The Post-Oscars List of the Best Movies of 2020 (and some of 2021)


With the 93rd Academy Awards in the books, it’s time once again for my annual list of the best movies of the previous year! I know it’s a little odd to be doing a Best Films of 2020 list with May just around the corner, but you don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a pretty odd couple of years, especially in the realm of cinema. With theatres mostly closed and tons of movies delays, it was an unusual year for the Oscars (airing nearly two months later than usual) and for the industry in general, but there were still plenty of movies I loved both from this crop of nominees and all the way back to the beginning of 2020 when we could still, you know, leave our homes. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that again soon and head back to the theatre!

With that to look forward to, here’s looking back at my favourite movies of the past year (and a bit).

Honourable Mentions:

  • Tenet: Chris Nolan may have finally gone too far but this was basically the only blockbuster of 2020.
  • The Assistant: Ozark’s Julia Garner should have been up at the Oscars for this one.
  • First Cow: An odd yet mesmerizing little movie about two buddies making pastries from stolen milk on the frontier.
  • Da 5 Bloods: Maybe not Spike Lee’s best but entertaining as hell. Delroy Lindo was robbed!
  • The Mole Agent: A charming Chilean documentary about an old man who infiltrates an old folks home looking for abuse, but instead finding friendship and the value of family.
  • Soul: Slim pickins for animated fair last year, but Soul was easily the best of the bunch.


10. Sound of Metal: “Pompous guys coming to terms with hardship and/or disability as if they’re the first to experience it” may seem like a worn-out film trope, but Sound of Metal overcomes it thanks to the quality of its production, the respect it clearly has for the deaf community, and Riz Ahmed’s tremendous performance in the lead.

9. Collective: If a documentary makes you wonder aloud how the hell it was even made without somebody getting arrested (either the people making it or the subjects), then it’s likely a very good documentary. Probably an enraging one too. And those are exactly the feelings you’ll get watching this important and ultimately prescient documentary about the corruption of the Romanian healthcare system in the wake of a fire that cost a tragic and needless amount of life. Particularly relevant in the midst of a global pandemic that we’ll likely learn absolutely nothing from.

8. Boys State: The best documentary of the year was unfortunately not up for an Oscar this year (likely due to the fact it’s on Apple TV+). Even so, it’s worth seeking out, as this look inside a weeklong camp where teen boys in Texas create and elect their own government provides a sometimes hopeful, often unnerving and potentially frightening look at what the next generation of politicians to come out of that state might look like.


7. The Father: Don’t let the wake of the Chadwick Boseman/Sir Anthony Hopkins blunder from the Oscars mar what is very likely a career-defining performance for Hopkins. However embarrassing that might have been for all parties involved, Hopkins deserved to come away with the Best Actor trophy. That much is undeniable when the credits roll on The Father. But while this film doesn’t work without it, it’s so much more than just one performance. It’s a meticulously designed film where every cut, every shot, every line of dialog is important, as Florian Zeller adapts his own play about an old man suffering dementia. Not exactly the most uplifting film, but an important film, and an expertly crafted one nonetheless.

Palm Springs — Still 1

6. Palm Springs: If Bill Maher is to be believed, a lot of prestige movies are too drab and serious. I’m not really making a case against that with this some of the films we’ve already talked about, so if you’re looking for something lighter, check out the best and one of the only rewatchable comedies from this past year. Palm Springs is the modernized take on Groundhog Day which perfectly deploys the comedic talents of Andy Samberg and everyone else involved in the film, and shines an overdue spotlight on Cristin Milioti. In a just world, this should have been a contended for best Original Screenplay.


5. Another Round: There were lots of movies about (mostly white) dudes going through (mostly mid-to-late life) crises this past year, but before you jump ahead to the next entry, know that Another Round is likely the best of the bunch. It’s the least drab, it’s often funny and heartwarming, and despite some serious turns its ultimate message is about joix de vivre and living life to the fullest. The premise is also really interesting, as it taps (no pun intended) the real-life theory of a Danish psychologists who posits that humans are at their best creatively, emotionally, even professionally when maintaining a blood-alcohol level of 0.05. Of course, it’s a movie, so things possibly get taken to an extreme that leads to revelations and hardship, but it’s executed really well, and led by a performance from Mads Mikkelsen that should have been up there at the Oscars along with the Hopkinses and the Bosemans.


4. Small Axe: Technically an anthology series, but really a collective of similarly themed films, Small Axe blurs the lines between mediums as it explores, through its muse, Steve McQueen, social justice and race issues in 70s and 80s London. I personally think the first of the five films, Mangrove is the one I’d choose for this list if I absolutely had to pick. The film explores a riot and landmark court case that puts The Trial of the Chicago Seven, a film I honestly really enjoyed, completely to shame. Where Sorkin goes for boisterous grandstanding as he is wont to do McQueen has a much more nuanced and mindful take. But I encourage everyone to check out the entire series, as everyone has their favourites. Lover’s Rock and Red, White and Blue are also really, really good.


3. Hamilton: Much like with Small Axe, the film release of Hamilton helped subvert the very concept of what a film could be in a year where it frankly needed to be. This wasn’t eligible for any Oscars, but why couldn’t it be? They actually filmed a special version of the play, they put effort and money into transforming it for the big screen without simply planting a camera in the rafters during a performance, and ultimately it reintroduced us to the phenomenon that so many didn’t get to experience back when it first hit broadway. Hamilton in this form is as much a movie as anything else that came out this year, and I’d be remiss not to rank it at least this high considering how much time in 2020 I wound up spending on it.


