and shoot something fun.” But maybe I’m just a malcontent.

Looking back on your work on the show, what are some of your favorite scenes or episodes you worked on?

Well, “Maelstrom.” My favorite are the unaired shows, actually, but “Maelstrom” was all about digging really deep into Starbuck’s character. And Katee Sackhoff and I recognized early on that we were gonna have to bring our best game for this episode. We just get each other. We’re a really good team. I understand the way she works; I understand her. She likes the way I work. There wasn’t a get to know you period. There wasn’t a period of fear. It was all about, let’s see how far we can go. It was very intimate, mostly from my side. I saw things in her. She was dragging up stuff from her real childhood. She was dragging up stuff from her darkest fears, her weakest moments. And I was there watching, helping her get to it. It was very intimate and very courageous on her part. She was so game. She was naked in front of everybody, in every sense of the word. And that was a very intense experience.

I usually shoot stills on set. I always have my own camera, and I’m shooting stills. And on that episode, I never touched my still camera. I was so in the moment, in the work. I didn’t want to do anything other than make that episode. And it turned out well. That intense experience is part of my favorite experience in itself. It’s all on the screen. Sort of the Christmas Carol scene where she’s led back into this point in her life and she observes herself. To be able to do a scene where an actress plays two different versions of her character six years apart and is able to comment on herself, it was so deep and so tricky. It was so much fun because it was a challenge beyond what we usually did. What we’d ever done.

The show that airs (tonight) is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and is my favorite for a lot of other reasons. It’s very sad. And I love sad drama. If I could just do tragedies all the time. Y’know, cathartic tragedies that elevate you. So when we shot “Sometimes a Great Notion,” we shot during the writers strike, and all during prep, we didn’t know whether we’d be allowed to shoot it or not. So we just prepped it. And we didn’t know until the night before whether we were just gonna go home or shoot the episode. And we got the green light. And Ron Moore and the writers all went home. Couldn’t be there. And nobody knew how long the strike would be. We felt certain that if the strike went longer than six months, this would be the last episode of Battlestar ever. They wouldn’t hold these stages for six months. They’d lose everybody. That’d be it. And there was a very good chance because of all of the anger and the mood of the industry, we thought it was probably likely that this was the last time we’d ever be together and this would be the end of the show. And we couldn’t change anything because the writers were on strike. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about what way we could recut this footage to make a satisfying ending, and of course, there wasn’t any way. We had all of these crazy ideas, but none of them were any good.

So what happened was that everybody—and I think this was mostly through the leadership of Eddie Olmos—decided to do the best work of their lives. Because everyone thought, this is our last hurrah. This could be it. So let’s bring up our game. And this is a show where the bar’s set pretty high to begin with. Everyone said, “Let’s do the best work we’ve ever fucking done. Nobody slacks off.” I’ve never seen anything like it.

I know this is an episode you didn’t direct, but in “Revelations,” I’m wondering if you know anything about the process that led to the long tracking shot at the ending? Was that in the script? It’s not something you see on TV a lot.

It’s kind of in the script, not the fact that it’s all one shot. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about it. We were at that beach for three days, during which, I had to do all of my stuff for “Sometimes a Great Notion,” so I actually had to give up shooting time for his big tracking show. Once we realized that we were in such chaos leading up to it, there was talk at one time of him shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes and then there was talk of my shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes. And then we sort of looked at each other, and we both sort of said at the same time, “I wanna keep my own stuff. I’m not giving you this.” But what we had to do was spend some time thinking of what the look was going to be, because it was in both of our episodes, and we had to establish it. And what we did was sit down with the DP, Steve McNutt, and the first thing I said was, “Ingmar Bergman,” and he said, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” and that was the end of the discussion. And so we shot it like Death on the Beach. We tried to make it a black and white movie.

But the long tracking shot was Rymer’s idea.

Now, you have tonight’s episode coming up. Do you have more in the final batch?

Yeah, there’s another one called “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which is five or six episodes later, which was my swan song. It’s funny because it was the last episode for me, and it was the last episode for David and Bradley, the writers. Battlestar had become a family. So I was doing this scene with Adama and Laura, and David and Bradley are there, and I look up, and David has this odd look on his face, and he comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulder, and he says, “This is our last Laura/Adama scene ever.” And he started to cry. I said, “David, I understand, but I can’t go there. I have to direct this scene. I cannot go there with you. I am right there, but you have to go away. Let me finish this scene, and then I’ll be there with you. But please.” That’s how tight we all were. We felt the love, and the end of something magical.

