Better Call Saul S04E04 Recap: ‘Talk’

 

In four seasons of  covering Better Call Saul, the one aspect that I have never been able to stop praising, nor will I ever stop praising, is its uncanny ability to juxtapose what’s happening to all of its characters. The severity of what happens to each of them (especially as the number of main characters expands, as this show becomes more and more about the world that will eventually turn into the madness of Breaking Bad) in a given episode tends to lie at an extreme. One might face a life-threatening situation as they slip further and further into the affairs of a dangerous drug cartel, while another might instead be dealing with the general malaise of boredom and unfulfilled potential. The next week the tables might get turned, with the latter characters dealing with a bad car accident or the brutal suicide of a loved one, while the others might spend their week taking apart a car in order to find a tracking device.

It’s a purposeful sort of irony employed by the writers, maybe to impart with the viewer the kind of ticking time bomb that a show like this has to be. This is the kind of world where, eventually, things will wind up getting severe and dangerous for everyone. But Better Call Saul is also ostensibly a modern western, and part of the point that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are trying to get across is that in such a setting, the only options are really extreme boredom or dangerous, law-breaking violence.

On the “extreme boredom” side of the coin this week we have Jimmy and Kim. They’re trying to get things back to normal now that Chuck is gone and the Hamlin types are basically out of their lives, but of course they’re both struggling. We saw it last week when Kim broke down after Jimmy read Chuck’s boilerplate posthumous letter to him. It was more of a normal reaction that Jimmy’s blase nonchalance, as he’s already put his brother in the rearview mirror, but Kim thinks that it might help if Jimmy saw a therapist. This is the early 00s, so Jimmy is desperate to avoid this and winds up taking a dead end job managing a cell phone store that barely ever sees any customers.

Now, this could be another temporary stepping stone for Jimmy, like the printing company, or it could be the kind of boring, out of the way opportunity that opens Jimmy’s world. He spends most of his first day throwing a ball against a wall, but eventually he closes the shop and heads over to see Ira, the guy who helped him with the Bavarian Boy heist, who gives Jimmy more money than he was expecting, as Bavarian Boy was the talk of the auction and started a bidding war. Jimmy is surprised at Ira’s nobility as they promise to work together again in the future, and an offhand comment from Ira about how he changes phones because anyone could be listening inspires Jimmy to paint the store’s windows to try and drum up business. We’ll see what comes of this, but it’s just an example of Jimmy’s slow decay into what will inevitably be Saul Goodman.

Kim is similarly going through an existential crisis. Last week she asked her paralegal to drop her off at the courthouse. This week, we get to see what she’s doing there. And as it turns out,it’s… not much. She spends the day observing various cases until Judge Neelix pulls her into his chambers and tells her she isn’t going to find a once-in-a-lifetime movie-like case by trolling his court, as most of his defendants are the type of guys who throw urine at their bosses. He advises her to make her easy money with Mesa Verde, and if she continues to spend her days lackadaisically observing low-level offenders, he’s going to put her to work on some pro bono cases. Kim defies Judge Neelix’s orders, so, like with Jimmy, we’ll see what comes of this.

Now, I love watching Kim watch defendants stammer their way through court, and watching Jimmy toss a superball around a quiet cell phone store, but whatever they’re doing is designed to pay off near the end of the season. They’re in a holding pattern because they’re still so far removed from the other side of the coin, and that’s the extreme drug cartel chess game being played by one Gus Fring. Last week we got a taste of the kind of scheme we’d pull regularly on Breaking Bad, elaborately staging a gang hit on Nacho and Arturo, the latter of which he murdered the night before in order to show force to Nacho. The Cousins and the rest of the Salamanca troupe don’t suspect that Nacho is involuntarily in bed with the enemy, but that’s not all Gus had in store for his new mole. The plan leads Nacho to a gang called the Espinozas, with the Cousins in the tow. After Gus’s guys drop off some money with them the night prior, Nacho points to them as the guys who killed Arturo. Nacho pitches a plan to pull some guys and take them out, but the Cousins silently tell them to hold their cervezas as they grab a bag of guns and take out the entire gang themselves.

This is a great fucking scene that holds back in showing most of the action. We know what the Cousins are capable of at this point, so director John Shiban doesn’t show us everything, but just enough to satisfy that part of our brains and remind us that there’s more at stake here than the mid-life crises of the other characters. This is the reminder of what’s looming around the corner for all of them. I especially love the way it’s shot, as it never really breaks away from Nacho’s perspective, reminiscent of a similar sequence in a movie about similar topics from this past summer, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, where a chase sequence happens entirely from the perspective of a teenage girl whose been pulled into a manufactured drug war. Of course, Nacho is a little more competent in this than a teenage girl, but just barely, as he starts the sequence as a hapless outsider with a bum shoulder, but is forced into action when reinforcements show up and does his part in helping the Cousins take out the gang. But he aggravates his injuries in the process and can barely stand at the end of it. Later we see him meet with Gus as he susses out his plan to use his new secret agent to eliminate the competition and gain territory, since the cartel won’t give the Espinozas’ turf to the Salamancas after what the Cousins did. Gus merely tells him to get some rest, and he complies, turning to his distraught father in bad shape.

Gus uses Nacho has a pawn to advance his game, and by the end of the episode, he’s on to his next move, as he turns to Mike. But Mike isn’t a mere pawn (and frankly, after a few weeks of Nacho being kind of a badass in the face of some brutal shit that Gus forces him to go through in order to keep his secret, I feel bad giving him that label), and immediately figures out that Gus has called to meet him for two reasons; first to give him shit for not telling him what Nacho was up to, to which Mike replies that it was never part of their agreement, he merely promised not to kill Hector himself. And second, to ask him to come on board for a job. We don’t yet know what that job could be, but if the episode exhausts the equivalent to a GTA level with the Cousins, before getting to this, one can only imagine what it’ll be.

Because Mike is in his own kind of holding pattern. Unlike Jimmy and Kim, though, he seems relatively content. He’s made a friend in the support group he attends with Stacy for his deceased son, he’s still doing security work at Madrigal, and in probably the most satisfying sequence in the show since last year’s “Chicanery” where Jimmy finally takes down Chuck in court, he brutally calls out a guy (played by The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Marc Evan Jackson) who is bereaving a fake wife in his group. It’s awkward and unnecessary but glorious and so Mike, as it shows us how good he is at detecting bullshit, right before he sees straight through Gus’s.

So, “Talk” takes us on a few very different journeys. Kim and Jimmy are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Mike and Nacho are being pulled away from theirs (one a little more brutishly than the other), all while Gus Fring continues to make moves that are way ahead of anyone else’s, a reminder of what already made him one of the greatest villains of all time in Breaking Bad. It’s kind of been the story of the season so far, and it makes these individual episodes hard to judge. I’m loving everything that’s happening on the show, but it’s sort of scatterbrains because you need it all to be happening at once. I wouldn’t necessarily want an episode that’s just Jimmy throwing a ball around a store and trying to steal a stupid figurine, or an episode about Kim doing a bank’s due diligence. And if you go too far in the other direction, an episode that’s just about what’s happened to Nacho so far this season is probably too extreme. I’d totally take a show that’s just Mike assessing warehouse security or calling out bullshitters at support groups, but nevertheless, the show expertly decides to give us a little of everything, to juxtapose the varying degrees of severity for each character, because it knows that eventually they will all have to meet somewhere closer to where Gus is operating. And while that makes each individual episode less than stellar, you can easily see the bigger picture. I recognize that these episodes aren’t perfect, but I still end new iteration with undeterred admiration for the show, and “Talk” is no exception. It gets 8.5 cartel shootouts out of 10.

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Better Call Saul S04E03 Recap: ‘Something Beautiful’

Better Call Saul now officially has four main characters. What started off as the Saul Goodman origin story quickly became something much bigger, as it morphed into equal parts Jimmy McGill, Mike Ehrmantraut, and eventually, Kim Wexler. In season 4, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have promised us that the world around these characters is about to get a lot bigger, and the reason for that is this fourth main character, something that became as apparent to me as ever in “Something Beautiful.”

