• Dev Patel as Kid, wearing a monkey mask, in Monkey Man (2024). Credit: Universal Pictures
    movie reviews,  movies

    What does the end of Monkey Man (2024) mean?

    MONKEY MAN is a John Wick-like action flick where Wick isn’t motivated by the death of a cute dog, but the rage of social inequity. Instead of Keanu Reeves, we have an extremely beautiful Dev Patel making his debut as auteur. He’s been training for this. Not only is Patel’s excellent physique ready for an action vehicle, but he’s been priming us for mythic arthouse flicks with queer undertones since The Green Knight (2021).

    As the story goes, Monkey Man was initially slated for a release on Netflix. Then Jordan Peele — an auteur legendary for dancing the line of metaphor and literalism — saw the movie, and he said something like, “Oh no, this is way too awesome. This needs to be seen on big screens.” There is no evidence that Peele kicked his feet and squealed with delight while watching this, but I like to imagine he did.

    Spoilers ahead!

    In Monkey Man, Dev Patel is known only as Kid. He witnessed the murder of his mother when police drove his community off their land so that it could be claimed by exploitative imperial forces. Since then, he’s been preparing to kill the cop who ended her life. The process of it is shown in a beautiful movie edited together like a music video, with absolutely killer needle drops, brilliant camera movement, and the most fascinating close POV.

    Kid’s first attempt at revenge is admirable, but not successful. The lengthy action sequence where Kid tries to Kill The Cop is amazing. Can you imagine, being Dev Patel, writing a movie that demands getting the crap kicked out of the hero so thoroughly…and then casting yourself as that hero?

    It’s viscerally satisfying to watch this first act, even if he doesn’t win (yet). It’s seeded with everything thematically important. We see how Kid is not just an underdog himself, but intimately tied to the underdogs of his community. Including a literal street dog, who he feeds using the cast-off food of the wealthy in the brothel where he works. Kid is one with the marginalized.

    With no name, and with dreamy cuts between exploitation in the past and present day, it’s easy to see Kid as the very embodiment of the underclass.

    He narrowly survives that first act. The second act is spent in the loving arms of hijra, who are a third-gender group in India. (In America, we would probably call them trans women, but it’s more complicated and culturally specific than that. I will be using she/her pronouns recognizing that this comparison is limited.) The leader of the hijra, Alpha, encourages Kid to remain with them as he heals. She asserts that he only survived his wounds because the gods have plans for him.

    Indeed, Kid is devoutly religious. When we cut back to happier times with his mother, it’s often focused on his prayers to God, and his mother sharing the story of Hanuman.

    Hanuman is shown to us as a monkey-god who ate the sun in his childhood, believing it to be fruit. As the story goes, part of his punishment is to forget his divine powers. But when it comes time to save Rama’s wife, Sita, the curse is lifted, and he remembers all that he can do. He defeats the Demon King Ravana in battle to save Sita — a story which is simplified in the movie, and I am doing my best to paraphrase from my limited understanding. (Bear with me. I’m Irish Catholic.)

    A painting of Hanuman opening his chest to reveal Sita and Rama within.
    A painting of Hanuman opening his chest to reveal Sita and Rama within. A version from the printing press of Ravi Varma, c.1910’s

    The leader Alpha helps Kid awaken as Hanuman. She gives him a substance that essentially helps him remember his power, and there’s a sequence where he opens his chest so we may see his heart. Hanuman is often depicted opening his chest, as that is where Rama and Sita reside. Then we get a totally epic training montage where Dev Patel rips his shirt off (twice, if you count when he opens his chest), cheered on by the hijra.

    And at this point, the spiritual leanings of the movie are clear. Not only does Kid embody Hanuman — the titular Monkey Man — but he goes into the brothel once again to fight with a small army of hijra at his back. As a queer person, it feels intensely meaningful for the hijra to be treated as holy like this. Obviously I’m coming at this from the wrong direction to understand all the nuance. But Dev Patel has made it clear: Kid fights for the marginalized, especially those most marginalized, and they are all holy. Hijra inclusive. No matter how “unsettling” people find them.

