Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy

The most interesting thing about Joker is the built-in audience history its main actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, bring to their respective roles. Director Todd Phillips’ R-rated origin story of the anarchic clown who torments Batman culminates in a late night talk show appearance featuring the two. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown turned unstable killer, goes on the show after video of his disastrous stand-up comedy performance was mocked by the host, Murray Franken (De Niro).

During this scene, it was impossible not to think about Phoenix’s notoriously awkward 2009 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. I remember this cringe-worthy I’m Still Here-era interview defining my perception of the actor until I saw him a few years later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which remains one of the greatest performances of the decade.

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Short takes: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood & The Lion King

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood — The clock is ticking for Quentin Tarantino. His latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is expressly billed as his ninth. For years, he has insisted that he will quit filmmaking after 10. ” I just think I’ve given all I have to give to movies,” he told GQ Australia.

If that’s true, and this latest outing really is his penultimate effort, that’s too bad. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood may be his most relaxed and confident movie, luxuriating in its immaculate recreation of L.A. circa 1969 as seen from the vantage point of various people inside, outside and somewhere on the periphery of show business. Focusing primarily on the friendship between the borderline-washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt), the movie follows them through awkward dinner meetings, bungled set visits and drunken nights out (and in).

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My 2019 Oscar predictions

Best Picture: BlacKkKlansman,, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star is Born, Vice

  • Will Win: Though I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to name Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book Best Picture, I think Roma will win. 
  • Should Win: This is the weakest line-up of Best Picture nominees in several years. The only one I truly love is BlacKkKlansman, and it would be great to see Spike Lee’s movie pull an upset. 
  • Left out:  I would completely throw out the nominees in this category, except for BlacKkKlansman. The rest of my line-up would be: The Other Side of the Wind, Let the Sunshine In, Madeline’s Madeline, Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, Support the Girls and Monrovia, Indiana. You can see the rest of my favorite movies of the year here.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Adam McKay (Vice), Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

  • Will Win: Even if Roma doesn’t win the night’s big award, Cuarón is almost sure to win his second Best Director Oscar for it. 
  • Should Win: Again, it would be great to see Spike Lee win here. 
  • Left out: Toss out everyone but Spike and nominate Josephine Decker, Claire Denis, Orson Welles and Lee Chang-dong. 

Best Actor: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

  • Will Win: I don’t know why it’s between Malek and Bale, but it is. In the end I think Malek’s Freddie Mercury impersonation will beat Bale’s Dick Cheney one. 
  • Should Win: Bradley Cooper is the best he’s ever been in A Star is Born. 
  • Left out: The biggest snub here is Ethan Hawke’s incredible work in First Reformed. I’d also have picked John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind, Clint Eastwood in The Mule, John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman and Tom Cruise in the latest Mission: Impossible.

Best Actress: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star is Born), Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

  • Will Win: Glenn Close has been winning trophy after trophy for her performance as a woman whose husband’s accolades unearth decades worth of pain and resentment. She will win this one too.  
  • Should Win: Close is very good in The Wife, though the rest of the movie is not. I have no problem with her winning, though Melissa McCarthy would be my choice for her exceptional performance in an exceptional movie. 
  • Left out: Juliette Binoche and Helena Howard gave the year’s two best performances in Let the Sunshine In and Madeline’s Madeline, respectively. I’d keep McCarthy with them and also include Regina Hall in Support the Girls and Kathryn Hahn in Private Life

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Sam Elliott (A Star is Born), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Sam Rockwell (Vice)

  • Will Win: It seems like Ali is almost certain to win his second Oscar, though I could see Grant sneaking through. 
  • Should Win: Grant easily gives the best performance in this category, though Driver is good as well. 
  • Left out: I’d leave Grant and add Stephen Yeun in Burning, Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Cedric the Entertainer in First Reformed 

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Vice), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), Marina de Tavira (Roma), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

  • Will Win: Regina King is the only acting front-runner who deserves to be the front-runner.  
  • Should Win: Again, King is the queen of this category. 
  • Left out: Though Weisz and Stone are good in The Favourite, I’d take them out and swap in another duo: either Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle in Support the Girls or Miranda July and Molly Parker in Madeline’s Madeliene. I also would have liked to see Jun Jong-seo get some attention for her performance in Burning.

Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Green Book (Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly), Roma (Alfonso Cuarón), Vice (Adam McKay)

  • Will Win: The Favourite, though I regret to inform you that Green Book could take it as well
  • Should Win: Paul Schrader easily deserves this one
  • Left out: Andrew Bujalski for Support the Girls, Tamara Jenkins for Private Life, Oja Kodar and Orson Welles for The Other Side of the Wind, and Josephine Decker and Donna di Novelli for Madeline’s Madeline.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen), BlacKkKlansman (Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty), If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins), A Star is Born (Eric Rother, Will Getters, Bradley Cooper)

  • Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
  • Should Win: Any award that BlacKkKlansman wins is fine with me, though I would pick Can You Every Forgive Me? or If Beale Street Could Talk here instead. 
  • Left out: One of the most solid categories this year, though I would have liked to see Lucrecia Martel nominated for Zama and Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi for Burning.

Predictions in the remaining categories (Will win/Should win)

Cinematography: Roma/A Star is Born

Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (The only other one I saw in this category was Incredibles 2. Meh.)

Costume DesignBlack Panther/Black Panther

Production DesignBlack Panther/Black Panther

EditingBohemian Rhapsody/BlacKkKlansman

Foreign Language FilmRoma/Cold War (Burning should have been nominated in this category and would have been my pick to win) 

Documentary: I haven’t seen any of these, but will guess that Free Solo will win.

Makeup: Vice/Sure

Original ScoreBlack Panther/If Beale Street Could Talk

Original Song: “Shallow” from A Star is Born/I still listen to it almost every day so yes I think it should win

Visual Effects:  Avengers: Infinity War/Ready Player One

Sound Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody/First Man

Sound Mixing: A Star is Born/First Man

Our favorite movies of 2018

1. The Other Side of the Wind— After sitting unfinished for decades, Orson Welles has a new film. The Other Side of the Wind, a bleak and bleakly funny dig at the movie industry, centers on Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a drunken, disillusioned movie director.  His birthday celebration becomes an excuse for all manner of people to gather and talk shit about him while enjoying his latest movie (also called The Other Side of the Wind). Shot like a mockumentary from a variety of perspectives of people at the party and interspersed with stunning footage of Hannaford’s movie-within-a-movie, The Other Side of the Wind is as disorienting as it is difficult to shake. Welles’ last completed film is a bitter vision of a rotting, death-stalked Hollywood, and a masterpiece.

2. Let the Sunshine In— Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In moves to the beat of Juliette Binoche. The two French titans prove a revelatory pairing, matching Denis’ inimitable rendering of bodies searching for connection with Binoche’s conjuring of simultaneous conflicting feelings. In telling the story of Isabelle, a painter stuck dancing between romance and disappointment, Denis structures the movie more around the character’s emotional whims than along a traditional narrative. Though her encounters with men end mostly with disappointment, Isabelle’s sudden eruptions of passion, including during a show-stopping, Etta James-backed dance sequence, suggest that her endless cycle of pursuits is not in vain.

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Our favorite performances of 2018

1. Juliette Binoche- Let the Sunshine In- The key to Juliette Binoche’s performance as Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is in the way she and director Claire Denis show us the character searching; searching for love among a group of less than stellar contenders, searching for meaning in the space between those affairs, searching for the right emotion in any given moment. Several sometimes wash over Binoche’s face within the span of just seconds. That her performance seems so natural amid such a rapidly shifting emotional landscape is a testament to her brilliance.

2. Helena Howard- Madeline’s Madeline- Easily the year’s great breakout performance, Helena Howard is front and center in Josephine Decker’s swirling fever dream of a movie. Howard and Decker thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Howard’s rapid shifts in mood within scenes is astonishing, and much of the movie’s energy is built around the risk of her throwing any given moment into chaos.

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Short takes: Support the Girls, Madeline’s Madeline, Mission: Impossible- Fallout & Searching

Support the Girls — Director Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his latest film, Support the Girls, takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Professionalism at Double Whammies means a constant smile, and a tiptoe up to a sexual boundary with customers that becomes awkward and uncomfortable very quickly.