Even though we seldom see Gus Fring, his influence over the happenings in the show are truly starting to manifest themselves. After Nacho takes out Don Hector, Gus has room to maneuver and position himself into becoming the badass, nearly unstoppable drug lord we know him to be in Breaking Bad. Last week, he flexed his muscle by killing Arturo in front of Nacho, duly informing Nacho that he knew all about his little scheme and if he wants him to keep it to himself, then Nacho belongs to Fring now. This week, they go to elaborate lengths to cover up Arturo’s murder, staging a drive by on the highway during which Nacho himself has to get shot in order to make it seem believable. Nacho calls The Cousins to clean it up, who take him to the vet (where one of them brushes by Jimmy, as a matter of fact), and in an even crueler twist of fate, winds up with literal Salamanca blood coursing through his veins.

It’s an elaborate chess move on Gus’ part, installing a mole deep inside the Salamanca organization. All the while, he’s plotting his next move, as he visits Gale (!) at a local college, inquiring about chemistry and checking in on what we know is a long-term investment, as he grooms this much younger version of the character we know from Breaking Bad into the fleeting, meth cooking genius he was for a short period on that show. I’m not exactly sure if this was meant to be a cameo or if they have something bigger in store for David Constabile, but the point here is to show that Gus is moving around peons and making moves that will benefit him for a long time, while everyone is can only look directly in front of them.

That’s kind of what makes Gus such a great character. He was introduced to the world of Better Call Saul through a note in the season 2 finale, after which Mike spent weeks looking for him before manifesting himself for only a short while towards the end of season 3. So far this season, we’ve barely seen him more than once or twice a week, and virtually every major development is tied to him and his actions.

Meanwhile, Mike is living his best life as an ersatz security consultant for Madrigal, unconcerned about the people he’s in league with. Jimmy is busy running low stakes grifts, completely unaware of the danger he’s literally brushing up against (as evidenced by when he walks passed one of the Salamanca Cousins). The Bavarian Boy Heist (name of my college indie rock band) is specifically, purposely low stakes to contrast everything else that is happening, and that’s something this show has gotten really good at. When things are getting crazy on the Breaking Bad world-building side of things, things are slow and mundane on the Jimmy-turning-into-Saul side of things.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important things happening on the other side of the coin. We don’t see much of Mike this week, other than enough for him to reject Jimmy’s proposition to steal some ceramic figurine from the printing company he interviewed with (making it clear that he was casing the joint when he made a big show about how dumb they were for wanting to hire him). But Jimmy goes through some important character development here. He’s overly obsessed with this scheme of his, and he’s completely detached with regards to his brother’s death, to the point where he casually and totally nonchalantly reads the letter from Chuck while eating his morning cereal, unaffected by his brother’s words, even though they invoke his mother and real things about his relationship, all while Kim, who is clearly going through something (something at the Mesa Verde office triggers her into taking a visit to the courthouse that’s never fully explained) winds up breaking down emotionally, as she continues to carry all of Jimmy’s burdens, emotional or otherwise.

“Something Beautiful” is kind of a table-setting episode, as the first two of this season also were. Listen, you know the drill with Better Call Saul at this point. Gilligan and Gould are moving pieces around and you know it’ll lead to something good. I think we’ve long passed the point where we can trust to know what they’re doing, and to be frank, while this season has been pretty slow so far, it’s still managed to compelling and wonderfully made. The scene where Jimmy’s new guy robs the printer company was incredibly fun, and the opening scene with Gus’ guys staging Arturo’s death and what follows is wonderfully meticulous on the part of the writers and beautifully shot on the part of the director. Even though not much is happening so far, even though the show is explicitly telling us that they’re setting things up for the future through Gus’s arc, even though the show is playing the long game with regards to Jimmy’s grieving and whatever is going on with Kim, I’m more than happy to exist in this world for an hour a week while we wait for things to happen. Even if it makes these recaps a little more dull than they could be.

“Something Beautiful” gets 7.5 Bavarian Boy collectible ceramic dolls out of 10.

‘Eighth Grade’ vs. ‘Lady Bird’ vs. ‘The Florida Project: A Coming-Of-Age Film State of the Union

As good as the top movies of 2018 have been, so far, it’s also been a year that’s felt particularly iterative. All of my favourite movies of the year so far have in some way, even tangentially in some cases, been slight improvements over similar films from the last couple of years. For example, A Quiet Place and Sorry To Bother You are in one way or another, could be considered this year’s Get Out, in the former’s case a low-budget indie darling that rode critical hype to obscene box office success, or in the case of the latter, a subversive, transformative take on the modern black experience. In a more linear fashion, Black Panther is the superhero film that did for black audiences what Wonder Woman did for female audiences,while Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 iterated on the superhero sequel in more traditional ways, Mission: Impossible – Fallout pushed the boundaries of what should legally be allowed on the set of an action movie, and so on, and so forth. I’m not sure if this is exactly a take down of a year that desperately needs something a little more original, or an indication that things are going well since it’s arguably been a better year for film so far, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it continued for me following my experience with Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade this past weekend, a film I enjoyed tremendously but had trouble separating from my experience with last year’s coming-of-age stories about young girls, Lady Bird and The Florida Project.

First things first; Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted young girl in her final week of middle school as she struggles with what she perceives to be her own shortcomings in a world dominated by the persistent connectivity and pressure that comes with social media. It’s a fantastic film that sheds any and every possible kind of pretense for the sake of a realistic portrayal of what life at that age must currently be like. Burnham’s writing and directing seem unconcerned with his own filter, his own interpretation, as the film almost never deviates from telling Kayla’s story as you’d imagine she’d want to tell it. It’s an impressive feat considering that any relatively accurate, realism-bound representations of teenage life in a given time frame don’t usually come until that generation is old enough to make their own movies. Eighth Grade manages to be relatable because no matter how the times change, no matter which social media platform (if any) you had in middle school, the basic tenets of growing up, of struggling with the horrors of school and popularity and the opposite sex and your own insecurities tend to stay mostly the same. Eighth Grade manages to leave its audience empathetic to Kayla’s struggles, no matter how contextually different they may be to our own, or how frivolous or inconsequential they may seem to an adult with a mortgage or dependents of their own, yet it’s also relatable enough to apply to each and every one of our own struggles and haunting nightmares of our developmental years. It’s uber realistic, charming, and relentlessly cringy at every possible turn, a rousing success for Burnham as he begins his directorial career.

It’s a great, original film that I will recommend to everyone and that has a very strong chance of making my top 10 this year, but looking at some early Oscar predictions, it’s unlikely to break through the way it probably should, outside of maybe a Best Original Screenplay nomination. And that got me thinking about those two aforementioned coming-of-age films from 2017, both of which share commonalities with Eighth Grade, especially thematically, but took two very different paths following their release. One, namely The Florida Project, was similarly raw, original and important, and at the end of the line it failed to break through come awards season in any meaningful way. The other broke Rotten Tomatoes records, topped everyone’s best of lists and breezed to five Oscar nominations. And while it wasn’t a bad movie, I felt like I was taking crazy pills watching Lady Bird accomplish all of this despite what I perceived to be some very apparent flaws. And at the risk of angering some of you reading, I’m going to use those flaws (and the ignored strengths of The Florida Project) to show the inherent unfairness of what’s about to happen to Eighth Grade.

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In case you need a refresher course, The Florida Project is the story of a young girl living in poverty with her struggling, rebellious mother that place over a summer in the shadow of Disneyworld. Young Moonee is living life like any six-year-old would, oblivious to the hardships and realities of the world around her before it very abruptly tries and slap her in the face. The movie, from innovative indie filmmaker Sean Baker, is unabashedly raw. From how it’s filmed, to the cast of first-time actors it employs (anchored by a phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance from Willem Dafoe), The Florida Project never stops reminding you that what’s happening in the movie is reflective of actual, real-life, current-day society. More than a coming-of-age film, it’s a take down of vicious circle status quo of capitalism, the all-too-real story of a teen mom that’s already been failed by the system and is only further punished by it simply because she wants to try and make ends meet and do right by her daughter.

Despite all of that, The Florida Project wasn’t able to translate its sheer originality and bleeding raw message into anything more than that aforementioned nomination for Willem Dafoe. The Oscars are tragically broken, so I’m not here to reiterate any of that (although you can see me discuss that at length in my post about the new popular film category from last week), but it’s an easy benchmark to point to when it comes to films that are so obviously deserving of more attention and love, but fair to get it because they aren’t as flashy and accessible as their alternatives. Like The Florida Project, Eighth Grade is similarly low budget, raw, uber-realistic and ultra-relevant, and lacking the flash that usually draws people’s attention.