2. Minari: In a few years, it will likely be a toss up between this and the number one film on my list in terms of which was the most quintessential American film of 2020. It is for me now, as I enjoyed both films. Nomadland gets the edge because it’s maybe a little more contemporary and prescient in what it’s trying to put across, and that’s something I always value highly in critiquing movies, but that’s not to say Minari isn’t just about as relevant. The story about an immigrant family doing everything they can to achieve their dream through immigration and hard work never stops being relevant. Especially this story, in this era, in the midst of record anti-Asian hate. But between the great performances from Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho and the Oscar-winning and delightful Youn Yuh-jung, and the uplifting message of perseverance, there shouldn’t be anything other than love in your heart for this incredible film.

1. Nomadland: No film in 2020 was more relevant, more important than Nomadland. By now you know the story; the film adapts the non-fiction book about the reemerging nomadic way of life a lot of older folks in the US are adopting in the wake of financial crisis after financial crisis. Through the eyes of its main character Fern, almost indescribably portrayed by Frances McDormand (who took home her third Oscar for this performance), we see what this generation of hard workers has had to give up in order to simply make ends meet. Chloe Zhao deservedly took home multiple Oscars for her work on this film, and she portrays this semi-fictional world as almost post-apocalyptic. The film stops short of being too much of a downer, as it ultimately winds up being about emotional loss rather than hitting you over the head with an anti-capitalistic message, and that likely stops this from being the perfect film. But those messages are still there, those warning signs about what’s awaiting the next generation is there, you just have to ignore the narrative that this is some sort of pro-Amazon propaganda and pay close enough attention to what the film isn’t saying out loud.

The Top 20 Best Movies of 2019

I know it’s late but I realized I never posted my list of the best movies of 2019, so here it is, with a blurb for each movie!

20. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story: I have a weird appreciation for a creator like Vince Gilligan who’s willing to go back to his masterpiece and tinker with it. We didn’t need to see what happened to Jesse Pinkman after Breaking Bad but the character deserved more than he got over the course of that show, and I’m happy Gilligan decided to show that to us. It’s the kind of thing that’s only possible in this modern age of television and filmmaking.

19. Dolemite Is My Name: The biggest Oscar snub this year may have been Uncut Gems, but Eddie Murphy is a close second for his wonderful performance in this great, funny, entertaining retelling of the life of Rudy Ray Moore and the making of the blacksploitation film Dolemite in the 70s.

18. Ford V Ferrari: If you’re doing a period piece about a car race, you already have my curiosity. Cast Matt Damon and Christian Bale as competing Car Dudes who inevitably become best friends and you catch my attention.

17. The Two Popes: This could have been ostensibly a stage play of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce sitting in a Vatican room debating ecclesiastical affairs and it would have still wound up on my list. In actuality, it’s so much more. Perhaps bordering a little on propaganda for the Catholic church, but still refreshingly honest and even a little raw.

16. Booksmart: It’s almost unbelievable that this is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. The film is so well-made, the cast is fantastic and the story feels very modern but accessible. Probably the best pure comedy of the year!

15. Ad Astra: The film’s glacial pace might turn you off but I really appreciate James Gray refusing to sacrifice his vision of a single man’s personal journey throughout the vast expanse of the solar system to make a more marketable sci fi action film. And yet this isn’t just Brad Pitt’s space daddy issues, it’s also a really cool vision of a near-future human race that has finally embraced (and commercialized) space travel. There’s a Subway on the moon! How can you eat fresh where there’s no atmosphere!?

14. American Factory: Mark my words – documentaries exposing Chinese culture to Western audiences are going to dominate this decade. For a variety of reasons, films that show us what life for two billion people on the other side of the globe is like is essential, and American factory shows us how that culture is on a collision course with our own so well. This is easily the one documentary of 2019 that’s a must watch.

13. 1917: While I don’t agree with the criticisms of 1917 that paint its storytelling and character development as thin or vapid, it’s undeniable that what really sells the story that Sam Mendes inherited from his grandfather is the marvel of how it was made, from the cinematography to the production design to the music and everything in between. People have unfairly compared this to Call of Duty, when more fitting, narrative driven video game comparisons such as Uncharted and God of War exist.

12. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: With this and Can You Ever Forgive me?, Marielle Heller is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors, able to see past the flashy nature of the headline of a story and get to the nitty gritty of what makes the people it’s about tick. ABDITN could have easily been a shallow retelling of the life of Fred Rogers. Instead it’s a deeply moving story about the struggles of a man who happened to come across him in a time of crisis to interview him, and how his life was affected by their interactions. And what better movie about Mr. Rogers could there be than one where the effect he had on people is on prominent display, rather than the man himself?

11. Little Women: I experienced reticence going in to Little Women because Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t have the effect on me that it did on most. But her skill as a writer and filmmaker finally clicked with me about halfway through this film, at which point it becomes crystal clear how she’s able to bring characters and their motivations and struggles to life. Little Women has a brilliant, unique screenplay (for a film based on a book that’s been adapted countless times already) and a phenomenal cast that make it memorable and modernizes its message for present day.

