Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

2016 Oscar Predictions

Oscars 2016

The Oscars are only an hour or two away, so I thought it’d be fun to give my predictions, personal favorites, and snubs. For more details check out my Best Films of 2015 list.

Best Picture

Will Win: The Revenant, if prior buzz is any indication

Should Win: Spotlight by miles

Snubbed: I’m shocked Carol didn’t get a nomination; if it had, I’d probably be vying for it over Spotlight right now. Anomalisa also should have been nominated, and would have deserved a win over any of these.

Lead Actress

Will Win: Brie Larson for Room

Should Win: Larson was wonderful, and I’d love to see her win this (especially after Short Term 12 got no love.) In fact, save Jennifer Lawrence (I haven’t seen Joy) all female nominees in both acting categories were excellent this year. But Charlotte Rampling might deserve it more than any of them, for her heartbreaking turn in 45 Years.

Supporting Actress

Will Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh seems to be a heavy favorite for The Hateful Eight.

Should Win: Rooney Mara for Carol; she probably should have been in the running for Lead actress, and I still would have rooted for her.

Snubbed: Alicia Vikander was nominated for the wrong movie; she was good in The Danish Girl, but she was outstanding in Ex Machina. I would have also liked to see Kristin Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria and Katherine Waterston for Queen of Earth.

Lead Actor

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant.

Should Win: There’s no competition in my mind. The only person who came close was Eddie Redmayne, but despite his technically excellent performance, the movie was just too weak to register.

Snubbed: Cranston and Fassbender just feel out of place here. He couldn’t have won it, but I would have loved to see Michael B. Jordan get noticed for Creed.

Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed.

Should Win: Sly was fine and all, but I think it’s coming almost solely from a place of nostalgia. Every other nominee gave a stronger performance. Mark Rylance would get my vote for his captivating turn in Bridge of Spies.

Snubbed: Ruffalo was good, but Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton probably deserved more recognition for their turns in Spotlight. Also Paul Dano for Love and Mercy and Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina.


Will Win: Iñárritu for The Revenant.

Should Win: Iñárritu earned it as far as I’m concerned, but George Miller (Mad Max) and Adam McKay (The Big Short) would both make me equally happy.

Snubbed: Todd Haynes for Carol. This was supposed to be his to lose. Also would have loved to see Sean Baker get a nomination for the electric Tangerine.

Animated Feature

Will Win: Inside Out was Pixar’s best movie in years, I doubt this will be the year they give it to someone else.

Should Win: Anomalisa was my favorite film of the year; it goes without saying that it was the best animated film for the year too.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: By all accounts, Amy is the heavy favorite; one of those rare documentaries that people actually saw.

Should Win: Cartel Land was a remarkable feat of documentary filmmaking; I wouldn’t mind if it won. But The Look of Silence was absolutely profound. Oppenheimer deserves this win, and a retroactive win for The Act of Killing.

Foreign Language Film

Will Win: Son of Saul

Should Win: Son of Saul deserves it, though Mustang would also be a great pick.

Original Screenplay

Will Win: This is probably the only one Spotlight will win

Should Win: My brain says Spotlight but my heart says Ex Machina or Inside Out.

Snubbed: Will saying Anomalisa make me too much of a broken record?

Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Like Spotlight, this will probably be the consolation prize for Carol.

Should Win: As much as I liked Carol, I’m not sure writing was its primary strength. If this is about the art of adapting a story to the big screen, my money would be on The Big Short or The Martian.


Will Win: The Revenant

Should Win: All strong picks in this category, but I’d go for Carol.


Will Win: This one’s a toss-up, but I’m guessing the Academy will go for the “slicker” editing of The Big Short.

Should Win: This is where I think Mad Max should start sweeping the technical categories.

Music (Score)

Will Win: Bridge of Spies, because the Academy loves them some Spielberg.

Should Win: Carol or The Hateful Eight.

Snubbed: Was I the only one who loved the score of Ex Machina?

Music (Original Song)

Will Win: I really don’t care.

Should Win: See above.

Live Action Short

Will Win: My money is on Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gute)

Should Win: Everything was haunting, and probably the most technically well-made of the shorts. But Shok was my personal favorite. As long as the manipulative Day One doesn’t win, I’ll be happy.

Animated Short

Will Win: World of Tomorrow.

Should Win: Absolutely World of Tomorrow, if only as penance for Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day having not gotten recognition years ago.

Sound Editing

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Sound Mixing

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Visual Effects

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Production Design

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Costume Design

Will Win: Weirdly The Danish Girl, because of Hollywood’s obsession with European period pieces.

Should Win: Honestly, no costumes this year really struck me. I guess Mad Max?

Review: The Witch

If you know me, you know I’ve never felt a shortage of anxiety. Nor a surplus of sleep. So the superficial charms of the horror genre — the rollercoaster of adrenaline, the future terror of a dark bedroom — don’t exactly bewitch me. When I do muster up the courage (and cash for nerve-reducing theatre booze), I don’t do it to be thrilled or seduced. I do it to be struck. Not necessarily by a statement or a story, but a new spin on something inside. If fear is a reflection of deep emotional truths, a great horror film acts a sort of visual thesaurus, expressing a general feeling in specific, evocative shorthand. It coaxes something out of you that you didn’t know you knew.

