Top 18 Podcasts of 2018

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Of all the arbitrary lists that I do in this season, this feels like the most arbitrary of them all. Podcasts used to be more straightforward, but in the current podcast boon, coming up with a best of list feels stupid. There are plenty of shows here that released 50+ episodes that were each an hour and a half, while there are others that released a one-off season of 6 episodes that were only a half-hour. That’s a difference of over a hundred hours; but they both appear on lists of the best podcasts. Some shows are improvised, others meticulously scripted. Some I’ve listened to for 7+ years, while others produced something that will only exist for this year. At certain points they’re barely the same medium.

This being said, I’ve decided in the future to change up the way I do this. Maybe I’ll only include new shows (either to me or brand new). Maybe it’ll be only doing the best episodes (though this takes a meticulousness that’s difficult to maintain). Either way, this exercise has become too futile to continue beyond this year, so enjoy this list in its finale.

Here are the best podcasts of the year:

18. Culture Kings – One of my favorite shows of the year that dually hurt itself by moving to three episodes a week, while also losing co-host Carl Tart along the way. Co-hosts Jacquis Neal and Edgar Momnsplair are a great duo, but I am personally oversaturated with podcast content and can barely keep up with one episode a week let alone two.

17. Caliphate – An intense and informative journalistic look into Isis, featuring interviews with current and former members. It’s worth listening to in order to expand an understanding of the ever-ubiquitous Middle East. There’s also a kind of surprise twist at the end of this that I was not expecting.

16. Spontaneanation – Paul F. Tompkins continues to release improv gold, his ability to introduce audiences to a diverse group of young comedians is one reason alone you should listen to it.

15. The Watch – The Watch is as much about keeping up with pop culture as it is about Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s friendship which goes back a decade before they started podcasting at Grantland. The conversations they have and their ability to catch each other’s references is any pop culture nerd’s dream.

14. Threedom – The Scott Aukerman, Lauren Lapkus, Paul F. Tompkins Stitcher Premium collaboration was the most inevitable thing to happen in comedy podcasting and it actually lives up to the hype quite well. It’s a general chat show, where the hosts goof around for an hour, but is earned by their past repoire. Will it work for those unfamiliar with the three of them? I’m not sure, but I found myself smiling in public quite often while listening.

13. Rob Has a Podcast – Rob Cesternino seemingly increases podcast output every year, making close to an episode a day about reality television and pop culture happenings. He’s consistently great (I’ve been a listener since he started the podcast in 2010) and it feels absurd to try to rank what he does in comparison to other shows on this list. If you like reality TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother he’s offers an essential blend of humor and strategy that you have to check out.

12. Future Perfect – Dylan Matthews introduced me to the concept of effective altruism–using Moneyball style logic to solve the world’s problems–through this podcast, a newsletter, and a segment of programming on Vox, opening up a whole new world of insight for me. Future Perfect the podcast presents out-of-the-box ideas that have proved highly effective for solving world problems (cooling the planet, the border crisis, animal cruelty, etc…) but have not been implemented. These are fascinating thought experiments, ones that with enough organizing could be the way of the future.

11. Good Food – I jumped on board with Good Food after having attended an event they put on. Host Evan Kleiman brings on what is really a spectacular slew of guests and segments surrounding food news and interests. Kleiman is a warming host whose experience running restaurants and industry involvement add to her natural public radio cadence.

10. Yo Is This Racist? – I always thought this show, which features Andrew Ti answering listener voicemails as to if something is racist or not, sounded interesting, but they released episodes five days-a-week and if you’re learning anything about me from this list, it’s that I just don’t have time for that. When the show consolidated to once a week and added Earwolf rising star and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ alum Tawny Newsome, I knew it was time to dive in. Ti and Newsome have quickly gained chemistry, using comedic chops and their life experiences to offer advice at navigating our increasingly multicultural world.

9. The Weeds – The Weeds was another show that made the jump from two episodes a week to three during the busy political season of this year’s midterms, forcing me to filter through episodes by topic every couple of weeks. Nonetheless, their rotating crew of policy obsessives continue to offer intelligent policy and political analysis that’s way more academic than your average pundit.

8. Done – I’m almost always searching through various podcast databases, looking for the next big thing I can sink my teeth into. Rarely do new shows capture my attention as quickly as Done did when I started listening to it earlier this year. On its face, it’s a slew of comedy podcast cliches: two hosts invite a guest comedian on to discuss some previously decided thing–in this case things the guest is done with. Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney have such great chemistry (another radio cliche) that despite easily falling into all of these podcast traps the show has become one of my favorites. Katz and Kenney easily shift back and forth between sincere opinions about their very New York comedian lives to playing elevated characters of themselves that mock their very New York comedian lives. When you listen to podcasts, you begin to fall in love with the ways certain people say things or phrases they often go to, listening to Betsy Kenney wryly say “now listen here, honey” has become one of those things for me.

7. Embedded – Embedded only existed for a few short seasons this year, but the seasons they released, about Donald Trump and coal country, were must listens to understand the context of our modern world.

6. Slow Burn – Season two of Slow Burn jumps forward a few decades from the Nixon controversy to examine the Clinton impeachment. I may be biased because I was young enough to experience the entire saga, without fulling understanding what was happening, but to hear the layers peeled back by the people involved all these years later was, in a way, thrilling. Slow Burn tells the story through a modern lens, a much different cultural landscape than the mid-90s, questioning Clinton’s actions through 2018 liberal wokeness which is much less forgiving than the 90s. I wish host Leon Neyfakh had spent even more time examining his own personal feelings, but Slow Burn managed to create an entertaining, questioning, and essential piece of podcasting this year.

5. Halloween Unmasked – The Ringer may have created a new genre of podcast in its unpacking of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Across eight episodes host Amy Nicholson discusses the influential horror film, its making, its themes, and the obsessive following it’s inspired over the years. It’s the best new use of the serialized podcast format, digging into a movie like an Empire Magazine retrospective. It’s cultural introspection at its very best.

4. Comedy Bang Bang – Scott Aukerman seemed to rely on bringing in new voices to his character-driven comedy show this year, an almost necessary step to keep the show fresh. This allowed up and comers like Shaun Diston (Rudi North!), Edi Patterson (Bean Dip!), and Ego Nwodim to create new favorites that we will hopefully be able to enjoy for years to come.

3. Doughboys – Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell survived another year! The duo often jokes about quitting the podcast or eating themselves to death, but has managed to continue making their hit podcast. I choose to listen to this podcast Friday mornings and consider it an absolute treat every time I listen, smiling while driving into work. Their banter, puns, and review of chain restaurants bring me so much joy.

2. Serial – After season 2 flopped (I think it’s good, but just didn’t keep up with people’s expectations of it, lucky for those people there’s more than a slew of true crime available for them now), it was interesting to think about where Serial would go next. It launched podcasts and the true crime genre into major popularity. After a couple years off, we now have season 3, a work that’s at least more important (if not better) than its first season. Exploring the justice system, Serial tackles a rotating cast of stories, each highlighting the amount of injustice that exists with American courts. It’s a capital F FEAT in journalism and maintains the highest levels of storytelling capabilities even if I had to motivate myself to listen to it at times (it’s a pretty crushing show).  

1. Good Christian Fun – I don’t think there was any other podcast I had as much fun listening to in 2018 than Good Christian Fun. Hosted by Kevin Porter (Gilmore Guys) and Caroline Ely, two Christian-ish hosts dissecting all the worst (and occasional best) bits of Christian culture from the past to the present. They are typically joined by a guest comedian to discuss the topic, getting their “Guestimony”, where the guests discuss their experiences with religion. The whole show often whips back and forth between frank discussions of religious experience to hilarious discussions about the topic at hand with interspersed segments lead by Porter’s knack for cheesy puns and apt control over the soundboard. The guest intro to Amy Grant’s “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” is the most ingenious use of the podcast format in the last two years, apologies to Serial’s invesgative look at the US judicial system, this song is comin’ HOT.  

Top 50 Songs of 2018 pt. II

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Check out numbers 26-50 here

Listen to the top 50 here (only on Apple Music, sorry Spotify bros)

25. “The Omen” by Camp Cope – Camp Cope’s “The Opener” got a lot of attention for its rip-roaring take on the gender politics buried in the indie rock scene that they occupy. It’s a worthy song, but my favorite Camp Cope bits are the slowed down ballads that allow singer Georgia Maq to show off her gnarled sorrow.

24. “NICE” by The Carters – This song’s chorus (maybe more aptly described as a braggadocious refrain) runs through my head just about every other day, where I wish that I had just one-percent of the swagger that Jay and Bay do. And those Beyonce verses?! Oooh-weee.

23. “Happy Unhappy” by The Beths – This is kind of a stand-in for The Beths entire album which is a fantastic piece of guitar pop. “Happy Unhappy” is the most easygoing of the bunch, freely flowing from the opening’s “ohoh–ohohs” to the way Elizabeth Stokes so easily moves across each word, her voice prancing like a dance sequence in an old Astaire musical. It’s enchanting.