10. Knives Out: I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately, including noir films and murder mysteries, so Knives Out really hit the spot. I already liked Rian Johnson’s work, but any writer/director who recognizes an under-appreciated genre and decides to revitalize it (and also modernize it in fun ways) gets bonus points from me.

9. The Farewell: I feel like I have the same points to make about The Farewell as I had about American Factory, as it goes to great lengths to expose its audience to Chinese cultures and traditions (albeit in this case about family rather than work ethic). But this is also a phenomenal movie about family that anyone can relate to even if they can’t wrap their heads around the idea of keeping an illness from a loved one. In that sense The Farewell justifies itself really well and makes itself very accessible to audiences that might not share those customs, without sacrificing its uniqueness. Also, Awkwafina delivers one of the best performances of the year and should have been up for the Oscar.

8. Marriage Story: Marriage Story has been memed to death at this point since everyone got to see it on Netflix in December, but I think that’s really taken away from all the great aspects of the movie. The performances are what shine, of course (in another year or perhaps a parallel dimension we’d be talking about Oscar Winners Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson on top of Laura Dern), but the film also features fantastic writing and direction from Noah Bombauch, who not only finds a way to tell a very difficult story in an entertaining and moving way, but also manages to sneak in an adaptation of Sondheim’s Company in the middle of the film.

7. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: Instead of ranting and raving about all the reasons I loved the 3rd John Wick, how about we just watch the knife museum scene again?

6. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood: Similarly, my appreciation for Quentin Tarantino’s latest film could probably be best expressed by the gif below. But to be honest, there’s so much more to love about OUATIH. It’s much more fun than Tarantino’s last few films without sacrificing his trademark violence or what he’s learned in this late stage of his career as a filmmaker. He gets some of the best performances of of the careers of his actors and Brad Pitt was entirely deserving of the Oscar he won. And the way he recreated this era of Hollywood is a marvel to witness. But also, the gif.


5. Uncut Gems: Objectively the Oscars’ worst snub of the year, perhaps of the decade. A performance of this caliber from Adam Sandler is as rare as the jewel he’s after in the movie, and the tension and realism crafted by the Safdie Brothers was unmatched this year.

4. Avengers: Endgame: Every year gives us a new reason to stop being pretentious about superhero movies. You can have a legitimately good scifi movie like Logan, socially evocative films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman, but it’s also nice when one of them doesn’t lose sight of what they are, and manages to bring comic books to life better than any movie before them. Endgame is that movie. I will never not nerd out watching any number of scenes from this film, notably when all the heroes return and gather around a battered and bruised Captain America. I’d say that we’ll never see anything like it again, but this is Marvel we’re talking about.

3. Rocketman: Everything the objectively terrible Bohemian Rhapsody did wrong last year, Rocketman did right. It involved the agenda-less artist to tell as accurate a story as possible but also gave the film the flair and panache that artist has always deserved. This isn’t a biopic, it’s a musical. They actually put effort into the music and making this movie fun, and it’s actually Taron Egerton singing the entire time. Why this movie got left by the wayside last year will leave me perplexed for a long time.

2. Midsommar: I saw Midsommar late in its theatrical run completely alone in a dingy local theater and it was perhaps the best cinematic experience I’ve had in a good long while. The film is unnerving and scary despite being super bright, the violence is well-timed and perfectly gory, and Florence Pugh delivers a pitch perfect performance in the most disconcerting breakup movie of all time.

1. Parasite: You don’t need me to tell you why Parasite is good at this point, just go watch it. Instead I’ll just marvel at the fact that the Academy managed the seemingly impossible feat of awarding best picture to the consensus best movie of the year. The fact that they did it with a South Korean movie entirely in a foreign language is even more impressive. Question is whether is this the exception to the rule or the start of a new era. Hopefully the latter!

Best of the Rest: A list of all the other movies I enjoyed to a certain extent or another in 2019 and want to shout out but naturally didn’t fit in my top 20!

Us, Jojo Rabbit, Yesterday, Always Be My Maybe, The Last Black Man in San Fransisco,  Late Night, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Lighthouse, The Report, One Child Nation, Apollo 11, Glass,  Cold Pursuit, Pokemon Detective Pikachu, Shazam!, Long Shot, Rambo: Last Blood, Aladdin, Alita: Battle Angel, Between Two Ferns: The Movie, High Flying Bird, Fighting With My Family, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Stuber 

The 20 Best Movies of 2018

With so many movies coming in and out of theaters and streaming services every year, it’s become my custom to withhold my best of list until just after the Oscars, so everyone’s had a chance to catch up on what was supposed to be good from the previous year. A best of 2018 list at the end of February may not be super relevant, but we’re not all critics who can see everything right away, so hopefully you find this list useful as you look to parse through the hundreds of movies that may or may not be worth your time from the previous year.

And yet, you could also completely disagree with my admittedly eclectic tastes, in which case, feel free to make your case in the comments or on my social media. Until then, enjoy getting mad at said takes as I present to you the 20 best movies of 2018!


Didn’t Make The Cut – Widows, Sorry to Bother You, The Commuter, Green Book, Black Panther, First Man, Isle Of Dogs: This is a list of my favourite movies of 2018, so I won’t bore you with the reasons why these didn’t make the cut, unless you ask nicely in the comments But it should be noted that I did enjoy all of them, just not any more than 20 other movies released in 2018.