So what should I do with The Witch? To its credit, it never even tried to rob me of sleep — less Craven than Kubrick (and more Bergman than either) it abstains from jump scares with an almost Puritanical resolve. Despite every byline to the contrary, Robert Eggers clearly did not set out to make a “scary movie” so much as a moody, formalist drama about scary things. And by any formal rubric, it’s a very impressive debut. The soundtrack is Under the Skin levels of eerie, the attention to detail admirable, the tone thick and wonderfully consistent. It’s a great exercise in restrained, dread-infused mood building, wholly deserving of praise for its construction. But I can’t pinpoint what, if anything, it actually set out to build.

Which isn’t to say that I need story to be king, or that I can’t appreciate tone-driven art on its own terms. I just couldn’t find any new emotional ideas to latch onto here. Certainly not in its individual parts. In perfect fairy-tale form, every image in this movie is a direct portrayal of a fear I already had, phrased in diction I already knew — creepy twins chanting, possessed children rising from beds, zealously religious knife-wielding mothers. And not in the way it weaves them together. Like a concept album or illustrated storybook, it deftly blends everything into a uniform aesthetic (in this case, muted, gray 17th century New England), but the particular context — while admittedly fresh — only served to alienate me. The whole didn’t add to the parts. Thematically there are promising glimmers of originality: the story functions as a sort of upside-down Job, where God is silent, faith is terrifying, but Satan is personal and proselytizing. Zealots in the Hands of a Jealous Devil. But whenever it seems to push the message one way — against the oppression of religious hysteria or towards something more fantastical — something seems to come along and undercut it. It’s interesting, but muddy.

Maybe that’s as good a summary as I’ll get for The Witch: interesting but muddy. I’m left praising the craft and dedication and subtlety, and wondering what all that subtlety was for. Nothing expanded on my own imagination while I watched it, and when I went to bed that night, nothing was lodged in my skull. Chris, Carson, and I had a good disagreement about it in this week’s 400th episode.

Review: Dirty Grandpa

Missed Connections, 01/24/16, San Francisco, California

To the young white male with the hoodie and plug earrings who sat behind me during Dirty Grandpa.

You probably don’t remember me, but we both attended today’s 4:50 pm showing at the Century Cinemas on Market St. I sat in row 11 or so, slightly to the left. You sat in row 14, dead center. I believe you came alone, though you seem to believe you were surrounded by friends. You had short spikey hair, a black hooded sweatshirt, and a constantly-open mouth which, against all odds, did not contain braces. You are the Platonic Ideal which Sid from Toy Story roughly approximated. I’ve seen you many times through a mirror dimly, but tonight I saw your face.

I didn’t turn around to get a look at that face til the movie was almost over; you know, about the time that regressive fiancé character announced she’d slept with knock-off T.J. Miller for reasons known only to the screenwriter. You were too busy shouting “HA HA HA NO F***IN WAY MAN NO F***IN WAY THIS IS LEGIT UNREAL” and accepting a thousand imaginary high fives to notice my stare. I only watched you for one, maybe three seconds max, but I wish I could have held my gaze for eternity. I want to know who you are inside. I want to know your soul.

Do you mind if I call you Spence? I’m somehow certain it’s your name. Spence, that look was the conclusion of a 90 minute journey we shared together. It began with the trailer for How To Be Single, when Rebel Wilson came on screen and you belted out a hearty, five second guffaw. No joke had yet been delivered, save the mere existence of obese women — a concept which, like many, I now know you find utterly hilarious. I whispered to my friend that this was going to be a long movie. I had no idea how long.

For the next hour and a half I did not watch Dirty Grandpa. I watched Dirty Grandpa and Spence, a bizarre work of performance art wherein character and audience become blurred beyond distinction. Every time Robert De Niro cursed, you shouted “WHAT NO WHAT NO WHAT” as if it were an uproarious punchline. When women made sexual references, you cried “WHAAAAAHHAHAHA” til you audibly gagged. When gay or minority characters came on screen, you shouted “OH NOOONONO” even before the hacky bits flooded in (and, oh, would they ever, Spence, would they ever. And you always had a louder laugh queued up to greet them.)

I want to know what it’s like inside your head. Why, during all 100 obligatory “party” scenes, did you shout “WOOOOOOOO ATTA BOY” like your buddy was doing a keg stand? Did you truly believe yourself to be on Spring Break with Zac and Robert and teenage Rose Byrne and [censored out of respect for Ms. Plaza, who I assume was forced into this at gunpoint.] When they dance in the club, do you get sweaty? When they chug Natty Ice, do you taste its lukewarm, uriney numbness? Did you physically inhale Jason Mantzoukas’ crack cocaine? Is that what made this so much fun?

