Best Picture Countdown #1: The Favourite

“I have sent for some lobsters. I thought we could race them and then eat them.”Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018)

Of all eight films nominated for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, Yorgos Lanthimos’s semi-ridiculous period dramedy The Favourite impressed me the most. A thrilling combination of absurd comedy, stellar dialogue, and engaging, unique characters, The Favorite “re-imagines” authentic historical figures and events from the early 18th century, exploring the complex relationship between lifelong friends Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill and the unexpected arrival of a distant cousin who challenges Churchill’s place as the queen’s “favourite.”

MV5BOTA1MTY0MDYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY5MTk2NjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_The Favourite also features a dramatic duck race and a group of men hurling oranges at a naked dude. So, that’s the type of film it is. Yorgos Lanthimos’s visionary directorial style and the wry black humor of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – or, in this case, their cup of bowel-inflaming hot cocoa – but I found this enchantingly-bizarre film utterly riveting from start to finish. The dialogue in particular is a highlight, with historical speech patterns and trends interspersed with and influenced by current, more modern humor. It’s a jarring combination at first, but gives the film a comedic edge and a unique flair that sets it apart from the other nominees, especially because The Favourite also digs into the emotional, giving depth and motivation to the individual characters, and making their interactions all the more compelling, especially as the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail builds and tensions ignite to life-ruining proportions.

The film’s cast is led by a trio of prolific actresses – Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Lady of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill – and their performances are a roaring success, considering each earned an acting nomination. Regina King seems to be the one to beat in the Supporting Actress category for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, but my personal choice is Weisz. Her sharp performance as Lady Marlborough, rife with cutting wit, simmering rage, and festering envy mixed with careful aloofness to mask buried pain blazes against Stone’s desperate, calculated Abigail Hill who seeks to do whatever it takes to reclaim her lost status. Stone is excellent as well, in a role very unlike her usual fare, but I think cast-mate Weisz just edges her out.

Colman dominates the screen as the often-hysterical, but oddly-lovable Queen Anne. Her performance as the troubled monarch, who led a life “stalked by tragedy,” is defined by a scene where she sits on the cusp of a party, all dressed up in finery yet confined to a wheelchair, and watches as her guests and courtesans dance and engage without her as the music swells through the room. That scene alone made her my favorite for the Best Actress race, as well as the scene of her explaining her “children” to Abigail. Nicholas Hoult also deserves a shout-out for his performance as Harley, where he is nearly unrecognizable in a powdered wig and full makeup. His interactions with Weisz and Stone are a major comedic plus.

This film, like many fellow Best Picture nominees, is “based on true events,” and much of it cannot be proven as accurate. However, The Favourite does not present itself as a “blow-by-blow” representation of history, nor does it market itself as a faithful representation. I don’t even think it says “based on true events” on any of the posters or taglines I’ve seen for the film, so I doubt it’s part of the marketing strategy. The people depicted in the film are real, as are several of the events surrounding it, but it never tries to convince the audience that any of it is true. And that is the best kind of historical adaptation. One that tells its own narrative influenced by reality without carelessly inserting potential defamation or pushing any sort of underlying agenda, and it makes the audience more interested in what the “truth” really is. Despite his masterful vision, director Yorgos Lanthimos is a bit of a dark horse in the Oscar race, but when it comes to a film this weird, anything can happen.

On the surface – which does matter when it comes to film – The Favourite is an all-around outstanding production. It’s gorgeous to look at; beautifully shot. The set design, the costumes, the lighting… in a scene where Stone’s character is covered in mud, I felt as though I could smell the stinking sludge on her clothes, or the beef slab being slapped onto Queen Anne’s ailing leg, or the scent of smoke when Weisz is practicing her aim. The footsteps tapping through the halls as the characters move about create both a sense of foreboding and anticipation. And the music is great, including several famous baroque and classical composers and what I believe to be a snippet from one of my favorite Camille Saint-Saëns symphonies, also prominently featured in Babe (1995). You know – the talking pig movie. Anyway…

The Favourite has earned glowing praise from critics and audiences, but when it comes to the ultimate battle on Oscar night, it faces brutal competition. Roma certainly seems poised to win, which would be a much-deserved victory. But for this viewer, The Favourite has emerged as top film for the Best Picture race, and even if it does not take home that treasured honor, I am predicting it will go 4 for 10 on the night, though I won’t protest to a couple more.

 

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress (Colman)
Best Supporting Actress (Stone & Weisz)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing 

 

 

Best Picture Countdown #2: BlackKklansman

“I just want to leave you, sisters and brothers, with these last words. If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who? We need an undying love for black people, wherever we may be. All power to all the people.”Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture in BlackKklansman (2018)

Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee’s comedy-drama BlackKklansman follows an African-American police officer who infiltrates and exposes the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the 1970’s. Though some artistic liberties are taken with the true story – timelines skewed, characters created, and events swapped around to enhance drama – this film provides valuable insight into race relations in the 1970’s and ties it in with social and political issues that continue to this day.