That’s where Lady Bird comes in. Greta Gerwig’s film is competently made, charming and easily accessible, but it managed to ride the coattails of two phenomenal performances and subtle nostalgia to five Oscar nominations and endless fawning from anyone with a top ten list. Posing as semi-autobiographical and taking place around the turn of the century, Lady Bird tells the story of its titular character, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan as she struggles with her identity, with boys, and with authority figures (including her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf) in her final year of high school, with dreams of moving out of the suburbs and out to the big, far away city.

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A lot of that log line sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, you can boil movies like this, and Eighth Grade, and countless others down to a similar sentence. Where they deviate, and I feel as if Eighth Grade veers closer to what The Florida Project does, is in how it uses that pretty generic elevator pitch to send a message through its subtext. The Florida Project has something to say about the way the system puts people in poverty at a disadvantage. It makes you question the very nature of that system. To be fair, I don’t think the level of subtext runs that deep with Eighth Grade, but Burnham definitely has something pertinent to say about how we perceive the younger generation and how their constant connectivity may or may not be something worth discussing (he specifically treats it as a benign constant, actually). In comparison, Lady Bird reflects on a fictional relationship between mother and daughter that’s likely more extreme than anything Gerwig every experienced (by her own admission, as a matter of fact), and while that’s entertaining and familiar and, in a way, heartwarming, and certainly deserves a place in any conversation of last year’s best films (even though it didn’t make mine), it doesn’t really feel as if it has anything important to say through that story, other than possibly a reminder to call your mom once in a while. I just wonder if a message tantamount to what you can get out of a Hallmark card is worthy of the praise it received, particularly, it seems, at the expense of something like The Florida Project. While it and now Eighth Grade attempt to humanize their contemporary, misunderstood subjects in an effort to make them relatable to the audience, and while they do it in genuinely impressive ways with a small budget and unrecognizable casts, Lady Bird merely peddles in the theatrics of its top performances and the familiarity of an era that hasn’t yet been mined for nostalgia.

This all finally made me realize why I didn’t get on the Lady Bird hype train. While it’s a good movie, while its performances are excellent and its message relatable, it feels manufactured in kind of a sneaky way, a transmutation of what used to be the typical form of Oscar bait into something more modish and palpable to audiences that have long-since learned how to recognize when they’re being pandered to. I don’t want to say that Gerwig isn’t passionate about what she made, but there’s a reason why she hired two recognizable, decorated actresses (ones you’ve certainly seen in half a dozen shows and movies despite the fact that they’re not usually in any blockbusters) to be her leads and not rather with unknowns that would leave more room for the material. There’s a reason it’s set in the past, peddling in nostalgia that distracts from the film’s shortcomings with efficacy, a nostalgia for the under-served median age of influential voices (as well as the ever-growing younger class of Academy voters).

This isn’t meant to serve as some sort of grand conspiracy theory, just a reflection of the fact that even indie movies are made with profit and marketability in mind, and that those aspects are keenly obvious in a movie like Lady Bird. Those things are present in one form or another with Eighth Grade and The Florida Project as well (all three were distributed by A24 and both Eighth Grade and Lady Bird were produced by Scott Rudin). In fact, their realistic, raw nature is probably just as designed to sucker in someone like me. The Florida Project employed Guerilla tactics to film a scene at Disneyworld, and that’s an easy, marketable point. Eighth Grade is a contemporary movie about 13-year-olds starring 13-year-olds, and that’s part of the pitch. It even shares some of those tactics with Lady Bird, taking place in a monotonous suburban town with a Burger King in its mall food court that could serve as the setting to each and every one of our stories. It has a quirky father figure either meant to remind us of our dad or, if we’re old enough, the father we either hope to be or dread that we’ve become. It puts its main character through the ringer of awkward teenage situations we’ve all experienced, be it the pity party invite, the too-cool-for-school popular kid they try to befriend, the fleeting crush that, in retrospect, was a dodged bullet, or whatever else. A lot of these things are certainly common between Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, some even with the somewhat different Florida Project. They just feel more authentic in one over the other, the tactics less obvious, more honest to the voice of the auteur, more indicative of where trends in indie filmmaking need to go.

I tend to get a little riled up, and this all probably feels like too harsh of a takedown for a film that I honestly liked. Greta Gerwig is a competent filmmaker and with Lady Bird she manages to to reign in two powerhouse performances that would have otherwise dominated the film beyond recognition. Her subtle use of nostalgia, the way she kept her characters within the parameters of their archetypes and the tactics she employed to make her film stand out yet remain relatable are commendable and worthy of praise and, hey, probably even those Oscar nominations. But the best way I can describe what I mean here, and hopefully without sounding to harsh, is that Lady Bird feels like the offspring of someone who has seen a bunch of John Hughes movies and made that kind of film in her own image, just better than the dozens of other filmmakers doing the same thing. In contrast, Eighth Grade feels like the product of what could very well be the next John Hughes, that is to say, a talented, emergent young filmmaker capable of tuning in to the frequency of the current generation and making movies for them. Of course, Bo Burnham’s directed but one movie and done some standup we’ve all seen on Youtube, so who knows if that comparison is worthy, but Eighth Grade truly is that good and worthy of that kind of praise.

Thing is, circling back, in a year that’s been remarkably iterative so far on the last couple of years of cinema, it’s hard to see something like this breaking out of the pack when it doesn’t have that flash, that gimmick, that thing for people to latch on to. Eighth Grade is special in that it’s a really good movie and its reflective of the way indie films of this nature will hopefully evolve in the coming years, but its unique properties simply don’t stand out the way they need to to make an immediate impact, making it likely to disappear in the shuffle of this year’s awards frenzy. That being said, it’s easily one of my favourite movies of the year so far (9.5 out of 10), and I will do my part to keep it part of the conversation.

 

Why “Achievement in Popular Film” Might Be Necessary: Looking Back At 15 Years of The Oscars Veering Away From What People Actually Watch

Last week, the Oscars announced a series of changes to the upcoming 2019 telecast, one of which in particular set the internet ablaze with criticism. At the 91st Academy Awards, a new category will stand alongside Best Picture, as “Achievement in Popular Film” seeks to steer the Oscars away from the criticism that the Academy doesn’t recognize movies that people watch anymore. The real reason seems to be that ABC, the network that airs the show every year, is concerned about sagging ratings (and I’m sure it helps that their parent company, Disney, usually release the year’s most popular films). The criticism has been fierce from many sides, varying from uncertainty over how the Academy will handle such a category, with so few details yet provided, to ambivalence over the idea of recognizing movies that are already “honoured” with hundreds of millions at the box office, and straight up anger and derisiveness over the idea of the Academy creating a conciliatory, possibly second-class award to stand in the shadow of Best Picture, especially in a year where there is already a fierce fan campaign to get Black Panther in the race, with many derisively (and, to be honest, pretty offensively) comparing the announcement to segregation.

While there are many good points among the naysayers, I’d like to at least wait and see what the parameters of the category are, if not to see what effect it has on the actual telecast. I also reject the idea that this is a rash decision from a “panicked organization”. Because if you look back at the last 15 years of Oscar history and try and step into the mind of a voting member of the Academy, it becomes clear not only that there is often no real consensus over what they might want to reward as popular film, but also that this is a change many years in the making.

The article that follows will take a look into the patterns in and around Best Picture since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King reigned supreme in 2004 that may have led to this decision. At the same time, I have also prepared a separate article looking back at the last ten years and predicting who may have taken home this award ever since 2008, the year where The Dark Knight’s snub led to the Academy expanding Best Picture to up to ten films. But for now, let’s go back all the way to 2004:

Ever since the 76th Academy Awards, when The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King swept every category it was nominated in and took its spot among the highest earners to ever win Best Picture, the Academy has steadily regressed to a place where it values art over popularity and anything else. Despite the fact that, in the last couple of decades, studios have found creative and interesting ways to intersect art with the kind of populist qualities that drive audiences out to movie theaters,the idea of what an Oscar-caliber film even is has gotten much smaller in space and much more closely tied to art and message, rather than being that year’s crowning achievement in film.

I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment about whether or not this is right, or whether any of the Best Picture winners since Return of the King are unworthy (other than probably Crash; fuck that movie), or even that the Oscars should at all be concerned with awarding movies that make more money, but the facts paint an interesting picture:

In 2004, Return of the King became the last film to both win Best Picture, and come in first overall in the yearly box office, with a $377M tally domestically. In fact, of the 14 movies that have since won Best Picture, only five have even made $100M, what has long been an industry benchmark for success, and only two of those films (Argo and The Departed) reached this milestone before any awards hype would have boosted their tallies. On top of that, those two films and Million Dollar Baby are the only ones to have anything close to a big budget (The Departed comes in at $90M, the other two in the $40M range), with the rest all hovering around $15M-$20M, and all the way down to the $2M microbudget of Moonlight. And while Oscar does add to most films’ box office, it none of these 15 films managed to become smash hit blockbusters like Return of the King, even with the boost. The five films that reached that $100M milestone all hovered around 15th place in their respective years top box office, while the rest varied wildly, mostly unphased by Oscar, bottoming out in 2009 with The Hurt Locker, which only made $17M in theaters.