You weren’t the only person who laughed at this movie. But you were the only person who laughed at every frame of this movie, soaking in its texture like a gourmet meal. When you entered the theatre, you became the Dirty Grandpa, soaring out of your chair, through the screen, and down I-75 in a pink Mini Cooper (or, as you and De Niro shouted in unison, a tampon / labia / vagina on wheels. Because pink stuff is for girls and, well, girls, am I right?) People got shitfaced. Insults were spoken. Things hit things, genitals were mentioned, and your road trip was a glorious success.

I need you to save me, Spence. Save me, because I’m stuck on the outside and it’s a cold, lonely world. Here with the older women in the front row and that 30-something couple on an awkward date and the rest of the silent, uncomfortable crowd. Watching a terribly pointless collage of every other terrible movie, in the presence of a Rocket Power character taken corporeal form. Like Edward Norton to Emma Stone, I want to see the world through your cartoon eyeballs. I want to know how you found yourself in the snobbiest, hipsterest, least Spence city in the country, and how you maintain your joy. And when I finally know you, I want us to sit down together, write a script chock full of all those words that make you laugh so hard, and sell it to Lionsgate for six figures.

Sincerely, Hipster with the gray sweater in row 11

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

I never thought I’d say this, so I’ll just rip it off quick like a Band-Aid stuck in Jon Krasinski’s beard: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

It takes every bit of willpower I possess not to qualify that sentence somehow; maybe throw in an adjective or two to weaken “pretty good” into something more backhanded, like “shockingly serviceable” or “not too terrible.” Something to help me preserve my bleeding-heart liberal cred. I mean, come on. An action movie about a current military event with overt political propaganda value. Set in the Middle (“quick, throw Jafar eye-liner on every vaguely ethnic person we can find at central casting”) East. Released in January. Directed by Michael. Goddamn*. Bay.

And who knows, maybe this is just what January does to me. But I’ll say it again: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

The most surprising part is that 13 Hours isn’t really an anomaly. If anything, it sees Bay fully embracing the things he’s frequently ridiculed for: hyperstylized, over-the-top, testosterone-fueled action. Virtually everything else has been stripped away, leaving an odd combination of Lone Survivor and Mad Max. There are only two things in the movie: the calm before the storm, and the storm.

And what better a way to tell the story of Benghazi? Not the politics, not the broader social ramifications, but the story lost in the shuffle: what happened, to whom did it happen, and why might it earn its outrage regardless of politics? To that end, Bay’s total adherence to action feels downright restrained. He isn’t interested in flag-waving martyrdom or sweeping generalizations, he’s interested in a few specific people. Regular, working citizens who have a job to do and do it well, despite their absurd, intractable situation. He hones in on that story — the fear, the insane danger, the overwhelming discomfort of being an unwanted presence in a foreign country — and becomes a pretty perfect voice to it**. Even his typically out-of-place humor is totally at place here; this is exactly how these men would lighten the tension, isn’t it? Bay clearly isn’t interested in solving said intractable problems, nor making gods and demons out of his subjects. The title is the only scope he cares about: 13 long, unnecessarily bloody hours that no human deserved to suffer. And he does that suffering far more justice than most “nuanced” military flicks I’ve seen.

* Actual middle name

** Except for the women. In typical Bay style, there is precisely one female character of note in this movie, and her primary function is to complain, utterly misread situations, and literally fall on her face. Her redemptive arc begins when a burly man tells her “I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth” and ends when she calls said man is a hero. It makes Emily Blunt’s Sicario character look like Imperator Furiosa.

Best Films of 2015

Best Films of 2015

tl;dr: here’s a list with no explanations

Things I wanted to see but hadn’t yet: Mustang (Update: Review Here, almost certainly would have made my list), Son of Saul (Update: Review Here, also list-worthy), Heart of a Dog, Phoenix, Victoria, Amy, Steve Jobs, Trumbo, Buzzard

You can hear my friends and I discuss our lists at The Spoiler Warning Podcast. You can also find more reviews at my Letterboxd page. Here’s a link to last year’s list.

Intro I Always Feel Compelled To Write For Some Reason

Every year since…2008?…I’ve shown up on The Spoiler Warning to make a Top X Films Of The Year list. In the early days it was typically a no-brainer. On a good year I might have seen 15 movies, 5 of which I’d actively dislike. Whittling it down to a Top 5 yielded easy, if predictably college-dude results: The Dark Knight, Up In The Air, Inglorious Basterds, Inception.

Now on a reasonable year I’ll catch 75 movies, with maybe half being quote critically acclaimed endquote. Needless to say, this list-making thing has become a lot more challenging. Gone are the days where I could slap a gold medal on the latest Nolan flick and move on. I’ve begun to recognize that A) there are so many good, worthwhile movies out there, and B) not all varieties of “good, worthwhile” are created equal in my mind. The more I watch and discuss film, the more I need to carve out my own unique value system: of all the good and worthwhile things, what do I most value?