That’s where Lisa (Regina Hall) comes in. Lisa is a compassionate, intuitive general manager, tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. One of the many pleasures of Support the Girls is in how Bujalski and Hall show the toll patrolling that managerial tightrope takes on Lisa. Much of the movie is focused on a single day, following her on a series of menial tasks that she nevertheless executes with great purpose. Her job is a lonely one; she has to be friendly but not too friendly, stern but not too stern with her staff and customers. The exhaustion seems to be catching up to her, as evidenced by the way it washes over Hall’s face before she snaps out of it and onto the next task. Double Whammies doesn’t deserve someone like Lisa; in fact Bujalski suggests the restaurant and its customers don’t deserve many of its employees, either. Support the Girls finds its humor and quite a bit of emotional resonance in the matter-of-fact exploration of the everyday disconnect between how the employees interact with each other, and how they are trained to interact with customers. Grade: B+ 

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REVIEW: Unfriended: Dark Web

Unfriended: Dark Web
Directed by: Stephen Susco
Written by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel and Andrew Lees

Note: Unfriended: Dark Web has two possible endings. This is a review of ‘Ending B,’ with limited spoilers.  

I consider Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended one of the defining horror films of this decade, a ruthless slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blair. What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blair types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.

While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.

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Short takes: Avengers: Infinity War & You Were Never Really Here

Avengers: Infinity War — My distaste for the third Avengers film is due in part to my overall fatigue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has become an ubiquitous presence at the movies. Over the last decade, we’ve seen at least one, and often more, of these movies almost every year. They built toward 2012’s The Avengers, uniting the core characters of the previous movies (if you’re not familiar with them at this point, congratulations) for a city-destroying epic. Then they continued building (and destroying), with individual installments culminating in another Avengers film in 2015.

These movies are often exhausting in their mediocrity; generically constructed, often interchangeable battle sequences are peppered throughout blandly sinister attempts to destroy the world. The best movies in the MCU (Ant-Man, Black Panther, the second installments of Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy) are often the ones that have narratives that hone in on building a specific cinematic world rather than a universe. Directorial personality doesn’t hurt, either.

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My 2018 Oscar predictions

Best Picture: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  • Will Win: The Best Picture race appears to be wide open this year, though two of the frontrunners, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, are wildly uneven, undeserving messes. I can easily see Get Out or Lady Bird swooping in and winning, but I believe The Shape of Water will do well in several other categories so I’m giving it the edge here.
  • Should Win: My pick would be Phantom Thread, though it’s inclusion here was a surprise as it is. Of the movies that have an actual shot at winning, I’d pick Lady Bird.
  • Left out:  A pretty solid line up this year, though I would have left out The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk and nominated A Quiet Passion, Good Time, The Meyerowitz Stories and Nocturama.

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Our favorite movies of 2017

1. A Quiet Passion- In A Quiet Passion, writer/director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon see their subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson, with disarming clarity. Fragmentally structured through her life in 19th century Massachusetts, Davies and Nixon create an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s increasingly shrinking, reclusive world. Happiness is nearly always out of her reach, conveyed by Nixon’s endlessly crumpling face. Still, A Quiet Passion does not wallow in Dickinson’s despair, Davies grapples with her thoughts and feelings that build and bleed into each other moment to moment. The first half of A Quiet Passion is often blisteringly funny, and Dickinson’s quick wit becomes a through line that Davies uses to trace her withdrawal from the world. The second half of the film portrays Dickinson reaching a point where she refuses to meet face to face with anyone other than family members, standing from a doorway atop the stairs, shouting down witticisms and rebuttals from a sad distance. A Quiet Passion may at times be unrelentingly bleak, but it is also deeply empathetic and moving. Davies shows that remarkable artistry can bloom from such dark, oppressive conditions, even if it wasn’t rightly admired during its creator’s life.-Matt

2. Call Me by Your Name Call Me by Your Name is a film about young love made from a mature distance. Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating drama, set at a villa in 1980s Italy, chronicles a summer affair between 17-year-old Elio and Oliver, a chiseled, imposingly tall American in his 20s who is working as a summer graduate assistant of for Elio’s academic father. The director and his invaluable lead actors (Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver), portray the uncertainty the two young men feel both physically and verbally. Guadagnino aims his camera at them head-on, often foregrounding one as he talks, reads research or plays the piano while the other watches in the distance. There are also key point-of-view shots, watching one of them from a distance before cutting to the other person watching, transfixed but uncertain why. Their eventual affair is the result of an evolving, undefined intimacy. Call Me by Your Name gets so much right about attraction, about a short-term affair that will be frozen in time and replayed for the rest of its characters’ lives.-M

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