Like I said, box office success doesn’t really reflect the quality of a movie. Not only does it vary wildly based on the resources of the film’s distributor, the movie business has changed a lot in recent years. But the dichotomy between what makes an Oscar movie now and what made an Oscar movie back then and all the way back through the 90s is worth taking a look at, and it’s real, as proven by the expansion of Best Picture to up to 10 films. Prior to this seemingly defining moment, box office success and Best Picture often intersected, as the Oscars regularly awarded top 10 performing films. In fact, on two other occasions, like with Return of the King, the box office crown and Oscar were shared by the same film (Titanic and Forrest Gump). Beyond just the winners, plenty of popular films were regularly in contention for Best Picture and other major awards.

So, what changed so drastically in the last 15 years? Well, like I already mentioned, you could first and foremost point to some drastic changes in the movie industry since the rise of the internet. With streaming cheap and accessible, and no shortage of content, it’s become much harder to coax people out to their homes and into theaters. That’s led to a content explosion, with studios producing more, often cheaper content on both the small and big screens, and it’s led the big six studios to focusing their money on a handful of tentpoles. In the 90s, the top movies made somewhere between $200M and $325M domestically. Anything more was an anomaly. Since 2015, there has been no less than three $400M+ movies every year, a figure that’s become even crazier this year, with three Disney movies pushing up against $700M, and that’s before factoring in foreign markets which can push the top movies past $1.5B and beyond, especially thanks to emerging markets like China which didn’t even exist back then.

Now, those numbers mean a lot of things. It means that with a the risk of a $150M+ budget is worth it for the big studios if it means a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It means that their funds are tied in a few big budget movies, effectively eliminating the mid-budget films that dominated the box office in the 90s and challenging creators (of which there are many more of now) to make more out of less, leading to a yearly success story like Get Out last year or A Quiet Place in 2018, excellent low budget movies from driven, talented auteurs seemingly capable of making success out of nothing and bringing in insane multipliers on their microbudgets, feats which go unappreciated by studios focused on a much bigger picture. The problem is that for every Get Out or A Quiet Place, there’s 20 or 40 movies that don’t make back twenty times their budget, effectively making this microbudget gamble thing a wash, unless you’re A24 or Blumhouse, successful indie studios that peddle mostly in genre films that don’t compete for Oscars anyway.

I sort of get it. If one movie out of twenty is going to be a smash hit on a microbudget these days, why would a big studio risk $50M on a Forrest Gump type of movie with similar odds? Pass over three or four Forrest Gumps and you get one Star Wars or Marvel movie that’s nearly a guaranteed hit with the same multiple and international appeal. It unfortunately means that the mid-budget movie is dead, but I get it.

In other words, that means that the mid-budget movies that dominated the box office no longer exist, that studios realized they can make a killing spending exorbitant amounts of money and making astronomical returns on tentpoles consisting mostly of existing IP, therefore forcing creatives with original stories to tell to work on much smaller budgets than the top directors prior to the early aughts. With certain exceptions (like your Scorseses, Spielbergs and Tarantinos working with the remaining goodwill they built in those years, or the odd case of Ben Affleck and Argo), it’s probably the big reason that auteurship and Oscar-caliber films have transferred over to smaller budgets.

At the surface, this isn’t a big issue. Hollywood still makes their money and creative types face challenging but rewarding scenarios of either making more with smaller budgets or creating art in the studio ecosystem of a tentpole. And at the end of the day, the consumer is getting more for their buck thanks to streaming, so long as they’re willing to wait and skip the increasingly expensive and unpleasant proposition of going to a movie theater. The one wrench in the works, as it turns out, is Disney, the one big studio that doesn’t dabble in smaller budget, awards-oriented fare (at least until the Fox deal goes through and they own Searchlight). As mentioned, they also happen to air the Oscars, and there’s more than likely a correlation between the decrease in budget of Oscar-type films and decrease in ratings for the Oscar telecast.

And I get this side of it too. People don’t want to watch an overbloated, pretentious awards show when they haven’t even had a chance to see the movies that are being rewarded, and won’t get to until months later when they hit Netflix. At best they might care aobut the people in them, but the idea of a movie star isn’t even what it used to be (that’s a whole other article). From this perspective, the changes kind of make sense, and if I’m being frank, most of the people complaining are going to watch the Oscars regardless of how they feel about “Achievement in Popular Film” and what that might mean. The Academy isn’t trying to get them to watch, they’re trying to get the people who, by February of next year, will have only seen a handful of movies that will most certainly include Black Panther, The Avengers and maybe A Quiet Place and a couple of other surprises.

But I also get the other side of the coin. The Oscars might not mean anything to the vast majority of the people they’re trying to reach, but it’s important to ensure they still mean something, period. Simply having the equivalent to a beauty pageant in the middle of your self-important industry show won’t guarantee increased ratings and might only serve to alienate the group that actually cares. That doesn’t mean that a new category is the end of the world, but it has to be handled careful. If it is, there’s a chance that a category like this could have a positive effect on the industry, one that returns at least a little bit of glory to the type of movie that used to compete for Oscars but doesn’t anymore. Because it’s not just the fact that Oscar-type movies have gotten smaller in scale. There are good, big-scale movies that simply don’t get recognized anymore.

I discuss this in further detail in the prediction post, but there are plenty of movies since the category expansion that were big in scale but wound up snubbed. Movies like The Dark Knight, Gravity, Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are both big and scale and really good, yet weren’t able to break the trend, and that’s probably a side-effect to all of the above. The big movies got a lot bigger, the small movies shrunk really quickly and Oscar chose the latter path, ignoring the exceptions that should have been recognized because they were just square pegs trying to fit into round holes. If this category was created ten years ago and rewarded, at the very least, those four movies, then it’s totally justifiable. The best version of Achievement in Popular Film is a category that’s all about the intersection between art and popularity. A category that recognizes movies that maybe don’t fully tip over the scale in terms of quality (however you might measure that), but are important to the industry. The Dark Knight showed us that comic book movies can be good and meaningful. Avatar literally changed the way movie theaters do business. Gravity and Mad Max made crazy leaps in special effects and were big budget, populist auteur films in an age where that kind of stuff shouldn’t exist anymore. Hell, as you’ll see in the other post, I’d even accept a scenario in which a movie like Argo can win both categories, as the rare mid-budget throwback movie that sort of feels like the best of both words.

The problem is that, so far, the Academy hasn’t bothered to reassure us that this category will be something like this, and not simply an excuse to parade around the likes of Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy because they were the producers that made the most money in a given year. Or, for that matter, if the voting members rebel and simply make this a conciliatory second place Best Picture Oscar for the most popular nominee. Maybe I’m being too optimistic about this change, but part of me is disinterested in the overreactionary nature of critics this past week when we don’t yet know what the change will look like. And even if this winds up being bad, then what’s the big deal? At worst, they’ll shutter the category in a few years and go back to the old format or try something else.

It’s no different, really, then that category expansion ten years ago. The Academy already noticed the trends mentioned above and they decided to recognize up to five more films. the change paid immediate dividends, with movies like District 9 and Up receiving Best Picture nods at a time where it was almost inconceivable for science fiction and animation to be up there. Even some smaller movies like An Education probably benefited from this, ensuring that both sides of the coin got something out of it. I’m not sure if this change affected any of the winners, and it certainly didn’t help the movies I mentioned above, but with so many more films being made, it was a positive change. Now it’s time to make another one, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to recognizing movies that mass audiences actually like.

If I’m being honest, this probably wouldn’t have been the first thing I would have changed if I was in charge of the Academy. There is a laundry list out there of potential categories that would be more interesting and that would better serve the industry. “Breakout Performance” would make a lot of sense, to recognize younger talent. The fact that there are no Oscars for the stunt workers that risk their lives to entertain us is absolutely outrageous at this point. And if you’re going to reward more kinds of films, why not go all the way and reward the best comedy, best science fiction, best musical, best horror? Popular Film is not something I would have thought of, but depending on how it’s handled, it could be an interesting tool for voters to play with as a broad, unspecific category.