    In the movie, our Demon King is not the man who directly killed Kid’s mother, but the man who ordered that death. He’s an enigmatic cult leader named Baba Shakti. In order to reach him, Kid has to infiltrate the brothel, save Sita (literally, there is a sex worker in this movie named Sita), and kill the cop who has become a patron of the brothel.

    Although the ending makes it clear Baba Shakti is absolutely the Demon King, they don’t make it clear whether Kid survives that fight. He takes down Baba Shakti, but not before he’s gored himself.

    I still don’t think this ending is ambiguous.

    The second half of the movie enters mythic metaphor territory. It spends the first hour-ish showing us the ways that this fight between the holy and the demons has been repeated throughout the cycle of lives. The rich crush the small. Farmers are driven from their land. Hijra are beaten and pushed aside. Over and over again, Hanuman must save Sita from Ravana.

    Thus, it does not matter at the end whether Kid literally lives or dies.

    He will be back in the next cycle to fight the Demon King again: he might be back once Hanuman is once again reincarnated, OR he could arise from his wounds to fight the next Demon King (whichever individual has taken up the mantle of exploiting the marginalized). I hope it’s the latter. I would love a sequel.

    Either way, the ending isn’t truly ambiguous because the Demon King fell to Hanuman, as he must. As he always will.

    Monkey Man is an outstanding epic of mythic rage, and Jordan Peele was so right to pull this one out of the Netflix queue. Dev Patel has proven himself an amazing auteur as well as leading man. I can’t wait to see what he does in the next life.

    (header image credit: Universal Pictures)

  • Diaries,  movies

    I think I’ve written this post before, but here I go again. Venting about nuance.

    I find it very frustrating when I write out long, nuanced stuff, and then people respond with hostility to some little snippet of it without reading the rest. Like they React and then they think that Reaction should be my problem, without actually investing any effort into anything except Being Hostile.

    It is normal to respond to things with your wounds first. I do this a lot. I have to be really careful engaging with people about some things (especially publishing). What I encounter the most is misogynists. If you’re a misogynist, you’re going to respond to any content that is vaguely feminist with your broken assumptions about women, and you’re going to explode over really anything I say without recognizing the nuance. That is normal. That doesn’t mean you should do it.

    Disagreement is cool. Misreading (or not reading at all!) and then being hostile is uncool. It’s not hard to tell the difference between people engaging in good faith and those who aren’t. If you’re not, why engage at all?

    The impulse is to stop writing long, nuanced things, except…that’s not interesting to me. So instead I tell people to fuck all the way off and block them. I am not thrilled with that response. But if they’re not making effort with me, they get my crabby low-effort side too.

    Saying Nothing is always a great option.

    There’s a rule of three I find personally helpful to consider when choosing to respond to someone:

    • Does this need to be said?
    • Does this need to be said right now?
    • Does this need to be said right now by me?

    The internet provides casual access to a lot of conversations I (or you, broadly) don’t need to be part of at any given moment. Access doesn’t mean entitlement to engage. Some people seem *terribly* offended by the idea that every last thought of theirs isn’t worthy to share, but if you feel that way, you should really interrogate it. Everyone has something important to say. But not on everything, everywhere, all at once.


    People also seem to misunderstand my critical reviews a lot. There is a lot of all-or-nothing thinking. Surely if I’m criticizing a movie’s reflection of society (for example), then I mean that I hate it, and I’m attacking it, and I’m saying it’s bad or whatever. They get defensive! You would not believe the defensive reactions I get when I criticize a movie that someone loves in particular.

    I love movies. I love Film and Cinema. I love Stories! The fact I love Cinema and Stories means I can extract enjoyment out of movies that Aren’t For Me through analysis. Analysis is not inherently meant to be an insult — I will say “full insult” or “insult intended” when I mean it that way, and sometimes I do! Analysis is just a process of dissecting a story to look at all its mechanical-emotional parts, which is great fun.

    The truth is that I very seldom hate movies. I hated The Proposal (2009) and outlined why exactly, but that’s the only example I can even recall off the top of my head. If you look at my Letterboxd account, I heavily skew toward five-star reviews. I almost always think that a movie has some value to it.