22. “APESHIT” by The Carters – The Carters introduced their collaborative album via an “APESHIT” music video set in the Louvre. It’s an anthem, celebrating their dominion over the kingdom that is pop culture in 2018; they strut about, blowing off the Super Bowl to take over a truer venue of cultural cache. The best part of it all is that Beyonce plays emcee here, reducing Jay Z to the role of Takeoff in Migos–a hypeman whose name you always forget.

21. “Cold War” by Cautious Clay – Just a gorgeous bit of alt-R&B from an underrated artist whose career feels on the brink of success. Watch out.

20. “When I’m With Him” by Empress Of – Pop songs with singer-songwriter flare, Empress Of’s best song is endlessly listenable, one of a few on her latest album to feature her singing bilingually.

19. “Never Recover” by Lil Baby & Gunna (feat. Drake) – It feels like Drake’s style takes over the Young Thug-inspired Soundcloud trap that people loved about Drip Harder–maybe I’m drawn to this song because of that or maybe Gunna and Baby were able to bring the best out of Drake. Regardless this is a jam.

18. “Me & My Dog” by boygenius – Between her Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus joint collaboration and my relistening to Stranger in the Alps across the beginning of the year, Phoebe Bridgers is quickly becoming one of my favorite artists. She takes the lead here as a part of what is probably the best supergroup of all time, offering her melancholy up for us to indulge in–it’s beautiful.

17. “Love is a Wild Thing” by Kacey Musgraves – I thought a lot of Golden Hour was hit or miss, but ultimately quite enjoyable. There was no greater moment than “Love is a Wild Thing”, an initially quiet and catchy piece of pop-country.

16. “Roaches” by Maxo Kream – Distorted pianos really had their moment in hip-hop this year, as did Maxo Kream, a kind of old-school Houston rapper. His album, Punken, is filled with stories about being poor, surrounded by and participating in violence, and coming to terms with his past. “Roaches” tells the story of growing up in cockroach infested homes, while simultaneously mourning this new world that’s becoming harder for him to understand (he takes a few shots at mumble rap). It’s Maxo’s knack for storytelling, backed by that distorted piano, that makes this song shine.

15. “I Like It” by Cardi B (feat. Bad Bunny, J Balvin) – Cardi was back at it again this year, not only proving she could rap, but also proving she could once again take over the culture, notching herself a bonafide song of the summer with her Latin-flared “I Like It”. Using Tony Pabon’s “I Like it Like That” as the basis, she comes in horns a blazin’, gets two fantastic Spanish verses from Bad Bunny and J Balvin, and proved she’s a star.

14. “Bartier Cardi” by Cardi B (feat. 21 Savage) – This was the first post-”Bodak Yellow” song I heard and I thought it was even better than her original hit. Critics didn’t appreciate it as much, but I appreciate the wordplay at work here, even if by the end of the year her Offset puns aren’t quite as charming. Add to that a verse by 21 Savage, whose low droll is one of my favorite voices to hear guest on a song and I couldn’t help but fall for it.

13. “Kings” Dead” by Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, James Blake – There’s no better opening line in a song this year than Kendrick’s “me miss with that bullshit, you ain’t really wild you a tourist” in this star studded track originally released on the Black Panther soundtrack. It was so good that Jay Rock included it on his album, released later in the year. I’m going with the Black Panther version because I first heard this version and because there’s a cinematic sense to it that elevates the song’s internal stakes.

12. “God’s Plan”/”Nonstop” by Drake – Honestly, the only reason these two are placed together is because I somehow missed putting “Nonstop” on this list and didn’t want to have to go back and fix the whole thing. Regardless, both of these fit the bill as the Drake singles that did well, but not as well as his others (“In My Feelings”/”Nice For What”). I personally prefer both of these, each of which features Drake at the height of his game. Say what you want about his talent or his lifestyle, but he has a flow I could listen to for about half as long as his albums are (which is a long time).

11. “No tears left to cry” by Ariana Grande – I get the “thank u, next” hype in all it’s meme-y self empowerment and the way Grande paid tribute (?) to 00s rom-coms in the video for it, but it’s Grande’s sincere ballad that really does it for me. She combines her powerhouse vocal abilities with pop sensibility and when both are fully utilized they show her at her best.

10. “It’s Okay to Cry” by SOPHIE – SOPHIE begins this song slowly, telling the story of a relationship gone wrong, with quiet chaos verging in the background. It’s a story filled with great pain, but tenderness (“Just know whatever hurts, it’s all mine”), by the time the song fully explodes, it’s as if the tears SOPHIE has been sanctioning have finally broken through. IT’S OKAY TO CRY might be the line we all need to hear most.

9. “So Afraid” by Janelle Monae – Monae is the queen of melding genres together, using pop, R&B, hip-hop, funk, and rock to tell elaborate stories. There were a lot of great moments in her latest album, Dirty Computer, that make use of those genres, but it’s two slowed down ballads that most affected me. Here she sings over a slowly strummed acoustic guitar, before an electric guitar soloing in the background rises to the front as she sings “I, oh, I, I’m afraid, afraid of lovin’ you”.

8. “Pristine” by Snail Mail – I really don’t know what it is about this song (and really Snail Mail generally), but there’s something utterly perfect about it. It’s a pretty straightforward guitar-lead indie rock song, but everything comes together with such excellence that it became one of the best songs of the year, incessantly in my playlist.

7. “Night Shift” by Lucy Dacus – Dacus chooses to open her album with what feels like a closing opus. “Night Shift” is a six-minute plus epic about self-sabotaging tendencies and trying to move beyond a first love. It ends exactly as you’d hope it would, with Dacus belting out “You’ve got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift” as guitars chug along, pushing her past her former amor.

6. “Ghost Town” by Kanye West – When ye was first released I actually thought I really enjoyed it. What was actually happening was the album was short enough that I kept hearing “Ghost Town” and it made me think I really liked the whole thing. The album is okay, eventually Kanye’s perspective becomes so frustrating that it kind of diminishes the rest of the production. “Ghost Town” however, holds up as a transcendent piece of music. From PARTYNEXTDOOR’s surprisingly prescient opening to Kid Cudi nailing his “I’m just trying to make you love me” line to 070 Shake making herself ye’s MVP, entering into the fray and absolutely delivering.

5. “In the Evening” by Half Waif – Half Waif’s electronic dirge absolutely drips with sorrow. Is there a truer line post-breakup than “Don’t expect me to be happy to see that you’re happier than me, I don’t owe you that”? Oh this song’ll gut you regardless of your relationship health.

4. “Back For More” by Justine Skye (feat. Jerimih) – A singer that got almost no buzz at all but whose song is one I returned to nonstop. “Back For More” is the best R&B song of the year, catchier than just about everything else you’ll hear.

3. “Persephone” by Sidney Gish – A quiet little track at the back end of Gish’s debut album, it’s full of conviction, softly plucked strings backing Gish’s soft-spoken wordplays and quips about Greek gods that are at first innocuous, but take on a quiet weight to them.

2. “This is America” by Childish Gambino – Much has been said about this song, as it took over the zeitgeist upon its post-SNL release. The images of its music video drew some criticism and ultimately Glover was accused of ripping off Jase Harley’s “American Pharaoh”. That being said, I (obviously) enjoy Glover’s song immensely. It’s a highly politicized jam with a pure danceability juxtaposed against a dark undertone of Glover’s views of black life in America. It’s a song full of contrasts, between money and poverty, success and violence, the American dream and the America we live in.

1. “I Like That” by Janelle Monae – It’s kind of a minor song on Dirty Computer, but it’s one I find continually affecting. Dirty Computer is Monae’s first foray into personal songwriting, having spent the last two albums spinning intricate tales about robots and forbidden love, she finally lays herself bare, expressing who she is without the metallic metaphors. “I Like That” is all about finding confidence in oneself, within it she tells two stories, one from her past where a classmate mocked her for her lack of style and her haircut, and the one she is currently telling where she’s “a little crazy, little sexy, little cool”. This is also about Monae coming to terms with her sexuality, finding the confidence and freedom to express it. Ultimately it’s a song that I find the most enjoyable listen, it’s touching, it’s catchy, it’s one that lifts me up whenever I hear it–and for those reasons, it’s the song of the year.

Top 50 Songs of 2018 pt. I

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50. “June” by IDLES – In a year that featured another Mount Eerie album about his wife’s passing, it’s “June” by IDLES that might be the most gut wrenching song of the year. Reflecting on what is was like to lose his daughter during childbirth, lead singer Joe Talbot sings a punk ballad that you need to mentally prepare yourself for before listening.

49. “Stay Down” by boygenius – I’m not sure the video game references really work here, but man this is peak Julien Baker, backed by Dacus and Bridgers to amplify the passion.

48. “C’est La Vie No. 2” by Phosphorescent

47. “Sober to Death” by Car Seat Headrest – Following the classic Car Seat Headrest song format–slowly mumbled verses lead into a brash chorus, before the song repeats lyrics, fading out. It’s something singer Will Toledo, the internet’s rock & roll king, has effortlessly mastered.