You’ve been on a few long-running shows as they came to their end. Is that frequently how it is or are people like, “God, I can’t wait to leave this show”?

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I killed the show. (laughter) Yeah, yeah, a few times, yeah. Life Goes On was like that. Life Goes On went four seasons, but we didn’t know at the end of the fourth season whether it was the end or not. But we had kind of a wrap-up. We were on ABC, and ABC was going to dump it, but there was talk of NBC picking it up. So we were filled with hope that we were gonna keep going, so it wasn’t quite the same as knowing it was going to be a goodbye. Everyone just sort of scattered when everyone found out we weren’t coming back, which is the way it is for most shows.

More generally, you’ve mentioned In Treatment as a show you think is directed pretty well. What are some other TV shows you think have good directing?

Mad Men, without a doubt. One of the best directed shows on TV. Best-written. Best acted. Also, that’s not an expensive show. Like I said before, that’s a seven day shoot. It’s all interiors. Small scenes. And knowing what their budget is, they write to it, so they’re able to shoot it small. One of the greatest luxuries in episodic TV is to be able to reshoot a scene. Most shows say, “Forget about it. It’s never gonna happen.” But that’s what you get to do in features to bring up the quality. You shoot. You cut it together. And you say, “These two scenes could be much better,” and you go back and bring it up. That’s ideal. So every once in a while, you get a chance to do that in episodic, and that’s the greatest luxury.

That’s why I don’t watch dailies when I shoot, because I can’t do anything about it. So either I look at what I shot, and I go, “Oh, it’s fantastic,” or I go, “Ugh. I have to reshoot that scene,” but I know I can’t. It’s frustrating.

Has the culture where everyone knows everything that’s going on because of the Internet affected that at all? Is that something that is taken into consideration? Is there concern about that?

No.

I didn’t think so, but I thought I’d ask.

You’re right, though, it’s like everybody’s in show business now. It’s interesting because I was watching TV last night, and there was a trailer for The Reader, and the trailer went on for 15 seconds, and then there was an interview with Kate (Winslet) talking about the role, and my 18-year-old son looked at me and goes, “Why would they do the behind-the-scenes interview in a trailer?” It’s because everyone’s in show business now. Everyone knows all about the making of it. Everyone’s always been fascinated in it, but now there’s so many roads in.

How that all affects me is more, I don’t know what size screen someone’s gonna watch the work on. Am I doing this shot for a 60-inch plasma or a cellphone? And it’s an unanswerable question, so I just shoot for the 60-inch plasma. Fuck those people with their cellphones. (laughs) They shouldn’t be watching there anyway!

And that was what I was going to ask next was how the many different viewing platforms affect the director.

There’s so many, and it’s unpredictable, and there’s not enough information to make an intelligent choice. The answer is you don’t know. It’s affected, in a weird way, subconsciously, by the size of the monitor on the set. We watch it on a high-def monitor that’s a 20-inch monitor. And I’m always trying to move beyond that and not make it perfect for that. And also, I try not to watch the monitor. I try to watch the actors. I find I have a more critical eye watching them in person, than through the lens. But it’s something I’ve gone over and over and talked to other directors about. “Well, what are we shooting for?” We don’t know. Let’s just make it beautiful. But, y’know, even on my little TV, even on my credit-card sized window on my computer, if I put up Lawrence of Arabia, there’s that big wide shot, and even if this camel’s one little pixel, it still works.

And also, there’s performance. Performance is different from big screen to small screen. You can just drive yourself crazy trying to overthink it.

I have seen a few other TV episodes blown up, and TV acting sometimes does really translate and sometimes doesn’t.

What I find is that the smaller the screen gets, the more important story is. If you’re in a movie theater, the spectacle, the fact that your whole field of vision is taken up by just looking around the frame, it makes it a visual experience. But as the screen gets smaller, then there’s less and less of that, and so the story comes to the foreground. That’s why writers are so important in television, because you can film the spectacle, but a lot of people aren’t getting it.

So you mentioned that you’re going on to do CSI, and you said earlier that you’re doing a pilot for Fox and a miniseries for AMC. What are some things that you’d like to do beyond what you have on your plate?