    Yet people think I’m being scathing when I point out Irish Wish (2024) was made with grossly conservative values. Did y’all miss the part where I gave it three stars? How I love Lindsay Lohan’s performance? Very little in this world is entirely one thing. I’m living in a country run by conservatives. It hasn’t escaped my notice. I still manage to enjoy myself all the time, and find valuable things to do, but I don’t do it by ignoring the gross stuff. I can point out the hostility of things and just…leave it at that.

    I’ve even been telling folks that Poor Things might be worth watching for them (and I thought the story was garbage at its basic concept). For every review I’ve seen with a disabled person revolted by it, I’ve seen others who found it relatable for very similar reasons.

    There is ample space for a spectrum of reactions to anything. These reactions are mine. Why does it hurt you? The movie’s not your bff, it’s not paying your bills, and I’m not even attacking it.

    Before responding to me with frankly absurd assertions — like thinking my reaction to Poor Things implies only men like sex, when you’re talking to *me*, of all people — you could just stop and wonder, “Does this need to be said by me right now?” And then don’t do it. If you’ve got stuff to get off your chest, go write your own blog. Or get therapy.


    I often hear how the internet isn’t a space for nuance. To that I ask, what is?

    Have you tried talking to your extended family lately? Do you get to have nuanced conversations with them?

    How about your coworkers? Your neighbors?

    Is it in the newspaper?

    What about academia? And if it is, who gets to access it?

    Is there just no room for nuance anywhere?

    Should we reduce everything to sound bites, quotes, propaganda posters, one-frame cartoons, headlines?

    Where do the nuanced conversations happen? Sincerely, where? I have limited social connections in real life. I don’t have a full perspective on this. If you’d like to point me toward something accessible for a person with my limitations where I can actually get thoughtful engagement, definitely let me know, because right now it seems like there is no room for nuance anywhere.

    The internet definitely makes this effect worse — or at least, social media does, with its algorithmic censorship and limited post length. Yet it also should make it possible for longer-format thoughts to reach one another. We have the tools. We have the technology. The choice to be reductive for the sake of SEO or what-have-you is definitely a choice.

    As I write this, I’m looking at the “excerpt” box in WordPress and chuckling to myself. I’m going to have to produce a little blurby-doo for overlaying upon a graphic, as I do with every post.

    I know I’ve written posts like this before. I think it gets whinier every time. “Why do I have to deal with reactive randos everywhere I go? Why is everything all-or-nothing? Where is the alternative?” Maybe I should just get it on a bumper sticker. But hey, if I can’t complain about this stuff on my own blog, then where do I do it eh?

  • image credit: Screen Media Films
    essays,  movies,  writing

    Say Less: 4 Lessons for Writers from Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

    Have I ever told you about one of my favorite good-bad movies, Willy’s Wonderland?

    Willy’s Wonderland is essentially an unlicensed Five Nights at Freddy’s-like horror movie. If you don’t know FNAF, you probably know Chuck E Cheese. It’s a family restaurant and arcade with animatronic mascots for entertainment. In both FNAF and Willy’s Wonderland, the animatronics are evil murderers.

    Willy’s Wonderland is one of those movies that isn’t good, but it’s kinda great: you won’t be scared by the horror content, but you’ll laugh, and the central performance from Nicolas Cage is one of his good ones. You’re never sure which version of Nicolas Cage you’re going to get. Here, he’s flawless.

    What makes Nicolas Cage so excellent is the fact his character has no dialogue. I’m not talking minimal dialogue like Mandy (2018). I mean, none. Reportedly, Cage agreed to do the movie only if they cut his dialogue completely.

    You’d think it’s a weird choice for the big-name star playing a hero to keep his mouth shut through a film, but I’m convinced that’s the only reason Willy’s Wonderland is any good.

    There’s a great history of low-dialogue characters across media. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are notorious for their silence. One of Jack Reacher’s most common lines of narrative (not dialogue) is “Reacher said nothing.” I’ve used this myself: In my Descent/Ascension Series, Elise Kavanagh is someone whose dialogue is heavily limited to increase mystique.

    You can learn a lot about writing from Willy’s Wonderland.


    Lesson One: You don’t actually need character back story.

    Since Nicolas Cage can’t tell us what’s on his mind, or where he came from, we can only make guesses. His hero reacts to the horrifying situations without hesitation. What kind of man doesn’t seem to care about murderous animatronics on a job site? Over the course of the movie, Cage’s commitment to doing the agreed-upon job despite peril gives you the impression of Willy’s Wonderland accidentally hiring John Wick.