This year I became convinced that I am not Big Spectacle Guy. There is one movie notably absent from this list, and it rhymes with Schmad Schmax. I can’t fault it. It did everything right. It was an overwhelming, masterful distillation of an auteur’s vision. It was big and spectacular, and I am simply not Spectacle Guy. Instead I’m embracing that the thing I care about, above all else, is what a movie says and how well it convinces me to listen. In a world overrun with stimuli, I’ve found myself (often unconsciously) digging for messages: how is the filmmaker using his/her platform and what does it instill in me? It doesn’t need to teach me something new, per se, but it should illuminate some (literal or emotional) truth. These are not the only kind of movies, nor do I subscribe to some snobby belief that they’re objectively better. But they are mine.

Looking over my list, I see not only a plethora of messages, but a trend in the type of message: namely, the blurry line between good and evil, high and low. Some films on my list are about the danger of blatant “heroes” and the virtue of modest, quiet persistence. Others give hate, ignorance, or depravity a human face. Others toy with the very idea of a distinction, convincing us to root for one character only to switch “teams” in the final act, or to put faith in a savior only to end with an anticlimactic thud. All of them convince me that generalizations are lazy; that truth is messy and takes serious work.

This is meant to be a Top 10 of sorts. 1-5 are straightforward, Best Of material. 6-10 are named awards, each with a winner and runners up. There the order is ill-defined at best. Is my runner up for #7 better than my runner up for #8? Is it genuinely “worse” than my top choice for #10? I have absolutely no idea. I loved them all. Let’s just get to the movies.

1-5: The “Best Of”

1. Anomalisa

Anomalisa Typically my #1 pick is set in stone months before these lists get made. So maybe I’m crazy for picking Anomalisa (full review), a movie I only had about 48 hours to wrestle with before recording. But I’ve got to go with my gut on this. Charlie Kaufman’s heartfelt, hilarious, deeply odd little film struck all the right chords. In a sense, this is the perfect complement to The End of the Tour (full review): it’s a story of why day-to-day existence is so damn hard — not due to grand suffering *cough*Revenant*cough* but due to sheer monotony. And in its own, subtle way, it’s a testament to why that monotony is beautiful. It has the best dialogue of the year, a breathtaking visual style that would put Pixar to shame, and possibly the most tender sex scene I’ve seen in my life. Oh, did I mention they’re all puppets? Laugh if you want, but this is as far from Team America as it gets. It’s beautiful, human, and true.

2. Ex Machina

Ex Machina As an AI researcher who also loves movies, there probably hasn’t been a film more tailor-made for me than Ex Machina (full review)…with the possible exception of Her. But while Her had Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and the promise of sappy indie tears (my three favorite things), this had nothing to foreshadow its greatness. If anything, I went in dreading an overly-serious bit of pseudointellectual fluff. But I can’t stress how quickly it won me over, how flawless it is in every aspect. It works as a genuinely compelling think-piece, a brooding thriller, a gnawing drama, and a spectacle all at once. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clever enough to know when to hold back on the specifics, to ground itself more in emotion than in imagined “facts.” To me this is Hollywood at its best; phenomenally acted, beautifully textured, thought-provoking, exhilarating, and crowd-pleasing to boot. If you’re wondering why Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domnhall Gleason seem to be exploding this year, let this film be your primer.

3. The Overnighters

The Overnighters This one is a cheat however you slice it, since it was clearly released in 2014. But it didn’t hit VOD til 2015, and if Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, that was many critics’ first introduction to it. It was certainly mine, and I was floored.

There’s not much to say about The Overnighters (full review) that I haven’t already said. Documentaries tend to move me by exploring something big, shocking, or overwhelmingly tragic. This did the opposite, showcasing the power of the format to depict the small, intimate, and human. It follows a pastor in a small town in North Dakota, where a massive spike in low-income immigration has provoked a moral crisis. As a pastor, he believes it his duty to help any neighbor in need, and opens the church grounds for homeless men to sleep in. But as a pastor of a specific congregation, he also needs to keep the peace — and his congregants are far from comfortable with opening up their “home.” In keeping with my theme, there are no explicit good guys or bad guys here; just regular people, full of faith and conviction and (often misguided) fears. It’s artfully shot and utterly relevant in the current political Zeitgeist. If you have a religious upbringing, a heart for social justice, or even just liked Show Me A Hero (full review), I’d urge you catch this on Netflix immediately.

4. Spotlight

Spotlight When I reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road I described it as a sort of gourmet bacon; a crowd-pleasing joyride so excessive that its very excess became a virtue. I couldn’t believe how fresh, how shocking straightforward muchness could be. In a similar vein, Spotlight (full review) might be compared to gourmet toast and black coffee. White bread, decaf. This is an ode to level-headed restraint, a film which resists excess at every turn. It’s a fantastic ensemble piece without a single showy performance. An urgent exposé on a horrifying subject, whose primary refrain is “let’s not rush this.” An utterly riveting drama about refusing to get caught up in drama. A wonderfully directed, meticulously constructed film that never calls attention to its craft. It’s so quiet, so subtle, so totally devoid of Oscar moments, yet somehow it’s also the perfect Oscar movie. And it carries a timely message: dramatic conviction has the power to blind, and only a measured response can expose it. In a world of tweet storms and clickbait journalism, the highest virtue just might be boring, unsexy patience.