HM – Tag/Blockers/Game Night: No straight-up comedy was able to break my top 20 this year, so I thought I’d give a shoutout to three I thought highly enough that I would totally consider revisiting in the future.

HM – Won’t You Be My Neighbor/Three Identical Strangers: My documentary game was weak in 2018, but I did manage to catch these two buzzworthy films that were both unfortunately snubbed at the Oscars. The Mr. Rogers doc was feel good and emotional, while Three Identical Strangers is the kind of doc I have shamelessly tried to get everyone to watch because of how crazy it is, which is the #1 thing I look for in a doc these days.



20. Deadpool 2

It’s not exactly surprising to see a superhero sequel match or surpass the quality of its predecessor, but a comedy that’s able to do so is extremely rare. Seriously, comedy sequels suck so hard that Deadpool 2 might just be the best comedy sequel ever made. It’s full of delightful twists, surprises, cameos and easter eggs, and most importantly, I think I probably laughed at it at least as much as I did Deadpool 1.

19. The Favourite

Before I finally got to see The Favourite, I thought it would be much higher on this list. Both of Yiorgos Lanthimos previous films were among my favourites of those years, and there’s something about his filmmaking that really speaks to me, as odd and stilted as it is. Perhaps The Favourite wasn’t weird enough, since it lacked his touch in the screenwriting department, but it felt as if this was a movie that didn’t know what it wanted to be nor did it really have anything to say, fluctuating between slapstick parody and poignant sociopolitical commentary. Swinging further in either direction would have made The Favourite more interesting, but even as it is, it’s still beautiful, well-acted and entertaining.


18. Leave No Trace

Debra Granik’s striking film about a father and daughter who live off the grid (and have to cope with being thrust into it after they’re caught) is a prescient look into some of the issues currently facing society and may wind up standing the test of time as a cult classic as some of her other films have. The only thing holding it back is that I don’t feel it goes far enough in a year jam-packed with culturally relevant indie films.

16. Creed II

Even though this sequel and eighth film in the Rocky franchises didn’t have Ryan Coogler at the helm (it was directed by Steven Caple Jr.) and the story relied heavily on revisiting things from Rocky IV, Creed II finds a way to nearly match the greatness of its predecessor, which is something I didn’t expect to be saying along with all those other qualifiers. I hope they keep making movies in this universe forever. Just keep rebooting it with the offspring of whatever side character every 20 years.


16. Eighth Grade

Also See: Eighth Greade and the Coming-of-age State of the Union

The genius of Bo Burnham’s directing on Eighth Grade and how he manage to capture the spirit of middle school teenagers has been much discussed ever since the film came out, but the truly impressive feat lies in his he was able to translate a week in the life of Elsie Fisher Kayla to an audience that  includes someone like me, a dude in his thirties. If this is a sign of what millennial filmmaking is going to be like, we’re in good hands.

15. Love, Simon

For years, Greg Berlanti has been surprising and disappointing us with various DC comic book shows, so it was somewhat shocking to see him pull a movie like Love, Simon out of his sleeve, a very Hughes-ian movie that’s charming and graceful all while remaining poignant and making tough choices with regards to its story about a high school kid who makes every possible wrong move as he struggles with coming out of the closet and falling in love with a mysterious pen pal he’s trying to find. If Berlanti can do this after a decade of making, let’s be honest, middling superhero TV, I can’t wait to see what else he can do away from the formula he’s become accustomed to.


14. Mandy

Also See: Mandy Review from Fantasia Fest 2018

I could show you the Nicolas Cage freakout scene from this movie as justification of its spot on this list, but that’s only the halfway point of this epic revenge fantasy that goes further than you might ever expect in order to pay off the tension it builds in its first half, as Cage’s character snorts drugs and fights demons with chainsaws on his journey to seek vengeance against the cult leader (Linus Roache) that wronged him.  Mandy is the most metal movie I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s so gratifying to see that Cage has still got that in him, and that audiences and critics are still willing to buy it from him.

13. BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest is not perfect by any means, and probably not his best, but it manages to prove that the 61-year-old director can still make relevant, poignant, and most importantly entertaining films that resonate with people just as much as they always have. The performances he’s able to pull out of John David Washington and Adam Driver are great, the way he’s able to weave the message of the story into a point about race relations in 2018 is impressive, and even devoid of that the story itself, about an African-American police officer who casually infiltrates the Klan is riotously entertaining. All of that combines to transcend the problems that most biopics face these days, proving that the stories of our past still have something to say about our present and future, despite less effective efforts from movies to toe a political line. Like Lee, his film is unambiguous about what it is or what it has to say, and that alone is worth your time.


12. Vice

Adam McKay’s second serious(ish) political film is perhaps a step back from The Big Short. His Dick Cheney biopic doesn’t go nearly far enough in admonishing its subject’s effect on 21st century politics, or his financial ties with defense contractors, but I suspect there might be legal reasons for that. But a middling political biopic from someone like McKay still manages to be inventive, entertaining and informative at a time where we need to be repeating these kinds of stories, lest we forget about the political mistakes that are barely in our rearview. I imagine that McKay’s best work is ahead of him, as he hopefully takes the criticism he’s received from his last two films seriously, but Vice still manages to be an important must-watch film in 2018 and likely the best biopic of the year, and that’s without even mentioning the transformative performance from not only Christian Bale in the titular role (who should have won the Oscar, if Gary Oldman as Churchill in a body suit is supposed to be the standard-bearer now), but also Amy Adams as Mrs. Cheney, Sam Rockwell as W., and especially Steve Carell as Donald Rumseld, who steals the show by playing him as a Chaotic Evil Michael Scott.

11. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Whenever Tom Cruise dies doing one of these crazy Mission: Impossible stunts, they’re going to finish the movie, include the damn death scene in the final product and we’ll all go and see it in some sort of massive countrywide funeral. That has to be the endgame here, right? And I think we’re all totally fine with that, because his opus is clearly putting his life on the line for us, the audience, and the result is consistently the best action you could possibly imagine, somehow defying the odds and reinventing and improving a franchise that by 2021 will be eight pictures old. And yet the scene where Cruise breaks his leg in a chase is only one of several awesome sequences. Take your pick between that, the helicopter duel, the final fight on a cliff, the damn halo jump and (my personal favourite) the club bathroom triple threat fight scene. It’s kind of insane how much these movies have to give.


10. A Star Is Born

Like everyone else, I was initially skeptical about this remake of a remake of a remake of a seemingly generic story about romance and art and fame that we’ve seen so many times before. But somehow, Bradley Cooper’s passion for the story he wanted to tell (both in front of and beyond the camera) turned this version of A Star Is Born into something special, including arguably the cultural and musical touchstone of 2018 with Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow”, likely the one moment in film that will stand out from this year when we look back. I think everyone’s affection for this film (including my own) overall has kind of waned in the months since it was released, which is why it just barely scrapes into the top 10, but it’s hard to describe this as anything less than a well-crafted crowd-pleaser.

9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The latest from the Coen Brothers came and went rather quietly, but I suspect this will be one of those Coens movies that winds up ranking surprisingly high on people’s top 10 lists in a few years time, because it’s hard to find much flaw in Buster Scruggs. While I remain curious about a Coens television anthology western, as this was once rumoured to be, I can’t really imagine it being any better than this, a crisp two-ish hour adventure that flows seamlessly from one tale to the next. Each story is compelling, and while the tone of each one ranges from absurd to macabre, it all manages to fit together perfectly, exactly as you’d expect it would from these creators, with the talent they’re capable of amassing on screen.


8. Heredity

Hereditary is a rare horror film in that it spends the vast majority of its run time wringing out every possible drip of tension out of its story, setting and characters before absolutely drenching its audience with the payoff. Some might consider that a squandering of said tension buildup, but not this guy. I couldn’t appreciate the fact that everything it builds up pays off at the end, even if, upon my initial viewing, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. In that sense Hereditary manages to truly sell itself as a thrill ride, asking you as the viewer to simply hold on and trust that the filmmakers know what they’re doing. Whichever side of this coin you might fall on, though, there’s no denying that, in the process, Toni Collette delivers one of this year’s best performances, or that this film’s twists are brutal and crazy in a way that went unmatched in horror films last year.

7. Roma

Like with A Star Is Born, “well-crafted” is probably the first term that comes to mind when speaking about Roma. Alfonso Cuaron’s craft, his devotion to film, his keen eye for cinematography and creating the images he envisions (be it a single upper-class home, the slums just outside of Mexico City or full city blocks in the city itself) go unmatched. He’s probably the best working director in Hollywood and he’s earned every single Oscar on his shelf hands down. But outside of the craft, Roma feels a little hollow. I don’t think its story about class and status and the personal tales of its two lead actresses resonated as much as they would have in perhaps a different film. It’s harder to sell seemingly deeply personal tales, and it’s harder to identify with a movie like Roma, which maybe makes it more inaccessible. And yet as a mostly subtitled black-and-white period drama, I doubt Cuaron ever cared about that, and that’s part of what makes Roma such a great artistic achievement.


6. First Reformed

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that the quiet story about a contemporary New England priest having a crisis of conscience upon inheriting the plight of a man obsessed with the effects of climate change didn’t make a bigger impact than a lot of the movies on this list, but nevertheless, this is one of those movies that will certainly resonate if you manage to get your hands on it. Even after all these years, Paul Schrader is still capable of telling an incredibly relevant, multifaceted story, and Ethan Hawke, in one of his best ever performances (and arguably the biggest Oscar snub of the year) was the perfect vessel for that story.  The only reason this one didn’t crack the top five is a weird ending which we won’t get into here, but otherwise, First Reformed is a movie more people should be talking about.


5. Blindspotting

What I said about First Reformed could largely be applied to Blindspotting as well. It’s a film that’s incredibly relevant, imaginative, and well-acted, and the more poignant aspects of it find a way to hit you by surprise. The only differences are, obviously, that this isn’t a movie about climate change but instead about racism and the pitfalls of the American criminal justice system, as told through the eyes of a recent ex-convict (Daveed Diggs) trying to keep his nose clean on his last week of parole, and the negative societal influences around him (including his best friend, played by Rafael Casal, with whom Diggs co-wrote the film). The other big difference is that Blindspotting manages to stick the landing, with an imaginative and uniquely poignant ending that left me reeling after seeing it. I appreciate that the Oscars were capable of recognizing multiple Black films this year, but Blindspotting was perhaps ironically one that never got out of their blindspot.