    By showing what he hates (bad work/life balance) and what he loves (his soda and a pinball machine), you get a strong impression of a sentimental but practical man who is a bit of a jaded, overgrown child with a hard life. It’s mounds better than anything the dialogue would have been capable of delivering, as evidenced by the back story everyone else shares.

    Give your audience some credit: Write less dialogue, and write less explicit back story. Events can do the heavy lifting.


    Lesson Two: Quiet characters provide opportunities for contrast.

    You can contrast a quiet character to more talkative characters, sure. That’s the most obvious utility. If you’re writing for fiction, where it’s a massive wall of text, distinguishing characters can be different; contrasting how much dialogue they use is a simple-but-effective way of delineating them.

    You can also contrast the character’s different emotional states to create a more dynamic narrative landscape. It builds punchlines into the narrative. You can’t help but laugh and get excited when the janitor tears into his animatronic foes.

    It’s shocking when the Janitor goes from working with his head down into a violent, roaring rage, beating the crap out of his attackers. The energy level of the film is also naturally improved simply by going from longer silent periods with occasional action, to a lot of action with less quiet.


    Lesson Three: Bolster your writing weak spots by working around them.

    The dialogue other characters have in Willy’s Wonderland is…not a highlight. Every single line could have been cut back dramatically. Nothing can go unstated, the actors struggle with long sentences, and little room is given for emotional displays that aren’t shouted at one another. So much of it is simply unnecessary.

    That isn’t to say the writing is all bad, though! The good in Willy’s Wonderland is general plot structure, the concept, and the heroic character. It’s simply fun to watch. One little edit (silencing the hero) took this from labored to a delight.

    When you’re writing, you can choose to bolster the stuff you’re good at and mostly skip over the stuff you’re bad at, too.

    Where are your weaknesses? If your dialogue isn’t strong, you might find yourself focusing on plot…which is what I tend to do. On the other hand, if you’re great at dialogue, maybe you want to enhance that at the cost of narrative. Play to your strengths! It’s your story.


    Lesson Four: Don’t drag everything out.

    Willy’s Wonderland is a brisk 1.5 hours long. Much like the hero, it shows up, does its job, and leaves.

    The story begins when Cage’s hero arrives in town. His work-life balance in this flick is legendary; he walks away from active fights when it’s time to take a break. In the morning, he clears out of town promptly, and that’s where the movie ends.

    My favorite writing advice I’ve received is “Enter the scene late, leave the scene early.” Willy’s Wonderland and its Janitor both exemplify this rule perfectly. It keeps things punchy, focuses on the delightful strengths, and doesn’t blow out its back dragging things out for an extra twenty minutes on the reel.


    Even though this campy, low-budget ripoff of a kids’ horror game isn’t “good,” the choices the team made transformed it into an outstanding delight of infinite rewatchability. You can take these lessons into your writing, whatever your format. When you find yourself struggling with a scene, try asking yourself: “What would Willy’s Wonderland do?”

    (image credit: Screen Media Films)

  • essays,  movies

    Alien (1979) is a great lesson in cinema for horror kids

    Yesterday I watched Alien (1979) with 13yo Moonlight, the eldest of my offspring. I’ve been musing how to review it since. The greatness of Alien is well-understood. Even Letterboxd rates it at an average of 4.3, and I seldom run across movies so uncontroversial.

    On a personal level, as a writer and as a child-bearer, I think Alien is fascinating in how queer it is. Secondary character Joan Lambert is canonically mtf trans per its sequel. Ripley was written to be a man and gender-swapped. (CBR) The order in which people are killed on the Nostromo is “woke” enough to please a modern moviegoer like myself; they clear out the white men (including one android) before killing Yaphet Kotto’s character, then Lambert, and gender neutral Ripley is left as final girl along with her final cat. Horror deaths are known to be moralistic: it is inevitable that the people seen as “bad” in some way (promiscuous, drinkers, drug-users, queers, and often nonwhite people) will be killed first, and the final girl is ultimately the purest of them. Alien’s kill order alone can be seen as a political statement.