Direct pilots and features. I miss the feature world. I miss telling stories that end. Although people can die on Battlestar. I’ve killed my share of characters on Battlestar. On that show, I was known as the Grim Reaper, because every time I showed up, a character would die. The actors would all run when I showed up. I miss the three acts and you’re out kind of storytelling. And I want to direct pilots because there’s so much more invention involved, and so much more money involved. If you direct a pilot, and the series goes, you get a check for like $5,000 for every episode, whether you do anything or not. It’s a great deal.

Has TV directing changed appreciably now that so many series are like Lost or Battlestar Galactica where every story is connected into a larger story from the days of Life Goes On or Picket Fences where there was less of that?

Well, the doors have opened more for serialization, which I’m very happy about, because then instead of resetting and going again, you get to move on. Networks still don’t like it. Cable networks do like it. What the broadcast networks fight is the fact that if people miss a certain amount, they never come to it. They feel they’ve missed too much. You can’t just drop in on a serialized show. The cable networks like the novella sort of feel. They feel like they have smaller audiences that can drop in and get hooked. I prefer the serialization in the storytelling. It’s like a long movie. Although I also love the original Star Trek, where no one ever did anything different. They always reset to the same place like nothing had ever happened.

I know the serialization has really tamped down on freelance writers coming into a series because everyone needs to know what’s going on. Has that affected the freelance directing for television?

No, because you have time to catch up. The freelance writer has the disadvantage of not being in the room, the writing room, during all the discussions of where it’s been and where it’s going and where it almost went. They don’t have all of that. So generally on shows with stand-alone episodes, they’re fine, but in serialization, they’re so far behind the curve that they’ll get an episode and they’ll write an episode, and it’ll have to be totally rewritten because it’s outdated by the time it gets there. Whereas as a director, I don’t have to do that. I just sit down and watch all the DVDs leading up to it. I don’t have to start from scratch. It’s more of an act of art and craft than writing.

What are you most proud of in your run on the series?

My work with the actors. The performances I was able to get. That’s what I’m proudest of. What I’m most grateful for was the freedom I was given because in that freedom, I was able to grow and experiment. When you’re hamstrung, when it’s like, “Do it this way,” there’s no room for experimentation, so you can’t fail. You can’t learn. On Battlestar, some of my experiments were just totally terrible, and then they make that all right. I learned a great deal as a filmmaker, immensely, on Battlestar.

House contributor Emily VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.

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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

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Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Photo: Neon

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Picture

How could the essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in our cultural moment?

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We now have roughly a decade’s worth of data to postulate how ranked-choice ballots have altered the outcome of the top Oscar prize, and we’ve come to understand what the notion of a “most broadly liked” contender actually entails. And in the wake of wins for The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and most especially Green Book last year, we’re left with the impression that the biggest change in what defines a best picture is no change whatsoever. In fact, what appears to have happened is that it’s acted as a bulwark, preserving the AMPAS’s “tradition of quality” in the top prize during a decade in which the concept of a run-the-table Oscar juggernaut has shifted from the postcard pictorials of Out of Africa to immersive epics like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won two to three times as many awards as the films they lost out to for the top prize.

We’re far from the only ones who’ve noticed that—Moonlight eternally excepted—the contours of best picture winners seem to be drifting in the opposite direction of where Academy representatives have indicated they want to go. Wesley Morris recently concluded that, despite his fondness, if not downright love, for the majority of this year’s top contenders, the slate still just doesn’t jibe with a purportedly forward-thinking, brand-spanking-new academy: “Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet … the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.” Melissa Villaseñor’s jovial refrain of “white male rage” two weeks ago knowingly reduced this awards cycle down to absurdly black-or-white terms, but if the YouTube comments on that SNL bit are any indication, raging white males aren’t in the mood to have a sense of humor about themselves, much less welcome serious introspection.

Neither is that demographic alone in its disgruntlement. What was yesteryear’s “brutally honest Oscar voter” has become today’s “blithely, incuriously sexist, racist, and xenophobic Oscar voter.” As the saying goes, this is what democracy looks like, and given sentiments like “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films” and “they should have gotten an American actress to play Harriet,” it looks a lot like the second coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age gorgons of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

It might be a stretch but we can imagine that, to many voters, the presumptive frontrunner, Sam Mendes’s 1917, comes off a lot less like a first-person video game mission and a lot more representative of what it feels like to navigate our landmine-strewn cultural landscape as your average politically neoliberal, artistically reactionary academy member circa 2020. Especially one forced to make snap decisions in the midst of an accelerated Oscar calendar. And even if that is, rhetorically speaking, a bridge too far, there’s no denying the backdrop of representational fatigue and socio-political retreat liberal America is living through.