46. “How Simple” by Hop Along

45. “WIFI Lit” by Future

44. “Push Me to My Limit” by Rae Morris

43. “Get Up 10” by Cardi B – Cardi opened up an album that had no right to actually be good with a “Dreams and Nightmares” level intro. She goes all in here, showcasing her talent for bars and wordplay while silencing all doubters with an oomph.

42. “Skin” by Soccer Mommy – Indie rock is being dominated by young women with guitars perfectly constructing complex rock anthems. “Skin” is the best track on Soccer Mommy’s debut album, there were very few moments better than the way Sophie Allison sings“Falling in to myself / You’re still in my skin / I just wish you also felt like this”. It’s the classic rock mantra, filled with all the angst of forlorn love.

41. “One Trick Ponies” by Kurt Vile – Vile’s stoner folk never really works for me across a hold album–just too much hazing noodling. But Vile can sure craft an album opener– 2013’s “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day” is one of the best songs of the decade and 2015’s “Pretty Pimpin’” is up there. “One Trick Ponies” shows Vile as chill as ever, his voice gentle, like a breeze on a summer day.

40. “Testify” by Kamasi Washington – Washington might be the jazz musician indie rock populist of the moment, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get quite avant garde. “Testify” features him at his gentlest, offering a beautifully sung ballad in the midst of he and his band’s complex jazz work.

39. “All For You” by Years & Years – There were quite a few pretty good alt-R&B albums released this year, several of which are on this list. Years & Years is a British synthpop group who has their foot firmly planted in indie rock while eliciting comparisons to a boy band like One Direction.

38. “I’m Not Scared” by Tomberlin

37. “Party For One” by Carly Rae Jepsen – Carly Rae released another one-off that slowly crawled its way up the best songs of the year. Though it wasn’t as good as last year’s “Cut to the Feeling”, “Party For One” is another saccharine single that leaves you eagerly anticipating her next full length.

36. “Disconnect” by Basement – I randomly threw on Basement’s new record one Friday and surprisingly and instantly fell in love with Besides Myself’s opener, “Disconnect”, an encapsulation of the melodic joy one can find in new wave pop-punk/emo. I need to hear this song played live, legions of fans shouting along with the chorus: “My prodigal son / what have you done? / Return while there’s something left.”

35. “SGL” by Now Now

34. “Missing U” by Robyn

33. “Stick” by Snail Mail

32. “Television” by IDLES

31. “Playinwitme” by KYLE (feat. Kehlani) – KYLE’s songs could easily be too sweetly sincere, veering toward the edge of corniness, but I find this duet between he and Kehlani to emit so much joy that it overcomes my most jaded thoughts.

30. “Karl (I Wonder What It’s Like To Die)” by Pale Waves – Ooh we, Pale Waves, who typically create indie-pop songs with 80s vibes, abandon synths for an acoustic ballad about the death of singer Heather Baron-Gracie’s brother. It’s just as heart wrenching as you would think.

29. “It’s Been a Rough Year” by Carb on Carb

28. “Another Lifetime” by Nao – Opening with highly affected vocals, the bass and drums kick in like a punch to the throat letting Nao howl her critiqued commitment toward her amour.

27. “Out the Window” by Confidence Man – Confidence Man are an indie-pop synth group from Australia. They create songs that are tongue-in-cheek, almost silly at times. When a choir singing “sunshiiiiiine” kicks in toward the end, it’s both cheesy and beautiful.

26. “Hate the Real Me” by Future – Future’s songs are filled with tales of excess drinking, drug use, and sex, yet are rarely filled with any of the celebrating typically associated with these acts. Here, in a rare moment of vulnerability, he lays himself bare, perhaps offering insight into why his escapades masquerade such melancholy. In the midst of his vices he admits he “hate[s] the real me”, repeating in a chorus that he’s just “tryna get as high as I can”. It’s a sad song that you can only hope leads him to some place of comfort.

Top 10 Dishes I Ate in 2018

This is a new exercise for me, but one I’ll likely continue as (or if) my interest in food and dining continues to grow. These are all dishes I ate for the first time while dining out in 2018.

10. Chilaquiles – Anepalco, Orange, CA

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The famed dish from the famous Mexican brunch bar lives up to its reputation. These chilaquiles are packed into a large sort of hockey puck–fried tortillas not so much as stacked, but melded together and surrounded by specked chile sauce. The whole thing seems completely unnecessary but is absolutely perfect.

9. King steam dumplings with pork & vegetables – Myung In Dumplings, Buena Park, CA

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Myung In’s Buena Park location is one of many, originating in Koreatown and famous for a Parts Unknown episode where Anthony Bourdain declares it one of the best Korean style dumplings he’s ever had. That was argument enough for me and a couple of work trips were set, their wang dumplings are ground pork stuffed into large pillows of dough–don’t underestimate my use of the word pillow here. It’s delicious and immensely satisfying to bite into this ball of fluff, finding your way into savory ground pork, wetted by soy sauce. To cap off the experience, these are eaten by hand–maybe the most perfect finger food ever.

8. Al pastor mulita – Ponchos Tacos, Fullerton, CA

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Two factors contribute to this dish making the list: 1. Poncho’s newly opened up in a convenient spot on my way home from work, offering $1 tacos in its first week, and 2. This is the first mulita I’ve ever had. Mulitas are a cross-pollination of a taco and a quesadilla, coming together to make a chilled out version of a quesadilla, with all the grittiness of a taco. Poncho’s features a rotating spit of al pastor at all times and handmakes their tortillas. Their mulitas hit the pleasure centers that are evoked by melted cheese oozing out of a warm tortilla without losing the integrity of the ingredients–pork, onions, guacamole, cilantro. It’s a neat little dish that condenses buffet eating into one essential order.

7. Turnip curry – Kabab Hut, Rocklin, CA

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After initially ordering all meat dishes at Guddu Haider’s one-man show in Rocklin, Haider began recommending various vegetable dishes to add. Eager to try (and eager to please), having recently tried out a couple of turnip recipes in my own kitchen and wanting to maintain an in-season ethos, I went with the turnip curry, an item not even on the menu. Kabab Hut gets a lot of buzz for its fish curry, which came out sizzling and was excellent, but the last minute addition is what stuck with me the most. It was like a sweet and creamy version of baba ganoush, with all the complex spices that come from a curry. A few weeks later I attempted my own version, it was nothing like I consumed here–how could it be–but it was pretty good.

6. Peach donuts – Donut Man, Glendora, CA

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Donut Man’s stuffed fruit donuts are the perfect encapsulation of what California donuts can be, stuffing fresh fruits into an extra large (and excellent) glazed donut, until adding another slice would collapse the whole thing. I’ve been trying to have one of Donut Man’s peach donuts for years, but each year the hyper-seasonal offering has been so limited I’ve been timed out of it. This year I made sure to keep tabs on peach season and was able to snag one, boy did it live up to the hype.

5. Birria burritos – Burritos La Palma, Santa Ana, CA

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For Anna and I’s birthday this year we did a taco sampling of North Orange County, hitting up three taco spots across one afternoon. Burritos La Palma had the unfortunate placement of being the last spot on the list, when their packed mini burritos seemed least appetizing. The quality still managed to stand out and I later went back to sample their famed birria burrito. This is the heartiest burrito you may ever eat–stuffed with birria, a Mexican stew, which makes sense. It sort of neglects Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat balance principle in favor of putting a warm, satisfying feeling in your stomach.

4. Pho with bone-in braised ribs – Sup Noodle Bar, Buena Park, CA

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I sampled a couple of the classic pho spots in Little Saigon this year and really enjoyed them, but it was Sup Noodle Bar’s fusion-y pan-Asian food that captured me most. Featuring a broth that simmers for 10+ hours and braised ribs served on the bone, protruding from the bowl like a trophy honoring you for ordering so well (this resulted in the best Foodstagram I took all year, see above). These sorts of fusion-y hip spots can feel pretty gimmicky, but Sup transcends this with really great food.

3. Jackfruit Tacos – Todo Verde, Los Angeles, CA

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One of the most flavorful tacos I’ve ever had comes from this vegan pop-up, in which chef Jocelyn Ramirez creates the Mexican staples she grew up with using all vegan ingredients. It’s perhaps a glimpse into the future, in which vegan and vegetarian fare transitions from fringe health stores into the multicultural landscape that makes up California, offering up flavorful and sustainable replacements. If these tacos are any indication, there’s a lot of exciting stuff yet to come.

2. Al pastor/Fish tacos – Taqueria El Zamorano – Santa Ana, CA – The winner of the birthday taco extravaganza, El Zamorano rises above by packing the most flavor in what are pretty simple and straightforward tacos. The al pastor is juicy, featuring pineapple bits that make it my go-to taco order and the fish taco is perfectly battered and fried, topped with cabbage and a creamy mayo sauce as the Lord intended.