    As the movies continued, the pregnancy body horror of it all is further teased out and expanded upon, but even Ridley Scott’s initial outing has undertones of pregnancy commentary. It’s queered up by implanting an unwilling man with a baby alien in this first movie. It reminds me an awful lot of my nonbinary ass exploding my second baby via emergent c-section.

    These subjects have been thoroughly explored by others, and way better than I could. I don’t want to explore them again. I don’t have anything to say except that “There is a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to fail to recognize this one.”

    Instead, I’d like to note that Alien is a perfect horror movie to share with kids as part of cinema education. I think kids inclined toward horror tastes should watch Alien.


    Raising conscientious horror kids

    My kids have grown up in an era where horror for kids is an entire *thing*. Mascot Horror as a subgenre (TV Tropes) has been defined, if not outright invented, in the time of my kids’ lives; much like Mommy, they enjoy a dark skew to their content, so it’s natural they would fall in with Mascot Horror.

    Navigating horror for kids as a mother is interesting. I believe a lot of families either ban violent/disturbing content outright, or simply stay hands-off their kids’ media diets, because either options is easier than trying to navigate it with them. Parenting is *always* a matter of too many concerns and not enough time/energy to handle it. Media consumption is low priority compared to the numerous high demands of Life.

    When my peer parents were blocking YouTube so their kids wouldn’t get tangled up in extremely dodgy Elsagate stuff (Wikipedia), we chose to let them stay online, unfiltered, unblocked. We kept our media consumption devices in the same room for many years so that we could keep an ear/eye on what they were watching, and “Pick a different video!” was a frequent call across that room. This spurred conversations about why we thought a video wasn’t appropriate. We told them how to navigate these things themselves, and one of my main urgings was simply: “If it makes you feel weird or bad, don’t watch it.”

    Of course, they watched stuff when we weren’t supervising, and they ended up having to figure out how to filter things for themselves. Multiple times, they brought videos, games, and memes to me with questions, or just generally asking for feedback; knowing that they would never be in trouble created a fertile ground for us to communicate.

    The result is kids who have extremely developed opinions about what they like, what is good and bad, what is safe and what isn’t. They know what to do with themselves on the internet and among media. They like horror a lot. That part has never changed.


    Kids’ media is pretty nuts anyway

    What kind of horror is “safe” for kids?

    Critically, I must point out that plenty of non-horror for kids is upsetting as hell. Kids’ media is often much more upsetting than you’d think. Consider legendarily upsetting content like Bambi, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Brave Little Toaster, The Bridge to Terabithia. Kids’ media often goes straight for the places kids are most vulnerable, like death of parents, or separation from family. This stuff is scary already!

    If anything, a movie like Alien is soft for kids. They are in no real, tangible risk of going to a planet in Zeta Reticuli, getting attacked by face-grabbers, and then hunted throughout the Nostromo by a big juicy monster.

    Alien also isn’t all that scary for most of its length. Most of it is tension and build-up, deliciously so. Deaths mostly occur off-screen. The effects are great, but not too egregious.

    I wouldn’t watch an especially gory movie with the kids, but they do play shooter games, and some level of tension and violence is fine. That rules out less-tense horror-comedy movies like Renfield, which loooves gore. The sexualization of Ripley is minimal in screen-time, which is also a concern with kids’ comfort levels. I can’t show them the hilarious Chopping Mall, for instance, because that’s in a much more exploitative tradition of horror. M3gan was a great horror movie for kids (to the point it’s kinda too boring for adults). We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is an amazing queer horror movie for the internet generation, but it’s incredibly slow and vibe-based, appealing more to Millennials.

    Alien stands on top of all of these. It’s not too gory, but it’s a little gross (like the robot exploding into a glitchy white-blood mess). It doesn’t have sex scenes. It’s also, frankly, just a great movie.


    A whole cinema culture class in a single film

    I actually watched Alien with Moonlight for the first time when they were eight, maybe nine years old. It’s more a feat of attention span than enduring anything scary at that age. Considering Moonlight was neck-deep in FNAF at the time, and well inured to jump scares, they mostly walked away thinking it was fun to watch a movie with so much space ship in it. (Space ships are awesome.)