How could the stiff-lipped, single-minded, technically flawless, quietly heroic, and, most importantly, essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in this moment? It’s the same reason why we suspect, despite ranked-choice ballots pushing Bong Joon-ho’s insanely and broadly liked Parasite in major contention for the prize, it’s actually Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit we most strongly fear pulling off an upset. After all, how many Oscar voters are still more concerned about Nazis than they are global income inequality? Or, if you’d rather, how many of their homes look more like the Parks’ than like the Kims’?

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Might Win: Parasite

Should Win: The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or Parasite

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
Photo: Warner Bros.

This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp


Suicide Squad

8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole


Justice League

7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole


Aquaman

6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)

“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown


Birds of Prey

5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen


Wonder Woman

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson


Shazam!

2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)

The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole


Man of Steel

1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Director

Given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs, we’re not holding our breath for an upset here.

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Sam Mendes
Photo: Universal Pictures

Last week, when Eric brought to my attention the New York Times article that exposed the myth of Hollywood being in the tank for movies about the industry, I used the piece as a jumping-off point for why Quentin Tarantino was vulnerable in the original screenplay category. At the time, I thought I was stepping on Eric’s toes by referencing his intel, believing him to be charged with giving our readers the lowdown in this category. Turns out he was tasked with whipping up our take on the film editing contest, meaning that I had stepped on my own toes. Which is to say, almost everything I already said about why QT was likely to come up short in original screenplay applies here, and then some.

Indeed, just as math tells us that the academy’s adulation for navel-gazing portraitures of Hollywood has been exaggerated by the media, it also tells us that this award is Sam Mendes’s to lose after the 1917 director won the DGA award, the most accurate of all Oscar precursors, having predicted the winner here 64 times in 71 years. A win for the pin-prick precision of Bong Joon-ho’s direction of Parasite would be a welcome jaw-dropper, as it would throw several stats out the window and, in turn, get us a little more excited about predicting the Oscars next year. But given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs—trust us, the math checks out—we’re not holding our breath.

Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.”

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

This past Monday, while the nation waited hour after embarrassing hour for the Iowa caucus results to start rolling in, Film Twitter puzzled over an AMPAS tweet that seemed to leak this year’s Oscar winners—before the voting window had even closed. It didn’t help matters that the slate of “predictions” tweeted by the academy seemed plausible enough to be real, right down to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite for best picture.

As it turned out, the academy’s problems weren’t so unlike the DNC app gumming up the works in, as the New York Post shadily dubbed it, “Duh Moines.” And sure enough, AMPAS fessed up to a quality-control gremlin (sorry, “issue”) that resulted in someone’s personal predictions going out on the main account. As Iowa’s snafu reaffirmed that Occam’s razor isn’t just something you need to keep out of Arthur Fleck’s hands, we’re 100% certain that the intern who posted that ballot on the academy’s account meant to post it on their personal one.

Speaking of Joker, if you would’ve asked us even just a few days ago whether we thought Ford v Ferrari was any more likely than Todd Phillips’s dank meme to take the Oscar in the category that has frequently been characterized as the strongest bellwether for a film’s overall best picture chances, we’d have probably collapsed in a fit of incontrollable giggles. And yet, with a BAFTA film editing win in Ford v Ferrari’s favor, we’re not the only ones wondering if the least-nominated best picture nominee actually has more in its tank than meets the eye.

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic, however, is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.” being sung on Parasite’s behalf, and indeed, it was selected as the academy’s unofficial, accidental prediction in this category. As Ed noted yesterday, momentum is in its favor like no other film this year. Well, maybe one other, and it was mere providence that the one-shot gestalt kept Sam Mendes’s 1917 off the ballot here, or else one of the tougher calls of the night could’ve been that much tougher.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)



Bojack Horseman

77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2

First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.



Bojack Horseman

75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2

A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.



Bojack Horseman

74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1

This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.



Bojack Horseman

73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4

It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.



Bojack Horseman

72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3

Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).