5. Carol

Carol If I were to describe Carol (full review) in one word, it would be “hypnotic.” It is, in many respects, the dessert to Spotlight’s just-the-basics meal; lushly textured filmmaking where every frame is meant to be savored. This is the perfect episode of Mad Men, and like Mad Men, synopses are misleading at best. Carol isn’t about what it was, but how it felt to be there. A lesbian romance set in 50’s New York, the film is billed as a heartbreaking tale of Forbidden Love a la Brokeback Mountain. And while it works on that level, it most resonated with me as a meditation on the feeling of being lost, and the paradoxes inherent in finding yourself. Carol is the victim of a repressive sort of glamor, but that same glamor is what draws us to her. Therese is yearning to escape her do-as-you’re-told life, but her ultimate freedom comes from being helplessly swept up in someone else. Gorgeous cinematography and perfect acting aside, I can’t fully rationalize my love of Carol alongside some of these “weightier” choices. And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes you just need to be swept up in something.

6-10: Awards: Winners and (Noteworthy) Runners Up

6. Stephen Isn’t As Snobby As Commenters Say He Is, Sometimes He Likes Stuff People Actually Saw Award: The Martian, w/ Inside Out and Creed

The Martian If you were to take this list at face value, you’d probably get the sense that “artsy fartsy” is the sole genre I enjoy. And while I do love me some independent cinema, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the huge number of great, big-budget crowdpleasers that came out this year. This is by no means an exhaustive list (see: Furious 7 (full review), Spy, The Walk (full review)), but I wanted to highlight the three most pleasant surprises. Inside Out is the first great Pixar movie in five years, and arguably the best in longer. Blending the secret-society-hiding-in-plain-sight joy of their vintage classics with the human-centric emotions of their later output, it perfectly encapsulates the Pixar mantra — an unabashedly childish movie about putting away childish things. Creed is a phenomenal underdog story in every sense of the word; in no universe did I expect the 7th Rocky sequel to put up a fight. But Ryan Coogler’s electrifying direction and Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic performance revitalized a tired franchise and delivered an absolute knock-out.

If ever there were a blockbuster with my name on it, though, The Martian (full review) would be it. The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd perfectly described it as the secular God’s Not Dead. This is an intoxicatingly optimistic, joyous celebration of the drug of problem solving, far less concerned with making converts than preaching to the choir of addicts — of whom I happily count myself a member. There’s nothing subtle or edgy about it. Mark Watney is a stand in for our geekiest aspirations, rummaging through his inventory to solve a real life point-and-click adventure game. That it works so well is largely a testament Damon’s overwhelming star power. But it’s also evidence of Ridley Scott’s timeless ability to mesmerize…Exodus notwithstanding. Make fun of the Hollywood Foreign Press all you want, but this made me laugh more than any so-called “comedy” of 2015. Til they make a separate category for Most Delightful, I’ll consider that Globe well-deserved.

7. The Act of Killing Award: The Look of Silence, w/ Cartel Land

The Look of Silence It’s been a particularly excellent year for vital, hard-hitting documentaries. Cartel Land may, in fact, be the hardest-hitting of the bunch. Like Sicario (full review) it examines the reciprocal nature of the drug war, but to its infinite credit, it never succumbs to the pitfall of mistaking brooding vagueness for a point. With unprecedented access, the camera follows both the cartel and the morally-questionable vigilantes that fight it. Bullets fly. Heroes turn to villains before our eyes. And if at times it felt a bit voyeuristic, the truth on display was always mind-boggling.

Some truths run deeper than others, though, and none were as revelatory as those in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (full review). A follow-up to the eponymous Act of Killing (full review), it aims to give the Indonesian genocide a human face. Where Killing chose the face of evil, though, Silence turns its attention to the innocent. We follow Adi as he interviews the very people who tore his family apart: the man who murdered his brother, the official who reaped the profits, the cowardly uncle who guarded his cell. At once unflinching and artfully subdued, it has no interest in soliciting easy, throwaway sympathy. Adi isn’t seeking pity, he’s searching for a way forward. And redemption can be far more complicated than grief.

8. Dallas Buyers Club Award: Love and Mercy, w/ Brooklyn

Love and Mercy Two years ago I awarded my number one slot to a traditional, not-particularly-showy movie which blew me away by sheer consistency: Dallas Buyers Club. While I’ve since recanted that choice, I do think there’s room on any list for wonderfully-executed, basic filmmaking. Sometimes a great biopic, or a great romance, can stick with you longer than any “challenging” think piece. Brooklyn is one such film. A coming-of-age story set in 50’s New York, it might be the most gorgeously sentimental film of the year. Saoirse Ronan gives a star-making performance as Irish immigrant Eilis, but the supporting turns (particularly Emory Cohen) are no less endearing. As a romance it falls a bit short of masterful, but as an ode to the immigrant experience it floored me. If it hit a single wistful note, though, Love and Mercy hit about 50 in unison. Was it a Brian Wilson biopic? An off-putting romance? A story about creativity and mental illness, or about captivity and exploitation? Or was it just a simple ode to the thrill of making music, and an excuse to turn a timeless album into a soundtrack? I can’t label it. But while some notes (the Cusack / Banks romance) felt discordant and others (Dano in the Pet Sounds studio) transcendent, there was something seriously moving in the cacophony.