    A few years later, Moonlight has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and loads more movies for grown-ups. They asked to watch Alien again. A young teenager is capable of thought abstraction in a way that an 8-9yo is not. I realized that Alien was kind of a perfect movie to watch in order to teach them more about cinema in general.

    We had great discussions while watching Alien. It serves as a platform for lots of topics.


    Alien has strong visual language. It begins slowly, with long shots of the vessel’s exterior and interior, and shots are roomy. The pacing is methodical. At first, the most dramatic things are considered with a sort of distance; medical procedures performed on the first victim are partially viewed through windows by the other crew.

    Immediacy of the style increases as the emotional intensity does, too. By the time Parker and Lambert are attacked, the shots come quick and tightly framed. Ripley’s survivalist last act loses all the methodical dolly shots and steadycam, shaking more as the camera runs along with her.

    Moonlight specifically noted the use of strobe light as a way to increase agitation in the viewers. Strobe is very unpleasant, but it makes you feel anxious like Ripley does, whether or not you’re paying close attention.


    In context, Alien teaches about cultural call-and-response. Not only has Alien influenced countless media that came after it, there are prominent elements in conversation with major predecessors. The style of the early moments are a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey (ten years Alien’s predecessor) and the long panning shot of the Nostromo’s underside is a lot like the first sight of a Star Destroyer in Star Wars: A New Hope (two years Alien’s predecessor).

    I’d actually say one of its biggest influences is Jaws (four years Alien’s predecessor). I might even argue that Alien is best described as Jaws vs 2001.

    All media is engaged in cultural call-and-response, and this is important for people to understand. It’s how you learn to tell what’s derivative versus what’s genre trope versus what’s a direct reference to add commentary to something else. You could not have Sunshine or Event Horizon without Alien, nor many other SF/horror movies. You also probably wouldn’t have Doom or Half-Life without Alien. The impact is seismic, and accentuating this element to young cinemaphiles can provide context for a whole lotta culture.


    The politics of Alien are fascinating. Moonlight is the cusp of Gen Z and Alpha; their generation is not expected to do better than my generation, which is not expected to do better than our parents’ generation. A lot of this is due to runaway unregulated corporations. But this problem isn’t new. In 1979, Alien pointed a finger shamelessly at a parent corporation (Weyland-Yutani) for its unethical practices.

    At some point, the movie reveals that the corporation deliberately sent the Nostromo to retrieve alien specimens and bring them back to Earth, regardless of how many crew died in the process. You can easily tie this to the unethical practices of unregulated corporations by watching a few episodes of John Oliver. It’s always been a practice for Big Money to throw lives away in pursuit of profit. (In this film, Ripley theorizes Weyland-Yutani wants the aliens for military use; it’s expanded upon elsewhere in the franchise.)

    As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the deployment of horror tropes and who the movie kills first is also extremely political. We often think of the past as being more regressive. But we’re in a time when trans people are spectacularly unsafe and often targeted directly by policies and less directly by stochastic terrorists; more than forty years ago, we had a movie casually throw in a couple of *very* gender nonconforming characters, one of which was trans. These are the kind of people society often marginalizes and feeds to the meat grinder.

    The fight we’re fighting now isn’t new! For all its antique-looking retrofuturism, Alien had a lot of ideas we’re still battling with, right now.


    Alien is defined more by what it doesn’t show than what it does. It remains a truism of art that the best stuff happens off-screen (off-page, in the gutter, out of frame, etc), and Alien demonstrates this element of craft perfectly.

    The truth is that you don’t need great special effects to tell the story you want. Alien *does* have great special effects, but a lot of it is never really seen beyond glimpses. That’s not the point.

    The focus remains on a naturalistic approach to the characters–showing them working, in their common life, with minimal backstory. We don’t really know why Ripley is so calculated and intelligent, but you feel like you know her anyway. Natural closure describes everything you have to know. This kind of subtlety is often lacking from blockbuster products in our current era, but understanding the raw power of closure opens up so much media to the viewers, and it makes for better artists, too.


    Alien is a perfect movie to talk about cinema and art at large, and it’s a perfect lesson for horror kids in general. This is one of those evergreen flicks that I think should be taught to everyone for generations to come.

  • 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!