Nevertheless, barring a crazy turnaround, they’re going to do this for the 2018 Oscar race. And while this year’s likely winner is fairly obvious, I’m curious to both define what “Achievement in Popular Film” might mean, as well as looking at who would have likely won the award in recent years. You can check that out by clicking here. Otherwise, feel free to yell at me about how wrong I am in the comments below or on Twitter.

From The Dark Knight to Black Panther: Predicting A Decade of Oscar’s Proposed “Achievement in Popular Film” Category

By now, you’ve probably already taken a side in this whole “Achievement in Popular Film” fiasco. I won’t bore you with the details of how I feel (unless you want to click here and read a long, rambling essay with my thoughts and some cursory recent Oscar history), so instead, let’s just launch into the point of this second article; accepting that these changes are going to happen, I thought it might be interesting to look back at the last few years of Academy Awards and see who might have been in contention for this statue, had it existed back then.

The problem, of course, is that the Academy hasn’t yet defined what Achievement in Popular Film actually means. As I said in my other piece, the ideal scenario would be that this winds up being some sort of cross section between art and popularity. In a more unfortunate case, it will either be a secondary conciliatory Oscar for some snubbed popular movie, or merely an excuse to parade out the year’s most successful Disney producers. In any case, in the article below, I made a sincere attempt to look back at the last ten years (ever since the Academy expanded Best Picture to up to ten films in order to deal with decreasing relevance of the movies it was rewarding, and certain snubs like the one for The Dark Knight). And the results were kind of all over the place and super interesting, to the point where it actually kind of got me excited to see what the first couple of years of Popular Film might look like in the immediate future.

Here are the parameters I worked with, in the absence of any from the Academy itself:

  • Box office performance: I’m setting the bar for popularity at $100M box office, as that’s a pretty standard benchmark for a film’s success. What’s more, the movie will have had to make this money by more or less the end of the year in order to avoid the inevitable bump that an Oscar run would provide. I made some exceptions for movies that would have most certainly released earlier if an award like this was on the table, but generally speaking this means that a lot of Best Picture nominees wound up on the cutting room floor.
  • No animation: Animated features are eligible for Best Picture (and have broken through on three occasions), however considering they already have their own category and the fact that there’s at least half a dozen animated films that break $100M a year, it doesn’t seem like it’s within the spirit of the category. Otherwise, there are no genre limitations.
  • The movies have to be good: I know that this is incredibly subjective, especially as the years go by, but I ignored movies that weren’t considered great, but still made a lot of money, like Suicide Squad. This is probably unfair, but I’m not giving another Oscar to some sorta Suicide Squad.
  • Like the Academy already mentioned, films nominated for Best Picture are still eligible for this award.

That’s about it. Without the Academy defining what “popular film” is supposed to mean, I don’t want to pull in the reins too tightly. And, as you’ll see, it’s created some interesting results. Let’s start with the current year before going back to 2008.

2018 – Predicted Winner: Black Panther
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Best Picture Winner: N/A
Other Nominees (So Far): Avengers: Infinity War, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ocean’s Eight, A Quiet Place, Ready Player One
Still To Come: Crazy Rich Asians, Mile 22, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Widows, Creed II, Robin Hood, Mary Poppins Returns, Welcome to Marwen, Aquaman

It would be kind of poetic if, after pressuring the Academy to create this category and after everyone presumed that it was made for Black Panther, Disney didn’t actually take it home. It seems like a given, but it kind of depends on what winds up defining the category and if any block of voting members decides that this definition doesn’t line up with Black Panther. At the risk of getting a lot of hate thrown my way, I actually don’t think that Black Panther is an Oscar-caliber film, much like I didn’t think Wonder Woman was last year. At least not in terms of how the Academy has defined that in recent years, siding more towards quality and art rather than industry importance. Black These are movies that mean a lot to people for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day, neither is even the best superhero movie of their given year, yet alone worthy of being the first to break through to Best Picture. This category could be the Academy recognizing this divide, and while it may not sit well with some people, I think it’s probably the right move to recognize these kinds of movies and their relative importance without admonishing the smaller scale art films that have taken over Best Picture. With that in mind, Black Panther seems to be the obvious winner. But I wouldn’t count out Infinity War, which made virtually the same amount of money domestically and was beloved by moviegoers. Then again, if cultural impact is paramount, then Crazy Rich Asians might stand a shot if it makes some money, or they could pull a Globes and turn this into the farce that comedy/musical is at the Golden Globes. And wouldn’t it be funny if, after all this fuss and muss, the Achievement in Popular Film award goes to a goddamn Mamma Mia movie?

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2008 – Predicted Winner: The Dark Knight
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia!
Best Picture Winner:
Slumdog Millionaire
Other Nominees: Iron Man, Twilight, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers

Speaking of hilarious poetry, let’s go back to the year that was the precursor to this mess, when the outrage over The Dark Knight’s snub led to the expansion of Best Picture. If instead the Academy created Achievement in Popular Film to accommodate it, the same way they’re doing for Black Panther, then it seems pretty obvious that The Dark Knight would walk away with this award and Christopher Nolan fans wouldn’t spend the next decade lamenting the fact that their favourite director never got the recognition he deserved. Or… just like they might this year, they give it to freaking Mamma Mia.

2009 – Predicted Winner: Avatar
Potential Spoiler:
Inglourious Basterds
Best Picture Winner: The Hurt Locker
Other Nominees:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover, Star Trek, The Blindside, Sherlock Holmes, Taken, District 9, Watchmen

2009 seems like another obvious year. Avatar was not the best movie of 2009 (that was Inglourious Basterds), but it was most certainly the most influential. It ushered in the current era of 3D and forced theaters to buy all new equipment. It set new box office records domestically and worldwide, records director James Cameron already held. But it was toppled by The Hurt Locker for Best Picture because it was a mainstream action/sci-fi movie with a derivative, forgettable story and mediocre acting. . After The Dark Knight muddled the line between art and mainstream appeal, the Academy quickly put its foot down and said that it was disinterested in that debate, instead rewarding one of the least-watched Best Picture winners of all time and likely perpetuating the stereotype that the Oscars are for art films no one cares about. If Popular Film existed in 2009, there’s no way Avatar doesn’t come out the winner. Unless… the Academy treats it as Best Picture #2 and gives it to Inglourious Basterds, the film they’re afraid of giving Best Picture to despite eight nominations, a Supporting Actor-winning performance from Christoph Waltz rivaling the bar set by Heath Ledger a year earlier, and a Best Original Screenplay snub so egregious that they gave Tarantino the nod a couple years later for Django Unchained when 2009 Hurt Locker winner Mark Boal should have won for his superior film, Zero Dark Thirty. So, do you give it to Avatar, the benchmark-destroying film, or Inglourious Basterds, the Tarantino masterpiece too gauche to be lauded as the year’s best film, but incredibly popular? What’s more, does anyone remember The Hurt Locker if this category exists?

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2010 – Predicted Winner: True Grit
Potential Spoiler:
Inception
Best Picture Winner:
The King’s Speech
Other Nominees: Other Potential Nominees:
Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows Part 1, The Karate Kid, Tron Legacy, Shutter Island, The Other Guys, The Expendables

2010 is when things start to get weird and the necessary for this category dwindles for a few years. I may be blinded by hindsight, but there’s not a single populist film in this pool that really stands out. The year’s top action/adventure performers are all sort of bland and forgettable and haven’t held up in the years since they came out. And it would have been a travesty to reward half a Harry Potter film (more on that when we get to 2011). I would have killed for a The Other Guys win, as a precursor to Adam McKay’s dramatic turn in recent years, but I highly doubt the Academy would have given this award to any comedy, yet alone one starring Will Ferrell, and Shutter Island is an underrated Scorsese/Leo team-up that was otherwise ignored at this year’s Oscars and would have an equally difficult time in this category. Barring a wild misinterpretation of what this category is supposed to mean, that leaves us with only two possible winners, both 2010 Best Picture nominees. Either this goes to True Grit, or Inception, and at the end of the day Oscar is much more likely to pick a Coen over a Nolan.