BlacKkKlansman

The writing – which won the BAFTA for Adapted Screenplay – features witty, cutting dialogue, moments of genuine humor and arm-gripping terror, relevant real-world situations, and excellent rapport between the two leads, John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his partner, Flip. Though Driver is the sole acting nominee for the film, and faces the likely insurmountable task of toppling Mahershala Ali for the Best Supporting Actor award, the entire cast turns in exceptional performances. Even Topher Grace, as KKK leader David Duke, is thrilling to watch. BlackKklansmen kept me engaged and invested from the first minute to the last, and it helps that every character has clear motivations and personalities that clash and meld in compelling ways.

It is undeniable that Spike Lee, as a director, never shies away from making a point, no matter how many feathers it will ruffle – AND he always does it with his signature fearless style. BlackKklansman is the only film this year that left me in utter shock and in tears at the end, jaw hanging open and mind reeling. This film packs an emotional wallop and is bound to stir some discomfort from those who do not like admitting to negativity and problematic issues in America’s history, and it affected me more than any other film this year, particularly because it is interspersed with themes, elements, and scenes that apply to society as it is today. Lee is my personal favorite in the Best Director race for his masterful and engrossing vision, but Alfonso Cuarón is a formidable opponent who is most likely to continue his hot streak come Oscar night. Film Editing is a toss-up, and though my personal favorite is Vice, I wouldn’t be surprised if BlackKklansman overtakes it.

A big triumph for this film is found in Terence Blanchard’s score, which is also nominated. Though I was also a big fan of fellow nominee Alexandre Desplat’s Isle of Dogs score, my favorite from this past year is easily Blanchard’s. It lends itself to the film’s overall tone and assists in creating that distinct 70’s vibe. Plus, it’s the only score among all the nominees that I can recall from memory without having to look it up for a refresher, as it stuck in my mind long after the film was over. Considering Golden Globe-winner Justin Hurwitz was somehow NOT EVEN NOMINATED for his stellar First Man score, a victory for Blanchard would be phenomenal to see.

Though BlackKlansman impressed critics and audiences with its “all the power to all the people” message and themes that fit seamlessly into the current state of the world, it’s a bit of an underdog for the Best Picture race and unlikely to take home the ultimate prize. But if this film somehow slipped past your notice when it hit the big screen this past summer, I highly recommend you see it – even if you’re unfamiliar with Spike Lee’s work or the true events behind this “crazy, outrageous, incredible” story. Overall, I am predicting that BlackKlansman will go 2 for 6 on the night.

Oscar Nominations: 6
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor (Driver)
Best Director
Best Original Score
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Film Editing

Best Picture Countdown #3: Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”Marina de Tavira as Sofía in Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama Roma has become the Awards season darling over the last few months, racking up heaps of praise from critics and audiences alike – though many viewers never had the chance to see it on the big screen. Despite a limited theatrical run, Roma, currently streaming on Netflix, has dominated the awards circuit and steamrolled over films once considered favorites for Oscar night. Though, as someone who had to watch it in her living room, perhaps a film that is so personal and evocative is best seen in a more intimate setting.

Roma_theatrical_poster

Roma is a film that looks simple on the surface – following the life of a housekeeper and her interactions with the family she works for in Mexico from 1970 to 1971 – but, as it unfurls onscreen, develops into a deeply nuanced film with a multi-tiered message that audiences are free to interpret how they see fit. Some might relate to Cleo’s struggles, some to Sofía and her troubled marriage, some to Teresa as a concerned spectator in the lives of loved ones, some as the children who are unaware, yet so intrinsically involved in events they have no control over.

The only reason this film doesn’t rank higher for me personally is that I found parts of the narrative to be aimless – naked hotel-room martial arts included. I mean, I’m all for films that don’t follow a standard story structure, as it allows for a more thorough exploration for the viewer, but this film didn’t hit quite as hard for me as other Best Picture nominees. Still, after the credits rolled, I fund my mind dissecting and rolling over the events of the film, trying to piece together moments I might have missed, and lining up motivations that perhaps evaded my notice, so, even if it wasn’t my favorite, Roma lingered in my mind in a profound manner. So much of this film is revealed through subtleties and in what is left unsaid. The screenplay’s universality, crafted with love and precision by Cuarón drawing on events from his own childhood, makes it a front-runner for the Best Original Screenplay award.

Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is a triumph, as she exudes an earnestness that makes the character both sympathetic and relatable. Keeping the character grounded gives her an honest quality, one that makes her compelling to watch, and invests the viewer in her journey. However, facing Gaga, Colman, and Close will be a tough battle to win, though Aparicio, if she walks away with the gold on Oscar night, is 100% deserving. Same goes for de Tavira, who gives an understated performance as the suffering matriarch who aims to keep her family together as she feels her life falling apart.