9. Whiplash Award: The Revenant, w/ ‘71 and Tangerine

The Revenant The Whiplash Award is reserved for singular, focused films which overwhelm me by sheer intensity. This year there were three contenders, and it’s really where my rankings break down: each of these held the title at some point in the last 20 minutes of making this list. And they couldn’t be more different. Jack O’Connell singlehandedly stole this award last year, and he nearly did it again with the criminally underseen ‘71. A moody, pressure-cooker action flick set in Belfast at the height of the Irish Troubles, it combines the earnestness of Gangs of New York with the nihilism of In Bruges. And speaking of earnestness, who could have seen Tangerine coming? When critics started raving about a movie shot on an iPhone 5 that follows two transgendered prostitutes on the streets of LA, I was hugely skeptical. And for the first 20 minutes or so, I felt vindicated. But somewhere along the way, all that abrasive, jarring energy transformed into something hilarious, tender, and vibrant — like Spring Breakers with a heart and soul.

But this time around I have to give it to The Revenant. I may have some issues with Iñárritu’s style. He sometimes feels unnecessarily heavy, falsely burdened by the belief that glorified suffering equals meaning. What I can’t deny, though, is his power to captivate. This one stands out as a grand cinematic statement, an awesomely ambitious slice of chaos that my snobby hipsterdom has no right to dismiss. It’s my Mad Max of the year, over-the-top and wildly engrossing.

10. “Talky Flick” Award: Clouds of Sils Maria, w/ The End of the Tour, Queen of Earth, and 45 Years

Clouds of Sils Maria This award (formerly “Take the Premise and Run”) has always been tricky to define; the moment I think I have it pegged down (“high concept”, “low fi”, “character-driven”?) an outlier comes along and upheaves it. The best descriptor I can give is “play-like”. These are films which are dialogue-centric, involve a very small cast of characters, and take place in a narrow window of time following a relationship-straining event — think A Separation, or The Loneliest Planet. It’s a testament to an amazing year in film that The End of the Tour (full review) is only one of three honorable mentions. Anchored by perfect performances from Segel and Eisenberg, it’s a wonderfully stripped down little film that cements James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers — if I weren’t handicapping for my rampant David Foster Wallace fanboyism, it probably would have been much higher on the list. Queen of Earth (full review) is perhaps the polar opposite; a deeply uncomfortable, Bergman-esque psychological drama about the deterioration of a female friendship. Amid a sea of samey indies, its bare-bones, hyperrealistic style was a serious gut punch. 45 Years is also a gut punch, but there’s nothing hyper about its realism. It’s an acutely-observed, sparse relationship drama that haunted me long past the credits rolled. Charlotte Rampling earns her praise and then some.

Speaking of phenomenal acting, Clouds of Sils Maria has it in spades. Juliette Binoche is typically great, of course, but Kristen Stewart is a total revelation. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised; if the film is about anything, it’s the murky line between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”, between “serious” actors and crowdpleasing stars. Like last year’s winner, it deftly combines the broad and laser-focused, with piercing dialogue giving way to gorgeous shots of nature set to a bombastic soundtrack. It’s a layered, complex, compelling piece of work. But most importantly, the conversations were genuinely fun to be a part of — one moment the two share (in a bar after a terrible superhero movie) had the best chemistry I’ve seen on screen this year.

Misc Awards / Defied Ranking

Vintage Stephen Award: Room, w/ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Room Despite not quite making the list, heartfelt indie flicks hold a special place in my heart. These “Sundance-y” winners tend to come in two flavors: stylish with hip detachment, or heartfelt but understated. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl achieved the rare accomplishment of being both. Like 50/50 meets Scott Pilgrim, it both says something sincere, and says it with the flare of a seasoned auteur. Even if it falters a bit in its obligatory tear-jerking conclusion, I’ve got nothing but love. Room (full review), on the other hand, flipped the genre on its head. A heartwrenching drama about a mother and son living in captivity, it doesn’t have a “hip” or “quirky” bone in its body. At the same time, it almost completely avoids the melodrama its dark subject matter ought to lend itself to. What’s left is less a tragedy than a tragic thought experiment; sadness is only context, background. The foreground is Ma (a brilliant Brie Larson) and Jack’s imagined universe, a sort of Allegory of the Cave set in the post- television era. That’s where it shines.

Tree of Life Award: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max I read enough film reviews to know that leaving Mad Max (full review) off a list is tantamount to heresy. So I thought it’d be fitting to, at least, give it the honorary Tree of Life Award, named for the movie I objectively respect more than I’m subjectively drawn to. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t drawn to this movie; I thought it was an overwhelming accomplishment. But that’s largely it. Like a great Metal band or the perfect Horror movie, I’ve learned that some incredible, enormously impressive things are simply not meant for me, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Respect from one Miller to another.