Bojack Horseman

71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6

If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

One of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

So much has happened across the home stretch of this perversely shortened awards season that it’s almost difficult to process it all. Believe it or not, at the start of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, just after the Golden Globes and a few days before the Producers Guild of America Awards announced its top prize, I was still confident in my belief that we were heading toward another picture/director split, with Jojo Rabbit taking the former and Quentin Tarantino the latter. But flash forward two weeks and we’re now looking at an Oscar ceremony that will be in lockstep with the final wave of guilds and awards groups, leaving frontrunners in various categories up to this point in the dust.

Case in point: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in original screenplay. Even after a recent New York Times article used old-fashioned math to expose the myth being propagated by awards pundits—even us!—that Hollywood is in love with seeing its image reflected back at itself, we figured that the film, even if it isn’t our stealth best picture frontrunner, and even if it isn’t Tarantino’s swan song, couldn’t lose here. After all, the category is practically synonymous with QT, who only needs one more win to tie Woody Allen for most Oscars here.

And then—tell us if you’ve heard this one before—Parasite happened. Here’s a category in which Oscar voters aren’t reluctant to award genre fare, or re-imaginations of that fare. That’s Tarantino’s stock in trade…as well as Bong Joon-hoo’s. Parasite’s screenplay, co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, found favor with the WGA last weekend, and while we weren’t ready to call this race for the film at that time—Tarantino isn’t a WGA member, and as such can’t be nominated for the guild’s awards—we’re doing so in the wake of the South Korean satire winning the BAFTA against Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That victory proves, among other things, that one of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors.

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Jojo Rabbit

As soon as the Oscar nominations were announced and the headlines were dominated by the academy’s cold shoulder toward female directors, it sure felt like the balance of this race was tipped in Greta Gerwig’s favor. After all, Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors; they’re where filmmakers like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar, Jordan Peele, Spike Jonze, and, to date, Quentin Tarantino have won their only Oscars.

Gerwig’s status as the most conspicuous best director castaway in this category might not in itself have been enough to push her through, but virtually all the press on her exceptionally good Little Women has focused specifically on how successfully she remixed the novel vis-a-vis jaunting back and forth between different periods in the chronology. Her framing device allows the novel and its modern fans to have their cake and eat it too, to be told a story overly familiar to them in a way that makes the emotional arcs feel fresh and new, to be enraptured by the period details that have always fascinated them but then also come away from it feeling fully reconciled with Jo’s “marriage” to Professor Bhaer. Within the world of pop filmmaking, if that doesn’t constitute excellence in screenwriting adaption, what indeed does?

Alas, as was confirmed at this weekend’s BAFTA and WGA awards, the token gesture this year looks to be spent not on Gerwig, but the category’s other writer-director who missed out in the latter category. We’re no fans of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and we aren’t alone, as it boasts the lowest score of any best picture nominee this year on Metacritic. Still, we admit that it must touch a nerve somewhere in the average academy voter who not only finds the Holocaust so irresistible a subject that they’re willing to back a film that this year’s crop of “honest Oscar posters” memorably dubbed Lolocaust, but who also, while continuing to feel increasingly persecuted about the online catcalls over their questionable taste, would right about now love to drop kick Film Twitter out a window like Jojo does Waititi’s positively puckish Hitler.

Will Win: Jojo Rabbit

Could Win: Little Women

Should Win: Little Women

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Production Design

Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige.

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Oscar voters are suckers for scale, throwbacks, ostentation, and, above all, a sense of prestige. No film nominated in this category checks off all those boxes, but two come close: The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. While the former never caught fire the way it needed to in order to vie for even the major prizes, the latter has been cruising toward more than just a win in this category from the second people laid eyes on it out of Cannes last year. Regardless of what you think of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s difficult to imagine the scope of Quentin Tarantino’s sense of regard for a bygone Hollywood being possible without Barbara Ling’s production design and Nancy Haigh’s set decoration.

Still, this one is going to be a squeaker. First, there’s the matter of 1917’s late-in-the-game surge and whether or not the film can run the table in the technical categories, even in this particular one where war films almost never prevail. And then there’s Parasite. Near the start of our rolling Oscar coverage, I mentioned how almost every day is bringing us some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is that film’s main setting. Now there’s a black-and-white version of the film making the rounds that will certainly allow people to think anew on the dimensions of the film’s thematic and aesthetic surfaces. Because winning in most of Oscar’s tech categories isn’t about restraint, but “more is more,” Parasite’s concentrated sense of texture is more likely the spoiler to the vividly haunted past-ness that clings to every surface across Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s plethora of settings.

Will Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Could Win: Parasite

Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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