However, since I interpreted the writing as one of the strongest facets of this film, I also found myself connecting more with the “behind the scenes” efforts. The cinematography is excellent, as is the production design, and I won’t be surprised if it nabs trophies for both. It might sound superficial, but a film that is already beautiful in its writing and performances is often buoyed even more when it looks beautiful, too, and Roma is no exception to that. And Cuarón, the favorite for Best Director, wholly deserves to take home that honor for the extensive work he put in to make this project what it is.

Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture gold – and I’m pretty sure it will – Roma is basically a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film, and is virtually guaranteed to score multiple awards on Oscar night. Seeing a project that Cuarón put so much effort into earn so many accolades is rewarding in itself, especially because he is a filmmaker who comes across as someone who connects deeply with, and is steadfastly dedicated to his craft. And the fact that this film was made for Netflix count have a big impact on the way films made for streaming are treated by the Academy. As it currently stands, I believe this stunning film will go 5 for 10, but I won’t be surprised if it takes home even more.

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director (Cuarón)
Best Actress (Aparicio)
Best Supporting Actress (de Tavira)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Best Picture Countdown #4: A Star is Born

“Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.”Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine in A Star is Born (2018)

Early into awards-speculation season, Bradley Cooper’s highly-anticipated directorial debut A Star is Born seemed a clear front-runner for some big trophies, but as awards season reaches its peak, the film has become more of an underdog. The latest in a string of four remakes, A Star is Born chronicles the turbulent love story of rock star Jackson Maine and aspiring songstress Ally – played by vocal powerhouse Lady Gaga – as they struggle to balance the pressures of fame and their personal demons while preserving their relationship and passion for music.

220px-A_Star_is_BornThis film manages a monumental achievement in telling a story that has been told before, yet still making it emotionally engrossing for the viewer. I personally had some issues with the ideas presented in the film – such as the message the last song (as beautiful as Gaga sings it) seems to be giving – which spurred some disappointment. But disregarding my little quibbles, the narrative strikes familiar beats and treads well-known ground, and yet, feels fresh and new, in large part thanks to sizzling chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. Their mesmerizing performances make this film.

Despite what might be a career-best performance by Cooper and a thrilling big-screen debut by Gaga, the competition in both Best Actor and Actress categories is fierce – probably a little too fierce. Jackson Maine has to battle both Dick Cheney and Freddie Mercury, and Ally must take down a wife and a queen. But even if there are 99 other nominees in the room that night, I’m sure B-Coop and Gaga would pick one another to win.

And as much as I would LOVE for Sam Elliott – who is egregiously underrated, despite having one of the best narrator-voices out there – to take home the gold for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali’s performance in Green Book has been stomping over the competition all season, and that train doesn’t seem to be stopping. If Elliott had a bit more screen time it might be a different story, but despite it all, he gives an excellent performance as the growly-voiced brother of Cooper’s troubled crooner.

Obviously, at least one award is essentially guaranteed for this film, and that is Best Original Song for “Shallow.” I had chills the first time I heard a snippet of it in the trailer. It’s a great song and fully deserves the victory, end of. Cinematography also has a fair chance – it’s a gorgeous film, which makes it all the more shameful that Cooper is not nominated for his brilliant directing – but Adapted Screenplay has become a bit of a long-shot as the season rolls ahead. The other awards are all more or less toss-ups, too.

Even if it has become an underdog, and the blazing praise it received upon release has petered out to a respectable glimmer, A Star is Born cannot be fully counted out – not when it has resonated so deeply with audiences, through both the music and the story. It is a film born of passion, and that shines through onscreen – but I have my doubts it will take home the ultimate prize. Still, I am predicting that the film will go 2 for 8 on the night, though I’m hoping it will get 3.

 

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Actor (Cooper)
Best Actress (Gaga)
Best Supporting Actor (Elliott)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Sound Mixing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Song

Best Picture Countdown #6: Green Book

“You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity.”Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018)

Several of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees have endured significant scrutiny and controversy, and the Peter Farrelly helmed Green Book, which depicts the relationship between African American pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga as they tour the deep south in 1962, is not exempt. But while critics clash over just how accurate the “based on true events” tagline is – resulting in valid criticism being levied at the film- this comedy-drama has been racking up a fair amount of awards this season.