4. Avengers: Infinity War

This shouldn’t have worked. Avengers: Infinity War is the first half of a movie designed to be the payoff and culmination of a decade of superhero films. It’s told from the perspective of the villain. It ends with that villain winning and turning half the good guys into dust. And yet it overcomes all of its flaws and gives us two and a half hours of the best that comic book adaptations have had to offer. The fact that Kevin Feige and Marvel pulled off what they said they were going to do is truly astonishing. And it’s only the beginning of the end of the beginning, with Endgame to come in 2019 and no end in sight to these films.


3. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

For seven months between the May and December, there was no question in my mind what the best comic book movie of the year would be, as we just discussed. And yet, along came a spider near the end of the year to turn everything upside down, reinventing not only what a superhero movie could be but creating a unique and immersive style of animation in the process, and telling a kind of story previously unfathomable, even with everything that Marvel has been able to accomplish with the MCU. And if that isn’t enough to sell you on an animated Spider-Man movie, this one features Nicolas Cage voicing Spider-Man Noir and John Mulaney as a spider bitten by a radioactive pig.


2. A Quiet Place

A lot of my favourite movies of last year had something to say. While I wouldn’t quite pretend as if A Quiet Place was devoid of any messaging, the reason it’s all the way up here has more to do with how finely crafted a science fiction movie it is than its themes or statements. John Krasinski’s unique vision comes to life in this movie about a world devastated by an alien that can’t see, but comes for you at the faintest hint of a sound. Of course the movie is also about female empowerment as it props up both Emily Blunt’s matriarchal character and their fictional daughter, who has a hearing disability that is much more than just a cute take on a world where sound is so important and so dangerous. But beyond that, it’s just a super cool movie with tremendous creature design, endless tension and great action, that leaves you wanting so much more (although it’s yet to be determined if they forthcoming sequel giving us more will be a good idea).


1. Annihilation

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading the Jeff Vandermeer novel this movie is based on. It’s a book that is completely disinterested in holding your hand through the world that it creates, the story it tells or what any of it is supposed to mean. It’s like a dream that leaves a lot to be interpreted. That’s why it’s completely unsurprising to see a visionary science fiction writer/director like Alex Garland take on the task of translating it to a visual medium, and just as unsurprising when you see the final product and realize that he pulled it off. If you’ve read the novel, Annihilation might not be what you quite envisioned the film version to be. It’s so different, and yet so much more. It’s weird, devastatingly frightening and most importantly completely original even with the novel tie-in. Garland recreates a hellish dreamscape that will leave you pondering what it all means for a long time after the credits role. Annihilation features no less than three haunting sequences that have stuck with me ever since I first saw it last spring, including a finale that is memorable and original in ways you couldn’t even imagine. This is a movie that’s an allegory for climate change, for the pitfalls of advancement, and even for depression and mental illness, and it’s the best movie of 2018.

‘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.


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.


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?


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?


2010 – Predicted Winner: True Grit
Potential Spoiler:
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.


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.


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.


2015 – Predicted Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Potential Spoiler:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Picture Winner:
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.


2016 – Predicted Winner: Rogue One
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: Civil War
Best Picture Winner:
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.


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.

‘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.


‘Lifechanger’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]



A great idea for a science-fiction/horror movie will only go so far in and of itself. Execution is paramount, and executing on an indie film can be a near impossible task these days, even with the greatest of ideas, as indie filmmakers often face seemingly insurmountable odds. Between the sheer amount of movies out there, indie or otherwise, with expansive budgets and recognizable faces and names attached, it’s hard to skate by on merely just a great idea. A movie like Lifechanger, written and directed by prolific Toronto indie horror filmmaker Justin McConnell, and which had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival last week, needs to find an edge and needs to be made competently to avoid being labeled as yet another supernatural slasher flick (of which there are a dime a dozen at a fest like Fantasia).

Luckily, Lifechanger more than delivers in this regard, presenting audiences with a well-written, sleekly-made film that supersedes the conceits of a premise which may have wound up overwrought or pedestrian in the hands of another filmmaker. You probably won’t recognize very many, if any of the actors, and you’ll have to adjust your expectations for the limited special effects and action sequences, but otherwise, this is a solid sci-fi/fantasy horror film with an original, well-executed premise.

Lifechanger follows a man simply known as Drew (voiced in narration by Bill Oberst Jr.) who, for decades, has had the ability to assume the form of any person he comes in contact with. To call it an ability might be over-selling it, as we quickly find out that it’s more of a curse. Drew “absorbs” the form of the people he interacts with, leaving behind empty, dead carcasses that he disposes of at a farm in the country. And he doesn’t have much of a choice, as eventually, his body begins to fall apart and he must move on to his next victim. On top of the regular, blasé instances of self-sustaining murder, Drew is also no stranger to killing people outside of when he does it for his metamorphosis, usually to cover his tracks when someone in the life of whoever identity he’s assumed gets an inkling that something’s wrong. So the viewer is presented with a bit of an internal struggle; Drew justifies his action because he deems it his only means of survival, uncertain of what might happen if he succumbs to the degenerative state of each new body he morphs into. Yet he also murders outside of this, and while he claims not to like it, a self-destructive pattern isn’t exactly a justification for serial murder. Drew is a flawed person and most certainly an antihero. He’s selfish, destructive, and has lost the ability to care about anything other than himself. He’s also an addict, barely trying to justify his substance abuse of cocaine and painkillers as things that will help sustain his current form longer. The film doesn’t try to hide this, as Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration has more of a tinge of noir to it, reminiscent of all the Maltese Falcon style of films that inspired things like Max Payne.