1. Negi Shio premium tongue – Manpuku BBQ, Costa Mesa, CA

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A cook-it-yourself Japanese BBQ spot that offers premium tongue as its specialty. The Negi Shio comes with large chunks of salt and onions spread across its exterior and has its own portion of the menu that serves as an instructional guide to best prepare it over the grill. After studying fervently, my wife and I dove in, grilling to an imperfect medium rare before biting into the layers of savory umami and coarse salt. The beauty of the rock salt sitting there–like a mountain in the distance–trying to figure out how to prepare it, and then watching the fat render as the meat browned was my favorite experience in eating out this year.

Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

The bubble that was peak TV seemed to burst this year, to the point that Elizabeth Olsen, a movie star, played the lead in a show on Facebook Watch–a show that people actually really liked! Honestly, I don’t know how to watch a show on Facebook Watch and I didn’t really have time to figure it out, though it sounds intriguing.

It was an overwhelming year in television and not necessarily in a good way, as I struggled to make a top ten that I felt really comfortable with. TV was broader than ever, but perhaps not better. This year lacked new seasons of my past faves like Fargo; True Detective; Big Little Lies; Stranger Things; Nathan For You; Veep; and Catastrophe. It was top heavy (as you’ll see) and filled with a wide range of shows that range from 10-minute episodes to an hour; fiction and nonfiction; one-offs; and series conclusions. The TV landscape is still exciting and continues to be groundbreaking even as this year was exhaustingly disappointing.

NOTE: I am only two episodes into Killing Eve and enjoy it, if I do end up loving it a lot, I will update this list to reflect that. 

Also: I only include seasons that were completed in their entirety and have indicated the season I have ranked next to the show–this just makes the most sense to me.

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10. Barry, s1 – Bill Hader stars as a regretful assassin whose zest for life is slowly awakened when he accidentally becomes part of an acting class. The show doesn’t shy away from playing at the darkness necessary for Hader’s Barry to live the life he leads, even as he– quite sympathetically–tries to leave it. The show’s got some great LA-centric humor, as well as what might be the funniest line read of the year: Barry’s oblivious and casual take on Alec Baldwin’s famous “Coffee is for closers” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross.

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9. AP Bio, s1 – Today’s network comedies are mostly shams, filled with broad jokes and an overstuffed laugh track that just can’t compete with the raunchy freedom of cable. Yet AP Bio manages to create edgy comedy, maintaining the unlikability of its lead Jack Griffin (played by Glenn Howerton) pretty much from start to finish. His sociopathic tendencies as a failed philosophy professor forced to teach high school biology never really stop even as the show creates sweet moments with his students and coworkers. It’s a fine balance, but one that AP Bio pulls off. It’s a smart and tonally tight show that was thankfully (and miraculously) renewed for a second season and one that I can’t wait to keep watching more of.

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8. Survivor: David v. Goliath – Now in its 37th season, Survivor cranked out one of its best this year. Featuring an initially terrible theme, it surpassed any chance of being held back by its incessant need to categorize every contestant, instead getting by with a cast of compelling, strategically minded players.

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7. Queer Eye, s1, s2 – The surprise cultural unifier of the year, Queer Eye took our need for sincere kindness in the midst of chaotic rage to the highest of heights. It’s a touching show about getting your life back together, but does so through a prism of empathy, with the gentle ribbing of Jonathan Van Ness mocking your hairstyle for good measure. The second season’s premiere is probably the best episode of television to come out this year, showcasing the Fab Five’s grace toward religious institutions that have hurt them in the past. Tissues abound.

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6. Joe Pera Talks With You, s1 – You couldn’t have predicted that the quietest comedy of the year would come from Adult Swim, a channel largely known for buzzing and disgusting cartoons made for late night viewing, but this is television in 2018. Joe Pera plays a version of himself, a muted yet enthusiastic and socially awkward individual who takes pleasures in small-town life and all of its quirks. It’s subtly funny and enjoyable in a way that brings low-key satisfaction.

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5. Big Mouth, s2 – A show that I wholeheartedly do not recommend, but that took me less than a week to plow through. Nick Kroll has again created the sweetest and most poignant show about being a teenager, filtering it through the dirtiest lens you could probably imagine. 

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4. Succession, s1 – The Ringer hype train convinced me to jump on board this Adam McKay produced HBO show about a wealthy family dealing with their CEO’s health issues and who in the family should succeed him. When I say ‘dealing’, I should clarify it’s more like bumblingly plotting against one another as a group of advantaged one-percenters are wont to do. The show also features a cleverly crass insult ratio that rivals Veep, offering itself as the surprise funniest show of the year.  

Three way tie for 1st: The Americans; Atlanta; The Good Place 

I couldn’t decide between three shows that I felt each had brilliant seasons, so I’m cheating and putting them all at number one.

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The Americans, s7 – One of the greatest shows of this decade wrapped up with some of its best work yet, making the most of Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship by pitting them against one another in a season that leaps forward in time from the ending of season 6. All of the show’s central conceits eventually do build to their crescendo but pay off in a way that’s so fitting of The Americans. So much sorrow, so much regret.

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Atlanta: Robbin’ SeasonAtlanta’s second season is somehow weirder than the first, taking season one’s most off-kilter moments and blowing them into full-on episodic experiments. Paper Boi landed firmly in the limelight in this second season as he navigates depression and his rising fame. Bryan Henree Tyree continues to play him with pathos and charm, notching one of the best TV performances of the year. Meanwhile, Earn continues to flop about each of his relationships, trying to get by while inflicting just a little self-sabotage every step of the way.   

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The Good Place, s2 – The Good Place jumped into its second season head first, having just completely upended the entire show’s conceit with its season one twist ending. This allowed the show’s creators to play around with the format in ways I’ve never seen before. Each episode brought entirely new expectations and somehow the creators were able to keep their balance on the comedic treadmill that is The Good Place. This is truly groundbreaking television. 

Honorable mentions: Salt Fat Acid Heat; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; Homecoming

 

 

 

 

Burning Questions for “The Sandlot” Prequel

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It was recently announced that 20th Century Fox will be making a prequel of The Sandlot, bringing in David Mickey Evans, the original writer/director, to show us what happened before Scott Smalls first moved into a small neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. The Sandlot is a perfect film, drenched in early 60s nostalgia, covering the most nostalgic sport and is about nostalgia itself, capturing the magical ways in which legends of youth are born. There’s no better movie out there about that feeling of summer.

It’s easy to get angry about the franchising of things that you once held beloved as a kid and you know there’s no way this movie will actually be any good, how could it?

That being said, it will give us the chance to answer all those burning questions we didn’t know we had about the movie. Like Star Wars Episode I hopefully it will leave no room for mystery, recklessly explaining each and every part of its universe with a strange focus on galactic politics.

Here are five burning questions we have from the first one that we hope get answered in the prequel:

  1. Where does Ham’s misogyny come from?

One of the most popular scenes of The Sandlot is Ham’s confrontation with Morris, a rival bougie Little Leaguer. They trade insults for a while before their argument culminates in what the movie considers the ultimate blow: You play ball like a girl!

In 2018, this line probably doesn’t get through, it’s needlessly controversial while really only offering laughs to 6-year old boys who watch the movie and exclaim GOTCHA! at that line (Read: me).

What we can hope the prequel offers is a more enlightened view on these gender dynamics, diving deep into the misogyny of the early-60s. What sort of toxic masculinity was pounded into Ham at an early age? What were the consequences of this? Was it generational or just a sign of the era? And what is so wrong with bobbing for apples in the toilet?

2. How was the s’more invented?

Ham gives Smalls a cooking lesson after he misunderstands the term S’mores, believing that Ham is asking him whether he wants more of something rather than the tasty campfire treat that combines roasted sticky marshmallows with crunchy graham crackers and sweet Hershey’s chocolate.

But where do S’mores come from? Why are they named that way? Wikipedia doesn’t offer much etymological insight, so why not have The Sandlot prequel give it to us? The movie already has given us the biggest S’mores pop culture reference that exists, why not dive all in?

Now here’s my pitch:

The scene is set. It’s the 1860s. The camera focuses on a young man sitting at a campfire on the Western Frontier. We hear two individuals talking in the distance. The young man eavesdrops.

Woman: Now listen Porter, I really think if you throw these ingredients together they will work. There’s a deep sweetness to chocolate that when combined with a flamin’ ‘mallow will meld together in perfect tasty goodness.

Man: There’s no way that would work, woman. Absolutely not.

Woman: Here, try it. Put it between two grahams like a sandwich.

Man: Nope, nope, not gonna do it!

(The woman puts it in his face and he’s forced to take a bite).

Man: Oh well golly me, this is delicious!

The young man at the fire turns around.

Young man: Can I try some?

Woman: Here take some.

The young man eats it. A huge smile comes across his face.

Woman: Would you like s’more?

Young man: Yes, I would love some more, because I’ve already had some.