Green_Book_(2018_poster).png

Much like Vice, this film, while it might not depict 100% true-as-they-happened events, contains elements of truth that shine through to deliver a valuable message. Green Book is carried by the powerful chemistry between the leading actors, Viggo Mortensen as crude, but affable Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as poised yet conflicted Don Shirley. As I’ve said many times before, I could watch Viggo Mortenson spew obscenities and eat fried chicken for two hours and not be bored, and Mahershala Ali is utterly entrancing in every role he’s in. Two actors with boundless talent placed opposite one another in the same movie is basically a recipe for success, but while Ali is clear-cut favorite for the Best Supporting Actor award, my man Viggo, as much as I adore him, will likely have to wait a bit longer for Best Actor Gold. Still, the duo is so effective it makes me wonder if this film would have garnered so much praise without them on the cast. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time, and, as soon as I saw their names attached to it, my reaction was, “SIGN ME UP,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

The screenplay – which is more or less a letter of admiration from a son to his father – is a strong contender for Best Original Screenplay, though the category is a tough one this year, and Film Editing is up in the air. But really, Green Book‘s strength is in the relationship depicted between Ali and and Mortensen’s characters. Watching their connection to one another evolve from begrudging partnership to genuine, if unlikely friendship in an era of tenuous race relations is the heart of this film, and likely the reason it has resonated with so many people. At times both humorous and heartwarming, there’s plenty of drama to combat the levity, and an earnestness to the film that keeps it from straying into “sappy” territory.

As much as I personally enjoyed this film, the controversy swarming it’s validity and the overwhelming competition will almost certainly keep it from securing the ultimate prize on Oscar night. Regardless, I am predicting that Green Book will go 2/5 on the night, and do recommend that skeptics at least see the film before forming opinions about it.

Oscar Nominations: 5
Best Picture
Best Actor (Mortensen)
Best Supporting Actor (Ali)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing

Best Picture Countdown #8: Bohemian Rhapsody

This is when the operatic section comes in.” – Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Bringing up the rear in my Best Picture countdown is the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by *redacted* and Dexter Fletcher. It’s earned a boatload of money all over the world and is both a visual and auditory spectacle, but when stacked against the other nominees in this category, this film strikes a bit of a sour note.

Of course, the major highlight of this film is Rami Malek’s eclectic and electric performance as Mercury. It’s clear in every nuanced look, flamboyant movement, and subtle – or not so subtle – gesture that Malek poured his heart and soul into this role, and his Oscar nomination is no great surprise. At this point, it seems to be a two-horse race between Malek and Christian Bale, with dark horse Bradley Cooper not far behind. It’s only a shame that the overall film – despite excellent supporting performances and brilliant editing, and, I’m sure, no thanks to production issues – does not quite elevate itself to the same level.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a bad film – but, it’s not what I’d call great. While Queen’s music and Freddie Mercury’s legacy have endured for decades, this film is, by contrast, almost forgettable. It doesn’t even play like a biopic because it glosses over and adds a saccharine, almost stereotypical sheen to several of the depicted events, which makes it feel fictional and disingenuous. There are times where the film feels raw, and intense – the Live Aid performance in particular, which is also an astounding accomplishment in editing – but at other points, it feels… fake. Fudging dates and swapping facts might come across to some as taking creative license, but, it can also read more as an attempt to revise history, and inject needless drama into what is already a compelling story.

Beneath the flashy costumes, legendary music, and Malek’s incredible performance, this tale of a band’s turbulent rise to stardom fails to dig as deep as it should. Historical inaccuracies and director controversy aside, I will be stunned if it takes home the gold on the 24th. A win for Malek, though, would be well-deserved. All in all, I’m predicting Bohemian Rhapsody won’t go home empty-handed, and will go 1/5 on the night.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Malek)
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Film Editing

Biggest Oscar Snubs

1.) Toni Collette / Ari Aster / Hereditary
This film got rave reviews, yet was forgotten when awards season finally rolled around. Toni Collette’s performance in this film is half the reason it’s so terrifying; she is able to encompass the mood of the film and project it in such an effective manner it resonates off the screen. Her not getting a nomination is an injustice to her work on this film. Ari Aster’s directing is nothing to scoff at, either – and though it might have been a long shot, I would have loved to see him get a directing nod. I also think it should have been nominated for Best Picture, FIGHT ME.

2.) Mission Impossible: Fallout
I’m not even a fan of the series (this is the only one I’ve seen) but even I know it should have gotten a nod for something. It was an all-around great, popular film that earned a positive critical reception, and yet, nada.

3.) Annihilation
This film was not only condemned to a depressing February release date last year, dooming it to be forgotten when awards season rolled around, but it had a lackluster release, was tragically overlooked for being too “intellectual” and, thus, led to many movie-goers missing out on what was the best sci-fi (and one of the best horror) films of 2018. Yes, it’s got one of those endings – where you’re initial reaction is “…huh?” and then, as it settles and you unpack it, you’re forced to think and interpret what the meaning could be – but that’s to the film’s credit, not a detriment. It deserved some kind of recognition, especially in the special effects, sound, or cinematography department.