In any case, we’re meant to empathize with Drew because he’s on what appears to be a final mission, at the end of his journey, as each body lasts him less time than the last, on a quest to make amends with Julia (Lora Burke), the only woman he ever loved, a girlfriend he was forced to abandon at the worst possible moment, when he had to swap bodies. Every new body he takes over, every move he makes is about making things right with her, but as he tries to get close to her with every new form, things get more and more dire and Drew get sloppier, leaving a trail of bodies and mistakes in his wake destined to catch up with him.

Lifechanger works because it’s more than its cool concept. It works because Justin McConnell has something to say through this character. He has a journey on which to take us, through him, a full-fledged story to tell. One that works outside of the parameters of a shapeshifting serial killer. The kind of thing that could work as a character study, as a story about regrets and fleeting love. This is a story as much about a not about a shapeshifter as it is about a flawed man willing to do anything for love, a man with at least a semblance of dimension to him; whereas other movies might make Drew the villain.

Drew has been shapeshifting and therefore murdering for a long time, unencumbered, seemingly, by the law, and relatively comfortable in every new body he comes across. Throughout the film we see him as several young women, a cop, a dentist, and much more, and he explains certain tips and tricks that allow him to stay in a body longer, such as cocaine and painkillers. Basically, the point is that Drew is an addict, be it to substances or his pattern of shapeshifting and murder. It has a kind of noir tinge to it, aided by Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration.

What McConnell accomplishes is especially impressive considering a vast array of actors who have to play not only the characters that Drew murders, but eventually, Drew himself. Over the course of the film Drew is a cop, a dentist, several young women and much more, and the actors, despite being mostly unknowns (many of which have but a few credits on their IMDb), do a pretty good job of making you believe that they’re as much Drew as they are their original character. Barring any restrictions of whatever pool of actors McConnell would have had access to with his budget, this honestly feels like a deliberate choice. Drew is supposed to be good at what he does, with decades upon decades of experience as a shapeshifter and murderer. We’re supposed to believe that he can pass as a receptionist at a dentist’s office as much as we’re supposed to believe him as the dentist himself. Some of these actors do better than others, and getting over that hump might be the tallest task that McConnell asks of the viewer, but they mostly do a fine job under the circumstances.

I’d be curious to know what a movie like Lifechanger would look like with a huge budget, but in many ways that would defeat the purpose. The elevator pitch is that this is a movie about a shapeshifting serial killer, but in reality, it’s a little deeper than that. It’s a movie about the lengths that a flawed person would go to in order to feel the fleeting warmth of love, and how dangerous such a person can be in moments of pure selfishness. It’s about the characters, and that’s something that the filmmaker takes more seriously than you would expect from such such a film, all while being keenly aware of the limitations around him. This is probably the smartest way to make a microbudget indie movie. Lifechanger accomplishes a lot with the short amount of rope that it’s handed, and therefore it gets 7 lifeless carcasses out of 10.

‘Under The Silver Lake’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

The word “homage” can often illicit negative reactions when it’s used to describe a movie or a filmmaker. Even masters of the style, such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, can often be accused of slipping over into something less celebratory when they employ it in their work. Yet I can think of no more appropriate word to describe David Robert Mitchell’s third feature film, Under The Silver Lake (screened last week at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival). At the risk of sounding pretentious, it even feels like an homage to an homage, as it is a movie blending different genres and even different eras of  filmmaking, and chalk-full of references to as well as actual footage of existing work. Maybe it’s just as tacky to call Mitchell’s film a love lever, but that’s honestly what it feels like he’s going for, and, for the most part, it’s a style that mostly works.

Under The Silver Lake is a movie about a perennial slacker named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who doesn’t seem to have a clear line of work, constantly living within a few days of eviction and homelessness yet more concerned about scoring with every girl that crosses his path. The film’s plot kicks off when he meets Sarah (Riley Keough), a gorgeous Manic Pixie Dream Girl that catches his eye while he’s checking out the action in the pool area of his building between hook ups with another girl (played by Riki Lindhome but interestingly never named). His first interaction with Sarah ends too soon, but his quest to woo her is cut short when he discovers that her apartment has been emptied. Sam is further dismayed when he fears Sarah to be dead, launching him into a sweeping mystery as an increasingly ridiculous set of conspiracy theories unfold before him.

The film is officially described as a “neo-noir black comedy crime thriller”, and it probably deserves all of those qualifiers and more. Under The Silver Lake is about a lot of things on paper, as throughout its 140 minute run time Sam is tasked with unraveling a number of increasingly elaborate mysteries and taken on various side quests. Sam runs the gamut of Mitchell’s version of hipster LA, attending parties in the weirdest settings with the most ridiculous of entertainment, like a balloon dancer and a band that calls itself “Jesus and the Brides of Frankenstein” and movie screenings in cemeteries. Everyone he comes across is in every new location he visits, and everything is purposely interconnected. This is a movie that is made to feel small, close-knit, even though the supposed message it presents is grand and sweeping.