2011 –  Predicted Winner: The Help
Potential Spoiler:
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows 2
Best Picture Winner:
The Artist
Other Nominees:
Fast Five, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Thor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Bridesmaids

The further I get into my own head about this damn category, the more it looks like it’s going to wind up being Best Picture Jr. instead of rewarding the year’s most popular good movies. A lot of what I’ve said suggests that 2011’s statue should go to the last Harry Potter film. Even though it’s a Part 2, a trend I absolutely loathed about this era of blockbusters, it would have been the perfect time to reward the legacy of a really important and uber popular film franchise, similar to how they celebrated Lord of The Rings eight years earlier. Especially considering, shockingly, that the Harry Potter franchise never won a single Oscar. Then again, if we accept the other, more cynical reason this category came to exist in 2018, the year of the Panther, then doesn’t rewarding The Help make just as much sense? Even so, 2011 was a good year for blockbusters, as you can see above, so it’s just as possible that they go a different root with this and try to reestablish the award as truly populist, or even give it to Bridesmaids, the first true comedy contender in recent years. All that being said, I think it’s just easier to give it to The Help, a great movie that a lot of people loved at the time and, as a Best Picture nominee that year, a fairly uncontroversial choice.

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2012 – Predicted Winner: The Avengers
Potential Spoiler:
Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln
Best Picture Winner: Argo
Other Nominees:
The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hunger Games, Ted, Prometheus

2012 is probably the apex of the crossover between Popular Film and Best Picture, yet also the year where a truly populist film is the most obvious winner. All but two films nominated for Best Picture made well over $100 million, a whopping five of them all reached that threshold before our arbitrary early January cutoff, and each of those five are wildly different and good in their own ways. A master debater would point to 2012 as an easy takedown for anyone arguing that Oscar doesn’t reward movies that people watch. But for the Popular Film category, that creates a massive problem. This is a year where they might want to give this out as a secondary best picture reward to, say, Life of Pi, a movie which could have easily usurped Argo for best picture, or Django Unchained as a conciliatory award to Tarantino. Even Argo would be a fine winner and the first film that could win both categories, either justifying its existence or further unnerving those who’ve already chosen to hate it no matter what. And if it wasn’t for the fact that 2012 is also the year The Avengers came out, I’m sure we’d all be fine with any of those choices. However you might interpret this category, if Marvel pulls off what they did with this movie in 2012 and don’t get rewarded for it with a category named specifically after the thing that their movies are, then there’s a problem.

2013 – Predicted Winner: Gravity
Potential Spoiler:
American Hustle
Best Picture Winner:
12 years A Slave
Other Nominees:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, The Heat, The Great Gatsby

2013 is probably the weakest year on this list. It doesn’t really have any big blockbuster movies that stand out, and most of its Best Picture nominees didn’t make their money before the cutoff, leaving us with American Hustle, which, quite frankly, I had to bend the box office rule to sneak in, and the obvious winner, Gravity, which was in equal contention for Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. In fact, it won four more Oscars than 12 Years and even gave us a rare Best Picture/Best Director split, with Alphonso Cuaron taking the second most coveted statue of the show. Gravity was a great film and surprisingly popular for an Oscar contender, and in retrospect, the fact that it didn’t win Best Picture was probably the most telling early sign that the Academy was starting to firmly move away from rewarding popularity. Giving Gravity this reward is an easy compromise.

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2014 – Predicted Winner: American Sniper
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Best Picture Winner: Birdman
Other Nominees:
Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Interstellar, Neighbors, The Equalizer, Gone Girl

If this was 20 years earlier, American Sniper would not only be the winner in this category, but it would have easily won Best Picture and several other awards. But in 2014, the Academy’s priorities are rapidly changing, and a movie like American Sniper is both unaligned with Hollywood’s politics and represents something they’ve left behind as the Academy moves further away from populist movies. I originally considered disqualifying American Sniper from contention because it only made its money in January, but it’s kind of too crazy a story to ignore. This is a based-on-a-true-story movie about the struggles of an Iraq war vet that, depending on what side of the political spectrum you might fall on, was either a badass that killed a bunch of terrorists (fuck yeah America!), or a complicated, ill person handed a sniper rifle by a military and society that enables and encourages his ilk to do bad things and then gaslights them by calling them heroes yet treating them like the homeless (deep breath), struggling to reintegrate with society upon his return from a harrowing, unnecessary war.  This is a story that appealed to middle America and pandered to certain people on the left, leading it to an unlikely spot at the top of the 2014 box office, an unlikely feat considering the year that Marvel had and some other great action movies. While it came out late and was likely boosted by all its Oscar nominations, I decided to throw it in here because it’s important in all of this context of what this category should be (and could have easily gone wide in like November and been eligible anyway). This, along with Argo, are the 90s style of serious mid-budget blockbusters that the Academy should want to get back to and a completely kosher choice for this award, if that’s not the kind of thing you want to reward in Best Picture. At the same time, it’s not like the Academy ignored American Sniper; it got six nominations. It was snubbed in all but one technical category not because of the kind of film it is, but because of who make it and his and its politics. Clint Eastwood, despite being a legend both in front of and behind the camera who hasn’t lost much of a step at his age, was by this point firmly an old, conservative asshole barely two years removed from when he assailed the character of the sitting president and mocked him at the RNC by talking to an empty chair. Hollywood can forget a lot of bad things, but character attacks on Barack Obama is not one of those things. So depending on what kind of cynicism is your shit, either they give him this award out of spite since it’s no Best Picture, or they nominate him and give it to Captain America because that’s what the country really stands for.

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2015 – Predicted Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Potential Spoiler:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Picture Winner:
Spotlight
Other Nominees:
Jurassic World, Furious 7, Cinderella, Spectre, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Trainwreck, Spy, The Martian

Spotlight is a good movie and I don’t blame the Academy for giving it Best Picture, but the fact that a film like Mad Max can come out of an Oscar ceremony with six statues and one of them isn’t Best Picture is exactly the problem with the Oscars these days, and why this category exists. Some might argue that being technically good (all six of Mad Max’s Oscars were below the line, although George Miller should have contended for Directing and Charlize Theron should have been nominated for Best Actress) doesn’t mean that you deserve the top awards, but Mad Max, like, for example, Avatar, should be an obvious exemption, perfectly blending art with popularity and a stunning, industry-changing achievement in film that deserves to be recognized. It’s the obvious winner here as a consolation prize. That being said, 2015 is also the year Disney brought Star Wars back in the grandest possible way, destroying box office records (including some set that same year by Jurassic World), and could possibly stake an equal claim to this award.

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2016 – Predicted Winner: Rogue One
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: Civil War
Best Picture Winner:
Moonlight
Other Nominees:
The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Strange

2016 is probably the year that made Disney realize they could probably push the Academy into creating a category that could easily go to one of their movies every year. Star Wars and Marvel are assure that they will always have the top box office spot. They even managed to secure four of the top five slots, a feat they might be able to accomplish again this year. With no studio producing prestige films (at least not until the Fox acquisition is complete), this is the only way Disney can assure a bigger Oscar presence, and in 2016, there is no way Achievement in Popular Film doesn’t go to a Disney movie. Outside of La La Land gaming the system by going wide earlier and sneaking a victory here (and likely avoiding the envelope fiasco with Moonlight), they have virtually no competition among popular films. Rogue One was great and different and probably the easy winner. Civil War further elevated what Marvel was capable of doing. Even The Jungle Book had enough prestige and quality to possibly take it. With the Academy swinging so far in the opposite direction for Best Picture with the microbudget Moonlight, this is an easy year for Disney.

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2017 – Predicted Winner: Get Out
Potential Spoiler:
Wonder Woman
Best Picture Winner:
The Shape of Water
Other Nominees:
Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Kong: Skull Island, Baby Driver

Then again, things could swing wildly back in the other direction with 2017. Get Out shocked everyone by making $175M on a $4M budget and eventually taking home the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Jordan Peele. It’s unlikely rise to prominence and its relevance in 2017 would make it the perfect winner here, even in a rebellious sort of way when in so many of the years listed above, an populist action movie seemed like such an obvious choice. But 2017 was a pretty stacked year for popular film and it might have made the decision a little less obvious. Instead of giving this to Get Out as what might be perceived as a consolation prize, Wonder Woman, perceived by many as a Best Picture snub, would have been a fine winner. Logan might be one of the best superhero movies of all time and sneaked into the Adapted Screenplay race, an unlikely feat for this kind of movie. The Last Jedi was the top grossing film of the year, Dunkirk was a reliable Chris Nolan Movie, Jumanji was a shockingly good sequel and family film… and the list goes on.