It’s finally…

…over. Brain is dead. No more energy left for conclusions. Watch crazy movies about puppets. Sing Beach Boys songs. Cry on airplanes. Trust me.

Review: Anomalisa

You learn a lot about a director when you meet him inhibition-free. This week I met three. Quentin at his Tarantinoest impresses and shocks in equal measure: he wants you to know he’s the smartest guy in the room, then launches into a three-hour riff on The Aristocrats. Alejandro at his Iñárritmost might actually be the smartest guy in the room, but give him a sip of liquor and he’ll just go on and on about how “life affirming” Nietzsche is and something about misery and bears. Three hours of raving about the “beauty of communication” later you’ll realize he’s never even asked you your name.

Charlie at his most Kaufmanesque. Now that’s a guy to drink with. He always comes prepared with a few hilarious anecdotes to power through that awkward, sober, shoe-gazing prologue: the cab driver on the way over who wouldn’t shut up about the zoo and the chili, the awkward moment in the elevator when no one could make eye contact. One beer deep and you’re talking art, philosophy, movies, lit; he’s got an opinion on everything, and none of it feels consciously smart. Three rounds in and he says enough chit chat, how are you doing — like, really, how are you. He doesn’t make it weird and he doesn’t get pushy, but he also doesn’t undercut it with a joke. So you talk about all of it: the loneliness, the monotony of day to day life, the feeling you can’t shake that everyone and everything is blurring together. That existence might be profound on paper, but it damn sure doesn’t feel like it from where you’re sitting. You make a self-deprecating crack about your “angsty phase”, but he doesn’t smile. He says yeah, I feel that too, and it isn’t a phase.

He says meaning is what you make of it. Some nights you’ll make a surplus, and you’ll learn to squeeze those nights for everything they’re worth. Clementine and Lisa are moments, not saviors, and they won’t bear the weight of your fantasies for long. Commit them to memory as vividly as possible, because most nights you won’t make much. Most nights you’ll sit and remember the better nights, the times you felt on the cusp of something new. When those are worn out you’ll take solace in the faint glimmers: that goofy doll you bought on a business trip to Tokyo, that beautiful film about puppets that moved you in spite of yourself. But the real secret, he says, the alchemy, is making something out of boredom. Notice how peculiar, how hilarious the shape of your loneliness is; how these empty, monotonous transactions are distinctly yours to have. Remember their texture and share them with someone else. It might not add up to Meaning or Truth, but it certainly helps pass the time.

You think it reminds you of what the other guy was saying about Nietzsche, and that “life affirming” sounds a lot cornier than it feels. You order another velvet martini while Charlie launches back into the cab driver bit. In the background Tarantino says something vulgar about Mexicans while Iñárritu gently weeps. You soak in every eccentric detail. Tonight you’re on the cusp of something new.

Review: The Big Short

Look, I like Adam McKay. I quoted Anchorman as much as the next dumb 8th grader. But his movies were always banished to the ghetto of “guilty pleasure”: loose-scripted, goofy, throw-it-on-during-a-lull-in-the-party fun. So if I had intel that the director was about to follow up Anchorman 2 with a biting dramedy about the 2007 housing collapse, I would have happily shorted those box office returns. Assuming, of course, I had a clue how one goes about shorting something.

Despite McKay’s efforts (and about 30 episodes of Planet Money) I’m still hazy on how shorts actually work. But I do know my dividends would have been…non…remunerative? (Aaand bailing on the finance lingo.) The point is, The Big Short wound up being surprisingly great. Blending the breezy vibe of Oceans 11 with the cynical panache of Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a tight, fourth-wall-shattering ensemble piece that somehow manages to be playfully overacted, earnest, and restrained in the same breath. “Overacted” means Christian Bale as a barefoot savant who rants about CODs while his glass eye twitches to a Metallica bass line, and Steve Carrell as a fire-breathing investor with the populist idealism of Bernie Sanders and the grace of Donald Trump. “Earnest” means up-punching outrage; not just at the sleazy brokers, callous bankers, or spineless government employees, but at the Free Market echo chamber that rendered them inevitable. “Restrained” because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that echo chamber is a lot easier to mock than it is to fix.

The Big Short knows that as fun as it is to cheer for protagonists and the villain’s come-uppance, the truth is messier. Like a good Tarantino flick, it lulls us with the cadence of hero worship only to throw our hypocrisy in our face. We root for the “underdogs” who are rooting against the banks, but their windfall only comes from our tragedy. So when Wall Street burns and they’re the only ones fiddling, it’s hard to celebrate but harder to blame them — after all, I was intoxicated too, and I only had $12.50 on the line. It’s an absurd situation, bred by an absurd, deeply unintuitive system. And the only response to absurdity — be it “I love lamp” or the American economy — is to laugh.

Review: Carol

It’s been a hectic holiday season, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t get to a few movies worth seeking out. No, I haven’t seen Star Wars yet. But I did catch a double feature of nontraditional romances, which Chris and I squeezed in just before flying off to Europe. I’ll start with the great one.