4.) Eighth Grade / Bo Burnham
I adored this film, yet it somehow slipped past the Oscar noms this year. It captured the awkwardness of adolescence in such a poignant way, making audiences both cringe at the palpable awkwardness while also relating to the struggles of a teenage girl searching for acceptance. The writing was sharp and the directing was stellar for Bo Burnham’s debut, and I would have loved to see him get at least a writing nod. Fortunately, actress Elsie Fisher, though she didn’t get a nod, looks to have a long career ahead of her.

5.) Justin Hurwitz / Linus Sandgren / First Man
Justin Hurwitz won a Golden Globe and a Critic’s Choice award, among others, for his incredible score for First Man, but didn’t even get a nod from the Academy. I mean, come on… he used a THEREMIN. A THEREMIN, PEOPLE. And Linus Sandgren’s incredible cinematography should have gotten a nod too; the cinematography in this film was absolutely stunning, especially the scenes in space. Basically, this film somehow flew under the radar this awards season, and it’s a real shame it isn’t getting as much buzz as some other titles that shall not be named…

Also, arguably…

6.) Bradley Cooper
I mean, he got the acting nod, which is great…but I actually think he should have gotten a directing nod, too. In fact (CONTROVERSIAL OPINION INCOMING) I think his directorial prowess on this film surpassed his acting. And that’s saying a lot, because his acting was remarkable in the film. It takes a lot to make an overdone story feel new, and his directorial skills are a large part of why ASiB felt fresh and evocative, despite having been made thrice before. And it was his debut, to boot! Granted, everyone nominated for the category is entirely deserving, and I’m betting on my man Alfonso to take it home, but still… I was stunned Cooper’s name was not on the list.

7.) Timothée Chalamet
I’m putting him for two reasons, even though I have yet to see Beautiful Boy. The first is that I’ve heard his performance was stellar, and the second is that I still think he got robbed for last year’s Lead Actor award. Also, he’s great.

And, in an UNEXPECTED TWIST, here’s one film that SHOULD* have been snubbed!

*in my opinion

1.) Bohemian Rhapsody
Aside from Rami Malek’s brilliant turn as eccentric front man Freddie Mercury, which is 1000% worthy of a Best Actor nod, this film, though purported as “accurate” in it’s portrayal of true events, is little more than a formulaic presentation of a band’s rise to triumph. I was shocked that it won the Golden Globe, as I don’t even think it should have been nominated for that, either. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad movie. It’s entertaining, the performances are great, and the soundtrack is – of course – amazing. The director is shit, but that’s besides the point. I personally think there were more deserving films of the prestigious Best Picture nod, that’s all I’m saying.

Favorite Books and Films 2018 Edition!

Favorite books (in no particular order!)

1.) Nine Coaches WaitingMary Stewart
I cannot believe I knew nothing about Mary Stewart until this year. Set in the late 1950’s, this particular tale is about a sharp young governess named Linda who must protect the life of her charge Philippe, and how she becomes entangled in the dark secrets of an affluent family. Stewart is the master of the romantic mystery and this story is packed with suspense that kept the pages turning. I was engrossed in The Moon Spinners and The Ivy Tree, also.

2.) My Best Friend’s ExorcismGrady Hendrix
I… honestly, don’t even know how to describe this book except that it’s NUTS in the best way possible, so you should absolutely read it. Need something totally off the wall? Read it. Horror touched with drama touched with comedy? Read it. Frequent 80’s references? Read it. Just read it, okay?

3.) EligibleCurtis Sittenfeld
Of all the Pride and Prejudice re-tellings I’ve read – and there are many – this is my favorite. It gives the timelessness of the Darcy/Elizabeth relationship a unique, modern twist, though the development of their feelings for one other feels just like it does in the original, which is why it held such charm for me. It captures the same feel and hits the same important beats, just in a different setting and time period.

4.) The Black WitchLaurie Forest
I’m a sucker for a unique, fleshed-out fantasy world with believable characters and fresh ideas. And this series has all of that, plus some cool ideas about religion, faith, and race relations. You get fantasy, prophecies, and mystical beasts with a side of realistic, timely issues. What more could a reader want?

5.) NoteworthyRiley Redgate
This books is about a girl who masquerades as a boy in order to infiltrate an all-male acapella group at her boarding school. And it is fantastic. Unique characters with strong personalities, friendships and relationships you want to root for, an awesome and totally likable protagonist… this book is a whole lot of fun, and it explores interesting questions about gender and sexuality in a way I’ve not read before.

6.) The Midnight DanceNikki Katz
This book – about dancers caught in a wicked web, and a brave girl who wants to free herself from it – feels like a fairy-tale. It’s equal parts creepy, charming, compelling, and harrowing, and the protagonist, Penny, overcomes a lot of doubt and fear to uncover the mystery behind the boarding school she attends. I got sucked into this story quickly, and almost couldn’t put it down.