It’s kind of funny, there are barely any years with any clear winners. I don’t know if that’s because the Academy hasn’t defined the award yet, or because popularity can mean different things, even with a benchmark for performance. What I’ve learned looking at all these races is that, depending on how strictly the Academy winds up defining this, and how derisively the voting members decide to vote, this is a category that can go any number of ways, sometimes depending on the year. A lot of people may not like it, but considering this is new territory for the Oscars, I think it kind of makes it exciting. If Best Picture is going to continue to be art and art only, if they’re never going to return to how it was before 2004, and if they can avoid turning this into a Best Picture Consolation Prize, then down to see what this category might wind up looking like. That should be the least amount of benefit of the doubt the Academy is given here, even if the idea is sort of all-over the place and (so far) half baked.

Better Call Saul S04E02 Recap: ‘Breathe’

Of the many things that make Better Call Saul one of the best shows on television, two were firmly on display in Monday’s “Breathe“, both intertwined in the constant battle between plot and character development. First and foremost, BCS is a show that’s constantly surprising its audience, and it does so several times in “Breathe”.  Also on display this week is the show’s uncanny ability to justify its characters actions and motivations,  paying off what they’re going through at the perfect moments.

The first such moment, and the one that, even this early, I’m confident in saying that it’s likely to go down as one of the most memorable of the season, involves Kim. After everything she and Jimmy have been through, it should no longer be in question where her loyalties lie. Yet, knowing where Jimmy eventually ends up, and that all throughout the Breaking Bad years and what we’ve seen so far of the Gene years, fans can’t help but wonder what eventually drives her away from Jimmy.  Personally I find myself in the contingent that believes she never left his side, and that they merely haven’t showed us what she’s up to later on, but I digress. What matters is what we’re seeing now, and in “Breathe”, Kim proves her unfettered loyalty to Jimmy in a scene where she verbally eviscerates Howard.

Last week, Howard poured his heart out to Jimmy and Kim and shared his theory that he led his former partner to suicide. Jimmy seemed to take this in stride and told Howard that this was “his cross to bear,” a line that many fans judged as callous and unnecessary. But we should have known that Kim would see things differently. After receiving a paltry, insulting cut of Chuck’s inheritance for Jimmy, Kim chews him out for lobbing conspiracy theories about Chuck setting himself on fire the same day that Jimmy had to bury him, and the insensitivity of offering Jimmy things like to go through chuck’s half-burned belongings and a seat on a scholarship endowment board that Chuck would have never wanted Jimmy to serve on. Jimmy is busy dealing with his grief, or whatever he’s feeling, in different ways, so it’s up to Kim to stand up for her man, and poor Howard, who never had any bad intentions, has to bear the brunt of it. It’s a glorious scene that better air on next year’s Emmys when Rhea Seahorn finally gets her nomination.

But Seahorn isn’t the only one who gets to flex her acting chops this week, as there’s a great scene where Jimmy interviews for a job as a salesman at a printer company. The interview goes well, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he imposes a speech on his potential employers about his passion for printers and, as a result, they hire him on the spot. However this seems to rub Jimmy the wrong way and he refuses their offer, citing their lack of judgment in hiring a stranger off the street with no second thought. I’m not yet sure why Jimmy is doing this, if fucking around at job interviews is his way of coping with either losing his brother or his good standing with the bar of New Mexico,  but either way, it seemed like his moment to lash out in the face in the face of adversity and bad news.

Both Seahorn and Bob Odenkirk deliver great performances this week as the show seemingly takes their sweet-ass time with the Jimmy side of the story. At the end of the episode we see Jimmy leave a message for Mike for a new get-rich-quick job, but in the meantime, the brunt of the action is happening on the Gus/Nacho/Salamanca side of the coin.

As we know, Nacho caused Hector’s stroke, and through a little bit of sleuthing, Gus is able to piece together what he did. We know that Gus is obsessed with getting his revenge on the Salamancas, so Hector living the rest of his days in a catatonic state is unacceptable for the sake of his plans. So he manufactures a scenario where a doctor from John Hopkins comes to town to try and mend Hector’s brain, leading to a weird scene where Nacho and Arturo talk to a catatonic Hector under the watchful, menacing gaze of The Cousins, in an effort to stimulate his brain. But the surprising part comes late in the episode. Arturo is flexing his muscle as the temporary boss of the Salamanca clan, and seemingly gets away with an extra brick of product from Gus’s guys, only to wind up suffocating to death with a bag over his head moments later at Gus’s hands. As Nacho watches his friend and partner perish, Gus informs him that he’s figured out what he did, and since the Salamancas don’t, his loyalty now belongs to Gus.

In a show full of tragic tales, Nacho’s might be shaping up to be the most tragic. And Michael Mondo, much like the aforementioned castmates he doesn’t really get to interact much with on screen, is really good at selling the hand he’s dealt.

Elsewhere, Mike’s side of tonight’s story mostly involves some table setting. He meets with Lydia, who (unsuccessfully) asks him to stop what he’s doing at Madrigral with the “security consulting.” She turns to Gus, who tells him to accommodate Mike’s attempt to earn his paycheck, as it is a matter not worth his time with everything else that he’s dealing with. With Jimmy reaching out to Mike at the end of the episode, we’ll see how long it takes for all these stories to start intersecting.

In the meantime, “Breathe” is another slow burn of an episode. But we’ve come to expect that from Better Call Saul, and it doesn’t stop the show from being great and entertaining, particularly with how the episode builds up to all of its characters venting their frustrations (whether it be on deserving targets or not). The payoff in that Kim and Hamlin scene, in that interview scene with Jimmy, and at the end with Guys showing who’s boss to Nacho, it’s great, and so “Breathe” gets 8.5 stolen Madrigal badges out of 10.

Better Call Saul S04E01 Recap: ‘Smoke’

Nearly fourteen months have passed since the hectic third season finale of Better Call Saul. With extended breaks among television’s top shows becoming increasingly commonplace in order to ensure quality, this isn’t all that shocking, even if it may be somewhat frustrating for fans, and probably kind of risky for the network, especially for a show like Saul, which may be safe thanks to that consistently high level of quality, but could still wind up struggling in the ratings department as a result. But, truth be told, going into the fourth season premiere, Smoke, it felt like no time at all had passed since we had last checked in with Jimmy McGill and the gang.

I vividly remember a lot of what happened at the end of last season. Who can forget Chuck’s shocking suicide, the end result of a wedge between him and his brother driven so large and irreparable by the both of them that it led to Jimmy vindictively ratting Chuck and his condition out to his firm’s insurance company, forcing Hamlin to force him out and taking the one thing that Chuck still held dearly; his career. Chuck kicking his table until the lantern tips over and sets his house ablaze is a scene that will stay etched in my memory for a long time, and it’s something that drives a lot of what happens in this premiere. But it isn’t the only thing. Everyone is facing the consequences of their actions in “Smoke”, including Nacho after he switches out Hector’s heart pills and causes him to have the stroke that makes him how he is during the Breaking Bad days. Mike takes a job with Madrigal under Lydia in order to ensure his family’s future. And, in the future, Gene takes a tumble while working at the Cinnabon.

We’ve had a lot of time to sit with all of these developments, to let them simmer, but for everyone in the show, no time has passed at all, as “Smoke” picks up right where season three left left off. And, rightfully, the premiere handles it with BCS’s trademark meticulous pace, giving everything that happened space to breathe, the same kind of space that we’ve had over the past year. And it makes sense, I don’t think it would be right to pick up some time in the future with Jimmy jumping straight into some new antics. Chuck was paramount to what made the show work in the past. He was simultaneously the show’s antagonist and its moral compass, providing balance to a Jimmy that wanted to be good but constantly teetered on the edge of evil. With Chuck  gone, and with the way things are beginning to play out on the Mike/Gus/Nacho side of things, the kind of escalation and chaos that eventually overcame Breaking Bad, is inevitably going to plague its successor.

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In fact, the premiere highlights this as it checks in with Gus and Nacho in the aftermath of Hector’s stroke. Borsa calls them in to ensure that Nacho and Hector’s guys toe the line and make sure no one encroaches on Salamanca territory. But Gus warns him that with Hector out of play, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes for his territory, which will lead to war, which will lead to chaos, which will lead to the DEA. It’s the mother of all teases for a show like this. As the name of the game on Better Call Saul becomes convergence and escalation, branching closer and closer towards its predecessor, words like “war”, “chaos” and especially “DEA” become very loaded. We already know that the Salamanca Cousins are going to be back, as well as possibly Tuco. “War” and “Chaos” could be interchangeable with their names. But “DEA”? Could we be in for an inevitable Hank Schrader or Agent Gomie appearance to fulfull Gus’s final prophecy? And with the pace that people drop like flies on this show, what’s to come of Nacho, a man who likely doomed himself the moment he went after a Salamanca, who is now being followed, and who doesn’t make any appearance during the Breaking Bad days?