Woman: Hey, s’more, that’s a great name, maybe that’s what I should name my recipe! S’mores!

Young man chews on s’mores, while the man sits thinking. The man quickly gets up and grabs the young man.

Man: C’mon boy let’s go! (Whispering) This recipe is delicious. If we take it into town and tell them we made it we can get rich and famous!

Young man: But Papa, we didn’t make it, Ruth did!

Man: Oh be quiet boy! I don’t care what little baby Ruth said or did. One thing you must always remember is to never let women have their due. If they come up with a good idea, take it as your own. Never let them rise up the ranks. Find ways to reinforce this patriarchal society where we believe that women’s talents are not worth valuing. If you compare them to men, only do it as a joke or insult! And make sure to pass this along to your children and children’s children! Got it?

Young man: Well okay pops.

/END SCENE.

3. Who is Smalls’ birth father? 

Smalls’ birth dad is not in the picture, he instead has stepdad Bill to look out for him. Bill is great for providing sarcasm in the midst of injury (“He kept his eye on the ball”) or plopping a giant steak on an injury, but we need a movie where we get to know Smalls’ real father.

His real father, is, of course, Dr. Indiana Jones, adventuring archaeologist professor, who is well established to have had an on again off again fling with Smalls’ mother (played by Karen Allen). In Indiana Jones canon we know that Jones has a son with Meredith Smalls (nee Ravenwood), as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gleefully let us know that Shia Lebeouf is a product of their passion.

What they never showed us is that Meredith had a second kid with Indiana before remarrying–Scott Smalls.

It’s easy to see the similarities between Smalls and Indiana– when Smalls builds up his toy sets you can see the ingenuity of Indiana on display; where Indiana has to escape falling boulders and the plots of Nazis, Smalls creates intricate erector set designs.

If Indiana had been involved in the life of Smalls, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken so long to get the ball back from Mertle’s yard with Smalls taking a lesson from his adventuring dad, retrieving his own artifacts of sorts. Now that’s something that Bill could never give him.

There are other little hints in the film about Smalls’ birth father.

Take the scene where the boys are running from the pool after Squints kisses Wendy Peffercorn. You can’t really it hear it, but Smalls is just kind of talking to Bertram.

He tells him: I hate snakes.

Bertram: What?

Smalls: I just really hate snakes.

Bertram: Okay cool Smalls.

/End scene.

Or what about the moment where everyone is throwing up after putting too much chewing tobacco in their mouths? You can’t really hear it over all the vomiting noises, but Smalls makes a remark to Yeah Yeah:

Smalls: Bad dates

Yeah Yeah (having just vomited, exasperated): What Smalls?

Smalls: Must’ve been bad dates.

Yeah Yeah: Yeah yeah Smalls, you idiot. It was totally the dates.

/End scene

So you can see they already hinted at this connection throughout the movie, building it up for a prequel with the laser-like focus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a really cool sense of planning on the creator’s part and I can’t wait to see what else they do with it.

4. How did Mr. Mertle go from baseball star to junkyard owner?

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction regarding Mr. Mertle in The Sandlot. Squints really does a number on his character, painting him as an ill-intended and grouchy junkyard owner who trained his dog to be an overly aggressive mongrel and may or may not have covered up the death of a child. Squints overeager telling of this story is a perfect part of the film, underlining the wild legend making that occurs in childhood, but when the backstory is unveiled it seems almost too much to include across one prequel. It turns out Mr. Mertle is not the anti-baseball curmudgeon of legend, but is, in fact, a blind former baseball star who personally knew Babe Ruth.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Mertle, played by James Earl Jones, is black, which means he never would have played with Ruth in the major leagues. Now, history suggests that Ruth desired to play integrated baseball and barnstormed across the country, facing off against players from the Negro League. So it is possible that Ruth and Mertle would have faced off and may have even been friendly, though things would not have been pleasant for Mertle during that time due to the explicit racist policies ingrained into this country’s fabric.

Mertle makes the claim that he would have broken Ruth’s record, which is a little unclear. He can’t be referring to the single-season home run record of 60 that Ruth had hit, because The Sandlot takes place one year after Roger Maris had broken it. He must be referring to the all-time home run record of 660 that Ruth had at the time. That’s a really bold claim, either Mertle had already hit hundreds of homers in his career or he felt cocky enough that he could maintain record-breaking pace throughout his career. This is further complicated by the segregation that took place at the time, where Negro League stats were not seen as valuable as the MLB (and are still not, see Josh Gibson).

If we enter into this story when “baseball was life”, where Mertle is one of the best baseball players, friendly with Babe Ruth, and then gets knocked blind by a fastball only to go on to be a junkyard owner, we’re looking at a major tragedy. You must, of course, take Squints at his word that Mr. Mertle was a junkyard owner and that the whole story wasn’t fabricated.

Let’s take a look at this film description we have going (there’s some deep pathos here, I think we’re looking at an Oscar run)

When James Mertle gets signed to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, it seems like nothing can go wrong, he’s a big hitter with a wide smile that can compete with the best of them. Even the legendary Babe Ruth stops by to watch Mertle compete in his glory. After a stray pitch forces Mertle to go blind, he must figure his way through a world that seems increasingly against him. All seems lost until his brother gives him a junkyard to take care of. Mertle must oversee the yard while defending it from a racist crime syndicate and bigoted police force who will do anything to take down a black-owned business. When he adopts a young puppy to be his guard dog, everything changes… 

There it is! You’re welcome Academy (and we’re not just talking about the popular award here).

5. Was Hercules ever in love?

The only love story in The Sandlot involves Squints’ pervy obsession with the lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn (truly one of the great love stories of our age). But surely there must be more romance to be found in this story?

Every story has got to have a love interest and I am curious about Hercules. He must have been in love at some point; he must have experienced the tingling sensation of a crush in his life, of young puppy love. As we find out more and more of his story these details will unfold.

Maybe he fell in love with a prim and proper Pomeranian, whose owners didn’t love it hanging out with a dirty street dog a la Lady and the Tramp. Maybe he met a rowdy street dog that was his equal a la Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco. Maybe he sneaks out of the house and knocks up a neighbor dog whose owners are going through a divorce a la Beethoven’s 2nd.  Maybe his love gets in a fight with a wolf, catches rabies and is promptly shot in the backyard a la Old Yeller.

There are many classic dog love archetypes we can base this story off of, but a sequel just simply will not be satisfying without knowing if Hercules ever loved someone!

 

Those are my 5 burning questions for The Sandlot prequel! What questions do you hope they answer? Let me know in the comments below.

The Oscar’s “Best Popular Movie”: Picking the Would-Be Winners Across the Past Ten Years

The Academy of Motion Pictures Association recently announced a few changes to their format, the most notable announcement, drawing the ire of film critics everywhere, was the introduction of an “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” (or what we’ll refer to as”Best Popular Movie” from here on out) award. The move seems to be done with the hope of drawing larger ratings, a likely misguided strategy that will offer muddled takes on “popular” movies, the best of which were already being nominated anyway (InceptionLord of the Rings). The more cynical take comes with Variety’s reporting that ABC pushed the Academy to increase ratings, sparking these changes (the most cynical take of all comes when you note that ABC is owned by Disney, who owns Marvel, Lucas Arts, and Pixar, three studios likely to benefit from an award like this). This award will likely do little to increase interest in the ceremony, instead it will somehow hurt both small and large movies — taking attention away from the small ones, while making successful ones less likely to be voted into the Best Picture category.

Despite this being a ridiculous idea, it’s a fun exercise to think back to what would have won in the past. I recently redid the Best Picture winners of the last ten years, so why not go back and imagine what could have won Best Popular Movie in the past?

The Academy did not announce what the parameters of this award would be, so we’ll have to figure this out ourselves. The two ideas that instantly come to mind are:

  1. Based on total box office statistics of the year.
  2. Based on largest opening weekend statistics.

The first idea would make sense, but it instantly gets complicated by time constrictions. Your Star Wars movie, typically released in December, would have a huge opening, but likely wouldn’t qualify because movies released earlier in the year would have had a chance to accumulate across the entire year. You could get around this by finagling the award so that the movies that movies could qualify across a two year period, depending on which year they made a bulk of their money, but that would only cause further disinterest rendering the award as meaningless as the word “new” in the Grammy’s “Best New Artist” award.

I think the solution is the second option, which bases a movie’s popularity in its opening weekend, averaging the scores and allowing your late-in-the-year hits to qualify. The problem here is that it’s not a true representation of what was popular in the year, there are plenty of movies that opened huge, but quickly fell off after people actually saw it. In that same vein, there are movies that opened slow to become some of the biggest hits of the year (The Greatest Showman did this last year, American Sniper a couple of years ago, and classically My Big Fat Greek Wedding is did this). For this exercise we’ll have to neglect the surprise hits in favor of the movies that were successful from the start.

Here’s how it will work: The movies with the top 25 opening weekends of the year will qualify to be nominated by the Academy. The assumption is that they will pick the five nominees from those movies they think are the best. We don’t know exactly how the Academy will word the language of the award–should voters truly vote on what they think is the best of the qualified or should they focus more on the popular aspect? This affects movies like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road both of which were beloved critically and were nominated for Best Picture, but still qualify for this award. We can’t know for sure the way the Academy will swing, but we’ll do our best to select something representative of the best popular movie.

The other issue is whether a film nominated for Best Picture will be able to qualify for Best Popular Movie. We’re gonna go yes here, playing by the rules of Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Film which allow a film to be nominated by both. These are prime examples of why a popular movie might actually get hurt by this award, as Best Animated Feature has only had two movies cross over into Best Picture since its inception (Up and Toy Story 3) and Best Foreign Language Film has only had eight (including Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonAmourLife is Beautiful; Bergman’s Cries and Whispers; and Le Grande Illusion ). Voters perceive these movies as already receiving accolade and are less likely to vote them in even if they are one of the top five movies of the year, but there’s an off-chance something could sweep it entirely.

Let’s get to it:

2008:
The nominees:
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Step Brothers
Quantum of Solace
Wall-E
Noteworthy snubs: Cloverfield, Hellboy II, Kung Fu Panda, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Twilight 
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The winner: The Dark Knight – This is literally why we’re doing this exercise right (other than Black Panther, which is the #1 reason)? The Dark Knight revolutionized the movie industry, even as Marvel was introducing their corporate strategy to us, Dark Knight grabbed everyone’s attention with the combination of populist entertainment and Christopher Nolan’s artistic flare. This is a strong year otherwise, Wall-E not getting nominated had some outcry as well (it is one of the best movies of all time, after all…), while Iron Man remains one of the strongest Marvel movies, and Step Brothers is considered one of the best Will Ferrell/Adam McKay features, the type of movie that stands to benefit from an award like this.
2009:
The nominees:
Avatar
The Blind Side
The Hangover
Star Trek
Up
Noteworthy snubs: Inglourious Basterds, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fast & Furious, District 9, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight: New Moon, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The winner: Avatar – One of the most successful movies of all time, it was already this close to taking Best Picture–Avatar is an obvious choice here. This was a year that increased the nominees to ten, so three of the nominees (AvatarThe Blind Side; Up) were already nominated for Best Picture. The biggest benefactor here is The Hangover, which was already making a push for Best Picture during that year. It seemed like a possibility at the time, but when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about that movie? Maybe an award like this would keep it in conversation for the years to come.
2010:
The nominees:
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow pt. I
Inception
Shutter Island
Toy Story 3
Noteworthy snubs: Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Iron Man 2
The winner: Inception – I can imagine the battle now, Toy Story 3 taking on Inception for Best Popular Film. Of course, Toy Story 3 would also be pushing for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, which, again, makes this whole thing so weird. Inception is the perfect movie for this, a successful genre film with some smarts to it, that also developed the kind of following and zeitgeist that is worth pandering to–in fact, Christopher Nolan might actually benefit more from this award being added than Marvel/Disney/Lucas Films.
2011:
The nominees:
Fast Five
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow pt. II
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Super 8
X-Men: First Class
Noteworthy snubs: Captain America: First Avenger, The unholy trilogy of sequels in the Twilight, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies.
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The winner: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. II – I stan for Rise and First Class and I think Fast Five would get votes with the spark it brought to that franchise, but Deathly Hallows II gets it in a Lord of the Rings style nod to the finale of films that were quite good and well respected. Nowadays First Avenger gets a lot of love, but back in the day it wasn’t as hot, so I think it would have missed out on a nomination in this strong field–then again Disney probably works their magic and forces its way in there, but we’re envisioning a more pure world…
2012:
The nominees:
The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hunger Games
Skyfall
Noteworthy snubs: 21 Jump Street, Brave, The Amazing Spiderman, Wreck-it-Ralph, Magic Mike
The winner: The Avengers – There’s no way anything beats Avengers here, it was a lauded cultural phenomenon. Personally, I think Skyfall is the deserving winner, it’s a beautifully shot and artistic Bond flick and what I’d hope would win in this new category, but, it’s Avengers so it has to win.
2013:
The nominees:
Fast & Furious 6
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Pacific Rim
World War Z
Noteworthy snubs: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Conjuring, Monsters University, Thor: The Dark World 
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The winner: Gravity – This is a really difficult year to predict, both nominations-wise and winner-wise. Gravity was successful at the box office (though I don’t remember anyone talking about it at all) and nearly won Best Picture anyway, so I imagine voters would give it this award, especially in a year where great, popular movies were so few and far between.
2014:
The nominees:
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
The Lego Movie
Noteworthy snubs: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Big Hero 6, Neighbors, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I
The winner: Guardians of the Galaxy – 2013 was weak, but 2014 features five of the strongest contenders yet. Interstellar was a hit that provided the classic pop-psychology Christopher Nolan is famous for. The Lego Movie was considered one of the funniest movies of the year and truly delighted audiences and critics. Winter Soldier got everyone on board the Captain America train. Dawn was a true artistic achievement. But ultimately it goes to Guardians, which blew up, getting Star Wars comparisons, and launching characters nobody had ever heard of into the pop culture as mainstays (after all, they have their own ride at Disneyland now!).
2015:
The nominees:
Inside Out
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Noteworthy snubs: The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Cinderella, Ant-Man, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey, Spectre, Furious 7, Minions
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The winner: Mad Max: Fury Road – This is a really tough year, because if the academy loved Inside Out they likely would have nominated it for Best Picture (regrettably, they did not). People liked Rogue Nation a lot, but I don’t think it would be able to take it. The new The Force Awakens is number two here, but I think enough people were mixed on it that Fury Road would take it on the crossover votes it might have received from already being Best Picture nominated.
2016:
The nominees:
Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool
Finding Dory
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Noteworthy snubs: Moana, Zootopia, Dr. Strange, (DC Comic crossover movies)
The winner: Deadpool – I originally put The Jungle Book, which captivated audiences with its gorgeous graphic effects, but I think Deadpool might take it here, if only for the fact that they were already pushing so hard to win Best Picture anyway. It was a solid year for animation, but I think those things tend to cancel each other out, rather than help.
2017:
The nominees:
Coco
Dunkirk
Logan
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman 
Noteworthy snubs: It, War For the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
WONDER WOMAN
The winner: Wonder Woman – This might be the most solid year out of all them, with much liked sequels like Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, and Thor all missing out on nominations. Dunkirk somehow made enough money to qualify and gets the crossover nomination. People loved Coco and there’s a weightiness to it that it qualifies too. Star Wars was beloved enough by film critics that it would survive its racist and misogynist backlash for a nomination. Logan was respected enough by the Academy to get a screenplay nom. But Wonder Woman was really well regarded and would have been the perfect choice during an Oscar’s where the Time’s Up and Me Too movements were at the forefront.

 

Let’s do some early 2018 predictions.

Nominees: A Quiet Place, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Incredibles II, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Noteworthy snubs: Ant-Man & the Wasp, Ready Player One

The winner: Black Panther – There’s actually a solid five here, but there’s no way Black Panther wouldn’t take it.

Did I miss anything? What do you think would have won? What do you think of the new award in general?

Top 10 Broadway Songs 2017-18

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The Tony Awards commencement ceremony is this Sunday and I am here once again to give you, in what should be one of Sunday’s awards, the top 10 new songs of this Broadway season.

This was a sparse season for original musicals and aside from jukebox shows (which I won’t even entertain) all we got was a Disney movie musical adaptation (Frozen), a kid’s television show adaptation (Spongebob Squarepants), a classic teen comedy adaptation (Mean Girls), and the little show that could, an adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit. These are the four nominees and there wasn’t even too many off-Broadway shows (with soundtracks) or otherwise eligible shows to qualify like last year’s Amelie musical (shout out to A Letter to Harvey Milk, an original Broadway production that I only recently discovered that may have some potential, but will not be making this list).
There are some good songs here even if doesn’t match the originality of last year (Dear Evan Hansen; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) or the year prior (Hamilton, Shuffle Along, Bright Star). I’m a stan for weird and unique takes on the musical, but even straightforward original content will do in an age of uber-franchised content (I suppose we’ve probably always been in this age, but it does feel particularly heavy this year). This year has little of that, the closest being The Band’s Visit which I will be championing as much as possible.
Before we begin, a couple of qualifications: 1. I haven’t seen any of these shows, so it will be based almost entirely on the song itself, with perceived story line implications taking up a small percentage of the ranking. 2. No previously released songs qualify, so “Let it Go” was not eligible.
10. “Hygge” from Frozen
Early reviews cited this as a highlight of the show, comparing the act 2 opener to Beauty and the Beast’s classic “Be Our Guest”. On first listen, I was not impressed, but on further listens, it’s a lot of fun, introducing the Danish idea of “Hygge”, the all is good mindset that continuously places them atop the world’s happiest countries lists. My love for this song was aided by my 8-month old’s enjoyment, sparking a full in home dance party in the midst of 48 hours of his battle with a fever. Fevers are not hygge, but hygge can help overcome them. Hygge!
9. “Monster” from Frozen
When trying to fill out the rest of the show of a previously established musical, it can be hard to create songs that live up to or even fit in with the show. The Frozen writers decided to give the Elsa character two more big ballads to accompany their mega hit which nobody can reallyvblame them for. “Monster” is the lesser of the two, but it’s still packed with the emotion and vocal delivery you would want.
8. “Waiting” from The Band’s Visit
“Waiting” is the slightest of the three openers that made the list, but it’s a really fun and essential introduction to this quirky show. It’s filled with Arabic instrumentation and offers a glimpse into the small town that will occupy the story space–a place where the residents are living lives that are forever waiting for something that doesn’t seem to come.
7. “Dangerous to Dream” from Frozen
 
The other Elsa ballad leads up to her introduction as the queen, unpacking her thoughts in a tense moment where she wonders what lies ahead of her while trying to hold in everything she’s kept secret for so long. Her dreams seem about to come true, but she knows that could be dangerous for everyone around her.
6. “Answer Me” from The Band’s Visit
The show’s sung closer continues the theme of waiting for something, a beautifully sung ballad, capturing the spirit of this longing quite sadly while never reaching full despair.
5. “I’d Rather Be Me” from Mean Girls
They thankfully chose to give Janice a song in the Mean Girls musical and she knocks it out of the park with an anthem to standing up for who you are (even if this includes getting into a fight). It’s a fun pop song and has a triple rhyme up front that’s delivered in a fun way. (Acted nice when she’s not nice / Well, I have some advice / Cause it’s happened to me, twice).
4. “Stupid With Love” / “Stupid With Love (Reprise)” from Mean Girls
 
I love the original and the reprise, so I’ve cheated and tied them together here. It uses a fun reggae rhythm to showcase Katy’s failed attempts at love, building up her relationship with Aaron and explaining why math came to mean so much to her. The reprise gives Aaron a chance to lament his relationship failures, gives us the classic October 3rd moment, and has the two duet in a lovely little way.
3. “Bikini Bottom Day” from Spongebob Squarepants The New Musical
*Sigh* I’ve never been a Spongebob fan. Not even as a kid. I found him obnoxious and the rest of the under water crew to be annoying. When I heard there was a Spongebob musical, I rolled my eyes. When I heard that different pop artists were individually writing different songs for it, I rolled them harder. When I finally listened to it, I… loved it? Well at the least the opener which introduces us to the brought-to-life musical version of Bikini Bottom. It’s a great song, unbelievably catchy and offers great introductions to these characters. Listen to it and you’ll be humming along, no doubt.
2. “It Roars” from Mean Girls
The part that doesn’t really work for me in the Mean Girls movie is the animal imagery. It’s explained too quickly upfront and when Katy begins imagining characters as wild animals it comes off as cheesy and unearned. In the musical, they lead off with a song that gives a better emphasis of Katy’s Kenya background with a number that truly shines and gives insight to her character and how she views the world. It’s a great opening number that journeys from her tent-living Kenya days into the wild high school life and all the intermingled turmoil and excitement inherent in that.
1. “Something Different” from The Band’s Visit
 
Katrina Lenk offers so much dramatically here as a woman questioning the internal state of her feelings for an older man she’s come into contact with. Every word is filled to the brim with intentionality and meaning as she sings over sparse instrumentation filled only by subtle piano and plucked Arabic strings. It’s a beautiful song and the one I returned to the most of any soundtrack released during the year.

Redoing the Best Picture Winners

The Shape of Water took home best picture last weekend, a pick that I’m not sure anyone was satisfied with. The movie is good, but easily inspires hate, featuring all sorts of quirks and a woman who falls in love with a fish creature as its main story.

There’s obviously a lot of debate when it comes to what should win Best Picture and Academy voters tend to pick movies that have trendy marketing for the year over something that will age well over time.

There’s a type of movie that should win Best Picture year by year and I don’t think it’s necessarily your personal favorite, but what’s considered the movie of the year, like an MVP of sorts. It shouldn’t be something that’s slight, but something that truly does feel important. And not important like it fits a certain theme of the year—though I think that can be good in capturing our moment—it should be something that’s cinematic, cinematically excellent on the widest scale. It doesn’t need to be avant-garde like the picks from the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound (though perhaps more along those lines), but something that people will agree upon for years as being good. In this way it should be a little populist, the kind of movie that regular movie goers will say oh that’s a good movie without causing critics to roll their eyes (think Saving Private Ryan or Pulp Fiction).

This being said I thought it would be fun to go back and look through the last eleven years of best picture winners, replacing them with a movie that fits this description. Older years will be easier because there is an ability to see what has aged well and what hasn’t, but we’ll do recent years as well.

Years will be listed as the movie year and not the ceremony year.

2007

Winner: No Country For Old Men

 

What should have won from nominees: No Country For Old Men (There Will Be Blood is the more critically acclaimed and might be my favorite movie of all time, but we’ll give No Country the title here because it fits into that perfect mold of something critics and the people will both agree as good.)

What should have won from non-nominated movies: I’d still go with No Country, but Zodiac maintains a really high reputation all these years later and would be satisfying.

2008

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire 

What should have won from nominees: I haven’t watched Slumdog  in a while, but I do think it’s a pretty fun movie though it definitely does not work as the “important” work of art the Academy bestowed upon it this year. It’s a kind of silly love story about fate, not a serious reflection on poverty. 2008 was one of the worst years for best picture nominees and none of the nominees really fit the criteria. That being said, I pick Milk, Gus Van Sant deserves an Oscar, so he gets it.

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What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Dark Knight and Wall-E are both cited as the reason the Oscars increased their nominations. Wall-E is one of my favorite movies and is not only an amazing cinematic experience, but it increasingly looks like the future we are making for ourselves.

2009

Winner: The Hurt Locker

What should have won from nominees: The Hurt Locker also nicely fits the mold here, thank God it beat out Avatar which only holds up as a kind of laughing stock, if I could pick a number two it’d probably be Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds which is arguably his best movie.

HungerWhat should have won from non-nominated movies: Hurt Locker deserves and to come up with a non-nominated movie we’ve got to go toward the avant grade here. There’s Assayas’ Summer Hours, Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, You the Living, and the one we’ll go with, Hunger—future Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s film about the Irish hunger strike, featuring a tour-de-force rise to acting fame by none other than Michael Fassbender.

2010

Winner: The King’s Speech

What should have won from nominees: Almost any of the other nominees would have been good, but The Social Network will be talked about for years and years to come.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Social Network is the definitive pick here, but if we had to pick another it would be Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ creepy and wacky tale of a familial cult.

2011

Winner: The Artist

What should have won from nominees: Roger Ebert had The Tree of Life in his top 10 films of all time shortly after it was released, what else needs to be said. tree-of-life1

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Tree of Life will always be in the discussion of best movies ever, but 2011 also had a lot of films that will be considered for time to come: Drive was a great experimental genre flick, Melancholia has an avid fan base, Take Shelter will continue to rise in estimation, and there are other beloved more genre-centric picks like Fast Five, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Attack the Block, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Interrupters, and The Skin I Live In. A Separation is really the only one that competes with Malick though, so it gets the pick here.

2012

Winner: Argo

What should have won from nominees: It’s crazy that the Oscar’s got it so wrong three years in a row, picking movies that literally nobody talks about other than in Oscar mistake discussions. Lincoln could easily fit, but Zero Dark Thirty is excellent and captured America with a tight precision.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Avengers and Skyfall compete as populist picks, Looper and Moonrise Kingdom are two of my favorites, Holy Motors was beloved by critics, but it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master that maintains all the buzz.

2013

Winner: 12 Years a Slave

What should have won from nominees: I haven’t rewatched 12 Years, but I thought it was an amazing movie the first time I saw it and I imagine it will continue to hold up. Her is the definitive number two here.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: Nothing stands out like 12 Years or Her, but you can’t go wrong with picking Linklater’s (final?) Before movie Before Midnight.

2014

Winner: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

What should have won from nominees: Boyhood was such a fun experiment and it was executed so well. It details that time period perfectly, but should also hold up for years for the way it literally shows what growing up is like.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: It’s kind of strange looking back now that Interstellar was not nominated. Any time you have that thought it likely means that it should have been when looking back years later. People were mixed on it years back, but it does seem like it has only grown in estimation as the years have went on.

2015

Winner: Spotlight 

What should have won from nominees: Spotlight is actually a pretty good pick, but I have to go with the most exciting action movie in years, Mad Max: Fury Road, which will likely be considered amongst the best action films ever. mad max

What should have won from non-nominated movies: Inside Out was absolutely spectacular, Creed was way better than it had any right to be, Tangerine introduced us to characters rarely seen on screen, but it’s Carol’s lush winter romance that was most beloved and will likely grow with audiences.

2016

Winner: Moonlight

a24-A24_Moonlight-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1501867156317._RI_SX940_What should have won from nominees: Moonlight definitely deserved it (even if I actually did like La La Land better on first watch, at least), but if we have to pick another I think Manchester By the Sea’s sad ruminations on loss will grow in affection more than La La Land will, though I do think Arrival will also be remembered fondly.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: There’s not an obvious pick here, of Zootopia, Paterson, The Handmaiden, Silence, Everybody Wants Some!!, and American Honey, I think I’m going to go with Silence, because the people who like it, really like it.

2017

Winner: The Shape of Water

What should have won from nominees: Get Out slightly over Lady Bird.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Florida Project will also be watched for years and years to come, there’s just so much life in that movie.

And now, the definitive list of movies that deserve to be named as the Best Picture of the year:

2007: No Country For Old Men

2008: Wall-E

2009: The Hurt Locker

2010: The Social Network

2011: The Tree of Life

2012: Zero Dark Thirty

2013: 12 Years a Slave

2014: Boyhood

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road

2016: Moonlight

2017: Get Out

What are your thoughts? Any movies you think deserve the title of Best Picture of the year?

Best Films of 2017

There’s still a lot of good stuff I haven’t seen that it’s almost embarrassing to release this list. Yet, here are ten movies I really enjoyed in 2017 that I can feel proud to put here. I will update as I catch up over the next couple of months. UPDATED: 2/27/18 to include Nocturama The Florida Project

12.  Mudbound 

mudbound

One of the most gorgeously shot films of the year, Mudbound is almost novelistic in its approach to two different families in the World War II south. The very land they live on, tilling away for their livelihood should make them equals, yet the unjust power structures and hateful racism do not make it so. Even acts of war that should unite disparate parts of the country are divisive for some (the film focuses on the uniting of two characters based on this). Dee Rees’ film is utterly gorgeous, it unravels a bit at the end, but the first half is tight, some of the best storytelling of the year.

11. The Shape of Water 

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This movie shouldn’t work. The trailer was awful, riddled with cliches, and looked kind of lame. But what Guillermo del Toro ends up crafting is something far weirder than it ever should have been. Del Toro is willing to go for the hard ‘R’ in his tale of a woman falling in love with a strange swamp creature. Sally Hawkins is mute, Richard Jenkins is gay, and Octavia Spencer is a black woman in mid-civil rights America. These are the characters  coming up against the system’s powers and if it takes a woman falling in love with a swamp monster to upend the powers that be, then so be it.

10. Nocturama 

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A film about terrorism in France that’s actually saying more about youth, rebellion, and consumerism. Nocturama starts slowly, skating along with little dialogue as a group of disparate teens enact an unknown plan. Slowly we see the execution of a terrorist act, one that we are given little insight into, why have these characters in their late teens and early 20s pulled of this stunt? It doesn’t really matter, instead the movie spends most of its time focusing on the aftermath, not in a Reservoir Dogs – like violent mystery of what went wrong, but by giving us a look at these passionate youth as they hang out in an expensive mall, waiting out the evening so they can make their escape. There’s no answers given, little motivation, but slowly layers are peeled back, and we see the desperate passion, regret, and immaturity at work in each of them. This is a masterclass in editing, pulling together plot strands while providing equal measures and clarity and ambiguity.

9. Logan Lucky 

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Steven Soderbergh’s return to directing is a heist movie as far removed from the white collar bank robbing of Ocean’s 11 as one can get. Set in the deep south and lead by a fantastic cast of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, and Riley Keough, Soderbergh again has crafted a charming, hilarious, and thrilling film. It’s littered with jokes, some obvious, some subtle, and the robbery, this time of a Nascar race, legitimately pays off. It didn’t get the hype of most of his other movies, but I loved it.

8. Blade Runner: 2049

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This is what I wanted out of a Rian Johnson Star Wars a fully realized and unique point of view brought into an existing franchise. There are those who have argued that’s what Johnson does and certainly the situation was quite different, but what Denis Villeneuve brings here is on masterpiece level. Each scene is designed with an artist’s touch and there was perhaps no better cinematographic moment than the arrival into Las Vegas. It’s slow-paced and contemplative, everything I would want in a modern day sic-fi mystery.

7. Call Me By Your Name 

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A sensual and sultry coming of age story, set during an 80s Italian summer Call Me By Your Name follows Elio, a 17 year old boy, as he discovers who he is. To call it a “coming out” story is too shallow, the film explores every confused tendency of a 17 year old, allowing room for Elio to try things exuberantly, experimenting, and failing confusedly, until he finds what makes him alive. The film more subtly allows his amour, Oliver, one who seems to have confidently already come of age, to stumble over his insecurities and what he has previously been allowed to be or not be.

The film ends with something near a pep talk in which we get a hint of where Elio’s life will go, his, a life met with acceptance and understanding by those around him, will turn out much different than Oliver’s. We only get a small taste of it, but the final shot, a minutes long close up of Elio as he stares at the fire, contemplating his first romance, shows the disparate paths they will take. It’s sorrowful, yet hopeful, Elio will take the piece of this summer with him, building his life off of it in the ways we should move forward, not letting the past take away from the present, but using it to build something better and more beautiful.

6. Dunkirk

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A gorgeous exploration of the heroics of survival. Nolan takes a step back from his characters, letting their looks and silences and gasps for air fill in for a traditional plot. It’s a breathtaking piece of cinema, one that captures the chaos of war, not just in battle, but in the confusing way it flips our morals, how we justify our actions, and who we consider to be heroic. Here the warrior flees and cowers, while the civilians march into battle and each is somehow justified for their actions. War can never be just for it causes a spectrum of human experience to arise in a muddled and grey ethical playground.

5. Get Out

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Jordan Peele crafted a horror flick that uses racism, stereotyping, and white guilt to creepily subvert our society and the conventions of the genre. It subtly captures how horrifying it is to live within an unaccommodating white space before building to full on scary movie. All the horror tropes work well here, Peele invites you to think about larger social themes while slowly terrifying you. Peele was always excellent at creatively crafting comedy around the inequalities in our world while Key & Peele was on and here he’s found a way to amplify it across a feature length film, showing a keen ability behind the camera. It’s one that will be talked about for years to come.

4. The Florida Project

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There’s perhaps no more of an empathetic filmmaker out there than Sean Baker. Both of his films tackle complex and often frowned upon areas of the world, from Tangerine, his story of two trans-prostitutes in inner city Los Angeles to his latest work, The Florida Project, a look at daily life in a Disney World adjacent hotel that illegally houses poor families. This is a heartbreaking story, but one that’s filled with so much life, carried by the mischievous and troublemaking Moonee, a young girl who spends unsupervised time running throughout the Florida swamps creating real trouble for those around her. Her situation and the situation of those she spends her time with is awful and Baker makes her mother’s actions almost forgivable even as she leads her daughter down an awful path. This is a movie that celebrates the lives of those who are forgotten, even as they make mistakes and hurt those around them, Baker is there to tell their story and he does it beautifully. (Oh and Willem Dafoe is as good as advertised, the movie is beautiful, and it might have the best ending of any film from 2017).

3. A Ghost Story 

a ghost story

Nothing about David Lowery’s latest is conventional, despite this it constantly moves in a new direction, from its initial reflections on losing a loved one to its grander ambitions of meditating on all of life and what we leave behind. It’s gorgeous, mostly silent, and plays with the ghost convention, asking questions of what we contribute to the world and if it ends up being nothing more than ourselves are we okay with that?

2. Lady Bird 

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Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a heartwarming, heartfelt, and often funny coming of age story, telling of the battle for the teenage soul between the sincerity and carefree youth and the insecurity that comes with self-awareness in growing up. It’s completely lived-in, likely drawing from Gerwig’s own teenage experiences. Gerwig, who was already a proven talent in acting (Greenberg, 20th Century Women) and writing (Frances HaMistress America), has now again shown an immense ability to direct, guiding along a pitch perfect picture that encapsulates growing up. She and Saiorse Ronan guide us along this journey across the highlights and pitfalls of youth. It also serves as a loving tribute to one’s hometown (in this case Sacramento), the place you’re forever inextricably attached to, but anxiously await to escape. Did I mention that I grew up in the greater Sacramento region? Yeah, this movie hits home.

1. The Big Sick

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An almost perfect rom-com that justifies the existence of the oft-maligned genre. The Big Sick tells the true tale of comedian Kumail Nunjiani meeting and falling in love with his wife Emily (they co-wrote the script and he stars in it). To do so, he has to overcome the delicate balancing act of immigrant parental expectations against society’s, as well as a devastating sickness that puts Emily in a coma. Equal measures of laughing and sobbing fill this one and it’s remained my favorite all year even against more ambitious pictures. It’s strength rides on how charming it is and how it uses this charm to pull off the full gamut of emotions. Every single character’s story line produced an emotional reaction from me. When I look years down the road, I imagine this will be the movie I have returned to the most, throwing it on in almost every scenario, and having it fulfill whatever emotional void I’m feeling.