7.) The Walls Around UsNova Ren Suma
Another book that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let it go. Ghosts, delinquents, ballerinas, murder, psychedelic plants… and a twist ending that I did not see coming. If you need the taste of a little something different, I highly recommend this book. The writing is gorgeous and I read the last half of it in a straight-shot, I was so involved.

8.) Mortal EnginesPhilip Reeve
So… obviously, I was late to this party. But this story – about a futuristic world where cities move and devour one another – was a fantastic read. The characters are a high point, as they are well-developed in both their flaws and their strengths, and the adventure is exciting and unique. I live for a nice steampunk-esque tale with high stakes, high drama, and robotic bounty hunters.

9.) Radio SilenceAlice Oseman
A quirky contemporary YA tale that explores sexuality, friendships, loss, doubt, and the various trials of teen angst… all centered around a podcast. I hardly ever listen to podcasts, and yet, I was utterly charmed by this novel. Nuanced characters, clever dialogue, and timely messages.

10.) The Princess Diaries SeriesMeg Cabot
Again… late to the party. Especially considering Meg Cabot is one of my all-time favorites! I can’t believe I waited so long to read this series, because it is so, so good. Reading Mia’s story from beginning to end, all her angst, her triumphs, her spectacular wins and crushing failures, was the most rewarding reading experience of the year, for sure. Cabot’s writing is sharp, witty, evocative, and charming, as usual. I was genuinely emotional when I finished the last book; sad the story was over, but thrilled that I finally read it.

Favorite films (in order from least to greatest!)

*I am not including the first 6 films I saw, because one was included on my 2017 list (I saw TLJ twice) and the last five were all Oscar films that I saw too early into 2018. However, if they were included, Call Me By Your Name would still be the top!*

Honorable mentions: Eighth Grade, A Quiet Place, Christopher Robin, Annihilation, and Love, Simon.

10.) Hereditary
THIS IS HORROR DONE RIGHT, PEOPLE. I went into this film expecting it to be centered around symbolic, more realism-based horror, but… well… I don’t want to spoil it, but the premise blew my expectations out of the water, then beat them with a baseball bat, then set them on fire. This film subverts genre expectations and kept me on the edge of my seat. Toni Collette’s performance as a struggling matriarch is absolutely brilliant and I am really pulling for a Best Actress nom come Oscar season.

9.) A Star is Born
I went into this drama flick with fresh eyes, because I haven’t seen any of the previous incarnations. And I came out of it with teary eyes. Gaga and Bradley Cooper turn in stellar performances and manage to make a tired and overdone plot seem bright and new and full of emotion. And the new songs are fantastic – the reason I had misty eyes at the end is because of Gaga’s final song.

8.) Black Panther
Black Panther flipped the script on many a superhero trope and breathed new life and energy into Marvel this past year, and added major hype to Infinity War, which came out soon after. This film gave us Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye, three of the most badass Marvel women. Plus, it delivered the most impressive MCU villain to date in Killmonger, with the possible exception of Thanos himself. Wakanda Forever!

7.) BlackKklansman
I’ve been a fan of Spike Lee since Do The Right Thing, so I wasn’t about to miss this film when it was released this summer. This film is not only a stylistic triumph with an incredible soundtrack and brilliant performances, it is also able to blend the true story of Ron Stallworth – a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the early 1970’s – with themes that still exist in the world today. Lee is not afraid to make a point, and this film certainly proves that.

6.) First Man
I always appreciate a good biopic that doesn’t rely on sugarcoating and looks at all the tough parts of a person’s life instead of just the triumphs. First Man is a look into all the factors that made Neil Armstrong’s first miraculous step onto the moon possible, and an exploration of his occasionally turbulent personal life as he sought to touch the stars. The cinematography is striking – especially near the end of the film – and the performances are powerful.

5.) Ant-Man and the Wasp
I JUST REALLY LOVE ANT-MAN, OKAY? These are, without a doubt, the most underrated films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. And now I love Wasp, too – she is so, so cool and I want to see her more in future films. This film harnesses the ridiculous, over-the-top fun of comics with the dramatic high-stakes that has come to define the MCU. And the giant Hello Kitty pez dispenser will never not be funny to me.

4.) Green Book
Based on the true story of an unlikely friendship, Green Book is an emotional, though at times humorous and heartwarming, exploration of race relations in the 1960’s. Though some might contend that the levity in this film is ill-placed when discussing such a serious topic and part of history, but there’s plenty of drama to balance it out, and an honesty to the film that keeps it from teetering too far in either direction. It helps that the two lead actors – Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali – have a fantastic chemistry when onscreen together. I could watch Viggo eat friend chicken and spew obscenities all day long.