That scene is Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s way of making big promises in an otherwise slow, and maybe even (necessarily) lethargic episode, as the show goes through the motions of Jimmy’s grief following the loss of his brother, reiterating Chuck’s importance to the balance of the show and making a statement about how it might need to change in his absence.

Jimmy may be turning into a bad guy, but he’s not a monster, at least not yet. He doesn’t see his brother’s death coming, and he struggles coping with it up through the funeral.  But everything changes at the end of the episode, as Hamlin confesses to Jimmy and Kim that he blames himself for Chuck’s suicide, since he took a stand and forced him out following the incident with Chuck’s liability insurance that, unbeknownst to anyone else, Jimmy orchestrated. It’s hard to tell how much of the puzzle Jimmy had filled in prior to this, but it would also be likely that he pieced together that Chuck going over the edge might have had something to do with his final, vindictive stunt. In any case, what finally gets him looking a little chipper, as the episode comes to a close, is Hamlin taking the blame for Chuck’s death, which Jimmy presumably takes as a cue to finally stop worrying about his brother. He callously tells Hamlin it’s his cross to bear. That’s telling, and kind of huge for Jimmy, because, as we’ve seen over the course of three seasons, he’s always taken responsibility for his older brother. He’s felt burdened, not only by the illness that had him delivering provisions over the last few years, but also by how Chuck always purposely held him back. He’s always felt obligated to seek out affection that, by Chuck’s own admission shortly prior to his death, was never really there to begin with. One way or another, Jimmy McGill always found a way to make Chuck his problem, even after his death. Now, with Howard taking responsibly, it instantly feels like a weight lifted off his shoulder, and a cue indicating that the show is willing to move on to some new and scary places, the kind of places teased by Gus in the aforementioned scene.

“Smoke” is a dreary, solemn episode of television. Of course, as it deals with a shocking death, that’s to be expected. Seemingly aware of this, Peter Gould provides us with somewhat of a reprieve, as the episode’s most fun and memorable sequence involves Mike pulling a Kramer and pretending to work at Madrigal for a day. This comes on the heels of Mike getting a job from Lydia, and perhaps  unhappy with the idea of not having to earn the $10,000 check (net!) that he receives in the mail. So he steals someone’s badge, putzes around the Madrigal office and warehouse, before chewing out the supervisor for all the lapses in security that he’s uncovered along the way. Mike looks genuinely happy as he’s doing this, which, in a show like Better Call Saul, can only mean that something horrible and tragic is about to happen.

Nonetheless, it’s a welcome break in the otherwise lethargic pace of a necessarily bleak episode. As much as it is a premiere, “Smoke” is also transitional. The show deliberately makes promises about its action-packed future, it gives up hope that it won’t all be solemn and depressing, but at the end of the day the point is indeed that the show has lost an important element, and needs to find a way forward in replacing him. I’m glad to have Saul back, but I can only imagine that “Smoke” is the low point of a season that will trend continuously upward over the course of its ten episodes, so it gets 7.5 cat themed birthday cards out of 10.

 

‘Mandy’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

Nicolas Cage is a good actor. This is an objective fact. I could point you to his 1995 Academy Award winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas, or the variety of great performances he’s put in over the years (Raising Arizona, Adaptation), or how he was able to transform himself into an action star in the late nineties with some legitimately great blockbusters (Face/Off, Con Air, The Rock). But you know and accept all of this deep in your heart. Sure, the list of bad Nicolas Cage movies is probably twice as long as the good ones, but, listen, I’m not going to be that chastises the guy for getting paid for his work., and I never really thought anything away from his good performances.

The thing about Nicolas Cage (and I swear I’m tying this with a serious face), is that he always brings the exact same 100% to every role. Good or bad, if you’re getting Cage, you’re always going to get every single bit of Cage, and that’s led to performances that, to put it lightly, some may deem to be over-the-top or ridiculous. Be it Moonstruck or The Croods, National Treasure or Knowing, you’re going to get the same Nicholas Cage every single time. His self-described acting style is “nouvea-shamanic” or “Western Kabuki.” That’s crazy, but it also makes him unique, and it’s a big part of why I tend seek out as many of his movies as possible.

I feel as if this preamble is necessary before talking about a movie like Mandy (screened at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival), because, quite frankly, it might be the craziest Nicolas Cage movie yet. And I’m well-aware of how loaded a claim that may be, but take one look at the trailer and you’ll see what I mean. Mandy is a hazy, neon, fucking metal movie that is visceral, emotional, deliberately paced, insanely violent, and delightfully gory, and these are all things that a peak Cage performance slots into perfectly.

From director Panos Cosmatos (son of George, director of movies like Rambo and Tombstone) and set in the mysterious, mystical, slightly evil Shadow Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California, in the early eighties,  Mandy is very simply a movie about a man named Red (Cage) who must avenge his girlfriend, the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), after she is captured by a cult led by the charismatic Jeremiah (Linus Roache). It’s a simple, familiar premise that, outside of the existence of relatively unexplained supernatural elements throughout the course of the film, plays out in a relatively straightforward fashion. The first act of the movie is all about Mandy, as the film digs deep into her and Red’s relationship, why it works, how much they love each other and why they’re so happy living alone in the woods, on the outskirts of society.  The second act introduces evil forces that quite easily and ferociously break their bond, sending Red on a downwards spiral, leading him into his quest for straight up, good old fashioned American revenge (the third act).

That probably isn’t far off from the plot of dozens of other films. What sets Mandy apart has to be seen to be believed, experienced rather than explained. The first half of the film is deliberately plodding, setting up the Nicolas Cage freakout scene to end all Nicolas Cage freakouts. The type of scene that could easily fit into that YouTube compilation we’ve all seen a hundred times. A scene that’s everything you want it to be and more, a tracking shot where Cage delivers the performance on his and only his terms, leading us into the final half of a movie that really follows through on every aspect of vengeance that it promises its lead character. There’s a scene where Red fashions a badass steel axe. Another where he visits his friend named Caruthers (Caruthers!!) played by Bill Duke to get back the crossbow he gave him when he decided to settle down and presumably stop murdering people with crossbows. There are wild supernatural creatures in insane armored outfits straight out of a death metal music video that Cage murders over the course of some elaborately choreographed fight scenes. There’s even a goddamn chainsaw fight. The first hour of Mandy may be slow and plodding almost to a fault, but the second hour delivers in every way imaginable. It’s a third act jam-packed with every cool old school action movie trope you could possibly think of, some of it going well beyond any recognizable border of sanity.

Mandy is a movie that is literally build for and around the Nicolas Cage freakout, a scene that presents itself (successfully, thanks to how seamlessly Cage’s performance blends with Cosmatos’ directing) as a pivotal moment, meant to sell you on Red’s grief and the rage he carries deep inside. The film never delves into Red’s past, but you can probably guess that no one moves to the woods to become a lumberjack that late in life if they’re not trying to escape some shadiness. They certainly don’t store crossbows at their friends house if they aren’t worried about what they might do with them. Red doesn’t need a backstory, because that one scene where he’s losing his shit in the bathroom is all you really need. It’s a ridiculous scene, don’t get me wrong, and if you see it with a big enough crowd, it will likely draw its fair share of snickering and laughing, but it still works, because it exists in a place where everything around it is equally ridiculous. It doesn’t really come out of nowhere – this isn’t Nicolas Cage screaming about bees or turning into a vampire – because it’s already been established that he’s grieving in and reacting to a world invested with evil Iron Maiden video extras and cult leaders who love The Carpenters and have elaborate rituals for revealing their penises. Cosmatos views the Nicolas Cage freakout through this hazy, neon lens with all of the sensibilities of the era that Mandy is set in, complete with beautiful, complimentary cinematography from Benjamin Loeb and the final score from the late great Johan Johansson.

Mandy works because it embraces the insanity of Nicolas Cage and builds around it. It’s a movie made specifically for him and what he’s capable of and wants to do. Cosmatos and his movie understand and embrace the kind of performance that Cage and only Cage can provide, and it makes them a match made in heaven. And if you like a good Nic Cage freakout, if you like gory, cathartic violence through straightforward, matter-of-fact storytelling, then Mandy is the movie for you, and it gets 7.5 Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit compilations out of 10.