And that’s on purpose, as Mitchell sells us this homage full of homages with an eventual message that feels deep and personal and the main character and why he sets out on this quest. Honestly, without spoiling anything, it’s probably one of the only things about the movie that didn’t work for me, as it comes out of nowhere after most of the movie is spent completely unconcerned with who Sam really is or what he cares about. The end of the film, as it pertains to Sam’s arc and journey, it meant to convey that he’s learned something deep and meaningful about himself and why he would go to such lengths to find out what happened to some girl he met, why he would care more about her than himself, but it comes off as flat since this otherwise isn’t a character-driven story. I’m not sure if that ending was a last-ditched effort in the writing stage to salvage a sort of meaningless plot, or if it’s purposely meant as some sort of meta-narrative that went over my head, but I would have been just as happy if this was just a movie about a lazy dude going on a meaningless journey full of dead ends to solve a mystery that doesn’t really matter simply because it’s more interesting than facing his responsibilities. Instead, it’s something else, and it’s sort of tacky.

Anyway, that whole thing sort of had me leaving the theater on a sour note, but having had some time to thing about the movie as a while, I otherwise really enjoyed it. It’s fun, loose, rousingly funny and entertaining from beginning to end. For me, it plays its references and homages perfectly. While they may be too much for some, I thought the way they’re used so heavily and as such a breakneck pace really added something unique to the film. Because Under The Silver Lake manages to balance being a lot of things, thematically, in part by wearing its references and influences on its sleeve, with reckless abandon. It lays a lot of different roots of influence. The most overt as the classic pre-60s films that they literally watch at various points in the film. There’s a lot of Hitchcock in there too. The comparisons you’ll likely see the most are to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I think there’s a lot of early Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino in there too, since every post 1995 indie movie is in some way influenced by some combination of Mallrats/Clerks/Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. It’s certainly influenced by grunge and college rock (the soundtrack features multiple R.E.M. song, after all). And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m pretty keen of describing Under The Silver Lake as the anti-Wes Anderson film. There’s an attention to detail in Mitchell’s work, because the story demands it, but at the same time, it manages to be all over the place. It’s a movie about patterns that don’t seem to fit together but form a larger mosaic. It purposely borrows from other movies and filmmakers, and their idiosyncrasies, in order to make a point about pop culture as a whole. It’s a movie about a lot of things, but also kind of nothing at all at its core. In a sense, I couldn’t really tell you why this movie exists or why I liked it so much. It just sort of works, and it just manages to be incredibly entertaining.

Under The Silver Lake gets 8.5 movie references out of 10.


‘Blue My Mind’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]


As someone who has attended and covered Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for the better part of a decade, I’ve come to expect the unexpected and anticipate the weird. As one of North America’s longest running genre film fests, Fantasia isn’t satisfied with merely presenting attendees with the kind of mainstream horror and science fiction that might get them more clicks and likes. Fantasia is purposely seedy. A good chunk of it wants to operate in the fringes of genre film, because while that kind of stuff might not be as polished or accessible as the kind of horror you can see at a theater chain, it’s the kind of movies that drives filmmaking forward.

Despite all of that, I was still managed to be surprised by one of the first films I managed to see at this year’s festival. I was somewhat late in joining the festivities this year, so Blue My Mind was a late addition to my coverage and went into the Swiss film sort of blind, other than taking a quick peek at the film’s synopsis. And, quite frankly, all that really told me was that this is a coming-of-age drama about a 15-year-old girl named Mia experiencing a transformation all while trying to fit in with the popular girls at school in a new town.

(If you’re a more adventurous filmgoer, and what I’ve said so far appeals to you, I’d suggest closing the window right now (or, you know, checking out some of my other posts) and do the same as I did. If the idea of weird, subversive Swiss filmmaking doesn’t appeal to you, then read on, but be warned that this is as vague as I can be without spoiling what should be a pretty obvious twist.)

But Mia’s transformation isn’t what you’d expect a 15-year-old girl to go through in a movie like this. Blue My Mind plays itself completely straight, almost entirely devoid of any irony or humour. Other than sporadic clues that it leaves in its wake, this is pretty much a straight-up drama about the struggles of being an angsty teenager, going through all the same kind of things any other angsty teenager would. The only difference is that on top of getting her period and facing peer pressure and exposure to alcohol and drugs and sex, Mia just so happens to be, well, turning into a mermaid.

I’m not sure if this kind of movie is common in Switzerland, but in North America, our mermaid films are mostly comedies. And our coming-of-age films tend to lean on the comedic side. Yet there is no comparison between Blue My Mind and, say, Splash, The Little Mermaid or Aquamarine. Nor is this Lady Bird or Boyhood. If anything, Lisa Brühlmann’s debut film seems to draw from things like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or maybe even The Fly, if we’re pushing it. Brühlmann treats what happens to her main character like a serious thing. As a matter of fact, she treats is as one of many serious things that happen to Mia, as there are arguably worse, more jarring things that she goes through in the movie, and the changes to her body could even considered to be a beautiful thing.

With Blue My Mind, Brühlmann is delivering a message of empathy with the struggle of growing up. She’s presenting the coming-of-age story not with the kind of nostalgic, uplifting tone that we’ve become accustomed to even in the more serious American coming-of-age movies, but rather as dry and dark. The end result is a refreshing and unique movie that subverts expectations. Which is especially impressive when you consider that this is Brühlmann’s first movie out of film school, something which I would have never guessed, not with the finely crafted cinematography or crisp storytelling and fine young actors this movie has to offer.

Blue My Mind is the weird, unique, well-made and the perfect kind of movie for Fantasia. 7.5 angsty sea creatures out of 10.