3.) Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s style isn’t for everyone, but it sure works for me! A creative look at a future where dogs are exiled to an island of a trash, and the story of a young boy who wants to find his beloved friend, stop-motion adventure Isle of Dogs shouldn’t be flying under anyone’s radar. It’s funny, original, and gorgeous to look at. Though, if you aren’t a fan of quirky films, you might want to skip it.

2.) Aquaman
I am a big sucker for fantastic visuals… and damn, this film was gorgeous to look at, especially in IMAX 3D. Overall, this film was a cross between Tron: Legacy, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, The Little Mermaid, and Pacific Rim. Black Manta is so cool and I now want a Mera/Diana team up movie to happen. Though some of the plot gets muddled by too-lofty ambitions and the humor is hit or miss (bro humor and one-liners fall flat, at times) Aquaman is a wild ride and will hopefully play a key role in steering the DC universe back on track. And, no spoilers, but the final showdown is phenomenal! And if anyone was going to make Aquaman cool again, it was definitely Jason Momoa.

1.) Avengers: Infinity War
I mean…obviously.

Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

Dir: Ol Parker
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep, etc.
Runtime: 1hr54min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Some small tidbits, but nothing major.

Ten years ago, Mamma Mia! hit theaters. I went to see it with a high school friend and my mom, and was blown away by how fun it was. Now, the theater we saw it in has been remodeled, and our lives have changed significantly over the last decade – but on Sunday, that same friend, my mother, and I all met up for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. And, yet again, I emerged from the theater humming an ABBA tune and quelling the urge to dance all the way to my car.

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Acting as both a sequel and a prequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, Here We Go Again is a rom/com musical that follows Sophie (Seyfried) as she attempts to embark on a new chapter in her life, which somewhat mirrors her mother Donna’s (James) journey to Greece back in 1979.

Following in the first film’s joyful, if occasionally silly footsteps, Mamma Mia! Here We Go again is a charming summer romp with plenty of heart and laughter. Amidst the jaunty song and dance numbers, it also offers a surprisingly meaningful message about love and family. Sure, it’s a sequel no one asked for – but let’s be real, here. This film has Cher, and ABBA music. What more could you want?

First, you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the music. Particular highlights for me include “Waterloo,” “Andante, Andante,” “Angeleyes,” “Fernando,” “My Love, My Life,” and, of course, the staples from the original film, “Mamma Mia!” “Dancing Queen,” and “Super Trouper.” I shall forever maintain that there are two types of people in this world – those who love ABBA, and liars. Each number in this film is performed with tangible enthusiasm, and the actors/singers/dancers seem like they’re having a blast and putting their all into it. “Dancing Queen” is a notable mention just for Firth, Brosnan, and Skarsgård. And for those of you wondering… no, Brosnan doesn’t get a solo number this time around, per se. But he does sing a small, acapella reprise of “S.O.S,” and I’m pleased to say it is genuinely touching.

It’s impressive how well ABBA’s music naturally weaves into the situations of the characters… with the minor infraction of Cher and Garcia singing “Fernando” near the end. It’s a wee bit shoehorned in, though there are some clues leading up to it, so it isn’t entirely unexpected. But it’s forgivable because Cher. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the instrumental motifs in the film are throwbacks and tributes to the original film/musical and other ABBA songs, like “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

Told through both the lens of present day and flashbacks to ’79, each part of the film receives the appropriate amount of attention, and focus shifts seamlessly between the timelines. The transitions in this film are immaculate, which aids the film’s intention to “mirror” Sophie’s experiences and feelings with those of her mother, and keeps the plot at a respectable pace. Viewers get to see Donna’s initial meetings with Bill, Harry, and Sam, and how she ended up staying in Greece, giving a visual history to the premise of the first film, and also how Sophie is trying to honor her mother by making the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna a success while also juggling her relationship with Sky. The scenery is gorgeous, the costumes are perfect, and there’s a satisfying amount of laughs to complement what turns out to be an earnest and heartfelt message about the relationship between mother and daughter, and finding one’s way in the world when a storm threatens your path.

And, brief spoiler alert, Meryl has very little screen time in this. I was initially disappointed with the fate of her character – but when she does appear onscreen, it’s worth it. As in, I teared up. I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this and getting emotional again!

The cast must have had a ton of fun filming this – especially the returning faces. Everyone seems to be having a great time, no one phones it in, and the onscreen chemistry is like actual friends reuniting after a long time apart. The finale performance of “Super Trouper,” is the perfect example of this, and I couldn’t stop smiling through the whole thing. The new faces also do an excellent job of channeling their older counterparts – especially Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya, and, of course, Lily James as young Donna. James is both sweet and sassy as Young Donna, and her stellar performance carries the ’79 timeline. Basically, everyone in this film is a delight, plain and simple – and fun pretty much oozes off the screen.