Carol is easy to love but hard to explain. Whoever made the trailer clearly faced the same dilemma: meaningful looks and lines were precariously cut-and-pasted into a “Forbidden Love” narrative a la Brokeback Mountain, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find it in the actual movie. Digging for narrative would, at any rate, miss the point. Carol is the perfect episode of Mad Men; a protagonist-free period piece about life at a crossroads. Therese is a 20-something in 50’s New York, saddled with an aw-shucks boyfriend and aimless yes-ma’am job. Carol is a wealthy mother in the midst of divorce, brimming with over-the-top starlet charm and loneliness. The two fall in something, though I’m not convinced it’s love. Like Mad Men, the movie embraces a particular contradiction: nine parts ambience and one part disillusionment, it sweeps you up in the glamour of a bygone era while convincing you the glamour is a lie.

Variants of that contradiction pop up everywhere. Blanchett’s Carol is a victim of hollow “old money” glamour (a la Blue Jasmine,) but that same glamour makes her a spellbinding force (a la Galadriel.) Mara’s Therese is struggling for agency in a repressive society, but her ultimate freedom is found in succumbing to someone else’s (hardly democratic) control. Its substance never feels entirely certain, but its texture makes complete emotional sense. Lushly shot and wonderfully acted, I found it to be hypnotic and totally devoid of the usual gimmicks. It’s worth getting swept up in.

Review: The Good Dinosaur

Normally I’d start one of these reviews with a preface about Pixar, but The Good Dinosaur isn’t a Pixar movie by any reasonable standard. It’s hardly a movie at all. It’s supplementary material for a killer SIGGRAPH paper about rendering flowing water and photorealistic landscapes. Some intern found the demo reel on a hard drive, rigged a few models from an abandoned Toy Story spin-off (“Rex and the City”), and outsourced the narrative to an alien whose understanding of pathos consisted of Land Before Time sequels, the Ice Age video game, and scattered Wild Thornberrys reruns.

I can’t speak for the kids; Pixar probably had them at “talking dinosaurs.” To an adult viewer, though, there are only two redeeming qualities here: gorgeous scenery and Sam Elliott. The rest is pure filler. It’s a limp remix of every Disney movie, with gratingly-one-dimensional characters, a defiantly half-baked universe, and powerful themes of “be brave, or hopeful, or I don’t know, maybe run around through some bushes or something.” Vaguely cute things happen for 90 minutes, then it ends. The message, if there is one, is the polar opposite of Brad Bird’s Randian “some people are special” motif: some people just aren’t special or interesting, but if they stay alive long enough the bar might be lowered to include them. If nothing else, it’s good to see Pixar practice what it preaches here. The bar can’t get much lower.

Having not seen Cars 2, I’m calling this as the worst Pixar movie to date. Chris and I had a surprisingly fun, and mercifully brief, conversation on last week’s mini-episode.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 2

I’m not usually a contrarian, but I think I might be watching the wrong Hunger Games. I thought Catching Fire was a huge step down from the exhilarating premise; it remains the highest-rated of the four to date. Critics of Mockingjay Part 1 complained of its heaviness; I found it to be spineless, Twighlight-esque fluff. And word on the street is that Part 2 is a huge disappointment, a slap in the face to diehard fans. I thought it was the only sequel that felt true to the first installment.

Which isn’t to say it’s a great movie. Like almost every Harry Potter film, it’s hard to watch a Hunger Games sequel without understanding the fan service that belies it. Character behaviors are frequently over-the-top and jarring, alluding to known motivations rather than actually convincing us of them. This means steely performances, piercing stares which are only meaningful insofar as they’re held way too long, flimsy romantic subplots which an original screenplay would have jettisoned, and monologues that feel plucked from a motivational Tumblr. The first largely avoided this trap, but that was before it became an action-figure-producing phenomenon. The longer the series exists, the more it’s going to re-enact an established story rather than tell its own. It is what it is. I can waste every review bemoaning it, or I can accept it and move on.

I respect Part 2 for the same reason I respect the HIMYM finale: it commits to its logical conclusion at the risk of alienating its target demo. For the first time since 2012, the series has shown that it isn’t afraid to confront actual darkness — not bad-guy-does-bad-things-while-we-“boo” darkness, but darkness bred by mob bloodlust, class warfare, unchecked vigilantism and good intentions misplaced. There are moments here that hit a serious nerve. (My favorite, a visceral shaky-cam crowd shot, felt more in line with Children of Men than a franchise blockbuster.) There are themes (the cycle of violence, the reciprocal nature of “enemy”) that resonate more deeply in the current political climate than anyone could have planned. Most importantly, there’s that exhilarating sense of unpredictability the first movie did so well. Collins proves she isn’t afraid to totally dismantle her series if it suits the plot, and even if spoon-fed lessons eventually dampen the impact, it’s hard not to admire her audacity.

Some things never change with YA franchises: it doesn’t trust the audience, the romance is lame, and the epilogue should be avoided at all costs. But overall I actually liked this one, and I’m heartened to see a series with such a broad fanbase tackle something bigger than “Gale vs Peeta.” Chris and I reviewed it at: