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    Rory Links

    Rory’s links #4: Institutional rot

    One of my biggest lifelong Roman Empires is the British Royal Family. I’m hardly unique amongst elder millennials whose moms loved Princess Diana and hated Camilla; Diana’s death was a big moment in my tween years. I paid attention to the major happenings for a while—I mean, I watched Will and Kate’s wedding live—but it wasn’t until The Crown aired and Harry and Meghan’s mistreatment went super public that I realized the depths of the institution’s rot. I made a concerted effort to follow the royals the year leading up to Queen Elizabeth’s death because I could tell that was impending, and I’ve been watching stories somewhat closely ever since.

    That means I was ready for this year, and all the speculation around Kate (and Charles-William to a lesser degree).

    To start this linkspam, I really recommend this Nieman Lab piece from a former Buzzfeed News royal reporter. To understand the BRF, you have to understand how symbiotically parasitic the BRF-royal rota relationship is, and this article breaks it down beautifully in context with recent gossip on and briefings about Kate Middleton. There’s also a timeline of events from the end of December through March 6th, if you’re wondering about the specific current events.

    You also have to understand that, while the BRF will make moves similar to influencers, they’re a major branch in the UK’s political system. It’s why four major news agency pulled a Kate-and-kids family photo posted for UK Mother’s Day after it was determined the photo editing didn’t meet journalistic standards. Will and Kate have long edited their family pictures—this Tiktok has a really good examination of past Photoshop fails all the way back to when Charlotte was a baby. The approach is one thing if you’re an actor or you’re selling something. When your next head of state is pulling this as apparent proof-of-life for his missing wife (and throwing her under the bus after), that’s something else.

    None of this answers what’s actually going on with Kate. The likely answer is probably some variation of the stated one, that she had a major health incident and hasn’t been up to public work. There are other theories both related to this and unrelated that have varying levels of credence, and maybe we’ll find out some of them are true. I personally find it less interesting than why this is so big now: basic lack of institutional competence has eroded public trust (for good reason!), and Charles wanting to hoard more money by slimming down working royals is blowing up in his face big time. The only people out there doing engagements—which are showy busy work at best most of the time, but vital to the monarchy’s survival—aren’t getting press or cameras. Kensington Palace, which should be taking up the bulk of the work in the face of Charles’s cancer treatments, has terrible comms strategies, making blunders minor celebrities with common sense would never go near. It’s a complete trainwreck.

    Maybe this specific event will fizzle out in another couple months, and will mostly be forgotten by the end of the year. But I have seen nothing that convinces me that Buckingham or Kensington Palace have the endurance to keep up what they’re doing in the long term, or that they will learn from this. They haven’t yet.

    A few links I enjoyed from the last monthish of the newsletter She’s a Beast (I think, a couple might have come from other newsletters):

    A journalist tried resume spamming bots, with some level of success. Just another one of those feeling-glum-about-capitalism days.

    Sports bras can restrict your breathing. I use sports bras as soft binding for gender reasons sometimes, so I wasn’t super surprised by this. The study in question seems to suggest that problems arise mostly during hard exercise and because bras get picked while people are at rest and not during most intense physical activity. Not sure how the average person should solve this one.

    On boring problems: an essay considering the way problems change depending on age. Approaching 40 means thinking about this kind of thing a lot, so while it’s a bit of a bummer, I found value in having some level of my experience mirrored back at me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how modern life requires reverse-engineering experiences more natural to the function of the human body and brain. A couple interesting links for this: How to rewild yourself, with an aim at reconnecting with nature, and Here’s how to rediscover your childlike wonder, which privileges awe and play as worthwhile experiences.

    Also related to the above, the title of this article (The art of doing nothing: have the Dutch found the answer to burnout culture?) is misleading; I think it’s a better look at Dutch culture and its relationship to burnout than a broader remedy for the problem. That doesn’t bother me, though. I like seeing different cultures’ approaches to work.

    The Case for a Paper Fitness Journal is a specific essay weighing demands of digital versus physical paperwork for fitness, but it’s broader more applicably. There are great uses for apps and programs to track a variety of things and topics. I’ve been using Obsidian lately for information management and broader project conceptualization. But for a lot of day-to-day work, little is more clear and specific than writing in a notebook. If it gets overwhelming, I only need to turn to the next blank page.

    YouTubers broadly have their busiest season in November-December, and they will often take January or even February as time to rest and rebuild. The last month marked the return of a lot of temporarily dormant essayists to my subscriptions page. Here’s a quick glimpse at some recent videos essays (which you can read via the transcript on the page if you’re not adverse to flawed subtitles that are often auto-generated):

    The Queer History of The Lord of the Rings by verilybitchie. I was really into the origins of Eowyn’s story.

    The Rise and Fall of Muppet Cinema by Patrick (H) Willams. “Muppet Cinema” is mostly shorthand to refer to the period in film, especially the 80s, where puppets were a key element. I like the way the essay denotes CG as cartoons and puppets as theatrical without being dismissive about it. Different tools for different uses!

    The American Idol Theme Park Experience by Defunctland. My big theme-park experiences in the last decade were all West-Coast Disneyland, which didn’t have this attraction, but I could absolutely imagine having an annual pass and deciding a day on a trip would be spent on this. Also a valuable look at American Idol as an IP. (So that’s what JLo’s been up to when she hasn’t been making movies.)

    Saltburn: The Tumblr-ification of Cinema by Broey Deschanel. Excellent deconstruction of both Saltburn and the 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, from which Saltburn takes a lot of its ideas without realizing why they were there.

    Twilight by Contrapoints. The chapter titles say it all here; the essay uses Twilight to explore philosophical perspectives on fiction, desire (both related and unrelated to fiction), fantasy, power, death, and identity. I’m not sure I agree with every point here—and there’s a more glossing over of the racism baked into Twilight than I would have liked—but overall, a meaty three-hour essay that was exactly geared toward my tastes.

    Hannah Montana’s Guide to Life Under Capitalism by Alexander Avila. Glad I watched this one before all the gossip about Miley’s family started making the rounds. I’ve been a big fan of deep dives on children’s sitcoms lately (see also: Quinton Reviews covering iCarly, Victorious, and Sam and Cat), and you can’t talk about Hannah Montana without talking about class. Also made me both laugh and unsettled by using AI politician voices to read quotes.

  • White text on a gold background that reads "Rory's 2023: Oscar results".

    Rory’s 2023: Oscar results

    Airing the Academy Awards at a different time slot on the night in the US when we sprang forward in the time change sure was a choice! It worked out for me because I missed the ceremony entirely, and I would have been frustrated if I had been watching livetweets/reactions as it happened. But it also meant I didn’t have a decent outlet for my opinions on winners, and everywhere was quiet by the time I was really ready to talk. Time for a bonus post!

    Here’s the results in full. I’m going in order based on the official site’s order. Some of the awards are split into two prongs of commentary: campaign notes and personal notes.

    Actor in a leading role

    Campaign: Cillian Murphy’s win for Oppenheimer is not remotely surprising. He was the frontrunner the entire season, and Paul Giamatti ever getting any attention was more because he was spotted with his Golden Globe at In-N-Out than actual momentum. (The Globes are uneven as a precursor award: they awards dramas and comedies separately, and their voting pool doesn’t feed into the Oscars.) Oppenheimer getting the most nominations and wins also supported Cillian Murphy’s campaign otherwise.

    Personal reaction: I’ve liked Cillian Murphy in a lot, but this was neither his most interesting role nor my favorite performance in the category. I’m glad Bradley Cooper had no real chance, though.

    Actor in a supporting role

    Campaign: See above, sans the Paul Giamatti meme.

    Personal reaction: I don’t think the nominees in this category were very strong this year. That Robert Downey Jr. was one of my favorites of the bunch is not really a compliment, but as I said in my Letterboxd review of Oppenheimer, supporting actors tend to shine in Nolan films. As far as career awards go, I don’t have the energy or inclination to get mad about this one; I just think the nominees should have been better.

    Actress in a leading role

    Campaign: This was the only acting category with any uncertainty. Both Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone took major precursor awards, and if Lily Gladstone had been white, that she took the SAG award should have been a solid lead. But Lily Gladstone didn’t even get a BAFTA nomination, and that tipped me off to her probable loss (as well as Letterboxd’s fondness for Poor Things; there’s a lot of industry professionals on there). I’m not sure what the overlap in the voter base is between the two awards, but the BAFTAs and the Oscars have one major thing in common beyond who votes in both: a bigoted voter base.

    I’m sure a lot of people will point to Lily Gladstone not campaigning for Supporting Actress for her loss. It’s a convenient excuse, but BIPOC actors, especially with marginalized genders (Lily Gladstone uses she/they pronouns), never have stationary, fair goalposts. I suspect another excuse would have popped up if this one hadn’t.

    Personal reaction: This win was the biggest reason why I didn’t want to watch live updates this year. It’s a terrible, boring choice on the part of the Academy. Poor Things was a visually-beautiful film propping up gross amount of misogyny and ableism. Emma Stone’s performance was obvious in a way the Oscars like. Why award good when you can award big and loud, especially when it props up your own bigotry?

    Actress in a supporting role

    Campaign: This basically had Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s name engraved on the Oscar in advance. Well-run campaign for a deserving performance.

    Personal reaction: I think this was the best round of nominees out of any acting category this year. Saying America Ferrera was probably the most-underwhelming of the bunch is wild when she’s such a soild performer. (I hated her Barbie monologue, but she did what she could with it.) Danielle Brooks was the most obvious nominee out of a massively-solid Color Purple cast, Emily Blunt was one of the better women-in-a-Nolan-film actresses, and Jodie Foster surprised me in a generally-underwhelming Nyad. But Da’Vine Joy Randolph was definitely my favorite.

    Animated feature film

    The Boy and the Heron was a good winner here, even if I think it should have bumped something like Maestro for a Best Picture nod. (I hate how animated films get siloed.) I thought Spider-Man had a solid chance, but I wasn’t a huge fan. Disney-Pixar really dropped the ball this year; I liked Elemental, but very few people did, and it was certainly the most flawed of their nominees in a while. I’m not surprised that my pick of Nimona didn’t win; I’m just glad it seemed to do well this award season. Robot Dreams had a really late, limited release, so it never really had a chance.


    Another Oppenheimer win. Not a surprise or an insult. I didn’t feel too strongly about most of the nominees this year, but I didn’t even begrudge Maestro’s presence here. Could have been better, could have been worse.

    Costume design

    Not surprised Poor Things won, and it’s one of the least-offensive spaces for it to win, but my pick would have absolutely been Barbie. People really underestimate movies using preexisting fashion for this award.


    Campaign: Christopher Nolan won the DGA, and Oppenheimer was always the favorite for Best Picture, and that meant he was a pretty solid lock for this. I’m annoyed and completely unsurprised he won the year he did a biopic instead of genre.

    Personal reaction: I like a lot of Christopher Nolan films! I don’t like Oppenheimer, but it’s better than Maestro and Poor Things. I think my pick out of the nominees would have been Jonathan Glazer for The Zone of Interest, but there was no way a movie that challenging would pick up a major award like this.

    Documentary feature

    I didn’t get to any this year, so no opinions on my favorites. 20 Days in Mariupol is on YouTube for free in its entirety, so I’m curious if that helped its chances. I would love to know if freer access to nominees aids in campaigning, especially for ~smaller awards. (I don’t believe in smaller awards, personally, but the Oscars treats picture, director, actors, and screenplay as their big ones.)

    Documentary short

    The one nominee I didn’t watch in this category won. Figures!

    Film editing

    Another Oppenheimer win, not undeserved; the pacing in that movie and juggling of multiple storylines while staying coherent is not easy. My pick would have been Killers of the Flower Moon—for better or worse, the editing made a long movie bearable—but I’m not mad.

    International feature film

    This is always such a weird category. I don’t object to having more inclusion for non-Hollywood films, but the Academy uses this to silo foreign-language film while often awarding the more palatable countries. I only saw Zone of Interest in this category, but it was good quality, at least.

    Makeup and hairstyling

    That Poor Things’s win here is one of the most palatable options to me shows how bad the nominees were this year. (Thankfully, Golda and Maestro didn’t win.) But I bet they mostly won for Willem Dafoe’s visible scars, and I don’t feel uncomplicated about that. It’s deeply silly to me that Barbie didn’t get nominated here.

    Music (original score)

    I didn’t feel too strongly about any nominees this year in terms of quality; I barely noticed scores in most movies I watched, except Killers of the Flower Moon, which I found a bit obtrusive. Oppenheimer’s an okay choice; Ludwig Göransson did the music on Community and produced some Childish Gambino as a result, so I’m kind of tickled by his win here.

    Music (original song)

    What Was I Made For? was my choice and winner! Wild how young Billie Eilish is with two Oscar wins.

    I watched the I’m Just Ken performance and it was a lot of fun! I wish Jack Black’s Peaches had been nominated so that could have had a performance, too. Shame that Tenacious D’s cover of Baby One More Time can’t be eligible for next year’s awards.

    Best Picture

    Anyone paying five seconds of attention to the campaign would have known Oppenheimer was going to win here. I didn’t agree with the choice, but it could have been worse. (If you didn’t see my last Oscars post, I ranked Best Picture nominees there.)

    Production design

    Again, a Poor Things win I’m not offended by. I think Barbie and Killers of the Flower Moon were also very worthy contenders.

    Animated short film

    Didn’t manage to catch any of the nominees this year. Shame.

    Live action short film

    I only saw Henry Sugar and The After, but The After wasn’t very good, and I think Wes Anderson should have been in longer-form categories for Asteroid City instead, if he got nominated at all. Still, I can’t believe this is his first Oscar win! Maybe Bradley Cooper should go short form if he’s that thirsty for gold.


    Basically everyone who saw The Zone of Interest mentioned its sound, and it makes sense; sound was obviously crucial to its storytelling in a way that is uncommon for the average movie. It definitely would have been my pick for the category.

    Looking at the nominees, it’s interesting that multiple people are nominated for multiple movies: Tom Ozanich and Dean Zupancic both got nominated for The Creator and Maestro, and Richard King got nominated for Maestro and Oppenheimer. Hollywood really is a small world.

    Visual effects

    Decent win for Godzilla Minus One. I haven’t seen it, but it was a small team working on a small budget for a non-Hollywood film, and I’ve heard the VFX was very effective.

    This is a category that has a lot of mistreatment built in; a lot of the biggest-budget films will be effects heavy, not hire directors who have effects experience or value things like storyboarding, and exploit their employees to a ridiculous degree. Disney-Marvel’s the worst origin of the problem, so it’s impossible to see a nod for Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and not think of it.

    Godzilla Minus One is not immune to these accusations either. This Vulture article has the director speaking directly about mistreatment in Japan and how their in-house studio handled things. (Apologies for the paywall.) With the budget and the probable timeline, it seems likely the workers weren’t paid enough, and the director being one of the winners for the VFX award after prior VFX industry experience meant he probably knew what he could get away with. I don’t want to ignore the probable problems here! That this is a good win in a Hollywood context shows how hard VFX artists have it (and also, how tough capitalism is on its workers both in the US and in Japan), not a sign of positive growth.

    I just think people should aim for better. No, Hollywood shouldn’t have budgets in the hundreds of millions and pay a bunch of VFX teams peanuts with dangerous amounts of crunch built in. But a small team doing a lot of a film’s heavy lifting should get a decent chunk of upfront budget and good backend, too. Pay labor what they’re worth, and don’t kill them in the process!

    Writing (adapted screenplay)

    American Fiction was my choice for this category, so I was happy to see its win! A lot of films have one element that stands above the rest, and for me, American Fiction’s was in its writing. Which is appropriate for a movie about writing. It’s definitely a writers-love-stories-about-writing win.

    Writing (original screenplay)

    Anatomy of a Fall wasn’t my choice, but I’m not surprised it won. Screenplay often goes to writer-directors who get nominated for things like Best Picture/Director but have no real chance at those awards in a particular year. Amount of nominations and how many are in the ~big categories matters for overall wins. Anatomy of a Fall had Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress besides. Screenplay is kind of an honorable mention win, in that context? This also applies to American Fiction a bit: it got Best Picture and Lead/Supporting Actor nods.

    That’s not to say neither screenplay was deserving! Even if I wasn’t into Anatomy of a Fall, I thought it was trying interesting things. And a lot of nominations is no guarantee; Maestro was just bad, and its lack of wins despite nominations suggests that I’m not the only one who thought so. But the Academy loves politics and bigotry more than quality sometimes. Like, I thought Past Lives was a better screenplay than Anatomy of a Fall, but it didn’t get a director nod or any acting nods, and that happening when it was made by a Korean-Canadian director with a Korean-Canadian female character at its center is not a coincidence. Anatomy of a Fall had a female cowriter (who was also nominated for Director), so it’s an easy Diversity Win! for the Academy to point toward.

    Otherwise, it’s worth mentioning that this was an oddly-controversial category this year. I’d like to think May December’s diminished chances for this award and more awards broadly was because of the ethical qualms I mentioned in my broad 2023 movies post, but I don’t give Hollywood that much credit. May December was deliberately mocking the industry in a less-friendly way than American Fiction, and I think that’s what killed it.

    And I saw the Variety article about The Holdovers’s alleged plagiarism right after I put up my Oscars post, of course. (Hat tip to Sara for the link.) I haven’t done a comparison of the two sources myself, but if you’re interested, there’s a comparison document at the bottom. The behind-the-scenes on this was happening right around voting time, and the article’s drop was a big “this is why it isn’t winning” banner.

    A couple last thoughts

    I saw a lot of people say this was a good awards season, and I disagree. The Oscars deferred to a lot of its worst instincts on the majority of its predictable wins (of which there were far too many, if you like a good upset) and its surprises. I didn’t enjoy watching most of the nominees. The word “value” made it into a lot of my reviews, for better or worse.

    Obviously, it’s still early in the year, but I don’t have a lot of hope next year’s Oscars will be any better. COVID and bad practices around short-term illness/long-term disability are still affecting production (even if no one wants to think so), the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes have changed this year’s release schedule as much as last year’s, and studio heads would rather strike finished films out of existence rather than share them, to name just a few of the industry’s structural problems. Maybe there will be some actual thought about what’s going on; I do think there were some hints in this year’s nominees that Hollywood knows things are broken. But even if major course corrections happened quickly, it won’t be fast enough to save next year’s award season.

    But I don’t want to be right about this. I love the craft and creative expression of filmmakers, and there are always worthy contenders that get overlooked every year. There’s plenty of room for my doomer instincts to be wrong. I sincerely hope they are.

  • A golden background with white text that reads "Rory's 2023: Oscars".

    Rory’s 2023: Oscars

    As I said in my main 2023 movies post, I had grander plans for my giant Oscar-nominee essay. (It stayed giant throughout.) But I found myself really slogging through the whole process. I cut a lot of my greater thoughts on Hollywood and the world in the interests of getting through.

    While I’m not the person for a full deep dive, a recent Accented Cinema video included a good summary of everything I’m feeling right now:

    People aren’t just angry at the films, or Hollywood…people are frustrated by corporate arrogance, with the industry’s inability to progress. Just as Japan once did, people in the US are facing economic hardships, feeling helpless amidst political incompetence culminating in events that shook the country. The malaise of society continues, but Hollywood is still making movies like it was 2008.

    (The movies) are like an annoying puddle on the floor. It’s not the puddle that’s the problem. It’s the roof that’s leaking.

    Let’s get into it.

    How do the Oscars work?

    The voter base for these awards is not diverse. I’m not even talking about marginalized identities, although that also follows; the Academy is made up of a slice of working industry professionals, with most only being able to vote in the category for which they work (so, actors in acting, directors in direction, and so on) as well as Best Picture. Hardly an objective measure of quality by any means, never mind the pitfalls of trying to be objective about a subjective medium.

    I follow award season like other people would follow a sports postseason; the movie itself matters less than the producers or studios running award campaigns. Thomas Flight has a good video that covers some of why campaigns and awards end up the way they do in Hollywood. As Bong Joon Ho famously said, the Oscars aren’t “an international film festival. They’re very local.”

    That’s not to undervalue the ways Hollywood deliberately uses film as soft power and propaganda overseas, of course. I just find it useful to keep in mind that a lot of people make money off the idea that Hollywood’s more universal than every other film industry around the world, and that the Oscars are the final word on everything. They’re not.

    How much did I watch?

    I almost made it to the halfway mark this year (using this Oscars Gauntlet as a guide). Probably my best yet! I had it in mind to push for 100% completion, but several nominees were impossible to find in time. (For instance, Animated Feature nominee Robot Dreams just got a limited US theatrical release in the last few days that’s nowhere near me.) Once I realized that, I figured prioritizing Best Picture and what I wanted to see made more sense than seeing everything.

    Other nominees I wanted to catch and haven’t include Napoleon, Godzilla Minus One, and The Boy and the Heron. I think I can say confidently that The Boy and the Heron should have gotten broader category recognition even without seeing it, though; it was not only on a lot of critics’ year-end lists, but I saw it in number one on multiple occasions, and I know how good Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films are more broadly.


    Good acting: Even when I wasn’t into a movie, I was really blown away by performances this year. The casts of Rustin, The Color Purple, and May December in particular were absolutely top-notch, when we’re looking at films that didn’t get Best Picture nods. Past Lives and The Holdovers had my favorite Best Picture casts, with Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Lily Gladstone (from Killers of the Flower Moon) being well-deserving of their frontrunner statuses in their respective categories.

    Production design, costumes, and overall art direction: For all my complaints about both movies, Barbie and Poor Things had some of the most beautiful aesthetics I’ve seen in film in a long time. The Holdovers also did a great job with their vintage set dressing, and Killers of the Flower Moon did incredible storytelling through their costumes and small-town look.

    Cinematography: The Zone of Interest took a really fascinating approach to their shots and technology usage, in a way that served their story well. I also think all the nominees for this category aren’t completely misplaced, which is always nice. I don’t even hate Maestro’s nomination here, although the overall construction of the film was sloppy in a way that wasted their lovely shots.

    Music: What Was I Made For? was one of my top songs of 2023 that’s bleeding into 2024, and despite my general apathy toward I’m Just Ken, the “can you feel the kenergy?” part is a bop that I wish was separate from the rest of the song. The cover of P.I.M.P. in Anatomy of a Fall was my favorite part of that movie; it’s on my top tracks of 2024 list already. It was also nice to have one last ride with John Williams for an Indiana Jones movie, and as much crap as I give Maestro, one of the best parts of that movie was its music (probably because it was Leonard Bernstein pieces).

    Writing: While I was more unimpressed with screenplay nominees than usual, Original Screenplay was generally most solid: Past Lives, The Holdovers, and May December were all very worthy nominees. American Fiction is my favorite on the Adapted side.

    Shorts: I watched more shorts than usual this year! I honestly would have gone for completion if a lot of shorts hadn’t been yanked from easy accessibility post-nomination; I’m going to prioritize catching the shortlisted nominees next year for that reason (and to catch the ones that don’t make the cut). While I definitely watched a couple baffling selections, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of flaws when you only spend twenty or thirty minutes watching. My two favorites were Island in Between and Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó in Documentary Short; I watched more Documentary Shorts than anything.


    The focus on mass murderers: I calculated time spent watching Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and The Zone of Interest, and it came out to over eight hours of watch time. I can make arguments for and against each movie’s approach and usage of their lens, and I wouldn’t even say I got nothing out of them, but it was also miserable and had major negative impacts on my mental health. I don’t think what I got out of the experience was worth it, to the point where I’m probably going to allow myself more wiggle room should Best Picture have a lot of these kinds of nominees in the future.

    Self-serving biopics: This is pretty much the definition of Oscar bait. It’s bad every year (Bohemian Rhapsody, anyone?), and this year was no different. Even my favorite of the bunch, Rustin, was produced by the Obamas and closed with a mention of the Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Obama (without mentioning his name or that he was involved with the film, of course). Nyad seemed to have no interest in the fact that Diana Nyad probably lied about a lot of what she did. And Maestro…well, I’ll get to that one.

    Inclusion 101: There’s a big feeling of “we should be better about this by now” this year. I found myself defending Barbie despite my disappointment in it because Poor Things’s view on women made Barbie look downright deep. I spent less time thinking about how Oppenheimer should have cast a Jewish actor to play a Jewish lead, and more about how two other nominated movies gave gentile actors nose prosthetics to play Jewish characters. How can we make real progress if our lauded thought exercises insist on, at best, underdeveloped approaches, and stick to tired bigotry at worst?

    Before I rank

    I’ve second-guessed myself a lot on these rankings. If I had more time, I’d shuffle around the middle movies a lot. (I feel pretty solid on 1-2 and 9-10’s placements.) Where I landed is me trying to balance more objective quality with my more subjective reactions, but the end result left the mass murderers movies and some of the movies about women grouped in a way I’m not satisfied with. Do I think Anatomy of a Fall is worse than Oppenheimer? No. Do I think they’re comparable movies? Not really.

    Short version: I know this is flawed, and I can’t think of a better way to rank right now that reflects my sincere reactions. At least this is more nuanced than just awarding one the best trophy.

    Best Picture, ranked

    10. Maestro

    Winner for my least-favorite Best Picture nominee and my least-favorite overall film of the year. The shortest review I can give it is crude, but it’s also the best way I can think of to describe it: imagine me making a jerk-off motion with one hand.

    Most movies have a large group on which to lay blame or give praise, so while I often center directors in film discussion, I rarely want to talk only one person when it comes to a movie. Unfortunately for Bradley Cooper, he directed, cowrote, has second billing in the cast, and coproduced, so his outsized influence means I feel pretty comfortable saying that this pretty much soured me on him forever.

    The movie is less a narrative than it is than a cry for awards attention, at the expense of real people’s lives and identities. Bernstein’s attractions to men while being married to woman was treated with a sloppy disdain that has no place in our modern climate, where few people need an excuse to be bigoted toward the LGBTQIA+. Never mind that these were real people living in complicated times. Who cares, as long as Bradley Cooper gets to make the awards circuit?

    9. Poor Things

    As mentioned above, I love the way Poor Things looked. There was a playful retro sci-fi vibe, with art nouveau and a general silent-film air mixed in. Delightful.

    That’s where my enjoyment ends. Like a lot of sci-fi, not only does the main character fit the born sexy yesterday trope, that’s basically all the movie is. I grew up watching Joss Whedon; I’ve seen this kind of misogyny a lot, and it’s boring. Yorgos Lanthimos has done more interesting work than this. I don’t remember loving The Favourite, but I certainly didn’t hate it on this level, and I’m still thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer after watching it a couple weeks ago, even if I’m not sure I liked it. (I never got through The Lobster, but I’m thinking of trying again.)

    That Emma Stone is a possible upset for Best Actress deeply frustrates me because I think The Favourite and Easy A are her only solid performances. (Don’t get me started on La La Land.) I wouldn’t call her performance bad, exactly. But I think her taste in roles is poor, and Poor Things is a great example.

    8. Barbie

    At its core, Barbie is a popular toy commercial. I say this as someone who has enjoyed the craft of commercials a lot; I’m far from the only US person to have grown up watching the Super Bowl to see what kind of money corporations will throw at ad exes. I also say this because Barbie opened my eyes to the girlboss aspirations of Greta Gerwig. See this quote from the New Yorker:

    Gerwig, meanwhile, was looking to move beyond the small-scale dramas she was known for. “Greta and I have been very consciously constructing a career,” Barber explained. “Her ambition is to be not the biggest woman director but a big studio director. And Barbie was a piece of I.P. that was resonant to her.”

    After I saw Barbie, I immediately realized that there was an undercurrent of job and financial success as both power and life satisfaction brought forward in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I rewatched Lady Bird over the last couple months and of course it was there too: a lower-middle-class teen social climbing and receiving the ire of her struggling mother.

    That’s not to say that Gerwig doesn’t have the skill and craft to do interesting things in this territory, or that she hasn’t. But Barbie is a very cynical escalation of this theme, and while I find it very watchable—I saw it once in the theater and twice at home, making it the Best Picture nominee I’ve watched most—I always end up feeling low when I finish.

    The crassness of the IP is not a dealbreaker for me. I love Life in the Dreamhouse, and I just watched Barbie’s take on Princess and the Pauper for the first time in the last year. But in those, a Barbie (or two!) got to be the star in a cast largely comprised of women. It’s sad when women don’t get be the standout even in their own commercials. It’s sadder that Barbie is the big Feminism Win! in a very bad year for women.

    Femininity and womanhood, as expressed through Barbie, isn’t given the specificity and attention that Ken’s crisis of manhood receives. (The “what if women were oppressors?” storyline is a little better than I’ve seen it in a lot of places, but I’m no fan of that trope, either.) I get what they’re going for, as Barbie represents aging into a more complex view of the world, but it’s just not a good enough commercial to hide the fact that it wants me to buy a Kenough sweater when I get home.

    7. Anatomy of a Fall

    This one didn’t quite click for me. It was a movie structured around a trial, and I liked every scene that didn’t take place in the courtroom. It’s not that they were bad—although I was absolutely lacking context for the way French courts and French courtroom dramas play out—but I liked the actors playing off each other outside of court so much better. What they were going for was interesting conceptually: litigating the end of a relationship through a trial and showing the sexism inherent in a setting like this worked really well together. But I’m not sure if I was supposed to be so completely on the side of the main character. After the music use in the first scene, I was all in with her, and the length of the movie felt redundant after that.

    What a year for Sandra Hüller, huh? Leading roles in two Best Picture nominees, and her portrayal of wife was dramatically different in each one. I get why she was nominated for Anatomy of a Fall; The Zone of Interest would be a hard one to pick up acting noms. I hope this year’s Oscars expands her opportunities for work in the US. I’d love to see her in more.

    Best dog actor absolutely goes to the dog in this one.

    6. Oppenheimer

    It feels to me like Christopher Nolan’s ability to execute a story is getting better over time, and his ability to pick a story is getting worse. (His lack of ability to depict women is at a constant, although Emily Blunt did a good job with what little she was given.)

    This is the lowest in the mass-murderer trio for me because of how friendly the movie is toward Oppenheimer as a figure. Two-thirds of the runtime has some interesting, if flawed, perspectives on a scientist who takes on a project without fully realizing what the implications of that project would be…and then there’s a big u-turn into “look how mean the politicians were to him”. I was never convinced that ruining his career was a bad thing, but I even cared less about that than the way the movie zoomed in on him for so long and then zoomed out when it was time to reckon with what he’d done (or enabled, as part of the US war machine). Don’t get me wrong; the bomb test and the scene after the bombs have been dropped on Japan are top-notch. But in a year with The Zone of Interest, the way Oppenheimer deflects is cowardly.

    I think Hollywood’s in a place where they’re trying to figure out how to depict atrocity without directly exploiting the pain of those affected. That Oppenheimer is the general Best Picture frontrunner doesn’t give me a lot of hope that anyone will learn. But I do find it hopeful that it’s a crowd favorite, and that it made a lot of money alongside Barbie. This is the blockbuster version of complicated fare, but people want more complicated fare! (I think that’s true of Barbie as well.) That’s a good thing.

    My initial Oppenheimer review is long enough that, if you haven’t read it, it might be worth a peek. You can see it on Letterboxd here.

    5. Killers of the Flower Moon

    I think I’ve only enjoyed one Martin Scorsese movie, and that was The Departed when it first came out. (I’ve never gotten through a second watch.) I watched Wolf of Wall Street and hated it, and I thought The Irishman was watchable except for how distracting the deaging techniques were. I don’t have a full career retrospective under my belt, but I have enough familiarity that I think Killers of the Flower Moon feels like growth. I respect that so much. I talk a lot about where we should be as a society, and if everyone was trying to learn and change into their 80s, we’d all be so much better off.

    I read the book last year after the (wildly-good) teaser trailer dropped, and I’m glad I had that context. The book’s big flaw is a love affair with the proto-FBI agent. Initially, that was going to be the framework for the film adaptation, and Leonardo DiCaprio was going to be the agent. But the focus shifted toward Ernest Burkhart, husband of Mollie Burkhart and one of the men most responsible for the crimes that made it to trial, at the urging of his granddaughter. (Scorsese talked about it on Colbert, but I find Margie Burkhart’s perspective the most interesting, as a relative of both murderer and murdered.)

    Killers of the Flower Moon has a lot of good choices. Lily Gladstone is my favorite; I looked up Certain Women after watching, which is the movie that inspired her casting, and was blown away. Mollie is a character who has to represent the pain of a tribe and group of people largely, and nothing about this movie would have worked for me without her, or without the broader Osage and indigenous involvement in the making of the film. All of my favorite scenes center Osage: the death of Mollie’s mother, the group meeting, Mollie and her sisters talking about men.

    (I’ve seen people calling Lily Gladstone in Best Actress as category fraud based on screen time, and I could not disagree more. Considering how long this post is, I’ll spare you my full rant, but counting minutes to determine lead vs. supporting is a deeply-flawed metric.)

    When I’m thinking about why you would make any of the mass-murderer trio of films, I feel like Killers of the Flower has the most applicable story to the average white person. Bare minimum, I think most Americans outside Oklahoma hadn’t heard about the Osage murders (although that could be my atrocious US history education talking). But also, Ernest was the closest to a regular guy in all three movies: exploited by the military, abused by richer relatives, has a brief period of peace when he marries well. None of it changes the fact that he was violent and murderous, and even if he hadn’t taken part, the whole town was still using racism and ableism to steal from the living and hide the dead.

    Unfortunately, that’s where the movie also fails for me most. Even in the book, which I would also say was written for a white audience, the Osage were the priority in a way the film never quite pulled off. I agree with Osage language consultant Christopher Cote’s take; this was an Osage story made for people who aren’t Osage. There was so much time where DiCaprio and Robert De Niro vamped for the camera, or white male character actors talked about killing Osage, that could have easily been trimmed without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

    I think Scorsese made good decisions to reorient the movie and involve the Osage with the process, but it’s fair to ask why the Osage don’t get full say over what’s told and how it’s told. Otherwise, it’s just more white people making money off of and gawking over their pain.

    4. The Zone of Interest

    Which leads me to a big reason that Zone of Interest gets to be the highest ranked of the mass-murderer trio: director Jonathan Glazer is Jewish, and he understood the gravity of making a Holocaust movie from the perspective of the Nazis. I can’t recommend this interview enough if you’ve seen the movie. I’ll quote the part that sticks out to me the most:

    There was a single camera roll of film in the Auschwitz archive, likely taken by Höss himself, of parties and children.

    “And this is a happy family in a back garden getting on with their lives,” he says of the shots. “There’s no evidence in this roll of film that the camp wall was in fact the garden wall. He didn’t shoot it. So that tells you a lot.”

    Moments like these, by Glazer’s own admission, drove him close to abandoning “Zone” as detrimental to his mental health. “It’s just too much darkness, too much weight, too much responsibility,” he recalls. “And you begin to question your motives and it’s a sh— place to find yourself. And I remember my wife said to me, ‘But your job is to turn that camera around and shoot that wall that they didn’t shoot. That’s exactly what you’re doing there.’”

    The Zone of Interest has no love affair with its fictionalized versions of murderers. When the film is at its best, it’s daylight horror, playing house as violence. It’s not a neat narrative, but a collection of stomach-roiling images that become even worse when you realize what greater atrocity they’re not showing. It’s a balance that’s hard to strike, conveying the full depth without exploiting the people within, but The Zone of Interest manages it better than the others in the mass-murderer trio.

    My favorite part is the deliberate choice to bend time within the movie. The way cameras are stationed in the house gives it a very modern feel, with actors passing through and not focusing any particular way. Sequences in night vision with a Polish girl dropping apples where those in Auschwitz can find them both keeps the modern feel and inverts the bright colors of the Höss house. The ending literally jumps to present day and back again in a way that will stick with me for years.

    But the movie takes a detour at the end away from Auschwitz, and the movie loses some of its effectiveness. We see bureaucratic meetings leading to death in the other movies, too; the line in Oppenheimer about not bombing Osaka because one of the officials honeymooned there was one of the most chilling moments in that film. There needs to be proximity for experiential horror to work, a continued investment in its images.

    I didn’t want more; honestly, I could barely handle what I got. The Zone of Interest was 105 minutes versus Oppenheimer’s 181 and Killers of the Flower Moon’s 206, and since I watched it last (and am now writing about it last out of the three), I had little stamina for a very challenging film. Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon were very watchable, but I’m not sure they should have been.

    3. American Fiction

    That brings me to American Fiction, which is deliberately about telling the stories of the Black community in a way palatable to the masses outside. The settings of publishing and Hollywood make it a very inside-baseball movie on the surface, but considering the push to make everyone a brand in the modern world, it’s worth talking about commodifying yourself and others in your community, especially ones more economically disadvantaged. Is there truth to be found in these gross exaggerations? Are you doing more harm than good? Does it matter, when more money doesn’t equal enough money, or change the fact that you are marginalized?

    I’ll be honest; I need to (and want to) give this movie another watch because I didn’t quite realize what was happening until the end, and it changed my entire perspective on the rest of the story. (In a good way! The cast wasn’t clicking for me initially, but now I know what they were doing.) But I can do that because it isn’t a movie mired in misery, despite some darker moments, and that’s one thing that increased behind-the-camera representation allows: an understanding of when and how tone can be lightened.

    In a year with a lot of success with counter programming, I think American Fiction’s inclusion in Best Picture is very funny, in a way that supports the thesis of the movie. That’s all you can ask of a satire, I think! I also love that Jeffrey Wright got to lead a movie, and Sterling K. Brown got a Supporting Actor nod. I hope this is the first of many for them both.

    2. The Holdovers

    “History is not merely the past, Mr. Tully. It’s an explanation of the present.”

    (I quoted this from the screenplay, so the movie’s version might be different. Didn’t get a chance to check.)

    There’s nothing subtle about The Holdovers. It wants you to see what it’s like to be vulnerable and exploited when everyone around you is rich, to be alone when everyone else has family. But mostly, it wants you to see that there’s a way through, by being there for each other.

    It would be easy for this subject matter and approach to get syrupy or seem too flat. But not here. We see characters’ pain and happiness, and the journey is treated seriously. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the favorite to win in her category, and it makes perfect sense; her character and performance are the heart of the movie. (One of her scenes also made me cry more than any other nominee did this year, which is saying something.) But the small ensemble’s all top-notch. I don’t think Paul Giamatti has a real chance at Best Actor, but it’s a shame because I honestly liked his performance more than Cillian Murphy’s this year.

    While I get why people love this movie—I did, too!—I don’t get people saying they’re adding it to the Christmas-movie rotation. Watching this in January was almost too much of a downer for me, and that’s even considering how it ends on a hopeful note. Maybe people are just more resilient than I am.

    1. Past Lives

    Past Lives is generally straightforward and quiet, a triptych of periods in main-character Nora’s life as she moves away from Korea and toward her aspirations. She reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung, practices her rusty Korean, and marries her New York boyfriend Arthur. The end of the movie reunites Nora with Hae Sung and introduces Arthur to a part of his wife that he’s never gotten to really see before.

    I’ve seen people trying to dissect the men’s characterizations (or worse, calling them flat), which goes a completely different direction than my reading. Hae Sun and Arthur are Nora’s cultural experiences and life choices, both the path taken and the path left behind made beautiful through the lens of romance. (The movie itself plays with the stock-guy idea; Arthur is selling a book called Boner at one point.) Hae Sun is the pining for the past that you know would be a poor fit, but also captures a part of you that no one in your new circumstances can see. Arthur is the support and intimacy that wants to understand what you say in another language in your sleep.

    Past Lives loves and respects women in a way no other Best Picture nominee could manage this year, both in its story and its choice of genre. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but after looking at everything else, it really is. I’m grateful there was a pocket of quiet and peace, and a soft tearjerker, amidst a flawed and turbulent group of nominees.

    Thanks for reading!

    We did it, kids! 2023 is officially wrapped up. If you missed the previous posts, here they are:

    Movies (part one): A brief look at my Letterboxd stats, and some other year-end movie recaps.
    Movies (part two): A general top ten of movies overall, with some other highs and lows.
    Music: Artist and song favorites taken from my Spotify Wrapped, Apple Music Replay, and general YouTube usage.
    TV: Old rewatches, shows that finished in 2023 that I watched, continuing shows, and a Star Trek section.
    Books: General stats, honorable mentions, and a top ten curated with help from my Storygraph.
    Video games: Things I played on and off Steam, and some Steam stats.

  • White text on a purple background that reads "Rory's 2023: Movies (pt 2)".

    Rory’s 2023: Movies (part two)

    My initial plans for this post were big (for me). I assembled a list of every movie I watched in 2023 and carefully ranked it on Letterboxd, with four basic tiers and multiple drafts of reviews of each movie. The list was getting a bit unwieldy with time, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker. I looked over the movies in mid-February, readying myself to carefully rerank and reevaluate in time for early March.

    And then I realized most of them were solidly mid and not worth the effort.

    This is part of a greater crisis, honestly. I always spend the beginning of a calendar year playing catch-up with the films from the year prior; the way a bunch of movies are dumped at the end of the year means you have to if you’re like me (unable to go to theaters much and no access to screeners). I have never had such a miserable time catching-up as I did this year.

    I know Hollywood execs would love to blame the strikes for a weird 2023 in film, but the creative labor on the ground read the writing on the wall and were trying to help. I’m glad they got most of what they asked for. It’s probably not enough to fix real structural problems. (Also not labor’s fault.)

    Currently, I’m not up to the task of doing a full Hollywood accounting, so we’re going lowkey for these posts. For my general recap of 2023 movies, I’ll cover some highs, some lows, and my general favorites. I’m including some Oscar nominees here because they don’t really fit in the structure of the bigger Oscar post.

    A selection of 2023 movies I want to see and haven’t (as of writing these posts)

    Priscilla, The Iron Claw, Godzilla Minus One, The Boy and the Heron, Dream Scenario, Joy Ride, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, Napoleon, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Wish, Beyonce’s Renaissance, Dicks: The Musical


    Saltburn: A major cultural zeitgeist that stole from better movies without saying something unique. Definitely the work of someone posh addressing class, and that’s not a compliment. At least I got to hear Murder on the Dancefloor for the first time. But I don’t begrudge younger audiences enjoying it! Every generation should have a Cruel Intentions, you know? I hope it inspires them to look up movies in a similar vein.

    Renfield: Do you know how hard it is for me to dislike a vampire movie, much less a Dracula movie? I think saying “Awkwafina is a cop” conveys some of my difficulties with it, but also the movie was trying to be four or five movies at the same time without a good ending. But also: I enjoyed watching it at the time, but every time I think back, I feel exasperated. Sigh.

    Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who would put this as a “low”, and I’m at peace with that. I didn’t see this theatrically, which meant that I not only had my enjoyment of the first movie to contend with, but the enormous hype the second release engendered. That it also is only half a story is a big part of the problem here; maybe I’ll reevaluate this once I have the next part, and I know how everything lands. But it was too long and overstuffed, which was a direct reflection of its terrible working conditions. Can’t say I’ll make the sequel a theatrical priority unless changes are made.


    Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: Most of this movie is what you’d expect of Disney zombifying old, beloved properties. Despite that, I loved the end in a way that I still reflect upon fondly? I can’t talk about it without spoiling the whole thing (whatever that’s worth), so check my Letterboxd review for the details.

    The Marvels and Blue Beetle: I skipped a lot of superhero media this year, but both DC and Marvel pulled off great stories with BIPOC families as superhero support systems recently. I also loved Blue Beetle’s placement in a fictional version of Miami, with an added neon flare and use of 90s aesthetics as a contrast to the modern day. I wish the Khan family had been a bigger part of The Marvels, but it was a nice sequel to the Ms. Marvel show that didn’t feel too tonally different.

    Gran Turismo: As far as commercials with a thin veneer of cinema went in 2023, this was one of my favorites. A racing movie that’s mostly guys having chemistry together (with the occasional woman for Diversity Win! or We’re Straight I Swear) is very 2005, but sometimes it’s fun to imagine Ad Exec Legolas and Racing Daddy Hopper smooching.

    The Little Mermaid: Halle Bailey is as Disney princess as they come. I liked her so much, I’m tempted to watch this again (although I’d probably just watch the second half).

    Five Nights at Freddy’s: I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the franchise, but I definitely enjoyed watching this in the theater. I also liked that I got a second viewing in at home right away because of its simultaneous release on Peacock. I doubt most movies will do anything like this in the future, but I wish they would.

    Top ten

    10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

    Considering the trailer they had in front of Barbie, I almost didn’t see this one. It felt like they were toeing the line between “girls stink” and “counter-programming” and landing more on the former than the latter in that pass? But it was a good year for Ayo Edibiri, and the thought of her as April O’Neil was too good to pass up.

    I could say a lot of the reason this works for me is nostalgia bait, but that’s only part of the story. I played with Barbies and had multiple Mario experiences as a kid; neither 2023 movie adaptation was more than casually watchable for me. In my childhood, TMNT was exclusively the 1990 movie that I vaguely tolerated because Sara rewatched it over and over again. I can’t tell you which turtle’s which. I always mix up the names Splinter and Shredder! (I had to double-checked the names when I wrote this.) Mostly, I just really liked that this iteration of Turtles felt like teens I know today. I always thought the ‘90s Turtles seemed older than teens to me, although my solidly-childhood age might have shaped that view. Either way, I definitely believe 2023’s Turtles are middle schoolers, and charmingly so.

    Also, I thought the animation style was pleasantly grungy and tactile. Not an easy feat in 3D animation, or for someone who gets easily queasy when looking at animation broadly! (Studio Ghibli makes me queasy. It’s tragic.) That, combined with a lovable overall cast and solid story, made this a good family watch.

    I should also add that I watched with a nine-year-old who happily bounced during the action sequences. That’s five stars in his book!

    9. Polite Society

    The funny thing about my inclusion of Polite Society is that I came away more frustrated than anything when I watched, but not because the film or any of the creatives did anything wrong; I saw a trailer months in advance that spoiled the whole movie. I never would have known about the movie if it hadn’t been for the trailer! But it spoiled all the major twists and turns, which is not good when two-thirds of the movie is centered around a bit of a mystery.

    But Polite Society’s here because it was a fun movie, and I think back on it fondly. I’m a sucker for female-led action, especially when the lead is scrappy and a bit rough around the edges. It’s one of the reasons The Marvels is a high for me this year; just watching women getting to lead anything feels like a breath of fresh air. That Polite Society is also British-Pakistani gives it a cultural perspective I don’t see very much, as a white person based in the US. But mostly, it’s the energy of the film that made me a fan. This is what a good popcorn movie should look like!

    8. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

    I’m different than a lot of my circle, both in-person and online, in that my direct experiences with DND are brief at best. I haven’t played more than a trial run or two, I find Baldur’s Gate 3 a bit overwhelming (although it is a 2024 goal to get to an ending), and I haven’t watched any of the popular shows like Critical Role or Dimension 20 or listened to any podcasts or what have you. I say this because I heard from multiple sources that people liked DND:HAT because it felt like a DND game without the table parts. That meant very little to me, and I can’t comment on their use of classes or locations or whatever feels like a failed roll.

    But I liked DND:HAT anyway! It’s a fun fantasy romp with a good cast and a lot of sequences that had delightful shots. That the core emotional story is centered around a fridged Black woman is the main reason this isn’t higher on the list; I honestly wasn’t sure I liked the movie on first watch because I hated that choice so much. That I have rewatched two or three times since and added it high on my list of movies for the year speaks to the overall quality of the rest of the movie (and yes, the inconsistent quality of films overall, but what can you do about that). I hope they make a couple silly sequels and give more actors a chance to play with the material.

    7. May December

    Honestly, this was top two or three on my list when I first watched it. I love Todd Haynes movies; he’s a director that understands film history and pop culture, and he made possibly my all-time favorite movie, Velvet Goldmine. Charles Melton’s performance is still in my top two or three for year and was far more worthy of awards recognition than a lot of names that got nominated.

    So why is it at number seven? Because I found out after the movie how directly they lifted from actual Mary Kay Letourneau interviews, and I read this interview with survivor Vili Fualaau and found out he wasn’t consulted for the movie. It feels like both the movie’s existence and press tour around it probably compounded Fualaau’s trauma, and they didn’t even talk to him about it? This is not the way you want art to reflect life, and vice versa.

    (Also, that link made me realize that Fualaau is only a couple years older than I am, which was a shock and a half. It definitely put the real-life events into clearer perspective.)

    But the movie still spoke to me. I was around abusive adults as a kid, especially ones who used the arts as a shield or to facilitate their abuse, and saw other kids around me preyed upon. May December is one of the few films I’ve seen that covers the topic in a way that’s more complicated than the usual media depictions of toxic stage parents or what have you.

    Anyway, its inclusion and position here is a reflection of my mixed feelings. Yes, I got a lot out of it, and I think a lot of the craft involved was very good. No, I’m not sure it’s worth making a real person’s life worse, and Hollywood is structured terribly in regard to ethics, trauma, and children. I don’t think reaching out to the real man involved was too much to ask, bare minimum.

    6. The Holdovers

    Since this is a Best Picture nominee, see that post for more.

    5. Past Lives

    Another Best Picture nominee that gets more later!

    4. A Thousand and One

    I’m so glad I prioritized A Thousand and One even though it didn’t get any Oscar noms. I’ve done this catch-up period stuff enough to know that the Oscars covers some ground, but there are always major omissions, and works by marginalized voices are far more likely to fall by the wayside. I watched this the second I saw it on Prime Video. Along with Past Lives, it was a very good year for debut filmmakers!

    One of the things this list conveys is that I like character-centric dramas, and A Thousand and One definitely qualifies. Teyana Taylor was the movie’s heart in a small ensemble, and I can think of several Oscar nominees I would have bumped to give her a nod. I can’t talk too much about the story itself because experiencing the movie was one of my favorite parts, but the ideas of family and racial gentrification were developed in interesting and complicated ways. The production design was fantastic, too; it’s not easy to show changes over time, especially in a smaller-budget movie, but they pulled it off beautifully.

    Mostly, I hope this movie’s success at Sundance will give director A.V. Rockwell more opportunities. This is a filmmaker I want to see more from.

    3. Beau is Afraid

    My first reaction when I watched Beau is Afraid was “cool movie, having a major panic attack, will never watch it again”. When I calmed down, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have never seen a movie that captured my daily internal experience so well. (If you’ve seen the movie too: yes, I’ve done a lot of therapy, don’t worry.) I can replay most of the movie vividly in my head, which is no easy feat for something so intense and so long. But it’s also really funny? Beau is Afraid didn’t miss that the best comedy is found from distortion and exaggeration, and what’s intrusive thinking if not exaggeration?

    Beau is Afraid also takes generational trauma in relation to all of this very seriously. The generational trauma I inherited comes from a different source: a combination of “general US poverty”, “untreated mental whatever”, and “Irish diaspora”, versus this film’s “Jewish diaspora” and “parental abandonment” and whatever else. Probably no one wants to find common ground in this particular way. But since I have, I’m super grateful this movie exists. I might even buy a physical copy to keep as part of a “break glass when I’m too stuck in my head” toolkit. I don’t know that there’s any better way to have perspective on how silly your brain can be than having someone else show so many of the same pitfalls and kind of hold your hand about it.

    2. Bottoms

    Year of Ayo Edibiri continues! I’ve only logged Bottoms twice on my Letterboxd, but I’m reasonably sure I’ve watched it three or four times at this point. I admit, there’s a bit right before the climax where the movie loses steam and a bit of a grasp on its zany tone, so I skip around sometimes. But that’s one flaw in an otherwise fantastic comedy, where queer people get to be ugly and untalented and still beat the crap out of people.

    There isn’t much to say beyond that! Fun build to the ending, charming cast (with a surprisingly good Marshawn Lynch?), super queer in a way that I don’t get to see enough of. Everyone’s firing on all cylinders in this one.

    1. Nimona

    Most of what I could say here, I said in two different Letterboxd reviews. “kill the cop in your head: the movie” is the most succinct, but I think my second review also covers important ground:

    my favorite movie of 2023! it’s one of the few films i saw in the last year that has the courage to meet the moment where it is in terms of narrative and themes, and it does it with a fun frankness well-suited to its family vibe. a toxic system only survives by creating monsters to look away from the rot within, and when we teach children fear, the rot survives. children can be just as dangerous behind a sword as anyone. but we all have the chance to learn, and if we want to survive, growth and love aren’t soft or meaningless. it’s all we have.

    nimona’s survival story is also emblematic of the greater dysfunction in hollywood and the us’s economic systems, in that disney ate and destroyed its original production company, and only netflix buying it meant the hard work of nimona’s artists got to be seen. how many industries are being destroyed for the sake of a handful of people who are already wealthy? how much labor has been discarded, and will continue to be discarded, in the name of tax breaks? how many people in marginalized groups will have a hand extended when the world’s eyes are there, only for the hand to be retracted the second backs are turned or there’s a hint of pressure?

    this is all connected to nimona’s narrative, too: queerness is a big reason why disney didn’t keep the movie. they reportedly objected to the surface-level inclusion of ballister/goldenloin kissing, which was probably their excuse for how queer the whole film is in every way, for the ways the model minority myth is explored, for the directness of walls getting torn down. people are losing their rights and dying in real life, but gay kissing between cartoon characters is still too much, somehow.

    i could go on, but as angry as i am about everything right now, nimona gives me hope. it validates how i see the world, and it’s a good reminder that a lot of people want everything to be better, and that’s what i ultimately take away from the movie when i watch this. we can do this. i know we can.

    What else I can add is this: I watched Nimona grow since its inception. I started following comic-creator (and film producer) ND Stevenson on Tumblr back when he was posting Lord of the Rings comics. Not only did I witness pages post, extras come to being, and a full book get published, I saw his journey as a creative blossom when he started working in animation, and I saw his autobiographical comics depict his ongoing queer experience.

    I would have loved Nimona the movie on its own; I have no doubt of that. But it’s also representative of a core part of my identity, which you could call “Tumblr queer” if you want to strip the whole thing of nuance. It’s finding community and expressing queer identity in online spaces, through creative endeavors. I was doing this a good decade before Tumblr’s existence, but Tumblr is one of the places this part of me lives on today.

    Queer expression in online spaces is under a lot of threat right now, from proposed/enacted legislations, from unchecked and unexamined bigotries, and from the gross mismanagement of online social spaces. I don’t think someone like Nate would have ever had it easy, but I’ve watched a lot of the mechanisms that supported him and others like him crumble or get destroyed in real time. That’s not to say all hope is gone! I know we’re already seeing some creatives come from places like TikTok. But it would be naive to say that things aren’t bad right now.

    Still, like I said in the above review, Nimona the movie gives us hope and potential answers, and it’s a rare success in a time and place where that’s hard to come by. It’s why I treasure it so much! And after a year like 2023, I’m glad it exists.

    Coming in the next couple days

    My Oscars recap! I watched all the Best Picture nominees and a smattering of contenders from other categories. See you then!

  • A fluffy black cat, leaning up against a brown-carpeted stair, illuminated by the sun.
    Rory Links

    Rory’s links #3: Sound it out

    Welcome back to links! Only took me three months to come back! Let’s start by collecting my initial year-end wrapup posts, if you haven’t seen them. (I spent my time and energy on these for a while instead of linkspams.)

    1. Movies pt. 1 (there will be a pt. 2 next month, along with Oscar posts)
    2. Music
    3. TV
    4. Books
    5. Video games

    I felt late posting these, but I did manage to squeeze them in right before Lunar New Year, so maybe I was right on time.

    A couple links on literacy: The Loss of Things I Took For Granted, a Slate column with a college professor that has watched literacy in their students drop over the last decade, and At a Loss for Words, about the flawed US teaching method of three cueing that has left kids and young adults struggling to read. The short version: sounding out words is a valuable skill.

    A random hobby wiki page: Did you know DND 5e allows characters to get married for an armor class boost? Why did no one get fake married in the DND movie or Baldur’s Gate 3? Wasted opportunities.

    Do you like space? Watch some documentaries and clips on NASA+. I think there’s Earth stuff on there, too.

    Totally respect if you don’t want to click Substack links, but here’s one person’s alternatives to Spotify. I’m not fully ready to ditch Apple Music in 2024, but I agree with the poor ethics of using these services and plan to prioritize buying music this year, especially for smaller artists.

    If you’re wondering why I’m bringing up Substack, the company has been really reticient about banning Nazis and white supremacists off the platform. (All the articles that came up when I searched were paywalled, like this Atlantic article, but they’re there.) Substack made a token reversal effort in January, but if we’re talking about digital ethics, moving off Substack is great to do in that regard. If you want alternatives: Egregious is WordPress + domain; Rory Learns is on Buttondown, Casey Johnson has talked on Bluesky about how She’s a Beast uses Ghost.

    JP Brammer of ¡Hola Papi! fame has an interesting column about Latino identity in the LA Times. So many good lines in this one, such as “…language, nations and identity are all ghosts with teeth, phantoms that aren’t real until they bite you and draw blood.”

    Black Twitter Remains Unbothered in Elon Musk’s X. I’ve limited my Twitter usage for a variety of reasons, both ethical and functional. In the past, I’ve also witnessed and been a part of online communities standing firm against profit machines that don’t care about people. No judgment from me (except for soulless billionaires).

    This might be paywalled if you’ve looked at New York Magazine much lately: Apple Vision Pro Owners Are Struggling to Figure Out What They Just Bought. Sounds like Apple is selling expensive VR headsets to people too cool (or work-focused) to buy already-existing VR headsets. I think there’s space for work apps on VR; I think most people buying the Vision Pro don’t have the skill to use them. Still, if Apple wants people to promo the Vision Pro, they should give one to Sara, who has VR experience and wants work apps. Just saying.

    Interesting YouTube videos recently (expanding the info box will allow you to click to a transcript, if you prefer to read):

    FD Signifier’s short take on cultural appropriation pointed out that Travis Kelce started sporting a fade because it was a way to signal that he was dating Black women. (That was pre-Swift, of course, but he hasn’t changed his hair since that started.)

    Slowly going through Variety’s latest Actors on Actors series, and I think Andrew Scott & Greta Lee’s is going to be tough to beat. Past Lives is my favorite Best Picture nominee so far (it’s on Prime Video right now), and I can’t wait to see All of Us Strangers, which I can pretty safely say got snubbed without even seeing it (but it’ll be on Hulu as of February 22nd, so I’ll speak more authoritatively about it then).

    An essay about east Asia and buying luxury. I got into cdramas a few years ago and was surprised to see how many Chinese actors/idols had deals with luxury brands. It was helpful to get perspective on how economic/social trends coalesce within collectivist cultures in this way.

    It’s hard to be remotely a US film nerd and not have heard about how Sofia Coppola ruined the Godfather Part III, but this essay put into perspective how much Francis Ford Coppola failed his daughter. It’s fascinating because only a nepo baby could have the career Sofia Coppola has after decades of (undeserved) attacks, but also, she never would have been made the face of the movie’s failure if she hadn’t been a nepo baby in the first place.

    Creative ownership and copyright have been hot topics the last few months, between tech bros stealing from artists for their fancy autocorrect, Steamboat Willie entering public domain, and hbomberguy’s big plagiarism essay, to name three prominent examples. A different essay talks about some creative copyright infringement from the past and asks where we go from here. You should mostly watch it to see Turkish Star Trek and Filipino musical Batman, if you haven’t.

  • White text on green background that reads: "Rory's 2023: Video games".

    Rory’s 2023: Video games

    I don’t track my video games super closely, but I’m playing them a ton, so here’s some quick notes cobbled from memory and my Steam Year in Review!

    Non-Steam highlights

    1. Fortnite Battle Royale (and one random Creative level I spammed for XP): I gave up on the game right before they did a reboot, but it’s impossible to talk about me gaming in 2023 and not bring it up. I loved playing with a squad and the battle pass system, if not the microtransactions baked into the whole thing.

    2. FTL and Into the Breach: I got these through free Epic Games claims years ago and clicked with them in 2023. (I then bought them in Steam so I could do the achievements there, and so I could throw Subset Games a couple bucks.) FTL is a great game, but a bit outside of my comfort/skill level? Into the Breach is way more playable.

    3. Starfield: I played this through Xbox…or I tried, anyway. I gave it about twenty hours of fighting glitches and general problems before giving up. Maybe I’ll try it again in five years, after the modding community’s had some real time with it.

    4. Vampire Survivors: I’ve never not had a big year with Vampire Survivors since it came out, but I got it on Switch for the first time in 2023 and got to play co-op with family members! In regards to the Steam version, I also got the Among Us DLC at the end of the year and was somewhat underwhelmed…for Vampire Survivors, which meant I still liked it better than most existing games.

    5. Storyteller: Did you know that Netflix has app games on mobile? I’m not sure I recommend it because a lot of the games are available through other means, but I got to play Storyteller for the first time through there, and it’s a great play with a touchscreen. And it’s quick! If you have a quiet weekend and don’t know what to do with it, Storyteller’s a great choice for simple puzzles in a fairy-tale style.

    6. The Sims 4: I wish I could quit this expensive, buggy mess. Alas, I love it. Growing Together was a great release, I liked the new lot type in For Rent, and I’ve used build items in Horse Ranch basically since day one. Maybe one day, I’ll finish a 100 baby challenge, but 2023 was not that year.

    Steam highlights

    1. Cookie Clicker: I went on an achievement-hunting tear in the later part of 2023, and I’m sure I’ll be picking up a couple throughout 2024 as well. 505 achievements earned in 2023 while only playing Oct-Dec!

    2. Super Life RPG: I got completely blindsided by this one. It ate my life Feb-Apr until I forced myself to stop playing.

    3. Star Wars Jedi Survivor: Made Starfield look downright functional, but I loved the story and love the characters, so I don’t regret playing it. I do regret paying day-one prices for it. I might go back later and see if it plays any better; it would be fun to hunt achievements.

    4. Oxenfree II: Lost Signals: The ambiance of this series is unmatched. I think I liked the first game better, and I wish I’d known going in that there were multiple possible endings, but it was overall a worthwhile sequel to a very good game.

    5. Payday 2: A deeply silly game of cops and robbers where you play as the robbers. The over-the-top slapsticky quality, combined with a generously low easy mode, is the real winner here. Definitely not free of stereotypes and bigotry, but it’s nowhere near the level of, say, a Grand Theft Auto. (I also tried Payday 3 through Xbox, which was serious and harder. No thanks.)

    6. Don’t Scream: I watched a Let’s Play of this and bought it nearly instantly; the realistic found-footage look is fantastic. This is still definitely an early-access game, though—I didn’t get a lot of the scares that the Let’s Play had—and it seems like the development is going to get bigger going forward. I’ll definitely be revisiting it in Halloween season this year.

    7. Graveyard Keeper: A cozy-style game with a darker aesthetic. Think Stardew Valley with graves. I found the learning curve very steep, but I will definitely be jumping in again when I get the cozy-game itch (and if I’m not playing Stardew Valley or this year’s early winners, Coral Island and Immortal Life).

    8. Baldur’s Gate 3: I feel like the toe I dipped in here in December was a prologue for gaming in 2024. I played some twenty hours, much of it co-op, and felt like I barely scratched the surface of a behemoth. My deepest wish for 2024 is to get a quiet week and just dive in. Maybe late winter!

    Steam stats (from Jan 1 through Dec 14)

    -40 games played, 769 achievements earned
    -New releases got 15% playtime, games over 8 years old got 19% playtime, games 1-7 years old got 66% playtime
    -November was my busiest month, with 32% of my gameplay for the year
    -I played 12% of the time with a controller

  • White text on a blue background that reads "Rory's 2023: Books".

    Rory’s 2023: Books

    Like with film, all my book tracking goes in one place (follow me on Storygraph!). Unlike with film, I don’t do a lot of reading specific to the release year, so this is a general look back at the books released in any year I read during 2023. But I think my stats got messed up somewhere; despite doing the large majority of my reading digitally, print seems to have won the pie chart, and apparently I read 6000 pages in June? Either way, there are some general trends to coax out.

    General stats

    1. First book finished in 2023 was a reread of Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. Last book finished was a first read of Lee Lai’s wonderful graphic novel Stone Fruit.

    2. My biggest genre of the year was LGBTQIA+, aided largely by access through Libby to Queer Liberation Library, although my local library has some decent offerings in that direction as well. My second biggest genre was graphic novels. I’m sure the overlap between the two genres was not small.

    If I wanted to give a quick genre overview, I would go with queer, graphic novel, SFFH, memoir, pop culture. Most of my reads in 2023 are two or more of these put together. I think YA and middle grade also show up a lot in my reads, but that’s less personal preference and more because queer lit and graphic novels (and both put together) tend to have a lot of overlap within those age ranges.

    3. My most-read author of the year was Alice Oseman, with nine books. I believe that’s five Heartstopper volumes and four stand-alone novels (Loveless, Radio Silence, I Was Born For This, and Nick and Charlie).

    4. There’s a pie chart to reflect the moods of the stories I read, which is fun to see, but three moods take up about half the chart: emotional, reflective, and lighthearted. 2023 was a transitional year, after a couple years doing the large share of my reading through audiobooks. Going with a lighter mood and reading a lot of graphic novels makes sense in this context.

    This also extends to pace, which is largely medium (49%) and fast (42%), and page number, where books fewer than 300 pages (64%) won the day.

    5. I largely read fiction in 2023 at 76%.

    Honorable mentions

    -I Think Our Son is Gay 1-4: A manga series from the point of view of a mother watching her eldest son on a journey of self-discovery in his high-school years. It’s such a kind series, both for the son and his mother, and highlights one of elements of being an adult that I find joy in: watching younger people’s specific journey through life.

    -It Came From the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror: Great anthology of essays tying lived queer experience to horror movies. For better or worse, horror is often better at reflecting marginalized experience than other genres, and even when I hadn’t seen the movie in question, I resonated with a lot of the essays here. (Definitely look up content warnings if this sounds good, though.)

    -Hi Honey, I’m Homo!: Matt Baume’s excellent look at US queer rights through mainstream Hollywood sitcoms. If you’re a member of my Patreon, you can see a list of Baume’s video essays you can watch without the book here, but I recommend his YouTube channel as a whole.

    -Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag: This comic’s look at pregnancy, queerness, and gender feels like a window into queerness of the past in so many ways, and a massively useful one.

    -Taste: My Life Through Food: This was a good year for me and celebrity memoir, to the point where this would have probably made the top ten in another year. Stanley Tucci painted a lovely picture of the stages of his life through food (or the lack thereof; he had mouth cancer that limited his ability to eat at the end of the narrative). Definitely one to listen to in audiobook form.

    -Pageboy: Another celebrity memoir (from Elliot Page) that would have made it to the top ten in a different year. If you’ve ever wondered what gender dysphoria is like, read this.

    -Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo’s Mainstream: I’ve been a longtime fan of My Chemical Romance, and I’ve made friends with a lot of people by piecing together stories of the band through video and magazine interviews. This book filled in a lot of holes for them (and other bands of interest) while ignoring other spots in favor of dry business analysis. Didn’t super enjoy those last bits, but still, very useful to me personally.

    -The Magic Fish: Trung Le Nguyen’s graphic novel blended fairy-tale elements and reality beautifully. I’m putting the book on my to-buy list because I loved the art so much!

    -Normal People: I read this so I could watch the miniseries that went along with it…and I never got to the miniseries because I kept thinking about how much I liked the book. Note to self: look up more contemporary Irish lit.

    Top ten

    10. Stone Fruit by Lee Lai: As mentioned above, this was my last book of the year, and it was wonderful. Beautiful ink-wash look; resonant story about when to stay connected to family despite messiness and when to disconnect. I love the metaphoric imagery of letting loose when you’re with your young relatives.

    9. Loveless by Alice Oseman: Good coming-of-age story featuring a character discovering her aromantic and asexual identities, and how your friends can be the primary focus in your life. The UK university setting made the story feel more alive to me.

    8. The Woman in Me by Britney Spears: Kudos to a celebrity and their ghostwriter for writing a harrowing memoir with gothic elements (part one). The language in this was simple, and the narrative moved briskly, which is exactly what something this dark needed. I’ve followed Britney’s life and career somewhat, and I was still surprised by some of what happened in this.

    7. Spare by Prince Harry: Kudos to a celebrity and their ghostwriter for writing a harrowing memoir with gothic elements (part two). I rec the ghostwriter’s perspective on cowriting the memoir and the aftermath, too. Claustrophobic read; I can only imagine how much more claustrophobic the reality was (and still is).

    6. Babel by R.F. Kuang: It seems to be a bit of a trend right now to set fantasy in real-life Western universities (I have Leigh Bardugo’s Hell Bent on my to-read list, after failing to read it while I had it checked out in January). Babel’s historical fantasy is set in Oxford and uses translation magic as metaphor for the abuses of white imperialism. Big tear-it-all-down mood.

    5. Burn it Down by Maureen Ryan: Read this toward the beginning of the WGA strike in the summer, and it was a perfect time to do it. While Burn It down covers a lot of the toxicity in Hollywood from multiple direction, it had a heavy focus on TV writers’ rooms. Even though both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have ended, we’re gonna feel their impacts on media for the next couple years, so I rec this book for a perspective on why things need a shake-up.

    4. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner: Intense memoir about culture, food, and the death of a parent. I cried buckets over it, as I will cry at the movie adaptation that is in development if it gets made. This is also a celebrity memoir, as Michelle Zauner is part of Japanese Breakfast, but it’s very different in tone from the other two on the list.

    3. Dark Heir by C.S. Pacat: I read both books in the series (so far) this year, and I’m still not sure if I liked the first one, which felt more like a setup for its ending than a story on its own. I have no such reservations about Dark Heir, which I read in a four-hour burst. Its use of reincarnation and magic in existing systems as metaphor for generational trauma is fantastic.

    2. Madly, Deeply: The Diaries of Alan Rickman by Alan Rickman: As someone who has a hard time journaling consistently, saying “this book got me to journal for months in 2023” sums up my experience reading it. A good look at an actor I admire obviously trying to work through life and better himself, without shrinking away from his flaws. My only regret is that this was published posthumously because it means he couldn’t read the audiobook. I did listen to the audiobook, though, and the narrator does a good job with a dry British tone, even if it isn’t the specific Alan Rickman flavor.

    1. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: The summary is relatively straightforward – epistolary time-travel novella with agents on two opposing sides falling in love. But the experience of reading (or listening, as I did, which I do rec) is rich and complex while still being extremely familiar. Thanks, Bigolas Dickolas Wolfwood!