The plot may get a little silly at times, and the film timeline is seriously wack, but this isn’t a movie aiming to garner a shelf full of top-tier awards. For what it is, and what it’s trying to do, it’s a total and absolute jam, and well worth the price of admission. Here We Go Again might not have been a necessary sequel, but it’s also not a shameless cash grab – it’s a great time, with a great cast, and great music, the perfect recipe for an entertaining summer flick.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany.
Runtime: 2hr 15min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there.

After facing a (rumored) fraught production, during which the original directors were fired due to “creative differences” and replaced with Ron Howard in the eleventh hour, which led to significant portions of the film being re-shot, expectations for Solo seemed to be teetering between “bad” and “disastrous.” My own hopes for the film were decidedly low as negative rumors swirled in the lead up to release, but after seeing it, I can safely say that I should not have had such a bad feeling about it.

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo follows the young titular character (Ehrenreich) as he breaks free from his life on the streets and pursues his ambitions to become the best pilot in the galaxy – though, along the way, he gets sidetracked by a heist or two and learns a few important lessons about who to trust, the price of loyalty, and the weight of betrayal.

This romp of a film capably blends nuances from various genres – space opera, noir, western, thriller – and the result is a well-crafted, if somewhat overlong jaunt through space that chronicles young Han Solo’s life and achievements prior to Episode IV: A New Hope. Though Solo features such iconic moments and fanboy fodder as Han’s first encounter and blossoming partnership with Chewie, his infamous Kessel Run (in under 12 parsecs) and and his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, it (surprisingly) does not over-rely on nostalgia and fan service to tell its story and weave an original, if occasionally predictable narrative. Overall, Solo is a worthy addition to the Star Wars Anthology series and an enjoyable space adventure that offers thrills and a compelling look into the backstory of the galaxy’s favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Asking Alden Ehrenreich to live up to the legacy of Harrison Ford in the role of Han is like asking a guppy to fill the fins of Jaws, or a tennis ball to pack the same emotional wallop as Wilson the volleyball – it’s an impossible task. BUT, that is hardly Ehrenriech’s fault, and he delivers enough charm and charisma to convince the audience to root for him and have faith in his burgeoning career and confidence as an outlaw, and his developing camaraderie with Chewbacca (Suotamo) is an emotional high point of the film. Ehrenreich certainly has the infamous smirk and the stance down pat, and seeing Han and Chewie sit in the Falcon together for the first time with the iconic theme playing is almost worth the price of admission alone.

As far as the rest of the supporting cast goes, Woody Harrelson as the outlaw Beckett is… well, Woody Harrelson. In the best way, of course. Thandie Newton is great as Val, despite limited screen time. Our new Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo, warbles and fights and interacts with Han in a way that would make Peter Mayhew proud. Glover – predictably – offers a convincing impression as the debonair Lando Calrission and plays off Ehrenreich exceptionally well. Bettany is somewhat underused as the villainous Dryden, though what we do get from him is enough to prove how sinister and vicious his reputation as the Crimson Dawn ringleader implies. Clarke is lovely as the enigmatic Qi’ra, Han’s old friend from his time on the streets in Corellia, and it will be a shame if we don’t see more of her in future installments. Plus, that “little” cameo at the end – which made my jaw drop – has made me excited to see what the next anthology installment has in store. But perhaps the most compelling new addition to the growing Star Wars cast list is the mysterious Enfys Nest – I sincerely hope we see that character again, because Enfys has the potential to become f*cking AWESOME.

However enjoyable this film is, and how it may well have crawled back from the jaws of potential ruin after the crisis of losing two directors, it is far from perfect. One major drawback is the lack of humor – there are jokes scattered here and there, and a few of them might earn some genuine chuckles, but a significant portion of them fail to land as intended. It didn’t need to be a comedy film, but Han’s one-liners could have been stronger and the humor we did get was lackluster. The character of L3, for me, was also a massive miss and I disliked most of her scenes. The whole “equal rights for droids” schtick is a worthwhile thread to follow, but in this film, it comes off as a silly parody instead of a sincere focus on what could translate to a relatable and genuine issue. Much of the cinematography is dark and muddled, which, during some action scenes, makes it difficult to peg who is who, though – in true Star Wars fashion – the creature effects are stellar.

It is unfortunate that Solo comes on the tail of The Last Jedi, which is perhaps the most polarizing Star Wars film of them all. Fans who disliked Episode VIII might feel less inclined to indulge in the latest space adventure from Disney’s rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, and I was stunned that the theater I went to had only about six other folks in it on the second Saturday of release. Even if you dislike the new main trilogy, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance on Solo, if only to go off on a new adventure without the burdensome weight of the often frustrating mythos to bog it down. Perhaps, if it can fill more seats in the coming weeks, Solo can give some jaded fans new hope in the franchise.

Overall Rating: 8/10